The Chrysler Turbine Car is an automobile powered by a turbine engine
which was produced by Chrysler from 1962 to 1964. Its body was made by
the Italian design studio Ghia, and Chrysler completed its assembly in
Detroit. The Chrysler turbine engine program that produced the Turbine
Car began during the late 1930s, and created multiple prototypes that
successfully completed numerous long-distance trips in the 1950s and
The A-831 engines that powered the Ghia-designed Turbine Car could
operate on many different fuels, required less maintenance, and lasted
longer than conventional piston engines, although they were much more
expensive to produce. A total of 55 cars were built: five prototypes and
a limited run of 50 cars for a public user program. The car's design was
created by Elwood Engel and the Chrysler studios. A two-door hardtop
coupe, it featured power brakes, power steering, and a TorqueFlite
transmission, and was coated with a metallic, root beer-colored paint
known as "turbine bronze".
After testing, Chrysler conducted a user program from September 1964 to
January 1966 that involved 203 individual drivers in 133 different
cities across the United States cumulatively driving more than one
million miles (1.6 million km). The program helped the company determine
a variety of problems with the cars, notably with their complicated
starting procedure, relatively unimpressive acceleration, and sub-par
fuel economy and noise level. The experience also revealed key
advantages of the turbine engines, including their remarkable
durability, smooth operation, and relatively modest maintenance
After the conclusion of the user program in 1966, Chrysler reclaimed all
of the cars and destroyed all but nine of them; Chrysler kept two cars,
five are displayed at museums in the United States, and two are in
private collections. Chrysler's turbine engine program ultimately ended
in 1979, largely due to the failure of the engines to meet government
emissions regulations, relatively poor fuel economy, and as a
prerequisite of receiving a government loan in 1979.
Chrysler began researching turbine engines during the late 1930s,
initially for aviation applications and primarily led by executive
engineer George Huebner; Huebner was part of a group of engineers who
began exploring the idea of powering a car with a turbine after World
War II. Other members of the secretive Chrysler research team which
worked on automotive turbines included fellow engineers Bud Mann and Sam
B. Williams. The concept intrigued them, largely because turbine engines
have fewer moving parts than their piston-powered counterparts and can
run on a variety of fuels. According to historian Charles K. Hyde, by
the mid-1950s Chrysler "led the way in terms of gas turbine research"
(although General Motors and Rover also built operational turbine cars
after World War II).
After improving their turbine design, most notably by engineering a
regenerator to resolve an issue with heat exchange, the Chrysler team's
efforts reached early maturity when they mated a turbine to an
otherwise-stock 1954 Plymouth Belvedere. Heating and cooling and
emissions and exhaust were among the principal engineering challenges
which faced the turbine engine. Chrysler tested the Belvedere, claiming
that its turbine engine contained 20 percent fewer parts and weighed 200
pounds (91 kg) less than comparable, conventional piston engines. On
June 16, 1954, the company publicly unveiled the turbine-powered
Belvedere at its Chelsea Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, in front
of over 500 reporters.
Chrysler unveiled its next turbine car, a 1956 Plymouth, on March 23,
1956; Huebner drove it 3,020 miles (4,860 km) on a four-day trip from
New York City to Los Angeles. Although the car was shadowed by a
14-person convoy of mechanics with fuel and spare parts, it only
required two minor repairs on the trip (neither of which were
engine-related). The coast-to-coast journey's success led Chrysler to
double the size of its turbine program and move it from Highland Park,
Michigan, to a larger facility on Greenfield Road in Detroit.
The program began generating a number of patent applications in 1957,
due largely to the contributions of metallurgist Amedee Roy and engineer
Giovanni Savonuzzi. The next iteration of the Chrysler turbine engine
(the second-generation engine) was placed into a 1959 Plymouth, which
averaged 19.4 miles per US gallon (12.1 L/100 km; 23.3 mpg‑imp) on a
trip from Detroit to Woodbridge, New Jersey. This mileage was
substantially higher than the 13 mpg‑US (18 L/100 km; 16 mpg‑imp)
achieved with the first-generation turbine on the 1956 New York-to-Los
After Chrysler named former accountant Lynn Townsend its new president
in 1961, the company unveiled its next, third-generation turbine engine
on February 28; the CR2A was the first Chrysler turbine engine to be
officially named. Unlike its more-experimental predecessors, the CR2A
was designed with an eye on costs and production methods. While the
engine was under development in May 1960, Huebner said that it would
serve as its own torque converter, generate 140 horsepower (100 kW),
have an acceleration lag of 1.5 seconds (compared with nine seconds for
its predecessor), and weigh 450 lb (200 kg)—150 lb (68 kg) less than a
comparably sized piston engine.
