By on November 25, 2009

destroyed, but not by tariffs

The video showing the destruction of 46 of the 55 Chrysler Turbine Cars we posted recently generated lots of heated discussion. The key issue is, and has been for years, whether import tariffs played a material role in Chrysler’s decision. There is a wealth of sites and reprinted vintage articles dedicated to the TC, and the import duty conspiracy theory reoccurs throughout them. Interestingly, Wikipedia, which is not to be trusted in all things automotive, is the only source that throws some doubt on that story: “The story at the time that this was done to avoid an import tariff was incorrect[citation needed].” Lacking that citation, it was time to do some further sleuthing, and either join the tariff theorists, or put a stake through it once and for all.

US import tariffs on cars average 2.5%, and numerous searches did not find any evidence that they were significantly higher in the 1960’s. Given the import boom during the fifties and sixties, they were presumably the same, if not less. A substantial tariff of 10% or more would have been punitive, and made imports significantly more expensive than they actually were.

The second issue is the value of the bodies that Ghia built for Chrysler. Various wild guesses have been thrown around ($250k each), but it’s not that hard to come up with a credible estimate. Ghia and the other Italian carrozzerias were almost solely in the business of designing and building small batches of custom bodies. We have an excellent comparison in the form of the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham that was coach-built by Pininfarina for the 1959 and 1960 model years. Reliable  estimates place the cost at $25k for each ’57-’58 model, and less for the Italian built ’59-’60 models. These are for the complete final vehicle. They were sold for about $14k; a loss-leading halo car that Caddy could well afford back then. Pininfarina built and trimmed 200 of the ultra-luxurious Broughams for Cadillac.

Coach-built bodies built in small batches were still common in the sixties, and almost all of the Italian exotics used them. Maseratis and the like with coach built bodies were selling for $15 – $20k. It seems quite unlikely that the Ghia bodies cost Chrysler much more than about $10 to $15k each, maybe $20k tops.  The Ghia contract was just for bodies, without any mechanicals, suspension, or running gear.

Assuming the high end $20k number and applying the 2.5% rate results in a tariff of $500 per car. The total for 55 cars would have been $23k. These are utterly insignificant amounts compared to the millions Chrysler was spending on the turbine program. Was it cheaper than $500 to have the cars destroyed? In 1963, undoubtedly. But it certainly wasn’t the motivating factor.

Destroying the cars was the only realistic solution, for a number of reasons. First of all, selling the cars to the public was totally out of the question. Maintenance and support infrastructure would have been nonexistent . It took a team of five specially trained mechanics dedicated full-time to keep the brand-new Turbine Cars running during the public trials. Not surprisingly, the bronze beauties were far from trouble-free. Expensive materials to contain the initial (not final) 500 degree exhaust and certain performance aspects unique to the turbine (see below) were also considerations. The Turbine Cars had to be fed kerosene or diesel, neither of which was all that convenient to buy. Leaded gas left problematic deposits on the turbine blades.

In 1963, there certainly weren’t 55 car museums willing and able to adopt and care for these cars. The nine that were saved and allocated to museum seems about right for the times. Super-rich private collectors like Jay Leno were not common in those days of high incremental tax rates. The Turbine Car program had fulfilled its purpose of gaining potential customer feedback, and it was time to wrap it up.

There were numerous functional challenges and limitations with the Turbine Cars, of which sluggish throttle response was the biggest. This is an inherent design limitation of turbines, as they need to spin up to over 40,000 rpm to develop full power. The Turbine Car had a one and a half second lag from first pressing the throttle. That could be considered dangerous; it certainly would by today’s standards. Throttle lag was noticeable at higher speeds too. Performance was reasonable, about 12 seconds 0-60, but substantially less than if a 383 V8 were under that sleek hood. One extended test produced an average fuel economy of 11.5 mpg. Not terrible, but far from good. A comparably-quick conventional car at the time would be expected to achieve about 15 mpg.

The turbine offers the potential for superb longevity, but that depends on the extent to which exotic and expensive materials are utilized. Chrysler’s own test found that its turbine had a lifespan of “up to 175k miles”. Good for the times, but not really exceptional. Chrysler’s own slant sixes would typically go that far or further.

The scope of this article is not to fully explore the pros and cons of Chrysler’s turbines and their theoretical development potential. Suffice it say, the changing climate on emissions and fuel economy played their part in finally ending  the turbine program during the seventies. But the biggest single hurdle was cost. In Chrysler’s own words: “the technology did not exist to produce turbine engines at a price anywhere near competitive to conventional internal combustion engines”. One thing is certain; having spent vast sums to build them, a $500 tariff was not the reason they were destroyed.

