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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

1964 Chrysler Turbine

Photographed in Dieppe Park, in Windsor, Ontario with the Detroit skyline as its backdrop, this 1964 Chrysler Turbine was one of fifty built.

Engineers at Chrysler Corporation launched studies into turbine engines as a power source for their product lines well before World War Two. Early research showed promise and before long, they had the American government interested, too. A department within the US Navy gave the automaker a grant to build an engine on its behalf. Engineers were able to create a turbine that was in every way efficient as or superior to a traditional gasoline-powered piston engine.

The first generation of turbine-powered automobiles from Chrysler was the 1954 Plymouth Turbine.
Determined to build a viable gas turbine for the road, they kept at it, solving the problems one by one until, in 1954, they finally had a practical version that was ready to be installed and tested in an ordinary production Plymouth.
1959 Plymouth Turbine

The next generation of vastly improved turbine engines debuted in 1959. To showcase this engine’s advanced capabilities, a new Plymouth was sent on a publicity run from Detroit to New York City. Two years later, a third generation engine was demonstrated.



The 1962 Plymouth Turbine Fury.
A Dodge Turbine Fury sedan was evaluated in 1962, this one fitted with a fourth-generation turbine engine. On its run to Los Angeles, it got better mileage than its production gasoline cousin. 

Unveiled to the world on May 14, 1963, the company announced to the press that it was poised to produce the latest Chrysler Turbine car in quantity. As a first step, officials let it be known that a limited production of prototypes would be manufactured and outlined a plan to loan the futuristic vehicles to ordinary citizens for testing. Each one selected would drive the Chrysler for two or three months and record detailed impressions. If response was good, the car of the future was just around the corner and it was Chrysler. More than 30,000 people promptly sent in requests to head office, volunteering to put the experimental cars through their paces. 


These cars were not only revolutionary; they were drop dead gorgeous. Their stunning design was penned by Chrysler’s new chief stylist. Elwood Engel had recently come to Highland Park after a stint Dearborn where he had been influential in the creation of the1961 Ford Thunderbird’s classic lines. He rolled up his sleeves to work his magic on the Turbine Cars.

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Up front, single headlights were enthroned in turbine-like bezels that were in turn ensconced in enormous chrome halos. The bumper was vast, flat and sharply canted, with turn signals and parking lights ensconced deep in the bumper’s ends, directly beneath the headlamps. The license plate holder cut into the bottom of the grille. The grille was simplicity itself; ten flat horizontal bars ran across the front. A discrete Chrysler Corporation badge adorned the right side of the hood with the word Turbine spelled out in script above it. A careful crease ran down the hood to the stand-up hood ornament.

From the side, the body was fluidly fuselage shaped, punctuated with a substantial decorative rocker moulding. A trio of brightwork mesh hash marks rode on the front fender, between the headlight trim ring and the front wheel well opening. A black accent chrome strip ran from the top of the headlight through to the rear fender. The hardtop’s rooflines were as gracious as the body, its thick C-pillar was decidedly formal with a soup├žon of sass in the rakish cant.


 The brilliant design waxed equally poetic from the rear. Two deeply recessed, heavily chromed, ovoid pods--that doubled as the bumper--were home to a pair of long, slim tail lights sunk deep in the cavity while bold, projectile backup lights in elongated pseudo-jet exhaust extensions protruded.

This sophisticated Chrysler turbine made use of twin regenerative gas turbines or rotating heat exchangers. The power plant weighed a trim 185 kilos (410 pounds) but it generated 130 horsepower at 3600 RPM. It was designed to run on peanut oil, kerosene, jet fuel, diesel fuel or even over proof rye. This author was ten at the time and had a neighbour who was one of the lucky ones chosen to test the car. Your author remembers being allowed to pour bottles of cheap perfume, collected for the demonstration, into the gas tank.

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The turbine was capable of 193 kilometres (120 miles) per hour or more and needed less than two seconds to go from idle to full output. The achievement was accomplished because a new fuel nozzle varied the angle of the jet stream to the turbine blades. The engine ran hot—between 676C and 1 093C (1,250 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit)—though it was only a rumour that it could melt pavement. Careful exhausting prevented that, and the ingeniously designed exhaust system was cool enough to touch while in operation!