Third-generation turbines were mated to a variety of vehicles, including
a 2.5-ton 1960 Dodge truck and the Chrysler Turboflite concept car.
Refined CR2A turbines were installed into a 1962 Dodge Dart and Plymouth
Fury; the Dart was driven from New York City to Los Angeles in December
1961, and the Fury completed a journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco
in January 1962. After Huebner arrived in Los Angeles with the Dart, he
spent two hours giving journalists rides in the turbine-powered car.
Chrysler had barnstormed its fleet of turbine cars to dealers across
North America, Europe and Mexico by February 1962, visiting 90 cities,
giving rides to almost 14,000 people, and being seen by millions more.
The third-generation turbine program ended at the 1962 Chicago Auto Show
that month, where the company displayed its turbine-powered fleet.
Shortly before the show Chrysler announced an upcoming fourth-generation
turbine engine it planned to install in a limited run of 50–75 cars
which would be loaned to the public at no cost in late 1963, a decision
largely due to enthusiastic public response to the barnstorming tour.
Exploded view of the A-831 turbine engine at the Walter P. Chrysler
The Chrysler Turbine Car is powered by the A-831, Chrysler's
fourth-generation turbine engine. The most notable difference from its
predecessor, the CR2A, was its use of twin regenerators (one mounted on
either side of the gasifier) instead of a single top cover-mounted heat
exchanger. This design helped the A-831 trim 40 pounds (18 kg) from the
CR2A's weight, reducing it to a relatively-light 410 pounds (190 kg).
Huebner described the turbine as similar to a jet engine, noting that it
had only one spark plug and about 80 percent fewer parts than a typical
automotive piston engine. Due to their construction, the engines did not
require antifreeze, a cooling system, a radiator, connecting rods, or
The A-831 could operate on diesel fuel, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, and
JP-4 jet fuel; leaded gasoline damaged it. According to Chrysler, it
could burn a variety of unusual fuels ranging from furnace oil and
perfume to peanut and soybean oils. Mexican president Adolfo López
Mateos ran one of the cars on tequila after Chrysler engineers confirmed
that it would do so.
The engine produced 130 brake horsepower (97 kW) at 36,000 revolutions
per minute (rpm), 425 pound-feet (576 Nm) of torque, and idled between
18,000 and 22,000 rpm. At idle, its exhaust did not exceed 180 °F (82
°C). When driven at 120 mph (190 km/h), the turbine ran at its maximum
of 60,000 rpm. The A-831's compressor had a pressure ratio of 4:1 and an
efficiency of 80 percent; its combustor operated at 95 percent
Compared to conventional piston engines, turbine engines generally
require less maintenance, last longer, and start more easily in cold
conditions; the A-831 started properly at temperatures as low as −20 °F
(−29 °C). The first car to receive an A-831 was a Plymouth Fury. In this
Ghia-built turbine car, the engine had a 0-to-60 mph (97 km/h) time of
about 12 seconds. Due to the exotic materials and strict tolerances
needed to build the engines and the investment casting method with which
they were made, the A-831s were very expensive to produce; Chrysler
never disclosed their actual cost.
The Turbine Car was designed in the Chrysler studios under the direction
of Elwood Engel, who had worked for the Ford Motor Company before moving
to Chrysler. Due to its resemblance to the Engel-designed Ford
Thunderbird, the car is occasionally called the "Englebird". According
to Huebner, the design was intended to compete with the Chevrolet
Corvette in addition to the Thunderbird.
