Yesterday's Cars of The Future.
By: Leon Dixon

(Published in SIA #57 June 1980)

Exclusive!  Introduction to the 1980 article by Mr. Dixon himself.

GAS TURBINE CARS...
By Leon Dixon
Copyright © 1999, all rights reserved

When Mark Olson asked me to write this introduction, I was reminded of my initiation into the gas turbine automotive technology. In my case, it all began long before the story I wrote on the subject.

As a youngster growing up in the Motor City, I had become fascinated with what  we used to call "dream cars"- cars of the future. We call them "concept cars" today. But in those days, some of these were merely super swoopo styling exercises with wild fins or bubble tops. Others went a bit further with real, working exotic engines and electronic gadgets no one could ever see on the street.

It was sometime in 1955 when I learned about Chrysler's experimentation with an incredible new engine that sounded like a jet and burned almost any kind of fuel one could imagine. My cousin had just gotten a brand new 1955 Plymouth (two-tone red & black) and we had been out for a ride on Detroit's Woodward Avenue. Suddenly a similar-looking '55 Plymouth suddenly whooshed by sounding like a jet aircraft. I shouted and pointed and begged my cousin to catch up to the other strange-sounding Plymouth, but no one else in the car paid much attention to me or the other car (to the adults in the car, I was just a kid in the back seat making noise). I later learned that the car I saw was an experimental gas turbine Plymouth (in fact, promo photos of the car- one of which is in SIA-  were taken not far from where I saw it).

A short time later, I went on one of those outings where doting grandparents take their grandchildren. But this time, it was by my request. My grandmother (a very elegant and sophisticated woman who at least appreciated high style and fine automobiles) took me  to  J.L.Hudson's Department store (yes, the same family that made the Hudson car) in downtown Detroit. It was a huge place, very classy in those days, rumored once to have been the largest department store in the world-  almost a city in its own right. Floor after floor was chock full of everything from perfumes and nail polishes to elegant clothing, from living room furniture to washing machines to toys and bicycles. For the most part, the main store took up an entire downtown city block. It was indeed, another world.

One could literally spend an entire day inside the huge store and never set foot outside since everything one could dream or ask for was all there in one magnificent place. But one of the most amazing parts of all was the eleventh floor showroom/auditorium. Here, the department store would hold gala productions, even small auto shows. In case you haven't already guessed, it was one of these shows that I had been begging to see.

The elevators in Hudson's had a wonderful aura about them. A white-gloved operator would usher you in with a smile. The heavy metal outer doors slid shut and the operator would close a sliding pair of  brass-colored, cage-like doors. As the operator settled back on a collapsible circular wood seat, the elevator would whoosh upward with a silky smoothness- all the time under the control of the smiling operator.

When we reached the eleventh floor, the doors slide open we stepped off into a dream car heaven. The illustrated ad in the newspaper promised several unusual cars would be on view. Among these were an early Detroit-built horseless carriage, Chrysler's new Plainsman dream car glistening in Palomino Beige lacquer (I also wrote a story about this car for SIA), and  one of the two GM Firebird II gas turbine cars! Sure enough, they were all there...and I walked around each car in wide-eyed wonder, babbling things to my grandmother which I am sure made no sense to her. But she was happy because I was happy.

The two experiences were ones I never forgot...in fact they led to a life-long fascination with the gas turbine powerplants and the cars that would carry them.

A few years later, I was riding in our new '63 Chevy Impala with my Dad on the John Lodge Expressway when a copper-colored dream on wheels whooshed by on our right and banked off on the Highland Park Expressway exit.  It was probably the very first Chrysler Ghia Turbine car on the road. By now, I knew exactly what that sound was. My Dad was something of a car nut and he took note. "What was that?"     "It's a gas turbine car, Dad" I said with confidence. My Dad had heard me babble about turbines before, so he knew the story. I had not heard much about this exact car, but I already knew it could only be Chrysler's new turbine. I promised myself right then and there...I WOULD be driving one of these cars someday.

As it turned out, my family was not one of those selected to drive the Chrysler Ghia Turbine during the survey program, but we did have neighbors who were luckier. I finally got my first chance behind the wheel when one of these neighbors was doing demo cruises in the area. I was in heaven again.

