By on July 24, 2015

We’ll probably never again see something like the combination real world test and publicity campaign that put 50 Chrysler Turbine cars in the hands of American families to test drive for a few months in the mid 1960s. That we’re talking about it more than 50 years later shows just how effective the PR for the Turbine was. Consequently, the Chrysler Turbine is undoubtedly one of the best known concept cars ever. Less well known is the fact that the Chrysler Turbine as we know it started out as a Ford.

First off, I’m in no way implying that Ford had a role in developing the turbine engine that was the heart of the Turbine cars. Chrysler’s turbine program was entirely the brainchild of senior Chrysler engineer George Huebner, though Ford Motor Company and General Motors both have had significant turbine research programs. However, when you say “Chrysler Turbine car”, people don’t visualize whirring fan blades and regenerators in their minds’ eyes. If they’ve ever heard a Turbine car run, their ears might think of the whooshing sound they make, often compared to a very powerful vacuum cleaner, but the predominating mental image most folks would have would be the very sleek, copper toned bodies that Ghia built to be powered by the jet engines.

One of two Turbine cars still owned by Chrysler.

One of two Turbine cars still owned by Chrysler.

While the Turbine car’s powertrain was the result of years of research at Chrysler, its exterior design began as a concept for the Ford Thunderbird. In 1960, Chrysler chairman “Tex” Colbert brought in Lynn Townsend to run the company. Townsend wasn’t a fan of Chrysler’s chief designer, Virgil Exner Jr., and he liked even less Exner’s penchant for introducing new styling themes on lower end models. Meanwhile, across town in Dearborn, Elwood Engel had been passed over for the top executive styling position at Ford. Seeing an opportunity to change the company’s styling direction and ease Exner out of power, Townsend made Engel vice president for styling at Chrysler, making Exner a “consultant”.

When the decision was made to build a short run of semi-production Turbine cars, Engel initially assigned designer Maury Baldwin to the task. Baldwin came up with a small, two-seat, midengine sports car that on paper sounds a lot like Ford’s 1962 Mustang I concept. That proved to be at odds with management’s decision to make the Turbine a four seat family car. Engel then turned to Chuck Mashigan, another Ford expat.

The Henry Ford Museum's Chrysler Turbine Car

The Henry Ford Museum’s Chrysler Turbine Car

We recently ran a story about Larry Miller, a clay modeler at Ford who got his job after meeting Henry Ford as a teenager. Chuck Mashigan’s story is in the same vein. Already married, his wife suggested to him in 1954 that he look into a career designing cars. When he said that he had no training or experience, she pointed out the skill with which he both sketched automobiles and then carved models out of bars of soap. “You show them your work, and they’ll hire you,” she told him.

This wasn’t as unrealistic as it sounds today. Remember, this was before most of today’s professional design schools were established. The Pratt institute in New York was about the only place where you could study industrial design. General Motors set up the Fisher Body Craftman’s Guild scholarship program primarily as a means of identifying design talent.

The Chrysler Turbine car on display at the Gilmore Car Museum is actually on loan from the Detroit Historical Museum, which owns it, a gift from the Chrysler corporation.

The Chrysler Turbine car on display at the Gilmore Car Museum is actually on loan from the Detroit Historical Museum, which owns it, a gift from the Chrysler corporation.

With his wife’s encouragement Mashigan made up some drawings and applied for a position at General Motors, who indeed turned him down because of his lack of experience, as did Chrysler. When he showed his shopping bag full of drawings at Ford, however, they took him on as a 90 day probationary hire, reporting to Alex Tremulis, who headed the advanced design studio at FoMoCo. After a little more than a month of doing sketches and some clay modeling, Mashigan was called into Tremulis’ office and told that both the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury studios had requested that he be assigned to their work groups. His first position as a permanent hire was supervising the studio doing the work on the first Thunderbird.

At Elwood Engel’s request, Mashigan moved to Chrysler around the time the 50 turbine car project was just getting underway. By then Baldwin’s two seat sports car had been set aside. Mashigan recalled being summoned to his boss’ office. Engel opened up a book to show Mashigan a photo of a concept car and said, “You know that one all right, don’t you?”

Ford La Galaxie show car

Ford La Galaxie show car

Mashigan replied, “I sure do; that’s a fiberglass T-Bird model I did while I was in the Ford studio.” Mashigan had been in charge of that project, through the design process, the full size clay model, and the finished fiberglass show car.

IMG_0974

Engel then told the designer, “Here’s why I called you up here: I want you to design that vehicle to be a full size running car, and we’re going to put a turbine engine in it. You’ll be in complete charge of getting that vehicle designed.

