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1963 Chrysler Turbine

As odd as it may sound, the Chrysler Turbine was not just a concept car but a limited-production model; 50 were actually produced and placed with Chrysler customers for real-world testing. Consequently, this was closer to actual production than your average concept car.63turbinf

The idea of using a turbine engine in automobiles has been around for a while and the concept continues to be batted around and appears every few years in popular technology magazines. A turbine engine works by first compressing air, heating it up either directly or indirectly by burning fuel, and using the expanding air in a turbine which results in work which is used to both further compress incoming air and also provide either rotational energy or thrust, depending on the application. Regular aircraft engines are too large and emit too much heat to simply be placed in a car, so Chrysler's research focused on reducing the size of the engine and developing a regenerator to recycle hot exhaust gas back into the combustion chamber--thus increasing gas mileage and reducing the output temperature of the exhaust gases.

In fact, turbine engines have several advantages over internal combustion engines: They have far fewer moving parts which reduces maintenance and increases use-life; they can operate on a wide variety of fuels (including, legend has it, tequila); have much less vibration; cold-starts are not an issue; and are much more compact, light-weight, and efficient. Not to mention they produce massive amounts of torque for their size. Disadvantages? We'll get to those.

Chrysler had some experience with turbine engines due to some work done for the U.S. Navy on aircraft engines during the late 1940s, and the company continued working on an automobile version throughout the 1950s. After experimenting with several generations of engine designs and installing them in various Chrysler cars and trucks--including doing some coast-to-coast trips to test reliability and performance--in 1962 Chrysler announced that it would produce 50-75 turbine-engined cars for consumer testing. The first was delivered in October of 1963. Each user was to drive the car normally for three months, after which the car was sent to another user for 3 months for a total of 203 individual tests.

In all, 50 were produced, plus 3 prototypes. The body of the cars were designed by Chrysler and built by Ghia of Italy. They were 2-door coupes with four bucket seats (front and rear), power everything, and numerous styling cues representing its unique power plant. My favorites are the backup lights styled to look like exhaust nozzles.63turbinb

The engine used in these cars was the fourth generation turbine, the A831. A few numbers:

-- 130 bhp at 3,600 rpm
-- 425 (!) lb-ft of torque at zero output shaft speed
-- Fuel requirements: diesel, jet fuel, vegetable oil, kerosene, the aforementioned tequila, etc.
-- Mileage tended to range in the low 20s for gasoline

Here is's description of how to operate it:

"To start it, place the transmission shift lever in the "Idle" location and push down to engage the "Park/Start" position. Turn the ignition key to the right and release it. Starting is automatic. Within a few seconds, the inlet temperature and tachometer gauges on the instrument panel will read about 1700 F and 18,000 rpm, respectively, indicating that the engine is started."

How cool would that be every morning?

So why have turbine engines never gone into production? Several reasons. Despite their overall simplicity, they operate at higher temperatures and tighter tolerances than normal engines and thus require specialized manufacturing and materials. And, despite their reliability, when they do fail it is often catastrophic. They are also generally noisier than standard engines, requiring fairly sophisticated noise suppression systems. There is also the problem of lag time between pressing the accelerator and the engine spooling up. Perhaps the biggest drawback is in fuel economy. Even though the engine itself is relatively efficient, it operates at a high rpm even while at idle. As a result, turbines will probably remain limited to their role in naval and large vehicle (and aeronautic) applications.

Photos courtesy of For a lot more information on the Chrysler Turbine see for copies and transcriptions of some original documents and essays by some of the principals.

--Anthony Cagle


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Anthony - thank you. This was a great and timely article. On the heals of my ranting yesterday and this morning about risk taking (lotus etc...) and a time when that was part of automotive design, I think you have captured an exemplar of precisely what I was talking about.

There was a time when designs were conceived, checked, built, prototyped and physically tested - and sometimes failed. This was a time before computer simulations that have almost insured success, sometimes at the expense of brilliant creative endeavors and wonderful failures. Chrysler, not a small maker, designs these turbine powered cars, builds them in limited production, and lets people drive them. This would be an unimaginable risk today - it just would not happen. But in the 60s and 70s there was a can-do spirit and sense of pioneering risk taking. I love it, and this is so lacking in the majority of contemporary design. Today a minor stylistic difference is "taking a risk" - so feeble.

It's probably a good thing we have more success and reliability than we did back then. But honestly I feel like that is sometimes over rated. And set as too high a priority.

This car is completely cool. From the turbine power plant, to the crazy Italian styling. It is nutty, brilliant, and wonderful. It represents the willingness of the engineer and the designer to experiment and try something different with out any certainty of success.

This is great. Thanks. Oh and here is a link to a video of the 6 wheel Tyrrell P34. Another example of calculated risk taking.

