Chrysler’s Jet Set

The automaker’s Turbine was dubbed ‘the car of tomorrow.’ But it never got off the ground.

In what used to be known as the Big Three, there was never any question where Chrysler ranked — a distant third.

But by 1964, it looked as if Chrysler’s fortunes were about to change, and with them, the course of automotive history. By then, the automaker, which was leagues ahead of Ford and GM in the development of the turbine, had worked out many of the engine’s kinks. In late 1963, Chrysler kicked off a user program in which 203 select people were allowed to drive one of 50 fourth-generation prototypes, the bodies of which were made by Ghia, the Italian design company.

The free program (participants had to pay for fuel) was a resounding success. Drivers, who borrowed the car for three months, loved it, passersby gawked in awe, and Chrysler’s public-relations department cranked into high gear. It didn’t hurt that Chrysler engineer George Huebner, often dubbed the father of the turbine, had a P.T. Barnum-like flair for publicity. At the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, two prototypes caused a sensation as thousands lined up for a test drive.

The auto with the jet engine was called “the car of the future.” But it never officially got off the ground as a mass-produced vehicle. Several factors — including tough government-decreed emissions and mileage standards, the dominance of foreign oil, and Chrysler’s own financial woes —  conspired against the turbine in the ’70s. By 1978, Chrysler turned off the turbine’s ignition for good.

In his book Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), Grand Blanc resident Steve Lehto takes readers on a fascinating journey from the auto’s creation to its sad conclusion. The foreword is by Jay Leno, who owns one of the few remaining 1964 Ghias.

We sat down with Lehto (who’s also an attorney specializing in auto lemon law) in his Royal Oak office to chat about the turbine.

The turbine had a lot going for it over the piston engine. It was lighter, had no carburetor, never needed oil changes or tune-ups, and it could run on gasoline, diesel, kerosene, heating oil, vodka, peanut oil, or perfume. What were some of the disadvantages?

There was the issue of bad gas mileage in stop-and-go situations, because the turbine did much better on the highway. Also, when you step on the gas of a turbine engine, it takes a moment to spool up. That was the No. 1 complaint people had when they were given the car to drive for free, that it didn’t seem to have the same oomph. You have to remember that, compared to today’s cars, it wouldn’t have been as obvious. But in the mid-’60s, cars were insane; you could get a Dodge Dart with a hemi in it. The idea that you got in your car, stepped on the gas, and it launched like a rocket, was normal.

I loved the anecdote in the book about someone trying peanut oil for fuel to see if it worked. It did, and the exhaust smelled like cookies baking.

Yeah, I heard that from several people. One of the other stories I love was about the president of Mexico, who heard that the turbine ran on almost anything that burns. He said, ‘What about tequila?’ So, they called back to Highland Park [then Chrysler’s headquarters] and said, ‘Will it run on tequila?’ So the guys in Highland Park quickly put some tequila in the tank and said, ‘Yeah, it runs.’

That’s astounding to us today, that there were so many alternative fuels, but in the 1960s, gas was about a quarter a gallon.

I remember price wars on Woodward Avenue when it was 19 cents a gallon. Five gallons for a buck! I was going through some of the press releases from Chrysler at that time, and they’d say the space age is here, and this is the car of tomorrow, but the capability for multi fuels wasn’t even mentioned, or if it was, it was a footnote.

What was the mileage of the turbine?

It depended on how you were driving it. If you took it out on the freeway, you’d sometimes get 17 to 19 mpg. But if you were driving in stop-and-go traffic, you might as well have been pouring gasoline on the pavement. It was bad.

Why did Chrysler, in 1967, destroy almost the entire fleet of the 1964 prototypes?

It’s really in keeping with what GM, Ford, Chrysler, and all the car companies did with their prototypes — they destroyed them. That’s what happened to the EV1 electric cars. They’re all crushed and stacked up in a desert in Arizona. People say, ‘That’s insane.’ Well, it’s insane on one level, but if they hadn’t destroyed the cars, what would they have done with them? If you gave them to people, they couldn’t get parts. … Chrysler wanted people to remember them on the road, running well. They didn’t want to tarnish the image.

Nine survived. Of them, how many are in Detroit?

The Detroit Historical Museum has one, now on loan to Kalamazoo. The Henry Ford Museum has one, and Chrysler has two. One is at the headquarters in Auburn Hills, and the other is at their storage facility downtown.

Jay Leno, a big car buff, also owns one. He drove you around in it, then allowed you to take the wheel. Did it really sound like the whoosh of a jet?

The best way to describe it is, if you’re on the tarmac at Metro Airport, and you just landed or are getting ready to take off, the sound the turbines make is a lot of whining and whooshing — and that’s what the turbine car sounded like. It wasn’t uncomfortably loud, but it was different. If you were standing by the side of the road, and a turbine drove by, you would hear it. You might think it was a low-flying jet.

But the interior noise was minimal if the windows were rolled up.

That’s true. Jerry Wenk was a test driver at the Chelsea Proving Grounds and he spent several weeks driving the turbine, doing laps all day long. He said at 100 mph with the windows closed, you would think you were flying.

The book is really a story of what could have been.

It was a matter of timing. Look at the things that came together when they killed the program in ’78, the CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards, which were a result of the oil embargo; the tailpipe standards, which were a result of EPA; and Chrysler’s financial troubles, which were the cause of internal-management issues. Those things converged at a moment when, coincidentally, they had to make a decision: Do we mass-produce these cars, or not? And that’s what makes you wonder: What would have happened if they got the program started 10 years earlier? Or what if those problems came up 10 years later? Things would have been very, very different.

A lot of the problems that plagued us in the 1970s are still with us: high gas prices, cars with poor mileage, the dependency on foreign oil, and so on. Is it even realistic to hope that one of the auto companies might revive the turbine and give it another chance?

I don’t think they would give the turbine another chance in the same application, but there’s a better application for it, and that’s to create a turbine-electric hybrid.

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