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49 Comments on “The Truth About Why Chrysler Destroyed The Turbine Cars...”

  • avatar

    As I remember, if the exhaust was to the left, rear, or right, it would singe anyone passing by; if directed down, it would melt asphalt.

    • 0 avatar
      Daniel J. Stern

      Your memory does not serve you. The exhaust was cooler than that of a piston-engine car by the time it reached the tailpipe — most of the heat having been removed from it in the regenerators.

  • avatar

    Interesting.  Turbines are as well suited for cars as all-wheel drive and 6 speed transmissions are for jets. Unless you have the elusive flux capacitor.

    • 0 avatar

      Not really Transient response is not very good.

      However with the development of hybrid / EV the gas turbine could theoretically resurface due to great power to weight ratio. The issues with exhaust temp & NOX can be dealt with waste heat recovery and SCR

  • avatar

    My recollection is the Turbine cars came out in the early ’60s. That was long before fuel economy and emissions were issues. Fuel economy became a big issue during the first OPEC embargo, ’73, and emissions was somewhere around that time. My recollection is that the new smog regime first ruined the performance of the Valiant/Dart twins in ’73 or ’74. I know the ’72s were still free of that stuff.
    Do you know why Chrysler would have had to support the Turbine cars had it not destroyed them? Why not just let them be orphans? When my family of origin lived in Stanford in ’70-71, there was a father and son there who had Deux Chevaux, and they used to make parts for the cars themselves on the machine tools at STanford.
    Another possibility for the Turbine cars woudl have been to simply remove the Turbine engines, and let tinkerers do what they would with the bodies. Maybe too chaotic for a big corporation. Maybe Chrysler didn’t want them around to remind people that Chrysler had had the turbine program that never went anywhere.
    Or was there a liability issue?
    My recollection was the Turbine cars could supposedly run on peanut butter, and presumably any other oily hydrocarbon. This may have been hype from the times, but I would be interested if you have any info on that.
    Anyway, thanks for covering this issue.

    • 0 avatar

      Peanut oil perhaps, not peanut butter.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Chrysler continued turbine developments until 1977, with the help from some fed funding. But priorities had changed, and the turbine is particularly difficult to clean of NOX emissions.
      The Turbine could run on a wide variety of fuels, just not the predominant leaded gas of the time.
      David, keeping a 2CV running and a million-dollar turbine that spins at 40k rpm and has a dangerously hot exhaust are two very different things, like comparing a lawn mower engine and a jet engine.

    • 0 avatar

      While fuel economy was not quite the issue in the mid 60’s that it is now, it was definitely on the radar screen.  Certainly Chrysler knew that they would have trouble selling customers on all new technology if it offered poorer economy than they could get from a conventional car — and even if they couldn’t show a clear advantage.  All they had to do was look at how the Corvair lost the sales race to the stodgy Falcon, long before anyone knew who Ralph Nader was. 

      Chrysler’s own reports on the turbine test program indicated that poor city economy was a concern to many of the testers.  In a typical car company move, Chrysler tried to blame the consumers, saying they were burning too much fuel showing the cars off to their friends.

      I have to think Mazda did not study this history too well before introducing their first line of rotary cars.

  • avatar

    Actually I recall 1972 being a huge downgrade in power outputs, at least for Buick Skylark 350s.  We had a 71 and a 72 and the 71 had much less vacuum crap on it and was much quicker.

  • avatar

    I recall having read somewhere that there was still a turbine development program at Chrysler in the late 70s during the government-backed loans period.  I heard that congressional meddling within the company before the loans were approved forced the abandonment at that time.  Can’t seem to find where I heard that though…any ideas?
    I think a microturbine would make a far better range extender for the Chevy Vapor Volt than a 4cyl gas engine.  The throttle response drawbacks noted in the Chrysler Turbines would be an asset that prevents an unexpected rise in racket during range-extended driving.

  • avatar

    Correct, Chrysler didn’t stop development with the 1963 Turbine cars.  Look here.
    BTW, Chrysler initially kept 10 Turbines from the crusher, not 9.  They later destroyed one in a crash test.

  • avatar

    David, keeping a 2CV running and a million-dollar turbine that spins at 40k rpm and has a dangerously hot exhaust are two very different things, like comparing a lawn mower engine and a jet engine.

