By on October 25, 2010

No, Virginia, that’s not a turbo Eldo, that’s a turbine Eldo

Paul Niedermeyer’s article and more recent book review concerning Chysler’s Turbine car show that Chrysler was savvy to use it as a halo vehicle – its appeal continues to resonate today. Though we’re learning new details all the time, most car enthusiasts know that Chrysler made a turbine powered car in the 1960s. Less well known is the fact that General Motors also had their own turbine program. While Chrysler’s Turbine Car was mostly a short lived PR effort, it happens that GM had a much longer lasting automotive turbine development program, starting in the 1950s and lasting for at least 40 years, without ever coming anywhere near to production. TTAC commenter jmo, alerted us to the existence of a powdered coal fired turbine powered Eldorado that GM developed after the oil crises of the 1970s, and we were hooked.

It shouldn’t surprise us that GM dumped a bunch of money into an idea or technology, only to abandon that investment – see also Wankel rotary, Fiat, Hughes, et al. Still, not many people, besides jmo that is, know that GM also had a running prototype of a turbine powered car, and it ran on coal to boot. Turbines have been one of the more popular automotive pipe dreams (though there have been successful applications of turbines in large trucks and most famously the M1A1 Abrams tank). Apparently starting in the late 1950s with a Boeing aircraft turbine shoehorned into a two-seat T’bird, Ford had its own gas-turbine program under manager Connie Bouchard. Bouchard said that the non-regenerative turbine in the prototype put out so much exhaust heat that roadside grass and weeds would catch fire. Ford Motor Company now says that it was a regenerative low pressure turbine installed in a 1954 model, which couldn’t have been a Thunderbird. The Big Three Detroit automakers were all attracted to turbines’ long life, lower maintenance costs, low weight and smooth vibration-free running. It was hoped that development would get over the barriers of high cost and relatively high fuel consumption.

Some of GM’s most dramatic show cars, the Firebirds of the 1950s Autoramas, actually had turbine engines and apparently were not just static show cars (though the Firebird I so easily broke the rear tires free that race car driver Maury Rose ended up doing some of the testing at Indy). While the Firebirds actually could drive, in a manner of speaking, some of their show car features were pure science fiction at the time.

GM had started research on turbines in the 1930s and their Allison division was building aircraft jet engines by the 1950s.

GM put Emmett Conklin in charge of the project to build the powerplants for three of Harley Earl’s most famous (and outrageous) show cars.

The Firebird I was a single seater, weighing only 2,500 lbs and had a 370 hp turbine driving the rear wheels. GM dubbed their in-house turbine the “Whirllfire Turbo Power” engine. It had a two-speed transmission (probably an early Powerglide), and it’s exhaust was hot enough to melt plastic and blister paint if you happened to be sitting behind it in traffic, 1,250 °F. In addition to air cooled brake drums, the Firebird I used air flaps to slow the car at speed.

For the 1956 Autorama, a slightly more practical Firebird II was introduced. It was a family vehicle with four seats, and per au courant jet design themes, a canopy top, and two huge circular air intakes that make me think of 1950s science fiction robots. Again, keeping with the jet theme, Earl had one of the two Firebird II bodies fabricated out of unpainted titanium. In 1956 that must have been outrageously expensive. Engine output was down to 200 HP but engine heat was less of a problem as a regenerative system allowed the motor to run about a thousand degrees F cooler as well as power the accessories.

1959’s Firebird III, the only one of the 3 that comes close to looking like a car, was a two-seater with two canopy bubbles. By then the engine’s name was changed to the “Whirlfire GT-305, with 225 hp (168 kW) to the wheels and a small 10 hp gasoline engine to run all the accessories.

According to a forum on GM Inside News, William Turunen headed GM’s automotive turbine program for most of its life. Albert Bell III’s name also frequently pops up in accounts of GM turbine cars. Bell went to his grave believing that the turbine could still be a practical car motor.

Bell was involved when GM recycled the turbine as a response to the oil shortages of the 1970s. Though turbines aren’t particularly gas misers, they can run on a variety of flammables, including perfume, and in this case coal dust. Don’t laugh, Rudolph Diesel’s earliest experiments with compression ignition engines used coal dust as a fuel. To be clear, those experiments failed, forcing Diesel to switch to fuel oil, but coal dust has a lot of BTUs. America also has a lot of coal, 500 billion tons of it, at least half easily recoverable. It’s also cheaper per btu than just about any other fuel, hence GM’s interest in a coal burning engine in the late 1970s.

