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Book Review: Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation by Steve Lehto

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Steve Lehto’s Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation tells the history behind Chrysler’s almost successful attempt at putting a turbine engine in a car. Of the automakers, Chrysler came the closest to making a jet-propulsion car. They began designing their turbine car shortly after World War II, and worked on it for 25 years before economics and government policy forced them to cancel the project.

Chrysler actually made a working model. The turbine engine used any combustible material for fuel except leaded gasoline. It had fewer moving parts than a piston engine, and did not require an oil change.

Elwood Engel designed the car’s body, and Karmann Ghia built the body. Chrysler built and installed the engine. In all 55 units were constructed, mostly by hand. In 1963, fifty of the units were given to families across the United States for testing. The families used the cars for three months before passing them along to another family. Over two years, 203 families drove a jet-propelled car, an experience like no other.

In case you missed it, the turbine car ran on any combustible material except leaded gasoline. Chrysler did some test runs of the turbine car using perfume and tequila. It got about 20 miles per gallon, equivalent to other cars of its era.

The Ghia turbine model used the fourth-generation engine. “… it was a thing of engineering beauty. The turbine weighed a mere 410 pounds and delivered 130 brake horsepower. It also generated a startling 425 foot-pounds of torque, putting it in the same league as a Chrysler legendary Hemi.” This early version was a bit slow at the start, but once it warmed up it could go over a hundred miles per hour.

Looking at comments around the Internet, people appear to have a misconception of the car’s engine. It is not a piston engine. It is not a rotary style piston engine, and it is not a turbo charged piston engine. The engine is a turbine, like in a jet. Read Chrysler’s Turbine Car to get an understanding of how a turbine works.

The turbine differed from piston engines in many ways. The turbine didn’t have a distributor cap; it only used one spark plug. The rotor turned at about 45,000 revolutions-per-minute (rpms), and the engine ran at 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the high rpms and temperatures, the parts needed to be made from special alloys using unique and expensive manufacturing processes.

The cost of the materials and the specialized manufacturing processes provided one limiting factor in the mass production of the vehicle. Even though the public liked the concept, and the users enjoyed driving the car, Chrysler had too many obstacles to bring the turbine car to production. It would be interesting to see if new composite materials, and manufacturing processes could overcome the problems.

Other problems included economic as well as domestic and international politics. The complications proved too difficult for Chrysler to overcome. Lehto provides many chapters on the geopolitical economic analysis of the auto industry. Many of these factors apply to the current auto industry as well. Definitely read the book to gain an understanding of the complications involved with switching to alternative engine designs.

Lehto interviewed the experts, the engineers that designed the car, the mechanics, and the drivers. He talked to family members that drove and rode in the Ghia turbine car. He poured through piles of documents. The amount of research and use of primary resources for Chrysler’s Turbine Car is amazing. He has over twenty pages of notes, and an eight-page bibliography list. He has provided a well written book packed full of facts and figures to delight auto enthusiasts.

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About Bruce G. Smith

I'm a part time writer with a few articles published here and there. In addition to writing, I'm into nature and architectural photography.
  • locution1seattlepi

    I’ll NEVER forget the day I saw the Chrysler Turbine car. It was during one of my family’s annual pilgrimage’s to my maternal granny’s home in Marlinton, W.Va., which was like a trip back to the ’30s, it was that depressed and backwards. Then I heard this swoon, or high-pitched sort of a whine, but not ear-shattering, headed into the town center. I ran over to see what it was, and yes — it’s what I thought a Chrysler Turbine would sound like, based on the descriptions in Popular Science! Sure, it swiped some design from the ’61-’63 Thunderbirds via the roofline and in a way, the size and swagger. But it was so unique for a Chrysler. Since I couldn’t own one, at least I treasure the scale model I’ve got.

  • http://carpebiblio.blogspot.com Bruce Smith

    I hope, I get the opportunity some day to hear one. No matter how many times I read about the sound, I have a feeling words can not adequately describe it. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Mopar History Man

    While Steve Lehto “poured through piles of documents” and the “amount of research and use of primary resources”. . .”is amazing”, his book falls short of being comprehensive in scope because Al Bradshaw’s documents and paperwork were not utilized while the book was being written. Al Bradshaw compiled his materials while he was a regional coordinator during the 1963-66 user evaluation program. His documents provide a rare, behind the scenes look at what it took to keep the Chrysler Ghia Turbine cars operational around the country on a daily basis. This information would have greatly enhanced the reader’s understanding of the user evaluation program and the commitment required within Chrysler to make the program a success.