    Whaddya mean ‘like’?…

  • avatar

    It was my understanding, gained from a mechanic familiar with the cars at the time, that it was a liability issue, not tariffs, and that would seem to be the most logical cause from where I’m sitting.

    • 0 avatar

      Besides the liability issue, there’s also the huge potential for negative publicity should a catastrophic event occur out of Chrysler’s tight control. It’s already been pointed out that the turbine had a potential for an incredibly hot exhaust, plus the egregious acceleration lag. Imagine if a privately-owned Turbine Car exploded or was involved in a horrific accident where people were grievously hurt or killed (possibly in a super-heated fire) due to an engineering flaw. It would be both a legal and public relations nightmare.

      All things considered, while enthusiasts might decry it as short-sighted, as a purely business decision, Chrysler probably made the right move by keeping just a few of the cars intact and running for historical interest, and destroying the rest. With just a few of the cars left, it wouldn’t seem that those owners would be willing to actually try to use the cars as daily-drivers due to their rarity and value. That might not be the case if all 55 of the cars had been released for public sale instead of destruction.

  • avatar

    I’m sorry what were you saying?  I was staring at the car.
    They should have at least found some design cues to use on their other cars.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    I agree on the potential of turbines for range extension, in the vein of the Volvo ECC experimental car (the first warning of what Peter Horbury would do to the brand). Funilly, some 17 or 18 years later noone has yet put something similar into production…

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    cdotson, several companies are developing turbine-based range extenders. To read about one, Google “schwoerer mtt turbine”.

  • avatar

    Thanks for writing that informative article.  I wonder what could be done with today’s technology.

  • avatar

    What is interesting to me in the whole turbine saga is that there is one place where the technology (at least indirectly) has been implemented, that being the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, which has been in the field for what, 20 years now at least? I don’t know if the solved the issues of exhaust temp or throttle lag, or even if those are relevant issue with tanks.

    • 0 avatar

      The turbine engine for the M1 was chosen for political rather than technical reasons.   The only real advantage to the M1 is that it is a true multi-fuel engine — it can burn just about any liquid fuel.   Although the M1 turbine has proved to be reliable, it uses tremendous amounts of fuel compared to similar capability reciprocating engines.  Also, the exhaust is so hot, infantry can not follow closely behind.   As is stands now, the replacement for the M1 will probably use a reciprocating engine.

  • avatar

    Your note about Wikipedia “which is not to be trusted in all things automotive” is a gross understatement.  The only use for W is perhaps to find the name of an actual source.  Most college and HS instructors do not allow W to be cited in papers.  It is not that they are always wrong; it is that you need not have any credentials or even actual knowledge to contribute or edit, and thus the information is always suspect at best.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    Paul; I respect the effort you put into this article, but you haven’t debunked anything. Your conclusion is an opinion based on conjecture and supposition. Many of your assumptions seem reasonably plausible; you could be right, but you could just as easily be wrong. And why do you carry on perpetuating the “dangerously hot exhaust” canard? Please go read the primary documents—if you don’t have them, send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do. Look at the photo of the Chrysler engineer holding his open palm a couple of inches from the tailpipe of the ’54 Plymouth turbine car. Listen to Jay Leno explain how and why the exhaust leaving the tailpipe is cooler than that from a piston engine. The correct info on this point is very easily accessible. You undermine your authority by disregarding it, and by sneering at a plausible explanation as a “conspiracy theory”, when—whether it be right or wrong—it does not meet the definition of a conspiracy theory.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I was referring to the additional demands for then-expensive stainless steel, insulation and other differences to cope with the high initial exhaust temperature, not the final one. They impacted the economics, and possible future maintenance. I will edit my text on that detail.
      Daniel; this is my contribution to the debate, given that there isn’t likely any one from those days at Chrysler to tell us otherwise, unless the person who wrote the entry about it in Wikipedia was that person.
      You say: “you could just as easily be wrong”  That’s a weak response. Please give me a shred of logical argument to suggest how the tariff theory holds up, or some other reason. Frankly. it struck me as a ridiculous argument since I read it years ago. Assume there wasn’t any tariff; what would Chrysler have done with the cars instead? They were highly maintenance-intensive hand-built prototypes. Knowing how corporations work, my guess is that there may have been an actual genesis to the tariff issue from someone at Chrysler, used as a convenient excuse to deflect questions as to why the cars were destroyed, rather than the obvious real reasons. Certainly Chrysler wasn’t going to tell the truth about what it cost to build and maintain the fleet, and its numerous shortcomings. Seems like it (the tariff excuse) worked all too well; people are still swallowing it!