GM Photo from Automobile Magazine

As a test mule, GM used the last full sized Eldorado, the 1978 model. The 1979s were already in production but they were downsized. The big Eldo’s cavernous engine compartment, designed to take a 500 CI big block with ease, and its gigantic trunk, capable of carrying a foursome’s clubs and luggage for a long golfing trip (or, if you prefer a different metric, as many hookers, dead or alive, as your little heart desires), had more than enough room for whatever machinery the prototype needed.

And the prototype indeed needed special machinery, … of the Rube Goldberg variety according to retired GM engineer John Schult, who described the system to the NY Times in 2009:

“To keep the coal dust ready for delivery to the engine, it had to be continuously agitated. Then a small conveyor belt delivered the coal to the gasifier, the first section of G.M.’s automotive turbine engine. When you stepped on the gas pedal, it actually moved a potentiometer that varied the speed of the coal conveyor belt. More fuel resulted in more power.”

Schult said that the fuel delivery system added additional delay to the lag that automotive turbines experienced. Schult did point out that the car did launch fairly well due to turbine’s high torque at low engine speeds. Shult didn’t mention if GM ever learned that if you brake-torque a turbine car and let the motor spool up to full speed, it develops, like electric motors, maximum torque at stall, and makes an excellent drag strip car, turbine lag or not. The experimental Eldorado’s turbine, which idled at a non-automotive 35,000 RPM, was geared down and that power was fed to a standard 3 speed THM transmission.

The car had a small tank of diesel/kerosene for starting the turbine. Once fired, it automatically changed over to the coal dust. Schult said that with the turbine whine and buzz of the coal dust agitator, plus compressed air blowing the dust into the gasifier, it didn’t sound much like a conventional Detroit V8 engine.

Only a single prototype was made. Apparently refueling was about as messy as changing toner powder on a copier machine, getting greasy coal dust everywhere.

Nobody knows what happened to the one coal powered Eldorado. Schult and fellow GM retiree Paul Ulrich say that the car was shipped to Allison when the project was moved there. That’s where the trail ends.

That was not the end of the dream of turbine power for cars at General Motors. In the April 1987 issue of Popular Science, right after an ad for the “first ever Star Trek collector plate” (of Mr. Spock) is an article by Dan McCosh about the Chevy Express, a 150 mph turbine powered concept that from its styling appears to have been part of GM’s EV1 program.

The Express concept, which appeared in one of the Back To The Future movies, was powered by an ACT-5 turbine with a regenerator, developed by a team headed by Albert Bell.

GM continued to work into the 1990s on automotive turbines, when the program was moved to GM’s Allison division, which had done the actual work on the prototype coal turbine. GM’s automotive engineers shifted emphasis to fuel cells and other projects, since the high exhaust temperatures and oxides of nitrogen that turbines produce create issues with emissions regulations.

That wasn’t the end of turbine cars at GM. Also as part of the EV1 program, at the 1998 North American International Auto Show in Detroit GM revealed a number of alternative EV1 drivetrain concepts, including the EV1 Series Hybrid Concept. In range extended mode, the EV1 Series Hybrid used an auxilary power unit powered by a small turbine developed with Williams International. In one of those Detroit ironies, Williams International was founded by Sam B. Williams, who as a young engineer worked at Chrysler on their turbine project.

According to AutoWorld, the EV1 Series Hybrid concept’s APU was, at the time, the smallest, lightest and most efficient APU made. The single-stage, single-shaft recuperated gas turbine was integrated into a single compact cylindrical unit with a 40 kW AC generator.

As the Chevy Volt is just now coming to market, it’s interesting to note the performance specs for the EV1 Series Hybrid concept of 1998:

“The driver simply flips a switch that disables the APU so this experimental car can be driven in the zero-emissions mode for up to 40 miles. The 6.5-gallon fuel capacity provides more than 350 miles of continuous highway range, better than most cars on the road today.”

