By Allen Penticoff
I recently watched a short segment on television about the turbine powered cars of the 1950s and ’60s. Like a lot of things, my curiosity was piqued and I looked it up. Having grown up as a car nut in the 1960s and early 1970s I was aware they existed, all the more so when the Granatelli STP Racing Team introduced the STP-Paxton Turbocar at the 1967 Indianapolis 500 race. The STP turbine cars did not win due to non-turbine issues, but were so fast they were banned.
Also being an airplane nut, the combination of an airplane like turbine engine and a car was a very attractive combination. But the Chrysler experimental turbine cars have no common parts with the STP race car which was powered by an aircraft turbine engine. Chrysler’s program started with a military contract in 1945 to develop a turboprop engine for aircraft. Although a successful engine was built, the contract ended in 1949, but Chrysler continued to experiment with building turbine engines for vehicles throughout the 1950s.
For those unfamiliar with a turbine engine – the basic nature is to have a continuous combustion process whereby the exhaust gases pass through fan blades on a disc that are connected to fan blades on a compressor disc by a shaft. Great power can be derived from this process, but the downsides are poor fuel economy in an automobile because of the high idle speed. They can be very noisy as well, with a high-pitched whine. In an automobile, throttle response is slow and there is negligible engine braking action. Chrysler tackled these problems one by one through five generations of turbine engines.
By 1954 they debuted a production turbine car that incorporated heat exchangers to warm the incoming air that greatly improved fuel economy. This also reduced the exhaust gas temperatures considerably from 1200º F to 500º F. They called this a “regenerator.” This would become a feature on all their turbine cars and trucks. In 1956 one of these test Plymouth sedans was driven across the country in four days. They developed a new turbine called the CR2A which was driven cross-country in a 1962 Dodge Dart in adverse conditions. Both of these trips proved the turbine could be driven in conditions any other car would be subjected to. Four different models with CR2A turbine engines began a 90 city tour to promote the cars and the concept.
In 1962 they developed a Dodge Turbo Truck as well, then announced their intent to produce 50 to 75 cars and put them in the hands of the general public. Chrysler developed a futuristic new car for the turbine engine which was quite “jet-like” in 1963, for which it is best remembered. They did build 50 of them and put them in the hands of ordinary drivers for everyday use. These were rotated among different drivers after a few weeks as the intent was to learn reactions from the drivers to driving a turbine car. About 203 people drove them all over the county. These 1964 cars had 130 horsepower, but a whopping 425 foot-pounds of torque at zero drive shaft rpm. Acceleration would be brisk. They could burn almost any flammable liquid, but were discouraged from using leaded gasoline. No adjustments were needed to burn any of these fuels.
Altogether the turbine program at Chrysler developed five generations of engines that were ever more efficient and could compete with internal combustion engines. The program ended in 1979 when Chrysler was in financial trouble and the government was in control of the company. The government felt the turbine program was too risky to proceed with. Although the turbine technology went on to power M-1 tanks for the U.S. Army.
Today most of the turbine cars have been destroyed. A handful of them are in museums and a few operating cars are in the hands of private collectors. It is somewhat sad it ended, as turbine engines are extremely smooth running and reliable. Their ability to burn anything could have led to them being great alternative fuel vehicles such as very sustainable vegetable oil. I suspect with today’s abundant cheap natural gas, they would be fueled by this clean-burning fossil fuel as well and combined with plug-in battery technology may have made for great all around cars and trucks.