Despite dominating the auto industry for over 100 years, the standard Otto Cycle internal combustion engine is far from being the best-designed internal combustion engine. Otto Cycle engines are rather complex inside, create all sorts of toxic pollutants and — to top it off — aren’t terribly efficient devices.
Many other automotive engine designs have been proposed over the decades to address these issues, but most never saw the light of day. One of the wildest was Chrysler’s turbine engine.
Turbines Are Elegant
To most engineers, a turbine engine’s rotary smoothness is a far more elegant way to generate power than the 4-stroke Otto Cycle engine. The Otto Cycle engine has a rambunctious affair with heavy pistons and crankshafts banging up and down, generating all sorts of vibrations in the process.
Turbines are far more elegant and are just a bunch of fan blades spinning away vibration-free on a center shaft. Turbine ignition systems are also simple, only requiring one sparkplug. The best part, though, is they are so thermally efficient that cooling systems aren’t even needed!
Evaluating The Prototypes
Like many prototypes, the Chrysler turbine engine wasn’t a one-off prototype that sat in the lab. Chrysler went built over 60 of them and installed 55 into complete, ready-to-drive turbine cars so they test their new engine in real world settings. The prototype car bodies were hand-built by the Italian design house Carrozzeria Ghia and shipped to Detroit for installation of the turbine engines.
For the purposes of evaluation, 50 of the cars were made available for testing by 203 American families. Each family kept the car for three months and recorded impressions and details in logbooks. The service guys at Reedman-Toll Chrysler of Jenkintown, a local Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, Ram dealer in Jenkintown, PA, told us that Chrysler actually had an elite team of mechanics on call who would fly out and fix any of the cars if something went wrong.
Not Ready For Primetime
Although they performed quite well and were very easy on the eyes, Chrysler’s turbine car never went into full production. Cost was a major reason.
The turbine cars were made in miniscule numbers and couldn’t benefit from the economies of scale, resulting in a rather hefty price tag. In the early 60s, a car shopper could buy a nice V8-powered car for some $5000, while Chrysler’s turbine car cost around $16,000.
Why buy one turbine car if you can buy three V8-powered cars for the same price? That logic alone was the reason why Chrysler never moved forward with the project.
We Have Gone This Far…
Chrysler was the clear leader of the turbine car movement and, as such, continued to innovate the technology. The company never ended up building actual production models, but it did build seven different generations of turbine test engines and vehicles between 1949 and 1981.
Just when it seemed there was still some hope for turbine engines, the oil embargo of 1974 hit, resulting in a major shift in buyer preferences. All the sudden, the public abhorred cool turbines and big cars, preferring instead small, ultra-fuel-efficient cars. That was the last of Chrysler’s automotive turbine project.
However, at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, Jaguar unveiled the C-X75 Concept (pictured), a stunning twin-turbine-equipped, electrically powered, four-wheel-drive supercar that just goes to show that the turbine engine is not dead just yet.