Ford La Galaxie, front view

Ford La Galaxie, front view

While none of the accounts specifically identify the Thunderbird concept, it’s assumed that Engel and Mashigan were talking about the 1958 La Galaxie show car. The back end of the Turbine car is pretty much a copy of the La Galaxie, the headlights and grille are similar and, interestingly, period color photographs show the La Galaxie was also painted with copper colored paint. The La Galaxie also ended up influencing the design of the 1961 “Rocket Bird” Thunderbird, which may be why some Chrysler insiders referred to the Turbine car as the “Engelbird”.

Chrysler Typhoon Turbine Concept

Chrysler Typhoon Turbine Concept

Mashigan’s first iteration of what would become the Chrysler Turbine was a two-seater with an extended rear deck called the Typhoon that featured most of the Turbine’s signature styling elements, including its turbine inspired headlights and hubcaps. The second model Mashigan sculpted shortened the deck and lengthened the passenger compartment to add a back seat, resulting in the now familiar lines of the Turbine car.

Chrysler Typhoon, rear view

Chrysler Typhoon, rear view

The Chrysler Turbine cars pictured here are the ones on display at the Gilmore, Henry Ford and Walter P. Chrysler museums. Of the eight Turbine cars that were not destroyed, two still belong to Chrysler. For this year’s Eyes On Design car show, a charitable event put on by Detroit’s car design community, Chrysler brought one of their Turbines. Eyes On Design is held every Father’s Day on the main lawn of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate. To get to the reviewing stand, which is located right in front of the main house, cars exit the show field at the carriage house end and then use the quarter mile long driveway up to the mansion. That’s how I was able to shoot the video at the top of this post.

With so few Chrysler Turbine cars that exist and even fewer that are on display to the public, it’s a rare opportunity to see one. To see and hear one whoosh by as it is driven is an even rarer opportunity. Considering that what we know as the Chrysler Turbine stylistically started out as a Ford concept car, watching it drive on the grounds of the home of Edsel Ford, who started Ford’s styling department, seems completely appropriate.

Museum photos by the author.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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45 Comments on “The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a Ford...”


  • avatar
    turf3

    I think the car as built is far better looking than any of the styling concepts. However, from the lay perspective, I think the taillights would have been better-looking had they echoed the headlights, kind of like certain Fords did in that time frame, with a single round tail light assy on each side. (Maybe the designer who originally worked at Ford had that idea when it was a Ford concept).

    I think the Xler turbine car is one of the best looking designs of the early 60s.

    By the way, even though the Xler turbine car has a gas turbine, and a jet engine has a gas turbine, this car is powered by a gear train to the rear wheels, not by the expulsion of combustion gas and the consequent reactive force on the body from which the combustion gas is expelled. In other words, it is not a jet engine.

    • 0 avatar
      twotone

      I saw this car at a show in the 1960’s — very cool!

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

      All Fords had round taillamps as you described through out the 50s (54-on I believe) and beyond, they were known for it. Putting them on a Chrysler wouldve been seen as copying Ford’s actual designs, instead of just an obscure (by that time) concept car. Itd be like putting Ford’s current Aston Martin-inspired face (as on Fiesta, Focus and Fusion) on a Chrysler 200.

    • 0 avatar
      BigDuke6

      +1 on your last paragraph.

      And 2nd paragraph too.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    A wonderful look once again into What Might Have Been, and with more detail regarding its origins and influences. In concept and prototype form I find the Chrysler designs far more visually appealing than the Ford iteration. Thank you very much!

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    Amazing.
    I always thought this car looked like a Thunderbird of that era.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Well, if you cover up the front and rear ends of both cars, the early ’60s “Bullet Birds” and the Turbine are almost identical.

      Turbine car:
      http://automotivetraveler.fotki.com/1963-chrysler-ghia-/1963-chrysler-ghia-3.html

      ’62 Thunderbird:
      http://www.commercial.autotraderclassics.com/scaler/632/473/images/b/2009/10/03/64624045/1_4-23-2006-51.jpg

      Two of the best looking cars to ever come out of Detroit.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    A nice example of ’60s American optimism and can-do, but what was ever the purported advantage of turbines in cars?

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      One stated advantage was the ability to run on just about any combustible liquid fuel.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        That’s a cool publicity stunt but how would it translate as predictable profit and uniform performance standards for whatever chemical industries would do the distribution system build-out?

        Would there have been Seagrams filling stations across the street from Ronsonol ones?