The car's bodies were handmade by Italian design studio Ghia, which had
built a number of concept cars for Chrysler (including an Imperial
limousine and the Norseman). The mostly completed Turbine Car bodies,
which were assembled, painted, trimmed, and upholstered by Ghia in
Italy, were shipped to Chrysler's Greenfield Road turbine facility in
Detroit for final assembly; this consisted of installing the turbine
engines, TorqueFlite transmissions, electrical wiring, and components
such as radios and heaters. Building an individual car may have cost as
much as between $50,000 to $55,000 (equivalent to $434,000 in 2017);
Virgil Exner, Jr., estimates that the bodies themselves cost about
$20,000 (equivalent to $158,000 in 2017), although Chrysler never
revealed the cost of each turbine engine.
The first five cars were completed in early 1962 as prototypes used for
troubleshooting; each was slightly different from the others, varying in
exterior color, interior upholstery, and roof material. Early problems
discovered from the prototypes included sluggish acceleration
(attributed in part to the relatively heavy hand-built bodies) and
vibration, ultimately determined to be caused by the tire treads and
noticeable due to the unusual smoothness of the turbine engine.
A total of 50 identical Turbine Cars were built between October 1963 and
October 1964.They was all two-door hardtop coupes, with air-over-oil
power brakes and power steering. The cars had independent front
suspension with a coil spring at each front wheel, eschewing Chrysler's
contemporary-standard independent front longitudinal torsion bar system
(although their rear suspension utilized off-the-shelf leaf springs).
All four wheels were equipped with power-assisted drum brakes.
The Turbine Car interior
The car body is finished in a metallic, root beer-colored paint known as
"turbine bronze". Its headlights, deeply-recessed taillights, turn
signals, and pod-shaped backup lights are mounted in chrome bezels. The
turbine-inspired style carries through to the center console design of
the interior, which has bronze-colored leather upholstery, deep-pile
bronze carpet, and brushed aluminum accents. The cars have black vinyl
hardtop roofs, leather-upholstered bucket seats, and whitewall tires.
The Turbine Car's dashboard is dominated by three large gauges: a
speedometer, a tachometer, and pyrometer, the latter monitoring the
temperature of the turbine inlet (the engine's hottest component). Its
appearance is mostly stock, although the tachometer and pyrometer
display abnormally high readings compared to piston-engine cars: 46,000
rpm and 1,700 °F (930 °C), respectively. All 55 turbine cars had
identical ignition keys.
Two of the cars gave rides to visitors at the 1964 New York World's
Fair, and another went on a worldwide tour; 50 were lent to the general
public as part of a user program. The cars were given to drivers for a
three-month period at no charge, aside from fuel costs; participants
also gave Chrysler in-depth interviews within two weeks of returning
their cars. During the user program, which ran from September 1964 to
January 1966, the cars' operational downtime was reduced from four
percent early on to one percent by its conclusion.
The user program helped identify a variety of problems with the cars,
including starter malfunction at high altitudes, difficulty in mastering
the unusual eight-step starting procedure (which, for some users,
resulted in engine damage), and the cars' relatively unimpressive
acceleration. Nonetheless, the turbine engines were remarkably durable
in comparison to contemporary piston engines. The most-cited advantages
of the turbine engine, according to the participants' interviews, were
its smooth and vibration-free operation, reduced maintenance
requirements, and ease of starting in different conditions; the
most-common complaints concerned its slow acceleration, sub-par fuel
economy, and relatively high noise level. Investigating the latter
complaint, Chrysler found that the distinctive sound of the car's
turbine (reminiscent of a jet engine) was positively received by about
60 percent of those involved in the user program and disliked by about
20 percent of their fellow users.
The cars had conspicuous warning labels cautioning drivers to avoid
using leaded gasoline; although the turbine engine could run on it, the
lead additive left debilitating deposits in it. The only fuel which
Chrysler recommended not be used, it was by far the easiest to obtain
during the user program. Fuels commonly used by those participating in
the user program included diesel and home heating oil.
More than 1 million miles (1.6 million km) were accumulated in testing
by the 50 cars given to the public, which were driven by 203 users
before the program ended in January 1966. The users lived in 133 cities
in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.; 180 were male and 23
were female, their ages ranged from 21 to 70, and 60 percent were
In April 1966, product planning and development vice president Harry E.
Chesebrough noted that the 50 test cars would be taken off the road
regardless of whether the Chrysler Turbine Car went into production.