With the Tyrrell and the Turbine powered Chrysler you can pretty easily imagine the conversation amongst the engineers and designers. It had to include "Yeah I know, it sounds crazy, but I think we can make it work."

My dad remembered seeing a few in action, back in the day. He said it was weird, because much like a mirage in the desert, you could see the heat waves coming out of the rear of the vehicles.

Man. Sure would be cool to own one. :)

It's a shame Chrysler had to stop testing when they nearly went bankrupt from the whole Aspen/Volare debacle.

What's funny is how much innovation there was in just the basic powerplant at the time, between turbines, rotary engines, Honda's CVCC, and so on. Nowadays, we still get those innovations, but they seem to be much more incremental (or at least implemented in incremental phases) than they used to be.

The part I like is when engines can explode at any moment sending fragments of turbine rotors in all directions ;)

1700-degree exhaust? On a snowy day, you can clear the driveway just by backing out of the garage slowly!

I am still waiting for a laser to "motivate" drivers that insist on driving slow in the fast lane.

@J-Dog - What I want is a button accessible from the steering column that activates the brake lights without actually engaging the brakes. This would be used to warn off tailgaters and possibly make them pee their pants. That would learn 'em.

I remember seeing the one they have at the Petersen Museum and thinking that driving one must have been really strange. It's a great story, though, and the styling is just too cool.

I have a vague memory of seeing one of those at the '64 Worlds Fair, and definitely recall having a 1/25 scale model from either JoHan or AMT. It broke my teenage heart to learn that Chrysler had to crush them at the end of the project.

In 1963, while in elementary school, one of my buddies Mom picked us up one day in this car as a surprise. I was in heavan and thought how cool is this? As the precocious 8 year old that I was, I came home to my folks and said we have to get one! Needless to say, we did not. I will always remember this car fondly and still stop to look at the one at Petersen Museum.

re: brake lights

I want some sort of brakelight put on the front of a car, so you can see when a car is braking while trying to enter a street.
I also want brake lights to be "touch" sensitive, i.e., that the harder someone is braking, the brighter (or more) the lights.

Panic braking should look different from the rear than a slow brake (although there are often other cues, like the raising of the rear bumper in a strong brake maneuver).

Friends, I drove this vehicle in 1964 in Madison, Wisconsin.
A neighbor took advantage of Chrysler’s loan program for consumer evaluation.
While interesting, I discovered it required some serious changes in my normal driving skills.
The long engine spool made for slow acceleration, even as compared to my 1964 VW Bug.
In order to overcome this slow acceleration, I discovered three things.
First, I had to “drive ahead’ of my actual position because only the brakes worked immediately.
Second, in order to accelerate ahead, I stepped on both the gas and brake pedals at the same time. This allowed the engine to gain RPM's as I controlled the speed with the brakes.
When I reached the place I needed quick acceleration, I just took my foot off of the brake.
The acceleration changed from that of a slow VW to a racing Porsche.
Third, when I hit the brake in order to accelerate ahead, the brake lights caused the person behind me to think I would slow, not scoot! My sudden acceleration would be followed by car horns and finger gestures.
Great fun, but not ready for everyday use.

Has anyone noticed how similar the silhouetete of the turbine is to the '61 - '63 T-Birds (bullet birds)?

Nathan made some brakelight suggestions that reminded me of the circuit I added to a Honda Goldwing. Each application of the brakes caused the lights to flash (I think 3x/sec) for a couple of seconds before coming on full. It was a real attention-getter.

Apropos the Turbine, pretty cool that we've had comments from both a passenger and a driver! I remember reading about turbo lag when these cars were on the cover of all the mags but didn't realize it was that dramatic an issue.

A few things on this car:
- Turbine or no, this car's styling is *just right*. Slick, snazzy, and extremely techno-cool, I'd drive this car with a barely running Slant 6 under the hood. Actually, this isn't really news - I've driven a much uglier car with a barely running Slant 6 under the hood. (

- Loading the trunk would be a little odd, admittedly.

- I'll bet these things sounded great.

- A decade or so, I discussed this car with a friend of mine who was about to go off to be an astronautical engineer for the Air Force. He is, literally, a rocket scientist and the smartest person I know. His take at the time was that while a turbine-powered car sounded interesting, instead of using the turbine to directly drive the wheels, he'd instead use it to generate electricity to power electric motors at each wheel. I'm not sure if that would in fact be better, but the instant torque provided by electric motors would certainly solve the response problem.

- Why don't rear-wheel skirts look good on today's cars? The last mass-produced skirts I remember are the half-hearted ones on the last full-size Caprices in the early 1990s. The Turbine looks fantastic with them.

- What a tragedy that these had to be crushed.

- The flexibility in fuels is really neat, though I can think of better uses of high-quality tequila ...

