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There Was a Time When Jet Engines in Cars Seemed Like a Good Idea

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author photo by Aaron Gold March 2017

You've probably heard the term "Jet Age," but you might not realize just how serious America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) was about jet engines. The jet engine really did revolutionize travel, turning the trip from New York to Paris from 15 hours of noise, vibration, exhaust flames, turbulence and engine failures into the smooth six-hour high-altitude jaunt we know today.

No surprise, then, that American industry adopted the optimistic view that the jet engine might be the answer to everything. They tried putting jet engines in locomotives (perhaps we'll talk about that another time) and cars.

Jet cars are most closely associated with Chrysler, where engineer George Huebner Jr., was a bit obsessed with the idea of gas-turbine-powered cars. Though many had their doubts that the jet would be a good automotive powerplant, Chrysler thought a turbine car engine would enjoy many of the same advantages over piston powered as a turbine airplane engine: Jet engines are much simpler, with one big spinning whirlygig as opposed to six or eight metal pistons flying up and down and changing direction up several thousand times every second. Jet engines also could (theoretically) run on a variety of fuels, everything from gasoline to peanut oil to perfume.

Chrysler built their first turbine-powered car in 1954 (a Plymouth Belvedere), but the most famous vehicles were the 1963-1964 Chrysler Turbine Cars. Chrysler built a fleet of 55, distributing them to over 200 members of the public for real-world testing. With their orange paint, Ghia-built bodies, and distinctive jet-themed styling, they really did look like the future on wheels.

The cars featured Chrysler's home-grown fourth-generation A831 turbine engine, which spun at 44,500 rpm and developed 130 horsepower to a conventional TorqueFlite automatic transmission. (Many think of jet engines as merely producing thrust, but in many applications -- including turboprop airplanes, helicopters and even today's turbofan engines -- work is accomplished by capturing the engine's mechanical power.) One oddity, at least by Chrysler standards: The Turbine Cars had coil springs up front instead of Chrysler's trademark torsion bars.

The Turbine Cars were remarkably trouble-free, but they did have plenty of drawbacks: Throttle response was slow (there was a roughly one-and-a-half second lag before the engine responded to the accelerator pedal) and fuel economy was terrible. The exhaust required a heat exchanger to avoid melting the asphalt. And while the engines could theoretically run on any flammable liquid, drivers were instructed to avoid gasoline, as the leaded fuel of the era left deposits that could damage the turbine blades.

The turbine fleet wound up driving well over a million miles with excellent reliability, but Chrysler elected to terminate the experiment. Most of the cars were unceremoniously crushed; nine were preserved, though all but three had their turbines deactivated. All nine survive today and five are operational. Two are in private hands (Frank Klepz and Jay Leno), and one is retained by Chrysler. (I've heard it run, and it's the coolest thing ever. Well, except for the exhaust.)

Even though the experiment ended, Chrysler didn't give up on turbine cars. Sixth-generation turbine engines went into a 1966 Dodge Coronet and a few 1973 mid-sizers, and a smaller seventh-generation turbine, backed by an Environmental Protection Agency grant, went into a 1977 Aspen. Chrysler was seriously considering another production run when the company hit the financial skids, and they decided to axe such experimental frivolities and concentrate on the front-wheel-drive K-car.

The interest in turbine cars has never entirely died out, and the popularity of hybrids could be a workaround for the turbine's nasty habit of using nearly as much fuel at idle as they do at full tilt. As recently as 2010, Jaguar showed the C-X75 concept car, which used two diesel-fueled "microturbines" to produce power for its four electric motors. My best guess is that the obsession with turbines will never die out -- but it's unlikely there's a jet-powered car in your immediate future.

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There Was a Time When Jet Engines in Cars Seemed Like a Good Idea - Autotrader