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Monday, Dec. 27, 2010

Chrysler’s Quest for the Turbine Car

Steve Lehto examines Space Age technology that never caught on

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As a child in the ’60s, I knew that innovations and wonders abounded, and I had no doubt that at some point technology would ensure that cars would fly. While that dream never materialized, the next best thing did: a jet-turbine car that would use any ignitable fuel (which included perfume, diesel fuel, kerosene, heating fuel and even tequila) and had a fraction of the moving parts (i.e., no radiators or fan belts, and no need for an oil change), making it virtually maintenance-free.

Thus began the quest of Chrysler's George Huebner and his team of engineers to build a rocket-fueled automobile, employing a turbine jet engine instead of the traditional piston engine, which would allow for instant starting in any weather, including below-freezing temperatures. The journey is chronicled in Steve Lehto’s interesting if flawed book, Chrysler’s Turbine Car (Chicago Review Press).

Huebner was not bashful and often enlisted experts, including metallurgists, physical engineers and mechanics, from competing companies. While there were setbacks like explosions and the failure of molding materials, the group forged ahead and was rewarded with a prototype turbine engine. Testing was arduous, and more often than not the engineers learned valuable lessons by studying the failures. Eventually, a working prototype was developed and housed in the body of a Dodge Dart, a reliable muscle car. With the success of the prototypes, Huebner made a small fleet of Italian bodies with slick, aerodynamic frames. The vehicles excelled at the proving grounds and the time was right to put the futuristic cars on the road.

In a brilliant publicity stunt, Huebner received permission from Chrysler to hold a lottery that allowed members of the public to try out the new turbine cars for three months at no cost. With much hoopla, each participant picked up the car at a dealership. When the three-month trial was completed, a “debriefing” was conducted to see what the drivers liked, disliked and suggested. Most of the lucky participants praised the car in terms of design, function and overall satisfaction. When asked at the end of the trial whether they would purchase the turbine car for around $20,000 (about four times more than the price of a conventional gas piston model), most could not justify the cost.

For reasons not fully explained in the book, Chrysler all but abandoned the turbine project and destroyed most of the turbine fleet after the test marketing was finished. Only a few survived; today they reside in museums or private collections. Chrysler's Turbine Car comes to an unsatisfactory conclusion, giving little sense for why the project never went into production. After all, it could have changed the way people looked at driving.

Long paragraphs of trivia, minutiae and anecdotes set a slow pace and occasionally made Chrysler's Turbine Car difficult to follow. Despite the negatives, the story generally engaged, at times was inspired, and provided a unique peek at the vehicle that could have been the next best thing to a flying car.
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