Fast forward to a few years later. I was now an automotive journalist and historian when I was asked by Special Interest-Autos magazine to write a piece on the Chrysler Gas Turbine program history. It was the first magazine history of the cars and it was the first to peel back the layers of the program and expose even the hidden cars and stories. For instance, in those days, car historians and collectors did not know the significance of the Jo-Han scale model and why it was painted white with blue racing stripes. After all, everyone KNEW CGT cars were only painted Turbine Bronze...right?  It was also the first article to reveal the proposed "Turbine Charger" program, complete with pics. Other articles and histories and second looks followed, but I am proud to say the SIA article remained a kind of standard reference piece on the subject. To this day, most histories that have followed still make the mistake of claiming only 50 CGT cars were built, when in fact this article reveals there were in fact 55 cars actually built.

As it turns out, I not only got to drive the CGT car, but at least TWO CGT cars on different occasions- and...another completely different car. After the SIA article appeared, Chrysler Corporation was so appreciative that they invited me back to Highland Park headquarters and gave me a full day to drive both an original CGT car and what was then the latest (and last) effort: a turbine Aspen sedan done for DOT. An enlightening experience and one that makes me one of a handful of people in the world to ever drive both of these cars. In addition, the engineers in George Huebner's staff gave me a boxed 1/25th scale model of the CGT car which I still have as one of my most cherished possessions.

As for me, I went on to a career in the automotive industry, just as I had dreamed as a boy. I'm still a MoPar nut, too, with a Dodge Challenger convertible and a Charger R/T 440-Six-Pack in my stable!

For the time being, it seems turbines may never materialize the way they were originally envisioned for cars. However, they are not dead yet. We may yet see them someday in some fashion, perhaps as turbine/generator component of a hybrid powered vehicle. Who knows? Some of the CGT cars thankfully were saved. The GM Firebirds were also saved. J.L.Hudson's main store was not so lucky and it is rumored to be undergoing the wrecking ball. Technology marches on... so does time.

I hope you enjoy reading the article. By the way, if you're a real turbine aficionado, you might want to scour the used book stores for a hardbound goody entitled "Bill Carroll's Automotive Gas Turbines". A fascinating book originally published in 1963 covering Ford, GM, Chrysler, Volvo, Rover and other gas turbine cars. Enjoy.

Leon Dixon
Lead Engineer, Mazda Corporation

 And now from the 1980 S.I.A. magazine -
Yesterday's Cars of The Future.
By: Leon Dixon

[Thanks to Mr. Dixon and Special Interest Autos magazine (now Hemmings Classic Cars) for letting me put this article here on the web.]

Click on images for larger view.

CHRYSLER'S turbine program began with an orange-red 1954 Plymouth built in the fall of 1953. The engine in this car was nothing less than a smash break- through. It incorporated a regenerator which took advantage of the hot exhaust gases much like a turbocharger or afterburner, resulting in reduced exhaust temperature-a big problem up till that time-and dramatically reduced fuel consumption compared to non-regenerative turbines. No other automaker had anything like it. GM, Ford, FIAT and Rover all had turbines by this time, but none had regeneration capability and thus drank fuel in unacceptable volume besides producing high exhaust heat. Chrysler had taken a quantum leap in automotive turbine development, and from the moment George Huebner started and drove that first Turbine Plymouth around the Highland Park engineering facility, there would be no overtaking the leader.

The next big Chrysler turbine news came in March 1956 when a slightly Improved version of the '54 engine was installed in a '56 Plymouth and driven cross-country from New York to Los Angeles. According to Chrysler's report on the event, an intake casting and faulty bearing In the car were replaced, but the engine itself performed "without failures of any kind" while averaging about 13 miles per gallon. This test resulted in a second- generation turbine engine, which was installed in a 1959 Plymouth four-door hardtop. The car was dubbed "Turbine Special." as were its predecessors. The outside appearance of the Turbine Specials was like standard production models with the exception of certain trim, hubcaps, special medallions and scripts. In December of 1958 this latest turbine car was driven from Detroit to New York, and Chrysler engineers claimed a marked improvement in fuel consumption. The second-generation turbine developed 200 horsepower- twice that of the first generation engines-and hp ratings on gas turbines actually reflect greater torque and power than similar number ratings of a piston engine.

During 1960-61 a third-generation Chrysler turbine engine was developed, and it became clear that the automaker was ready to pull out the stops all the way up to and including the production line. By early 1961 three vehicles were shown to the public with new third- generation engines installed. These were another four-door hardtop Plymouth (1960 model), an interesting 2 1/2-ton Dodge truck and the radically styled (some say bizarre) Turboflite idea car.