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      From dictionary: (conspiracy theory): uses refer to folklore and urban legend and a variety of explanatory narratives which are constructed with methodological flaws.
      Works for me. And I’m trying to supply some methodology to the debate.

    • 0 avatar
      Ralph SS

      I have that picture, with an accompanying article, in an 1955 automotive special edition of True magazine.

  • avatar

    I have looked at both ’63 Darts and Turbine cars since they both came out; now that you mention the resemblance, for the first time in these four and a half decades, I can see it intellectually. My gut, however, is not impressed. The design cue on the Dart  lacks the soul of the Turbine car.

    • 0 avatar
      Daniel J. Stern

      Well, sure; that’s how it often works when going from cost-no-object prototypes to beancountered mass-production cars. Take a look at the 1998 Charger show car and compare it to what actually came out.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    PN, perhaps we’re talking across each other. I don’t think it can be reasonably argued that import duties were the sole reason why the cars were destroyed, but it likewise cannot reasonably be dismissed as a non-factor or a conspiracy theory; money is money, and I think it’s significant that Chrysler offered turbine cars to any museum that would agree to pay the duties.
    Of course you’re right that the cars would likely have met exactly the same fate had there been no import duties owing on them; that’s what happens to the vast majority of prototype cars for all the obvious reasons that have nothing to do with import duties. The reason why the destruction of these particular prototypes gets the public scrutiny and discussion is because they were relatively numerous, quite radical, and were actually placed in public hands to drive, not just showed on stages. Who knows what the prototypes for the Chrysler 300C looked like and how many were unceremoniously crushed…and who cares?
    You also make a good point about Chrysler probably not wanting to disclose what the cars actually cost to build — not only because the public would not have the knowledge and context in which to fairly judge the figure, but because it could have caused ears to prick up and pencils to scribble and abacuses to rattle expensively and retroactively at U.S. Customs.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Yes, there is common ground here. But I think your last point is still largely irrelevant, since all Chrysler imported was the body. The whole assembly and addition of all running gear, the turbine, suspension, etc. was carried out in the US. Which means the tariff, if there was any on a body shell, would have been only on its value, not on the cost of Chrysler’s additions to it. That’s a key part of my argument. If the whole car and engine had been built overseas, the value might have amounted to something more significant.

  • avatar

    – dmrdano
    Most college and HS instructors do not allow W to be cited in papers.  It is not that they are always wrong; it is that you need not have any credentials or even actual knowledge to contribute or edit, and thus the information is always suspect at best.

    Wow what arrogance, what elitism !! Iwould say that most BS originates from authority figures and that’s practically a lifetime of experience talking.  Most journalists are not trained in technical matters either. so pray where are the sources which can be trusted ?   SAE papers are probably rarely reviewed either, is that why they charge so much to access them ? Tell me that limiting access has not equally cut down on challenges to their accuracy either.   

    Well I guess we can at least trust dmrdano. He wouldn’t lie would he  ?? 

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    PN, I don’t think you quite saw what I was getting at with the point over which we’re quibbling here. I was pondering the scenario of US Customs pouncing on a publicised statement of vehicle production cost and deciding Chrysler had understated the value of the imported bodies.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Another facet of the issue that I didn’t fully address is the perceived lack of interest from museums. We may be projecting the current reality on the past, because back then, the TC was probably just not that compelling to many of them (and there weren’t that many). At the time, the TC were just a development stage of Chrysler’s on-going turbine program; it wasn’t like the EV-1, where GM was publicly (literally) axing the whole program.
    If I were a museum director in 1964, I would assume that there might well be another evolution of the TC to come, which would make these cars not that exceptional at the time. And museums in the early sixties were very heavily skewed to classics. This can be seen in how many other prototypes of the times didn’t end up in museums, and with 55 TCs, it really wasn’t rare of a find, from the viewpoint of the time then.
    If every museum had a TC, it would have diluted their value to them, and their ability to attract customers.

  • avatar

    The story I’ve heard — and I don’t claim to know whether or not this is true — is that the reason the import tariffs were an issue was that because the turbine cars were not actually sold commercially, the laws at that time would have treated the dutiable cost of the cars as the entire program cost, divided by the number of cars. If it were simply a matter of the duties on the bodies themselves, yes, that would be trivial. If it were 2.5% or 3% of the whole cost of developing the cars, that’s not so trivial.
    Again, I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds a good deal more plausible.