Chrysler destroyed 46 of the cars after it finished the user program and
other public displays. Forty-five of the cars were burned and crushed at
a scrap yard south of Detroit, and the other was destroyed at Chrysler's
Chelsea Proving Grounds. A widely circulated explanation was that the
cars were destroyed to avoid a substantial tariff on the imported Ghia
bodies, although author Steve Lehto claims that this has been "largely
discredited". The destruction of the cars was in line with the
automobile industry's practice of not selling non-production or
prototype cars to the public. According to Lehto, the decision was
influenced by Chrysler's public relations concerns: the potential
difficulty of keeping the cars running and fears that owners would
replace the turbine powerplants with piston engines. A Chrysler
executive was quoted in Look: "Our main objective is research, and we
did not want turbines turning up on used-car lots." A similar practice
was later used by General Motors with its EV1 when it terminated the
program and destroyed most of the cars in 2003.
Chrysler's development of turbine engines continued from the late 1960s
into the 1970s, resulting in the creation of fifth- and sixth-generation
engines. The turbines ultimately failed to meet government emissions
regulations and had relatively poor fuel economy, despite promising
early results and a $6.4 million contract from the Environmental
Protection Agency. According to Charles K. Hyde, the company's effort to
enlarge and diversify its turbine program was unsuccessful and spread
its "already-thin executive talent pool even thinner". An October 1967
Department of Commerce report concluded that the turbine engine was
"unsuited to automobiles". Development continued on automotive turbines,
in part because turbine exhaust contains fewer unburned hydrocarbons and
lower concentrations of other pollutants. In March 1971, the Williams
Research Corporation continued developing a turbine engine with funding
from the National Air Pollution Control Administration. Chrysler's
turbine engine development continued through the mid-1970s, however the
program, along with the seventh-generation engine, was discontinued in
1979 as a requirement of the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of
1979, as well as due to its inability to attain enough fuel economy. One
Chrysler Turbine Car appeared in the 1964 film The Lively Set, painted
white with blue racing stripes; it was the only Turbine Car not painted
Only nine Chrysler Turbine Cars have survived. Two are kept by Chrysler,
out of three initially retained by the company; five are on display at
museums around the United States, and two were acquired by private
collectors. Chrysler has displayed one of its cars at the Walter P.
Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The five cars on museum
display were donated to the Detroit Historical Museum, the Henry Ford
Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood,
Missouri, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, and the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 2005, the Detroit
Historical Museum lent its car, which had been in warehouse storage, to
the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. All the cars
donated to museums had their fan assemblies removed to render their
engines inoperable, although the car owned by the Museum of
Transportation was restored and returned to operating condition in the
1980s, allowing it to appear at car shows.
Two Chrysler Turbine Cars have been acquired by private collectors. One
is owned by Frank Kleptz of Fort Wayne, Indiana which was originally
donated to the former Harrah Collection in Reno, Nevada, before being
purchased by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan and sold to Kleptz. The
second is owned by comedian and television host Jay Leno who purchased
one of the three Turbine Cars originally retained by Chrysler in 2009.
Leno's car was featured in the BBC television show James May's Cars of
the People. Both privately owned Chrysler Turbine Cars are operational.
The Truth About Why Chrysler Destroyed The Turbine
By Paul Niedermeyer
The video showing the destruction of 46 of the 55 Chrysler Turbine Cars
we posted recently generated lots of heated discussion. The key issue
is, and has been for years, whether import tariffs played a material
role in Chrysler’s decision. There is a wealth of sites and reprinted
vintage articles dedicated to the TC, and the import duty conspiracy
theory reoccurs throughout them. Interestingly, Wikipedia, which is not
to be trusted in all things automotive, is the only source that throws
some doubt on that story: “The story at the time that this was done to
avoid an import tariff was incorrect .” Lacking that
citation, it was time to do some further sleuthing, and either join the
tariff theorists, or put a stake through it once and for all.
US import tariffs on cars average 2.5%, and numerous
searches did not find any evidence that they were significantly higher
in the 1960’s. Given the import boom during the fifties and sixties,
they were presumably the same, if not less. A substantial tariff of 10%
or more would have been punitive, and made imports significantly more
expensive than they actually were.