Of the three, the Turboflite grabbed the lion's share of press exposure and was shown at the major auto shows both In the United States and abroad. The Turboflite was a Motor Trend cover car for the August 1961 Issue and got dandy reviews from MT writers. Its radical features included a sleek wraparound windshield, which was incorporated into a transparent semi- bubble top with reverse slant rear window. Reverse slant backlights, as they are called In the industry, were popular at the time on '58-'60 Continentals and more so on later Mercurys. but were first seen on the Packard Balboa-X and Predictor show cars. The entire canopy rose automatically by hydraulics as doors were opened. and the interior was lit by a strangely pleasant greenish indirect lighting system a la early '70s Challenger/Barracuda dash. The taillight system incorporated amber caution lights, which glowed whenever the driver took his foot off the gas pedal. Front fenders left the wheels almost fully exposed, and this unusual design Incorporated "landing gear type retractable headlights. The very unusual tires on this car had two whitewalls-one on the sidewalls and one in the center of the tread!
 

Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird (see SIA #45) fans will no doubt note the similarity of the familiar wing which surely Inspired wing design on these cars. However the Turboflite design went one better by incorporating an airbrake flap for high-speed slowdowns. Unfortunately the Turboflite was never actually set up to drive. It was what industry people sometimes call a "pushmobile" -a car whose main purpose is to test public reaction while on display-show cars are very seldom driven even if they arenít pushmobiles. When its successful show career ended, the Turboflite gave up its turbine engine and was fed into the shredder.

As in past practice, a 1962 production body - this time a Dodge - appeared on the scene with modified trim and turbine motif. Dubbed the Turbo Dart, the car was driven from New York city to Los Angeles In four days in December 1961. Chrysler engineers claimed the turbine got consistently better mileage over a conventional piston engine car, which accompanied the T.D. in all sorts of weather. One of the big advances of the '62 Turbo Dart was its third generation turbine engine which incorporated a variable nozzle mechanism (think of the adjustable propeller blades on a turbo-prop - airplane-the ideas are similar in principle. The new engine-known to Chrysler folks as the CR2A - now had engine braking, better acceleration and improved fuel economy thanks to the nozzles.

The Turbo Dart was joined by a Plymouth called the Turbo Fury, similarly enveloped in a production body, and eventually the two were augmented by an additional Dodge and Plymouth. All four went on an extensive tour of the United States. The cars played to audiences in all the major cities, and some lucky dealers were actually able to display one of the four on their showroom floors.

By this time there was no turning back on Chrysler's turbine development, and both industry and press could see that it would simply be a matter of time before the turbine was actually rolling off an assembly line. Chrysler had no intentions of disappointing anyone on this point, and in early 1962 the company announced plans to build 50 to 75 turbine-powered cars, which would be loaned for brief periods to "typical motorists" whose names were to be selected by an accounting firm.

For many enthusiasts the announcement came as a fulfillment. Uniquely styled limited production turbines had been rumored for nearly ten years. Several publications had dealt with the idea, but the October 1956 issue of Car Life had some interesting renderings, which depicted proposed Chrysler turbine cars. One car was a handsome bubble-topped two-place coupe with a '59 Continentalesque rear end treatment. The design still looks exciting although a bit dated. Another car (the Ventura) was a very radical mid-engine job which looked somewhat akin to Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion cars (see SIA~#39) with the greenhouse moved forward to the nose. The mid-engine concept played another act in a Ghia body, as we shall see later. It was no wonder that by late 1962 rumors had run the gamut from doubters who said, "they'll never make it" to claims that the car would be sold outright with optional piston engines for $10,000 a pop!

During this time a fourth generation turbine engine was being readied for the mystery car, and George J. Huebner. Jr. Chrysler's Executive Engineer of Research received an award for his efforts in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. His was the first ASME award ever bestowed on an automotive engineer. As for the new engine, Huebner and crew did a remarkable job of redesigning and shaved 40 pounds off total engine weight to boot. The new power plant now sported twin regenerators and dual exhausts. Up to this point there had been some problems with delayed accelerator response (similar, but slightly more noticeable than in turbocharger lag). but this condition was brought under better control with the new design.

The engineering boys did a few more tricks in this first production turbine car. The power package was cradled in a cushioned quick-change unit, which also incorporated the transmission and front suspension. One pump served the engine. Transmission, power steering, etc. but no motor oil as such was used since transmission fluid performed all necessary lubrication functions. One very interesting point is that there was no torque converter in the three-speed gearbox. The function of the converter was taken over by the rotating blades of the engine itself. Remember that the gas turbine was not unlike one big torque converter in principle with hot compressed air (instead of fluid) turning the second set of vanes.

The much-discussed Corporate Turbine Car was introduced at a press showing in New York on May 14.1963. Although the car was given several names by early rumors, Chrysler simply referred to it as "The Chrysler Corporation Turbine Car"-period. We'll call it the Chrysler Ghia Turbine Car (CGT) hereafter for simple clarity. The Ghia part comes from the fact that the body of this revolutionary car was built in Italy by that firm. a practice not unusual for Chrysler (see SIA #30. #50. The turbine car was not only reality. It was also in limited production (if not for sale), in the hands of the public and on the streets in numerous locales and climates. It was a gutsy move.

In all, 203 selected drivers (20 of them women) got a chance to try their hand with a Chrysler Ghia Turbine Car for periods of about three months each. Each agreed to maintain the car's appearance and keep records for Chrysler. All service was to be performed by a special turbine service representative. At least two of the lucky families to get temporary custody of the turbine cars lived near this writer, so I simply asked for and got a dream ride in the dream car. The sensation, as I recall, was one not unlike a feeling of powered coasting with none of the customary engine vibrations. This all was enhanced by the jetlike sound of the exhaust. At the time it was said that Chrysler purposely left the exhaust wail a little louder than necessary to draw attention to the car, and auto show pamphlets alerted people to "...listen to it. The exciting new sound of the Chrysler Corporation Turbine Car."

The car's color was called "Turbine Bronze," but it had more of a metallic coppery tone and the black vinyl roof was the only major color contrast with the coppery color. Interior color was matched to the paint with very comfy thin-shell bucket seats upholstered in coppery leather and separated by a cylindrical turbine-motif console.

Three major gauge pods were clustered directly in front of the driver n no - nonsense fashion. These included: turbine inlet temp/amps/oil, speedo/odo/fuel, tachometer/clock. The full-length floor console housed the light switch, wiper switch, heater controls, rear defroster switch, emergency brake lever and clever designed gearshift with modified quadrant (Park-start. Idle. Drive. Low. Reverse). The CGT cars were equipped with the usual goodies like power windows, steering and brakes. Aside from the gauges and trans quadrant, there was little clue of the unique power plant hiding under the hood.

Bodies were certainly up to Ghia's standards with fit and finish superior to what one normally finds in production multiples-there were Italian influences such as an interior release catch for the trunk with no outside key access. Giovanni Savanutsi was Ghia's Chief Engineer and oversaw metalwork and body assembly and, though Elwood Engel styled the Ghia Turbine, there seems to be a general consensus among Chrysler people that perhaps Savanutsi may have had at least some influence on the car.

Interestingly enough, a mid-engine concept surfaced in the original Ghia body program (remember that during the CGT development Phil Hill and his beautiful mid-engine Ferrari sharknose racers were burning up the Grand Prix circuits). One Ghia Turbine was planned as a two-place roadster (see SIA #17) and would have been very similar to the car, which was actually built. The "Typhoon," as it would have been called, was never built except as a full-sized mock-up, but nevertheless it would have been a sensational car. One can only guess how it might have performed.

Speaking of performance, Chrysler has never been known as a carmaker content to sit back and ignore the subject, and even as the first five Ghia bodies (see sidebar. p. 21) were assembled, one was selected for use in Hollywood. The only car not painted Turbine Bronze was white with a big #5 and blue racing stripes. It starred along with James Darren, Pamela Tiffen and Doug McClure In an auto racing movie entitled "The Lively Set." The movie is what some Hollywood folks call a "semi- stinker," but few car enthusiasts would agree with that assessment. The scene-stealer for us Is that white Ghia Turbine car, and there are enough action scenes (including an actual loss of the hood at high speed) to make even Rex Reed sit up and notice. The Ghia Chrysler Turbine heats the tires off a Ghia 6.4, and there are several shots of Mickey Thompson driving a Chevy. It's well worth checking your late-night TV schedules to see the Turbine In action (and yes, it actually did all those stunts and chases with real turbine power-no faking here).

The white Turbine race car was also built in a 1/25-scale promotional friction drive model along with a standard bronze promotional. Both were made by Jo-Han Models, Inc., who also turned out an amazing kit of the turbine. This kit was nearly as incredible as the real car, with such details as folding seats, opening doors, hood, deck lid, steerable front wheels and more. Back at Chrysler, production on the CGT car went along at a rate of one car - per week, and the 50th car was completed in October 1964. Chrysler was all set to fry even bigger fish at this point.

Hundreds of stories came out of the project. George Huebner once made the statement that Chrysler Turbines would run on anything which could flow through a pipe and burn with air. That statement was put to the test - several times and passed on each occasion. Turbines ran on unleaded gasoline, diesel, kerosene, JP-4, alcohol, Chanel ~5 and yes, Jimmy, peanut oil! However, one of the most interesting fuels ever to run the turbine was also the center of an episode of equal interest. George Huebner picks up the story: "The first car of the 50-car program was barely ready when it was - pressed into service on a world tour by Chrysler International. The car reached Mexico, and I got a call from one of the International people who said that the president of Mexico wanted to operate the turbine on tequila! I said that I thought it would work fine, but just the same. I went to the purchasing department the next morning and got two gallons of tequila. We drained the tank on engineering's car and dumped the two gallons in. The car ran all over Highland Park with no trouble. Meanwhile the president of Mexico ran the car there on tequila, but was later quite upset when reporters failed to mention that he was driving. The turbine and tequila stole the show, you might say."

The Chrysler turbines had reached a - point where the information available suggested one direction: production. - Armed with data gathered in the 50-car program. Chrysler engineers developed a fifth generation engine and set about - planning for a new and larger program. Bill Brownlie of Chrysler Product Development recalls just how close we came to actually being able to buy - turbines: "Lynn Townsend called Elwood Engel, myself and others into a meeting during the time of the 50-car program and we discussed actually offering a new turbine car on a limited basis to what would have been virtually hand-picked customers as a test of public acceptance. In that meeting it was decided to build a limited number of special-bodied turbines-that body became the '66 Charger fastback."

Tom Golec, supervisor of car development recalls that low-volume tooling was ordered and approximately 500 Turbine Chargers were planned for the initial run. Mr. Golec points out that - a special no-slip clutch unit was developed for the '66 Turbine Charger, but was never used due to very high cost. Supposedly two '66 Turbine Chargers with the special clutch were built, but they were never shown to the - public. The Charger became a sporty Dodge with a conventional engine and slightly different trim (the Turbine job had a grille opening much like the 1970 Challenger)...the project was stillborn.

What killed the project? The mid- - sixties produced a variety of rumblings out of Washington. Insurance - companies clamped down on supercars, safety laws were written and smog laws took effect. Once the Clean Air Act - became reality. it specified control of NOX emissions and. according to - George Huebner, it was not known at that time if the turbine would meet future NOX requirements. The first direct result was to shelve the '66 Turbine Charger. The government was now in the car-making business and Chrysler was out of the turbine car business-at least on any mass scale. Regulations on conventional engines took on very high priorities, and though a sixth-generation engine was developed to meet NOX standards. Little was done with it-engineers were largely occupied with the emissions problems of piston engines.

Turbine work slowed as a result a sixth-generation engine did make it into a '66 Coronet but the public never saw it. Finally, interest was sparked again in 1972 when Chrysler won an E.P.A. contract and developed the present smaller and lighter seventh- generation engine.

What now stands between the turbine and production seems to be refinement and government regulations. Chrysler people are currently working on ceramics and various improvements such as electronic controls. As for regulations, who can say what is in store? One thing is certain, an engine which operates efficiently on a multiplicity of fuels, is not a luxurious whimsy--it's nearly a necessity, especially in light of present developments in the Middle East

Our thanks to George J. Huebner Jr., Ann Arbor, Mich.; Bill Brownlie, Diane Davis, Torn Golec, Tom Jakobowski, and Chuck Wagner of Chrysler Corp.. Detroit, Mich.: Richard Lanqworth. Coontoocook, NH: and Sam Shields.  Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

SIA magazine stopped publication a few years ago, classic/special interst cars collectors, please visit the Hemmings Motor News on line store.

Last updated 9/5/2006

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