Note: This post originally ran on Car Lust on August 12, 2008 and was, in fact, my very first post. This version is slightly edited from the original.
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.
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 the company had 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.
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 AllPar.com’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 AllPar.com except the engine which is from Motor Trend. For a lot more information on the Chrysler Turbine see TurbineCar.com for copies and transcriptions of some original documents and essays by some of the principals.
UPDATE: Forgot to add this recent video Jay Leno did on his Turbine.