The second issue is the value of the bodies that Ghia
built for Chrysler. Various wild guesses have been thrown around ($250k
each), but it’s not that hard to come up with a credible estimate. Ghia
and the other Italian carrozzerias were almost solely in the business of
designing and building small batches of custom bodies. We have an
excellent comparison in the form of the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham that
was coach-built by Pininfarina for the 1957 to 1960model years. Reliable
estimates place the cost at $25k for each ’57-’58 model, and less for
the Italian built ’59-’60 models. These are for the complete final
vehicle. They were sold for about $14k; a loss-leading halo car that
Caddy could well afford back then. Pininfarina built and trimmed 200 of
the ultra-luxurious Broughams for Cadillac.
Coach-built bodies built in small batches were still
common in the sixties, and almost all of the Italian exotics used them.
Maseratis and the like with coach built bodies were selling for $15 –
$20k. It seems quite unlikely that the Ghia bodies cost Chrysler much
more than about $10 to $15k each, maybe $20k tops. The Ghia contract was
just for bodies, without any mechanicals, suspension, or running gear.
Assuming the high end $20k number and applying the 2.5%
rate results in a tariff of $500 per car. The total for 55 cars would
have been $23k. These are utterly insignificant amounts compared to the
millions Chrysler was spending on the turbine program. Was it cheaper
than $500 to have the cars destroyed? In 1963, undoubtedly. But it
certainly wasn’t the motivating factor.
Destroying the cars was the only realistic solution, for
a number of reasons. First of all, selling the cars to the public was
totally out of the question. Maintenance and support infrastructure
would have been nonexistent . It took a team of five specially trained
mechanics dedicated full-time to keep the brand-new Turbine Cars running
during the public trials. Not surprisingly, the bronze beauties were far
from trouble-free. Expensive materials to contain the initial (not
final) 500 degree exhaust and certain performance aspects unique to the
turbine (see below) were also considerations. The Turbine Cars had to be
fed kerosene or diesel, neither of which was all that convenient to buy.
Leaded gas left problematic deposits on the turbine blades.
In 1963, there certainly weren’t 55 car museums willing
and able to adopt and care for these cars. The nine that were saved and
allocated to museum seems about right for the times. Super-rich private
collectors like Jay Leno were not common in those days of high
incremental tax rates. The Turbine Car program had fulfilled its purpose
of gaining potential customer feedback, and it was time to wrap it up.
There were numerous functional challenges and limitations with the
Turbine Cars, of which sluggish throttle response was the biggest. This
is an inherent design limitation of turbines, as they need to spin up to
over 40,000 rpm to develop full power. The Turbine Car had a one and a
half second lag from first pressing the throttle. That could be
considered dangerous; it certainly would by today’s standards. Throttle
lag was noticeable at higher speeds too. Performance was reasonable,
about 12 seconds 0-60, but substantially less than if a 383 V8 were
under that sleek hood. One extended test produced an average fuel
economy of 11.5 mpg. Not terrible, but far from good. A comparably-quick
conventional car at the time would be expected to achieve about 15 mpg.
The turbine offers the potential for superb longevity,
but that depends on the extent to which exotic and expensive materials
are utilized. Chrysler’s own test found that its turbine had a lifespan
of “up to 175k miles”. Good for the times, but not really exceptional.
Chrysler’s own slant sixes would typically go that far or further.
The scope of this article is not to fully explore the
pros and cons of Chrysler’s turbines and their theoretical development
potential. Suffice it say, the changing climate on emissions and fuel
economy played their part in finally ending the turbine program during
the seventies. But the biggest single hurdle was cost. In Chrysler’s own
words: “the technology did not exist to produce turbine engines at a
price anywhere near competitive to conventional internal combustion
engines”. One thing is certain; having spent vast sums to build them, a
$500 tariff was not the reason they were destroyed.
Designer Elwood Engel
Body and chassis
Class Concept car
Body style 2-door coupe
Layout FR layout
Engine Chrysler A-831 gas turbine
Transmission 3-speed TorqueFlite
Wheelbase 110 in (2,794 mm)
Length 201.6 in (5,121 mm)
Width 72.9 in (1,852 mm)
Height 53.5 in (1,359 mm)
Curb weight 3,952 pounds (1,793 kg)