The discussion resulting from the last Technosophy item got me to thinking about a couple of things. One of them was the whole gas/electric hybrid car concept. I really do think this is a technological dead end, the kind of thing that future generations will look back on and say, “They seriously thought that was worth bothering with?” I honestly believe that, if all the money that’s been wasted developing hybrid drive systems had been spent instead on improving the efficiency of the normal ones, everyone would be getting better mileage now, not just the tiny, smug, self-important Prius minority – resulting in a much larger net gain in fuel economy worldwide with much less silly faffing around.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that piston engines have reached the limit of what can be wrung out of them. That what’s really needed now is a whole new concept in automotive powerplant technology, something that will make cars with piston engines seem as antiquated and quaint as fighter planes with propellers.
Well, funnily enough, I think that something already exists. In fact, I think it’s the same something that left propeller-driven fighter planes behind at the end of World War II… and it’s a something that engineers first seriously took a crack at putting in automobiles in the early 1960s.
Meet the 1963 Chrysler Turbine. Styled by Ghia, the famed Italian design firm (of VW Karmann Ghia fame), it wasn’t called the Turbine just because it looked futuristic and sleek by the standards of its day. It was called that because it really was powered by a turbine. Understand, though, the Turbine was not a “jet car”. Its turbine didn’t power it by direct thrust, as in those giant dragsters with the jet fighter engines, or various Batmobiles over the years. It used a gas turbine where a conventional car has a piston engine – to drive a pair of its wheels via a mechanical gearing system. It wasn’t intended for stunts or silly afterburner showing off; it was intended to prove that a gas turbine engine was a serious candidate to replace the piston engine under the hood of the average American car.
Chrysler Corporation had been fooling around with small gas turbine engines since before the Second World War, and they’d made attempts at putting them into cars before, but their earlier attempts were, quite frankly, rubbish. The biggest problem they had was the same problem that plagued the early jet aircraft: poor throttle response. A lot of modern turbocharged cars experience a phenomenon called “turbo lag”, wherein you stamp on the throttle, but the big boost of horsepower provided by the turbo doesn’t kick in for several seconds while it sorts out what it’s doing. Chrysler’s early experimental turbine-powered cars had a very similar problem, except that in their case, the wait wasn’t just for the added horsepower provided by a turbo, it was for any power at all.
In the 1963 Turbine Car they had that issue pretty well licked, as well as the other major bugaboos of their early turbine experiments – mechanical reliability and fuel efficiency. Chrysler built 55 ’63 Turbine Cars and sent them all over the country in an ambitious test program, placing them with ordinary people in all walks of life for testing in the real world – where they promptly performed brilliantly, racking up a reliability record that would have been the envy of any normal car of their day. They ran everywhere, rain or shine, winter and summer, day and night – and, most intriguingly from our modern oh-no-is-this-peak-oil perspective, they ran on pretty much anything that was a) a liquid and b) flammable. Gasoline, diesel oil, kerosene, jet fuel, Wesson, they didn’t care. The president of Mexico, presented with one for his consideration, famously tried running it on tequila, which it happily did (though presumably it didn’t eat the worm). And all that with an emission signature that amounted to little more than some heat.
The Turbine test program ran for three years. More than 200 people spent three months each driving their Turbines in normal, everyday life, just like their next-door neighbors were using their Chevy Impalas and Ford Galaxie 500s. From Maine to California, in the hands of postmen, housewives, salesmen, engineers, doctors, ministers, the Turbines whirred steadily on. And all during that time, shopping mall displays and other marketing events announced that here, my friends, was the car of the future. Never mind the concept stuff on display at Autorama. We built these and then proved that they actually work in the real world.
… well, and then nothing, sadly. Chrysler did go on to make one further turbine-powered ground vehicle – the M1 Abrams tank, you may have heard of it – but nothing more was said, in public anyway, about a turbine-powered automobile for the general public.
Why not? Well… here it all gets a little hazy. Chrysler collected the ’63 Turbines at the end of the test and destroyed all but a handful of them, ostensibly because if they didn’t they would have to pay an import duty on the bits made in Italy, and what little the company’s management said about the turbine idea when people asked about it afterward was couched in vague terms about economic feasibility. There were mutterings about the problem of training mechanics to work on the things and were Mr. and Mrs. John Q. and Jane Public really ready for such a thing (ironic, given Chrysler had just spent three years proving that they were). Even more interestingly, when Chrysler was bailed out by the federal government during the Iacocca years, one of the provisions of that bailout was that Chrysler would scrap any and all research into turbine-powered consumer automobiles.
As you might imagine, these… intriguing… circumstances give rise to a good many conspiracy theories among those who remember the ’63 Turbine and wonder what might have been.
Mind you, as cars they did have shortcomings. Their exhaust temperature at the pipe, for instance, was a rather brisk 500° F, and they made an uninspiring vacuum-cleaner whine in an era when people expected a car that size to make a meaty V-8 rumble. They didn’t have inspiring power by the standards of the day – around 130 horsepower, at a time when a standard family car with a V-8 engine developing less than 300 HP was considered a bit poky. While they didn’t produce carbon monoxide or unburned hydrocarbons in their exhaust, they did produce oxides of nitrogen – though the engineers had fixed that by 1966. And yes, they required a bit of special handling – if you didn’t follow the startup procedure correctly, for instance, you’d destroy the engine.
Still, that was nothing normal, workaday people couldn’t handle. Nowadays you expend more brainpower working out how the radio in your new car is operated vs. the one in your old car. Everything else could’ve been cracked with further engineering (and, as I’ve already mentioned, the emissions issue already had been). The trickiest shortcoming of the bunch would’ve been making it make a better noise, and conventional car companies nowadays have entire teams of engineers working on that kind of thing.
What the 1963 Chrysler Turbine represents, then, is a car built with technology that arguably wasn’t quite there… but the mass of evidence from the three-year test program shows that at worst, it was within one generation of commercial readiness. Had research continued, had the program been given anything like the attention it deserved, all the ’63 Turbine’s remaining problems could have been addressed. Look at how much conventional cars have advanced since 1963. Consider a modern turbine car as far ahead of the ’63 Turbine, engineering-wise, as a modern Chrysler 300C is ahead of a ’63 300J.
Consider it, versus the alternatives we have today instead – versus pointless publicity stunts like the Prius and naff plastic boxes like the Smart Fortwo – and weep.