The engine made a characteristic jet turbine whine when starting or spooling up as it is called. Once ignited, it ran very quietly. Since the engine had no moving parts, it did not vibrate. Chrysler Canada president, Ron Todgham, demonstrated for the press that the engine really was vibrationless by balancing a nickel on the running motor. The beaver on the backside of the coin didn't budge at all.

Chrysler Canada president, Ron Todgham, shows the press that the engine of the Chrysler Turbine has no moving parts and doesn’t vibrate by placing a nickel on edge on the running motor.
Inside the posh, four-passenger luxury car, the driver-cum-pilot sank into a bucket seat and faced a trio of deeply recessed gauges. A clock was tucked inside of a tachometer (redline at 44,000 RPM), a fuel gauge nestled inside of the speedometer and a trio of indicators in the third pod carried a dummy gauge at its centre. The transmission hump was lavishly embellished with a rich turbine fan decoration that gave way to a padded centre console. At the driver’s fingertips were aircraft-like controls for lights and wipers. An emergency hand brake was located between the seats. The aircraft throttle-style gearshift selector offered choices of low, drive, idle and reverse. Each of the passengers rode in a plush bucket seat.


Chrysler ordered fifty of the Turbine Cars and handed the job of building the running prototypes over to Carrozzeria Ghia located in Turin, Italy. One was turned out each week from October of 1963 to October of 1964. Each of the four-passenger hardtop coupes was finished in a rich orange-coloured Turbine Bronze and given a black top. Loaded with power accessories and automatic transmission, a completed vehicle weighed in at a hefty 1 859 kilos (4,100 pounds). 

A pair of the Turbine Cars arrived at Chrysler Canada’s headquarters in July 1964. Starting in Windsor, the engineering marvels set out across the country on a three-month tour, hosted by 143 specially selected dealers. Accompanied by two lecture guides, the cars travelled in a special Dodge transport. The trailer was emblazoned with the new corporate pentastar and special Turbine Car Exhibit markings. The pair of engineering marvels gathered crowds wherever they went. In Sarnia, Ontario 2,400 good citizens came to see the cars. In Kitchener, Ontario the Turbines drew 2,600 admirers. Torontonians began lining up at dealership at eight o’clock in the morning so as not to miss the beauties.

The 1964 Chrysler Turbine Cars travelled across the Dominion in this special transport truck.
In Montreal, 4,400 folks flocked to see the Chrysler Turbines in a single day. Another day in a Montreal suburb brought 5,900 members of the public, all of them keen to see the cars. But none of these viewings topped the folks in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where 7,900 people lined up to see the Turbines in a single day. Crowds in Quebec City came close, topping the 7,000 mark. 

All of Canada wanted a glimpse at the technically advanced and stunning Chrysler Turbines. In a one-day exhibition, nearly 8,000 citizens turned out to see them in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
On July 17, the Turbine twins were shipped to Victoria, British Columbia to begin the western leg of their national tour. After wowing folks in Western Canada, the stunning vehicles headed east for a tour of the Maritime Provinces. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets filled with facts about the fabled cars were distributed to curious Canadians.

Over a three-year period, 203 ordinary families tested the unique vehicles. They racked up more than a million miles on the gas-turbine Chryslers. Most loved the styling, and the fact that the engine was vibrationless, but a full third disliked the lag in acceleration and the poor gas mileage. It only got 11.5 miles per US gallon. And therein lay its downfall. No matter how cheap fuel might be, consumers expected better from the revolutionary Chrysler. After careful evaluation the project was scrubbed.

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Because they were built abroad, US Customs stood ready to collect a hefty duty if Chrysler were to keep the cars. To avoid paying what the company considered to be an exorbitant fee, all but ten of the Turbine Cars were cut up in front of Customs officials. Chrysler paid the duty on the remaining cars. They initially kept four vehicles for further study and donated six others to important museums around the country. Ironically, a fair number of the richly detailed turbine-styled wheel covers found their way onto the desks of Chrysler executives, where they were used as ash trays, souvenirs of the programme. 


The new pentastar spoke proudly of the company’s forty years as an automaker in Canada. The five divisions were Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler and Imperial. The corporation also built Fargo trucks for the domestic market.


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Copyright James C. Mays 2006
All rights reserved.

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