Whoosh! The Futuristic, Innovative Chrysler Turbine Car Turns Fifty
Fifty years ago today, a Chrysler Corporation rep handed over the keys of a brand, spanking new Chrysler Turbine Car to the first of 200 specially selected road testers. By the time the program concluded, an even 50 metallic bronze production Chrysler Turbine Cars had helped enlighten the minds of the American public to the exciting concept of alternative energy vehicles.
1963 was a momentous year, and not only for car-lovers. The popular Kennedy administration was entering its third and unexpectedly final year. Regular rocket launches from Cape Canaveral were sending men into space; the ultimate goal of which was, as famously stated by JFK, “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
On the road, Chevrolet's new, dramatically styled split-window Corvette Stingray was turning heads wherever it went. Ford had begun dropping V8 engines into its compact Falcons, a preview of the exciting Mustang that was to bring on the Pony Car revolution in '64.
Most surprising of all was Chrysler. Known for being the purveyor of staid and stodgy cars you could drive while wearing a hat, the Pentastar people were about to unleash one of the most revolutionary cars ever designed upon an unsuspecting public: the Chrysler Turbine Car.
One of the most interesting things about the Chrysler Turbine Car was the fact that unlike many other futuristic concept vehicles designed by the automakers then, this one was actually let loose onto public roads in a unique consumer-testing program.
A total of 50 cars (all having identically cut ignition keys, by the way) would eventually be driven by 203 selected drivers who were basically free to cruise whenever and wherever they wanted.
Chrysler covered any and all maintenance costs; the drivers were only asked to record and provide their impressions and functionality information. One of the cars was involved in a high-speed freeway race with a new 1964 Mercury that caused the destruction of the Chrysler's engine; no report on which car was leading the impromptu drag race at the time of the crash.
Chrysler had long been involved in gas turbine research and the engine installed in the Chrysler Turbine Car was the most advanced, reliable and practical product of the program. It spun at rotational speeds of up to 45,700 rpm and ran on gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, vegetable oil, tequila (provided by the President of Mexico) or any other combustible liquid without needing any modification. One wonders if the writers of the movie “Back to the Future II” were inspired by the Chrysler Turbine Car... they could have subbed one for the DeLorean and nobody would complain!
The car's space-age styled body was finished in glowing Frostfire Metallic paint (later renamed Turbine Bronze) set off by a black vinyl roof while the interior sported a quartet of “English calfskin” leather bucket seats in a 2 + 2 configuration. The finishing touch was a futuristic full length turbine-look center console that separated both pairs of seats.
While boldly innovative, visually distinctive and technologically advanced for the times, Chrysler's revolutionary Turbine Car never moved past the product testing stage. Perhaps the public just wasn't ready for it: though Chrysler should be lauded for testing the turbine car concept in real world driving situations, everything didn't always go smoothly.
Some of the problems noted by drivers included insufficient low-speed torque, overly hot exhaust at idle and the unfamiliar sound of the turbine engine itself. In an era when the throaty growl from a V8 internal combustion engine under the hood announced mucho macho horsepower ready and willing to be unleashed, the anemic wheezing of a humble vacuum cleaner was way uncool, man!
In the event, Chrysler wound up the program and ended up destroying 46 out of the original 55 cars (5 prototypes and 50 production cars including the vehicle above, painted in white & blue for the 1964 film The Lively Set) as per standard industry practice.
Celebrity comedian, talk show host and self-professed automotive aficionado Jay Leno, one of only 2 people lucky enough to own a working Chrysler Turbine Car, has something to say about that.
“Most were destroyed by Chrysler for tax and liability reasons, which is a shame, because to this day everyone who rides in a Turbine says, 'Whoa, this feels like the future!' You turn the key and there's a big woosh and a complete absence of vibration... I think it's the most collectible American car – it was so different.
Most of all, the Chrysler Turbine is a reminder that all the cool stuff used to be made in the U.S. I hope it will be again.” We hope so too, and for more info, sights and sounds of the innovative Chrysler Turbine Car please visit Jay Leno's Garage. (images via GT Planet, Dean's Garage, Chrysler 300 Club, Hemmings, and TurbineCar.com)