David, I assumed you owned one of these things, I'm shocked that you didn't.

FYI I believe the 89 Batmobile was actually turbine powered in real life - or there was some kind of prototype built that was. David, if you did not own the Chrysler, you must have owned the Batmobile!

Other interesting turbine cars:

the only successful racer - the Howmet TX

There was a Rover Jet and an Indi Car - but the Chrysler seems to be the only production car. And apparently Toyota played around with the turbine also.

The efficiency and power of the turbine makes one think about alternative approaches to its automotive use. The lag issues are a problem. But only for a car that uses a turbine for a direct drive application. Imagine the possibilities of a small turbine linked to a CVT transmission and then tossed into a Subaru Justy.

A turbine is extremely efficient but sizing is an issue related to its fuel consumption.

So think of a "hybrid". A turbine engine burns very clean on almost any fuel. Alcohol for instance - an easily renewable and tasty resource. Turbines are often used in real world applications to generate electrical power. If a small Turbine is used to generate electricity to power a vehicle and charge batteries then you could have a nice little car that runs efficiently on renewable fuels based on yard waste and Jack Daniels. Now you have something that is way better than a Prius and you have an electric car that does not have the mileage limitations of existing electrics or batteries. Any one for cocktails?

You know, while researching this post I came across some discussion about using a turbine in a modern hybrid to recharge batteries. I believe that making one small enough to not eat more fuel than a regular engine would end up. . .well, here's the quote from AllPar:

"In talks about making cars cleaner and more fuel efficient with engineers here, I've asked whether a small turbine, turning at a constant rate, wouldn't be an ideal way to power the generator of an electric motor-driven car. Alas, the noise, high rpm and heat are still expensive problems, and turbines small enough to serve such a purpose are prohibitively expensive compared to existing alternatives, such as small diesels."

So, eh. I tend to think they're just not suited for an automobile application. Tanks, sure, grocery-getters, probably not.

I also read somewhere that the '89 Batmobile (or one version of it anyway) did have a turbine, but they could only get it to work for about 15 seconds.

I saw the styling and immediately thought "Thunderbird" as well. I love the look although the front end looks a little choppy. It just looks flat and uninteresting compared to the rest of the car.

interesting - I think these guys may not be talking to the right people. There are miniature turbine engines used in Radio Control (RC) model airplanes. They are not cheap but not ungodly expensive either. And from what I understand they work rather nicely.

Here are some videos of RC planes with Turbine Jet engines:

on the ground testing:

Flying AND Hovering:

In a mini-Peterbilt RC Modeltruck:

Aside from the noise, smoke, and flames, seems like it should work;)
I'm guessing that those things could be mitigated with a proper exhaust.

That's funny, I was just researching this topic last night. Apparently there's an amateur hobbyist community that likes to take automotive turbo chargers and turn them into mini turbines! You can use them to generate work, electricity, and heat at the same time, which is pretty cool. I was trying to design an all-purpose generator for a remote application. Anyway, beautiful car, reminds me of a Tempest meets a Thunderbird. Wonder what the top speed was?

Steaming Pile
I want a switch to turn off the brake lights when I brake, so they really pee their pants.
The trick would be to accelerate right after braking, to avoid contact.

I wrote a report on this car when I was in high school. It sounded as cool then as it does now, but it died because of the cost of the making high temperature alloys required. It might be more feasible today, but with the emphasis on eliminating fossil fuels or increasing mileage would it be a productive line of research?

Next up we want a report on the 1906 Stanley Steamers.

For those who are interested, there is one on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Another turbine powered vehicle from the same era (also experimental) was a Ford Semi truck. The turbine lends itself more to a steady speed application like a long distance truck. Never made it into production though. Actually the biggest problem for a gas turbine even with heat exchangers is the exhaust temperature.

The first time I heard about one of these and heard about the acceleration lag issue, I wondered why nobody ever hooked a generator up to it, and stuck it into an electric car. Nowadays, we call this a "Hybrid Design" and the Chevy Volt is very similar in concept (THEY STOLE MY IDEA! BASTARDS!) but the advantage of a turbine in such a platform would be that it could run on anything, would have massive torque and high RPMs (which would be beneficial for electrical generation), it would only need to run incrementally (so the crappy MPGs would be less of a problem) and the lag time thing wouldn't be an issue. Other than in that capacity, turbines in stop and go vehicles don't make a lot of sense due to acceleration lag, noise, expense to produce, and the ever present, albeit minimum, risk of catastrophic failure.

I remember seeing this car in St Paul Mn in the 60s. The heat was a big deal and you really could see the heat waves. What I remember most though was the odd turbine noise that the car made. Very erie. It seemed that the acceleration was lacking as the car I saw plodded away from stop signs.

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