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      The engine has essentially one moving part, gas turbines offer spectacular durability and reliability along with incredible smoothness. Downsides were cost, drivability issues and very high fuel consumption.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        “very high fuel consumption”

        Sounds like a godsend for fuel suppliers. They must have been very enthusiastic about it.

      • 0 avatar

        While the main reason the airline industry switched to turbines was significantly improved reliability and much less maintenance, Steve Lehto, in his book about the Chrysler Turbine says that over the course of the program, every car had its engine replaced at least once.

        As for drivability, they were said to accelerate slowly. That’s because Chrysler didn’t tell anyone that if they brake torqued, letting the engine spool up to 45,000 rpm, it could do 0-60 in 5 seconds – very fast for the day.

        • 0 avatar
          Felis Concolor

          I can easily envision one of the era’s children’s television hosts reciting a primer on proper turbine car handling.

          “Remember, kiddies: turbines make their max torque at stall!”

        • 0 avatar
          tjh8402

          @Ronnie Schreiber: Just looked up some numbers and citations for ya. This is from the Sept 1960 edition of Flying Magazine:

          https://books.google.com/books?id=KL6DygVUR10C&lpg=PA62&ots=Pz1Sk92WOD&dq=early%20jet%20engine%20reliability&pg=PA62#v=onepage&q&f=false

          “The P&W JT3 engine, and its more powerful companion JT4, have piled up a reliability record that is unique in the business. Pan American World Airways…says that, during its first full year of 707 operations, it had only one engine shut-down for every 11,000 hours logged. This is really significant when compared with th rate of one shut-down for ever 1,315 hours on piston-engined DC-7’s…[T]he first 12 months of Boeing 707 operations…involved only 23 engines prematurely removed for overhaul, which figures out to 13,200 operating hours per premature removal. The R-2800 engines which power the DC-6, by way of have a record of 7,143 hours per premature removal. An FAA spokesman summed it up by saying “Industry-wide, the jet engine reliability record is about 20 times better than for most piston engines…”The overhaul problems for the jet engines are far simpler than those for piston engines,” comments F.C. Wiser, American’s vice-president in charge of Technical Services. “Th jet engine eliminates three great sources of trouble found in piston engines: ignition systems, carburetion systems, and the complex mechanical construction of the engine as a whole. Also, there is less fluctuation of internal operating temperatures in the jet than in the piston engine.”

          Can’t imagine what it must have been like at that time. To go from 250-300 kt cruising in DC7s and Super Connies and then double it to 500+ kts in a 707 or DC8. Must have felt like a rocket, never mind the increases in comfort and reliability.

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            An Air Force veteran at the church I attend used to work on the Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone; Wright’s equivalent to the Pratt and Whitney R-2800; which powered the Super Constellation and a host of military aircraft.

            Both of these engines had two banks of nine cylinders each. The Wright also had a trio of power recovery turbines that actually contributed additional power to the engine (450 HP) instead of robbing it of power; thought at reduced reliability.

            They were the penultimate in aviation reciprocating engine design; but they were also truly the definition of “spare parts flying in close formation.” He said the B-29 bases in the Pacific literally had fields of dead engines; with fields of spares available to replace them when they went.

            With the jet engine; you went from these massively complex beasts to a machine that was so much simpler and lighter as well as more powerful. Unlike an ICE, jet engines do not lose power as you climb, at least not until very high/very thin atmospheric conditions; they now cruise at altitudes far above max altitude for piston engines; enabling them to fly over the weather instead of through it. It was no wonder they replaced the radial engines practically overnight.

            When high pressure (water tube) boilers and steam turbines replaced the lower pressure (fire tube) boilers and steam engines in stationary service; it was only logical that the railroads and shipbuilders would give them a try as well. It turned out they worked great in ships, and they soon replaced the massive marine steam engines in most applications. (Both the Battleship Texas and the Titanic and the Titanic’s sisters were the last large ships built with marine steam engines; which were the ultimate in size and power; they continued to be used on tramp steamers and later Liberty Ships because they were cheap to build.) But no so good with steam locomotives; where turbines could not hold up with the banging, the cinders and dust, and constant power swings that came with railroad service; nor did the shop forces have the experience to maintain them.

            So the same thing happened when jet engines took over the aviation industry. They were tried in stationary service; where they are used to this day as part of combined cycle power plants. They were tried with ships; where they are often used aboard fast ships or larger ships to give them short term “dash” capability. And they were tried with locomotives and cars; where it was found it’s disadvantages outweighed it’s advantages; and they never caught on.