Still, hope springs eternal. Earlier this month Jaguar introduced the C-X75 serial hybrid concept, with a serial-hybrid genset driven by a pair of… micro turbines.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

28 Comments on “GM’s Own Turbine Car Program...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Ronnie, thanks for expanding our knowledge of unconventional power-trains.  A coal fired Eldorado?  I love the big Eldos and big Cadillacs in general but the comparison between a coal fired Caddy and the Titanic is just too easy.  :)

  • avatar

    I wouldn’t exactly call Chrysler’s turbine cars a short term PR effort.  There were several versions of the turbine engine from the mid-50’s (in standard Chrysler vehicles) to the actual turbine car in the mid-60’s.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Actually, Chrysler’s turbine program went on into the mid seventies, the last one funded by the feds after the first energy crisis.
      Those early GM and Ford turbines were basically just aircraft engines shoehorned into cars, with huge issues such as absurd fuel consumption, high exhaust temperatures, etc. Chrysler’s turbine engine was developed from the beginning (1954) to be more compatible with a possible production car application, and one of the key components of that was their regenerator, which improved efficiency very substantially. A turbine without a regenerator in a car had insanely high fuel consumption.
      Ford and GM came closest to a production turbine not in cars, but in big trucks. Both showed semi trucks with turbine engines, and Ford actually had a number of them in customers hands, including fire engines, where their high power was useful, and consumption didn’t matter much.
      Trucks were seen as a more logical adaption for the turbine, because they run at relatively high power levels, whereas cars spend too much time idling and puttering around. That is the downfall of turbines; they operate most efficiently at high speed.

    • 0 avatar

      @tced: I agree with you completely, calling the Chrysler effort short term is incorrect. Chrysler finally axed the Turbine program in the early 1980’s. Close to thirty years of research is a good long time. Some medicines don’t get researched that long.
      IIRC they produced a turbine powered Omni, which must have been an interesting little box to drive.

    • 0 avatar

      According to The 1981 Chrysler New Yorker (M-body) Turbine car was ready to be tooled, according to the head of the program, Mr. George Scheckter, whom I met when I got to see and touch the 1963 Turbine Car again in 1989. There was no more design work to be accomplished, just tool and start production.
      Apparently my memory is pretty poor. Some years ago (I thought) I remembered reading about the turbine program, and that the last turbine car was supposed to be an Omni; maybe I confused L-body and M-body. But I was pretty sure the end date was 1981.


    • 0 avatar

      All good points. I suppose that my angle was that when you mention turbine cars, people either think Chrysler or Andy Granatelli @ Indy, not GM. The Firebirds were publicity stunts, but the coal burning Eldo appears to have been engineered with at least a passing thought to production feasibility. No question, though, that Chrysler held the lead in turbine development for street cars.
      My favorite part of the story is how GM has ended up working with one of the guys who cut his turbine teeth (blades?) working on the Mopar turbine car.

  • avatar

    Years ago I toured the Allison Gas Turbine plant and they had on display the Crysler turbine car , but no GM model. Interesting.

  • avatar

    The Union Pacific railroad experimented with turbine locomotives in the 50s and 60s as well.  Other than fuel consumption, the last units would melt the pavement on overpasses if stopped under one.  Most ran on bunker oil but there also was a coal fired experiment.

  • avatar

    Coal dust… Geeze…
    I’m glad that didn’t become popular.  One good collision and the fireworks would have been spectacular.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think it is more dangerous than gasoline. It is pretty hard to ignite coal, unlike gasoline.
      when we hear of coal dust explosions in coal mines, we also need to consider that coal mines have a lot of methane which we wouldn’t have int eh car coal bunker.
      Even hydrogen is not so dangerous since it is lightweight and likely rises above the accident site before igniting.

    • 0 avatar

      Try this trick (or, better yet, don’t) with a bag of flour: put it in an easily burstable bag and drop it right next to an open flame—say a butane torch
      Wear a mask, if not a full body asbestos suit, when you try this. Better yet, do it at a distance.

      Dust is a bad, bad, bad choice for vehicle fuel.

    • 0 avatar

      Try this trick (or, better yet, don’t) with a bag of flour: put it in an easily burstable bag and drop it right next to an open flame—say a butane torch

      Are you saying a bag of gasoline would perform better?

    • 0 avatar

      Yes.  Gasoline will just leak out and the vapours aren’t going to hang around.  A dust like coal is much more problematic: it will stay in the air in and around the site for some time.
      Coal dust, wood dust and flour are amazingly combustible.
      The very idea of a tank full of dust in a car gives me the heebie-jeebies.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t think coal dust would be any more dangerous than a ruptured tank of gasoline.  In fact, I’d take my chances with coal any day.

  • avatar

    did they ever use a turbine that was made for using the rotational energy?
    all aviation turbines they used are optimized to have much thrust from gases exiting. Obviously they will be bad in using energy from the shaft, even with adaption.