  • avatar

    Gas mileage for the turbines was actually a lot better than the uncited assertion of 11mpg.
    The turbine in the crushed cars referenced above was the 4th generation.
    The second generation turbine was put into a 1959 Plymouth four-door hardtop. It ran in Dec, 1958 of a test run from Toledo to Woodbridge, New Jersy via Ohio, Pennsylvanie and New Jersey turnpikes. The car averaged 19.29 mpg on diesel and 17.17 mpg on the way back. Much better than the first generation of 13-14 mpg on the 1956 cross country run.
    Riding the roller coaster; a history of the Chyrsler Corporation, Charles K, Hyde.
    The book reasons that the government clean air act required more engineers to be reassigned to ensure compliance of their bread and butter. By 1969 Chrysler was facing liquidity problems and couldn’t stretch the already thin engineers into the turbine vehicles to continue away from their core business.
    Remember the EPA gave Chrysler a $6.3 million dollar loan to develop turbines around 1972. The 6th Generation in a 1967 Coronet drove 0-60 in “about 9 seconds”
    The 7th generation during the 1970’s (A-128 design) [150 hp] was targeted to get 28 mpg at 30mph and down to 16mpg at 80 mph. [assuming no A/C or power steering, each generation was also aimed at improving the accessories efficiency].
    MATERIALS: the only critical element was NICKEL – a turbine wheel weighs about 1.4 pounds and Chrysler’s studies shows that the nickel turbine would be made for $9.44 apiece. Actually cheaper than the ICE.
    The cars were crushed because they were obsolete.

  • avatar

    It’s easy to say from here but could they not have taken the turbine engines out and dropped in a conventional engine.  The 383 maybe?  Or maybe they just could have sold the bodies w/o a power train to hot rod builders.  In 1963 I am sure there were not all of the safety and emissions certifications to pass.  Even if they lost money on them, they would have not lost as much.  I guess in the end, they were just a bunch of used experimental cars, but good looking ones at that.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a good question. I’m certain that with the turbine power train removed, the space left behind would not lend itself to easily mounting a conventional engine and transmission, and a lot of rewiring would be needed. However, one shouldn’t underestimate the determination of American car tinkerers.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    Roughly speaking $1 in 1963 is equivalent to $8 now, so estimates of a quarter of a million for a complete proto today aren’t far off the mark for these bodies, given that the powertrain etc is on top of the $20000 used here.

  • avatar

    My understanding as has been mentioned elsewhere here, is that US Customs wanted duties calculated on the total development costs of these cars and that is why Chrysler destroyed them

    Dave D

  • avatar

    I was very young at the time. wasn’t there an indy car with a turbine engine in the 60’s that won or almost won the race?? was that a chrysler built engine?

  • avatar

    As one of the six field Service Coordinators on Chrysler’s Turbine car program I’m possibly the only guy left. It was our job to be the guys between the “users” and the factory. We were the techs that kept the cars running and the “users” happy. It is interesting to read all the above comments and speculation which in some cases is riddled with errors. Probably the best information ever assembled is on Mark Olsen’s web site Mark is one of the user’s son.

    Just a few quick notes:
    1. The surplus cars were scrapped because they had served their purpose. Mfgrs. are not in the business of building and selling collector cars. There is no way Chrysler could have maintained any viable ongoing service, parts and technical support.
    2. Here in lies a lot of erroneous speculation. Like the statements about the exhaust temperature ~~~ that was never a factor. The regenerators cooled the exhaust so the temp was much lower than a conventional engine. The exhaust was cool enough that the tail pipes were thin aluminum sheet metal & pop riveted together.
    3. The experimental Turbine Car program was the most significant consumer research program ever undertaken and has been well and factually documented in Steve Lehto’s book titled “Chrysler’s Turbine Car”.
    4. For more info. you can also Google my name and read several of the speeches I have given to some of the collector car clubs.

  • avatar

    I can’t help with why Chrysler destroyed the car, but can give an insight as to what have been the final killer reason it was not developed further.

    About 6-8 years ago I met the man who when he retired was the boss of the the Chrysler machine shop that made all the one-off parts for Chrysler.

    He and two others ferried one of the turbine cars to Florida. He said that by the time they got there no one of the three ever wanted to drive one again. The sound the turbine made was very irritating and almost debilitating. I asked him specifically about the exhaust. He stated it was not any more a problem than the exhaust from a typical car.

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