          • 0 avatar
            tjh8402

            @Jhefner – those big radials are some incredible motors. I was fortunate enough to be working line service at an airport that Fifi (currently the only B-29 flying) visited and was able to stand right next to her as she started. The sound was something else. Nothing else like that. It does tell you something about the nature of those engines that they asked us to bring our largest portable fire extinguisher and park it ride at her nose…just in case. We also used to have a DC-3 that visited every winter, so I spent a lot of quality time with that plane. How incredible it must have been for your friend from church to have worked at an airfield where hundreds of those great round engines were firing up and running all at once.

            I can think of two reasons why they never caught on in the railroad industry. First, a key advantage of a turbine is light weight vs a reciprocating engine. However, that isn’t necessarily an advantage in a railway locomotive, as the weight of the locomotive helps it’s tractive effort and pulling power. The weight of a diesel engine helps those locomotives make the post of their power. Also, a key advantage of diesel electrics is their ability to lash up and work in concert as a double/tripple/quadruple header and then break away when not needed. I think railroads discovered that the operational flexibility provided by having a number of smaller, less powerful locomotives that could be put together as needed was more advantageous than having single massive power units like Union Pacific had been a fan of (Challengers, Big Boys, and GTELs). Recall that Union Pacific did dawdle in big diesel power – replacing the GTELs with the DDA40X series, which were ultimately retired and replaced by smaller, less powerful locomotives.

    • 0 avatar
      DevilsRotary86

      From allpar (a biased site I admit):
      http://www.allpar.com/mopar/turbine.html

      Maintenance is considerably reduced
      Engine life-expectancy is much longer
      Development potential is remarkable
      The number of parts is reduced 80%
      Tuning-up is almost eliminated (Devil’s note: This was probably more of a concern in the 50’s and 60’s than today)
      Low-temperature starting difficulties are eliminated
      No warm-up period is necessary
      Antifreeze is not needed (Devil’s note: ???? Not sure how it doesn’t need antifreeze)
      Instant heat is available in the winter
      The engine will not stall with sudden overloading
      Engine operation is vibration-free
      Operates on wide variety of fuels
      Oil consumption is negligible
      Engine weight is reduced
      Exhaust gases are cool and clean

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        No antifreeze? Is it essentially air cooled?

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          Correct; gas turbine power plants have no cooling system. The compressor blades before the burner cans are not subjected to heat; while the burner cans and power stages aft are designed to withstand the combustion temperatures; there is no other way to cool them.

          • 0 avatar
            jmo

            That’s not quite true:

            “There are many types of cooling used in gas turbine blades; convection, film, transpiration cooling, cooling effusion, pin fin cooling etc. which fall under the categories of internal and external cooling. While all methods have their differences, they all work by using cooler air (often bled from the compressor) to remove heat from the turbine blades.”

            My understanding is that the titanium blades are exposed to exhaust gasses that would melt or at least severely weaken them, it is only by using a complex system of internal air passages that the blades can be kept cool enough to operate reliably.

            https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turbine_blade

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            That is correct, of course; but as I am sure you know, my point is that the cooling is built into the engine itself; a gas turbine does not require a seperate air or liquid cooling cycle like a ICE does. Not requiring a cooling system with it’s heat exchangers and pumps is one of their advantages; especially in transportation; as that is less “stuff” you have lug around with you; althought it is more than offset in many cases by it’s high fuel consumption.

            The Union Pacific also experimented with gas turbine locomotives; they ran them on Bunker C, which helped offset the fuel cost a little. But along with the high fuel consumption they were also noisy, and required a seperate smaller diesel unit for startup and backup services; so they did not catch on there either.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      “…but what was ever the purported advantage of turbines in cars?”

      Reasons? Who needs reasons when you have JET POWER?

      (It was the ’60s, you know…tech for tech’s sake was definitely the thing, and who cared how much gas it used?)

  • avatar
    brett

    Is it just me or is that color awesome…

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Oh, dear Lord, do I love this car…I love the styling, I love the early ’60s Jetsons vibe, and I love that Chrysler had the balls to make a jet powered car. Why did they make it? Because…jet power, that’s why. Awesome!

    And as cool as the exterior is, the interior is even better…

    http://image.cpsimg.com/sites/carparts-mc/assets/classics/chryslerturbocar/images/dash.jpg

    Thanks for these stories, Ronnie!

  • avatar

    “put 50 Chrysler Turbine cars in the hands of American families to test drive for a few months in the mid 1960s”

    Rover in the UK had turbine cars running over a decade earlier, but they never progressed passed the prototype stage.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rover_Company#Experimental_cars

  • avatar
    BigOldChryslers

    A great writeup, and I learned something I didn’t already know about the Chrysler Turbine. :) I knew the design was derived from the LaGalaxie and Engel was involved, but not Mashigan.

    One small point: There are 9 Chrysler Turbines still in existence, not 8.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    I saw one of these at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis back in the 1980s.

    Cooking the paint off of the hood was one problem, and the exhaust doing the same to the vehicle behind you in traffic was another!

    Imagine that today: (Husband looking at melted front grille) “Honey, did you get too close behind a turbine car again?”

    • 0 avatar
      Shane Rimmer

      There’s a video out there where Jay Leno shows off his car – including driving it on public roads, and he specifically debunks those and some other myths about the car. The exhaust system on those cars was engineered to ensure the exhaust temperature would be low enough to not cause any trouble – lower than piston engines of the time, according to Mr. Leno.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      “Honey, I cooked a bunch of chickens for dinner.”

      (When the wife is driving the turbine car and passes a truck hauling live chickens, of course.)

  • avatar
    danio3834

    What I find most interesting about Chrysler’s turbine program is that it eventually led to the development of the M1 Abrams tank. Pretty badass.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    Why not revive the concept, but have the turbine spin a generator to charge a battery to power a motor to drive the wheels?

    • 0 avatar
      BigOldChryslers

      I know of three hybrid-electric cars with microturbine-based gensets on board. A prototype EV1, a Jaguar hybrid prototype, and Neil Young’s 1959 “LincVolt” Lincoln converted to hybrid powertrain.

      • 0 avatar

        I wrote about the EV1 Series Hybrid in an article about GM’s turbine program.

        “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…

        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.”

        https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/10/gms-own-turbine-car-program/

        • 0 avatar
          shaker

          Thanks for that flashback to 5 years ago.

          I had always wished that the Volt would have a microturbine as a range-extender, if only for how cool it would sound – but then again, drivers would probably stop charging the battery just to hear that sound.

  • avatar
    kkop

    I’ve admired it a few times in the (excellent) Gilmore car museum in rural Michigan:

    http://www.gilmorecarmuseum.org/visit-explore-2/

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      That is an excellent museum, but you REALLY have to want to go there. It is in the middle of nowhere.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, if less than 20 miles from Kalamazoo is the middle of nowhere. It’s a very pleasant drive on winding two lane roads once you get off of the interstate.

        The Gilmore is a treasure and I recommend visiting it as part of a car museum tour of western Michigan and northern Indiana. I visited the Gilmore, Studebaker and Auburn Cord Duesenberg museums over the course of two days, and still had time to check out the RV Museum and Hall of Fame in Elkhart and the NATMUS car, truck and toy museum next to the ACD museum in Auburn.

  • avatar
    islander800

    I was fortunate to see (and hear) a privately-owned Chrysler Turbine Car drive onto the show field at Hershey in October 2001. The owner was a collector from Indiana (now reportedly deceased) who had traded his De Soto Airflow for a working turbine engine from Chrysler, with the intermediary help of Jay Leno. The buzz it caused was electric (pun intended) and the crowd around the car and owner when it reached its appointed show field space (while his wife calmly knitted in the passenger seat) made picture taking a challenge. It supposedly was the same car that I saw offered FOR SALE (!) at the Hershey car corral in the 1990s by the owner of the Domino’s Pizza chain, asking price $250K, with a non-functioning turbine engine. I was floored that such a landmark of American engineering was for sale for relatively so little.

    I’ve been a big fan of the Chrysler Turbine Car since its introduction in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager. My dad took me down to the local Chrysler dealership to see one on its cross-country tour at the time. During my visit to “The Henry Ford” museum in Dearborn in 2004, where one of the survivors is on permanent display, I bought a 1/18 scale die cast in the gift shop – a very good presentation of the car – and it’s on display in my den today.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I miss the cars of the past in that they were more interesting. Today’s cars are more reliable in many ways but they have the appeal of a refrigerator or washing machine. I enjoyed watching this video and the Jay Leno video on the turbine car. I always wondered why this car resembled a Thunderbird and now I know.

  • avatar
    Dan R

    Obviously LSD was being used by Detroit stylists as soon as the late 1950’s. What a curious mixture of high tech engine, childish sci-fi styling and cart springs rear suspension!

  • avatar
    NexWest

    Looks like the Jets are back, this time in a truck: http://www.wrightspeed.com/

    When you’re a jet, your a jet all the way……

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