    • 0 avatar

      This is not true at all. The turbines used in Turbo-prop aircraft turn a shaft which is geared to a propeller, any thrust resulting from the turbine itself is negligable. IIRC the Chrysler turbine was a helicopter unit, so certainly meant to drive a shaft.

      This is also true for nearly all jet engines used in modern pure-jet aircraft – what the turbine is really doing is turning that great big fan at the front of the engine that is moving ambient air AROUND the “hot section” that is the actual turbine. Again only a tiny proportion of thrust is the result of the direct burning of jet fuel – they are really ducted fan engines. This is called a “high-bypass turbofan”.

      I think that a tiny gas turbine engine is the ideal range extender for something like the Volt. Very light for the power. The problem with gas turbine engines is that they have nearly the same fuel consumption at idle as they do at full throttle. A series hybrid solves this quite nicely – you only run the turbine when it is needed, at full power, and let the batteries absorb any excess power not being used for propulsion. It would still cost a fortune to build, of course.

  • avatar

    Why no mention of GM’s latest attempt at the turbine car the EcoJet now owned by Jay Leno.  Jay drives it around town, so GM has obviously come a long way towards a saleable/streetable turbine car. 

  • avatar

    Here’s a coal-fired turbine from 1944:
    Diesels beat it on efficiency, and probably air quality too.

    • 0 avatar

      Just to be clear that’s a steam turbine.  The coal is burned to heat water, creating steam, which is used to drive a turbine – much like a coal fired power plant.  The coal isn’t burned in the turbine combustor like in the GM application.

  • avatar

    Ironic considering that GM invented the diesel-electric locomotive that obsoleted coal-fired ones. Maybe that was part of the problem, an Eldo towing a coal tender just doesn’t seem quite right.

  • avatar

    The Chrysler “small turbine” that then engineer Willaims developed was for the Chrysler Tomahawk cruise missle; Williams went his own way to start Williams Gas Turbines and the Tomahawk was sold-off to General Dynamics.
    Its a horrifying shame to see what has happened to the big three from engineering prowess to the junk of the 1974 to the early ’90’s.  A lousy period of “value engineering” ie, de-contenting.  Remember the Fairmont-based Lincoln & T-bird?  those ads comparing the Mercury tail lights to the MB ones?  The advertising pic of the “Germans” looking oddly at the big-body GM car parked infront of a beer house?
    Too bad that when they finally have a decent line-up they get shutdown — Pontiac G8 anyone?

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      +1.  Forgive me for sounding like an old fogey too, I’m only 33 but know my history.
      Remember the nearly indestructible Tourqueflite & TH400/TH300?  Remember a Pontiac Bonneville winning one of the fuel economy runs of the late 50s?  Remember when Chrysler proved that a big car could handle?  Remember when Ford introduced the Mustang?  Sigh.  What happened Detroit?

  • avatar

    I like that GM was experimenting with different fuels.  Rather than just choking off engines to squeeze another few miles per gallon of gasoline, they could have created a true breakthrough that would release us from relying on foreign sources of oil.

  • avatar

    Glad this didn’t catch on, else we would have turned the entire state of West Virginia into one huge strip mine.

  • avatar

    Please show one, just one, example of a turbine-powered vehicle that achieved anywhere near the fuel economy (let alone drivability) of an equal HP/TQ ICE.
    Just one.
    Can’t? Shocking.
    Turbines are neat for a few applications. Automotive ain’t one of them.

  • avatar

    I can tell you what happened to the 1978 Blue and Silver Coal powered Eldorado, it was trash compacted.  My father Richard Stettler and his friend and co-work Everett Showes, worked under Al Bell, designed and held the original patent to that engine, I was the girl in the picture next to it as it sat in our driveway in Birmingham, MI.  My father and Mr. Showes retired from General Motors Corporation and left the Tech Center in 1986, the patent was sold to Detroit Diesel Allison, both of them spent the next two years in Indianapolis working on that engine in conjunction with DDA.  That car was also displayed for a brief time in Epcot center in Florida.
    Lisa Stettler-Christin

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Inside Looking Out: Slavuta, welcome back!
  • ToolGuy: After playing around with various options, I have become a wiper blade snob. I go to rockauto in the...
  • sgeffe: Especially the one where the poor father-to-be injures himself “south of the border” while attempting the...
  • Art Vandelay: Pile of S H I T
  • eng_alvarado90: I stand corrected on that one.

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber