Whenever I talk to people about Chrysler's Turbine Cars, I'm often met with confusion when I mention that Chrysler built turbine-powered cars for more than two decades. While many people are familiar with the bronze ones that were tested in the early 1960s, Chrysler first launched a turbine powered car in 1953. The last car powered by a Chrysler turbine was rolled out in 1978. In those 25 years, Chrysler built seven different generations of turbine engines. It was an amazing experiment even if it did not result in a production turbine car.
It all began in the post World War Two era when engineers at Chrysler decided to see if they could shoehorn a turbine into a car. Squeezing everything under the hood of a car proved possible and a car was demonstrated for the press, powered by the First Generation turbine engine which put out 100 horsepower.
Working out some of the bugs in that engine, Chrysler made improvements for its Second Generation engine. That one put out 200 horsepower and was made using fewer exotic metals than the First Gen. The hope was that the engines could be made cheaply enough to put into mass-market passenger cars and common materials would have to be utilized to make that happen.
The Third Generation turbine was introduced in 1960. It was installed in a show car called the “Turboflite,” as well as into a truck and a Dodge Dart. While the engine only put out 140 HP, it was durable enough to be used in a car which was driven cross-country. Perhaps the highlight of the engine was the Variable Nozzle Mechanism which allowed for engine braking. Since the turbine engine was not directly connected to the transmission, a driver of a turbine car would not normally experience engine braking by simply stepping off the gas. The new turbine engine–and those that followed–had this mechanism to slow the car as if the car was powered by a piston engine with an automatic transmission.
In 1963, Chrysler launched the program where they lent 50 Turbine cars to the public–all powered by the Fourth Generation turbine engine. The Fourth was an advancement again, and its most obvious evolution was in its regenerators. It had two regenerator disks which recycled heat normally lost through the exhaust of the engine. In doing this, the Fourth was more efficient than its predecessors. Chrysler noted that the new engine was “more lively, lighter, compact, and quieter” than the other turbine engines.
After the fleet of bronze Turbine cars was returned to Chrysler, it was decided that the turbine engines needed to be more efficient. A Fifth Generation was built with larger regenerators which got better fuel economy but the plans to put the engines on the road in cars sold to the public fell through. Instead, Chrysler decided to upgrade the engines again.
The Sixth Generation turbine ran many of its accessories from its power turbine, to allow the engine to accelerate more quickly. Throttle lag had been a complaint from consumers with the Fourth Generation and this was seen as a partial solution to that problem. This engine put out 150 HP and was considered similar in performance to a typical V8 engine being used in other Chrysler products at the time. Turbine engineers were quick to point out that the Sixth Generation turbine was lighter than the V8 and could run on a variety of fuels, something the V8 could not do.
The final turbine engine built by Chrysler was the Seventh Generation. It was lighter than its predecessor, tipping the scales at only 500 pounds. It put out more than a hundred horsepower, but was more advanced in its design and construction. It used only one regenerator and that was made from ceramic and not metal. The engine housing was one-piece. It even had electronic controls, something none of the previous six generations had.
As we now know, turbine engines never came to rule the roads. There were advantages–it had fewer moving parts and could run on any flammable liquid–but the obstacles it had to overcome were too great. Still, it is noteworthy to see how much progress Chrysler made in this endeavor. In all, Chrysler built more than 70 cars which were powered by turbine engines. And those cars were powered by seven different generations of turbines.
Steve Lehto is a writer and from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include , and . He also has a where he talks about these things.