Allow Me to Explain the Chrysler Turbine
Every car has its oddities, but some make us scratch our heads and think, “What in the world happened here?” It doesn’t get much more bizarre than something that rolled out of the Chrysler plant in 1963, though.
I can only imagine what the conversation preceding this car sounded like.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the board, I’m sure you’re aware that airplanes are starting to use jet engines instead of radial engines and propellers.”
“Well, what about us? Should we start making family cars with jet engines?”
“I don’t see how that could go wrong. Give it a shot, sport.”
I might be taking artistic liberties with the details, but Chrysler did indeed build a coupe with a jet engine in place of the era’s slant six and various V8s.
The idea of producing a road-going jet car sounds unconventional (and, frankly, a little wheels-off) today, but remember what was going on around that time. The Soviet Union had been sending radios, dogs, and people into space for years. American kids were waking up to watch the Jetsons, eat a new kind of cereal called Cap’n Crunch, and dream about the future. This car hit the road only a year after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in space. That’s the same John Glenn who flew combat missions in a propeller-driven, air-cooled F4U Corsair. After witnessing technological leaps of that magnitude, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched for cars to have a similar trajectory.
In the late 1950s, American automakers teased the public’s imagination with design cues that alluded to new technology. If the war years prior were characterized by swooping arches and rounded rooflines, the ’50s were all about tailfins fit for the newly-created Air Force, bumper components shaped like rockets, and taillights that conjured up visions of fighter jets belching flame from their exhaust. Chrysler must have seen this trend and decided it was time to walk the walk.
The heart of this incredible car was the gasoline turbine engine nestled under the hood. The physical size of this behemoth was something to behold, but all the magic happened inside a simple metal case. Surprisingly, all that technology yielded a meager 130 horsepower. Honda S2000 owners take pride in their car’s 8,000-plus-RPM redline, but the legendary roadster will never be the outright king of revs. No, I’m comfortable saying that the Chrysler Turbine cemented its status with a redline of 44,600 RPM. Torque was another story altogether. While peak horsepower was unimpressive and took stratospheric engine speeds to achieve, peak torque was rated at 425 pound-feet and drivers could help themselves to it at any engine speed. I believe that is what Rolls-Royce would consider “sufficient,” ladies and gentlemen.
I assumed that one of the car’s drawbacks was the relative difficulty in sourcing jet fuel. Surprisingly, Chrysler’s jet car would burn just about anything. There are accounts of cars successfully running on not only jet fuel, but gasoline, diesel, tequila, and Chanel No. 5 perfume. Having a boozy, floral-scented fuel blend is definitely not cost-effective, but it is quite a conversation piece.
I also imagined that owning a jet car would make an E60 BMW M5 seem as reliable as a hammer. Again, that’s not the case. Chrysler’s turbine engine had just one spark plug and didn’t even require an oil change. Pair that with the fact that it would happily burn any flammable liquid, and you’re looking at a car that’s surprisingly low-maintenance, even by modern standards.
Chrysler selected 203 lucky people to receive a Turbine for three months. Those people would keep notes of their ownership experience and serve as brand ambassadors to the public. Reviews were positive, and some test families were disheartened when the project was scrapped.
Sadly, there is more to the automotive industry than building things that are awesome. Chrysler and its sub-brands had existing factories, tooling, and know-how lined up behind piston engines. Their engineers understood conventional power plants, and so did their customers. Even though the jet car was superior to the rest of their lineup in some ways–and equal in many others–that wasn’t a strong enough incentive to make such a transformational shift. Maybe it’s just as well. The gas crisis was not far behind Chrysler’s jet car program and, no matter how many types of fuel the car could burn, an idle speed of more than 20,000 RPM meant that whichever fuel was chosen needed to be constantly sprayed into the engine at an alarming rate.
For all Chrysler’s creativity and problem-solving, their Turbine wouldn’t survive long enough to see mass-production. It ended up being an engineering exercise and a glimpse at what might have been. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a production jet car, so the handful of remaining test Turbines are as close as we’ll get. Cheers to the survivors, and cheers to the people who dreamed big enough to build them.
Cheetham, Craig, general editor. “Chrysler Turbine.” The World's Greatest Cars, Amber Books Ltd, 2007, pp. 136–137.
Tate, Robert. “A Brief History of the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car.” Motor Cities, 20 May 2020, motorcities.org/story-of-the-week/2020/a-brief-history-of-the-1963-chrysler-turbine-car.
Garber, Steve and Launius, Roger, authors. “A Brief History of NASA.” NASA, July 25, 2005. https://history.nasa.gov/factsheet.htm.
Dunbar, Brian, page editor. “Profile of John Glenn.” NASA, August 3, 2017, https://www.nasa.gov/content/profile-of-john-glenn.
Leno, J. [Jay Leno’s Garage]. (1012, November 7). 1963 Chrysler Turbine: Ultimate Edition
[Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2A5ijU3Ivs
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Fort Worth, Texas. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.