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Turbine vehicles


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Chrysler built a turbine car in the 60's that was 130 hp and 400 ft lbs of torque.  Why did that technology not catch on?

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Rover and Ford also had turbine programs. (Rover even designed a car, the P6, with a bizarre front suspension to make room for a turbine which was never used.) However for road use turbines turned out to be too expensive, too difficult to clean up to meet emissions standards, and had poor mileage. 

1950s Ford experimental turbine car:


1960s Ford concept turbine truck "Big Red":


1960s Rover P6 front suspension with horizontal springs designed around bulky turbine engine:


Because have you priced a turbine or what it takes to run one? 


Ford, GM, and Chrysler all had turbine programs at one point in the 60s.

Ford had Big Red as mentioned above, First seen at the 1964 World's Fair alongside the Mustang. At 13 feet tall and 96 feet long, it was no Australian land train, but it was certainly longer and heavier than most big rigs on the road today. To haul its massive double trailers around at a cruising speed of 70 mph, it had a 600-horsepower, 955 foot-pound turbine engine that Ford called the 705, hooked up to an Allison five-speed automatic transmission to drive the tandem axles. Originally the 705 turbine engine was designed with the idea it would be a good power plant for stuff like tanks and other military vehicles.  but it was later adapted for use in Big Red. That's really why Big Red got made in the first place actually, The public was almost completely unaware of the fact that the truck was just the PR-oriented side of the military project. But just because the truck was a PR push didn't mean it was any less well-designed and functional than if Ford intended to produce it for the masses. The impressive engineering wasn't just limited to the truck's turbine engine, it was one of the first semis to have an air suspension, and its suspended cab was also the first of its kind. Big Red was intended for long-distance cargo hauling, so the cab was designed around supporting a crew of two drivers. The 705 engine was also hooked up to a 280-gallon fuel tank to give it a range of 600 miles. To avoid driver fatigue and improve transit times, Big Red had a kitchen complete with just about everything. There was also an incinerator toilet. While one person was driving, the other could lounge around the interior, grab a nap, or even watch a TV that was only visible from the passenger's seat. Ford took Big Red on a tour of the country, visiting several major cities all throughout the country. Though Ford was outwardly optimistic about turbine trucks and continued to experiment with the idea into the 1970s, the automaker knew the Big Red project wasn't feasible for production due to the same cost and efficiency issues that doomed turbine vehicles as a whole, as the Clean Air Act of 1963 was the first federal legislation regarding air pollution control. It established a federal program  and authorized research into techniques for monitoring and controlling air pollution. In 1967, the Air Quality Act was enacted in order to expand federal government activities. As you can imagine turbine vehicles, while they got great highway milage got terrible city milage, were one of the first things to be phased out, especially when the clean air act of 1970 was introduced.

In 1966, The 1965 Turbo Titan III was a working rig that GM put on display at the World's Fair, and was GMs final entry into the turbine industry and was powered by the same GT-309 found in the Bison, another earlier concept made with intent of having a turbine big rig. Which meant 280 horsepower and a massive 875 lb-ft of torque. The GT-309 was the ninth and final iteration of GM's turbine engines and was their best attempt at making a turbine at least comparable to a diesel. The issue it needed to solve with turbines were mostly sorted out by this point, including engine braking, exhaust temperature, and intake noise. One vital problem still remained, however: fuel economy (As stated above with Big Red). GM's engineers got close. In fact, the SAE claimed the fuel economy of the Turbo Titan was equivalent to that of a diesel semi when cruising at 65 mph. However, they could never quite beat rolling coal when it came to most other speeds and conditions, which was a problem for almost all turbine vehicles. The two scoops on the side (which was also where the lights popped out) were directed towards the turbine motor and provided airflow. If you look at a picture of the interior you'll also notice the truck's Twist-Wrist-type steering featured in the image above. GM called it "Dial Steering" and it was a lot bigger than the smaller unit found in Ford's experimental vehicle. But it's nearly the same for all intents and purposes. Chevrolet never states the real reason as to why they preferred to use this type of steering for the Turbo Titan, however, I get the impression that it was just sort of a trendy thing to do at the time, especially in something as futuristic as a turbine truck concept. Though I doubt it would have ever caught on into mainstream vehicles, it was difficult to get a feel for it and felt rather strange.

Chrysler had its own version of a turbine engine as a series engines intended to be used in road vehicles. In 1954, Chrysler disclosed the development and successful road testing of a production model Plymouth sport coupe which was powered by a turbine engine. It had challenges like fuel consumption had to be in the same range as standard ICE components, needed to be reduced in size and increased in efficiency, noise had to be reduced, acceleration time lag needed to be reduced to be introduced into the overall function. Additionally, new high-temperature materials needed to be developed, yet be inexpensive enough to keep the vehicle cost the equivalent of other vehicles of the time (Which would be the downfall of the program in the future.) In 1956, the first successful cross-country trip using a turbine-engined car took place, and was a massive PR move for the company and it's turbine program. The 2nd and 3rd generation turbine motors were tested in several different cars trough the years 1957 to 1962 and had some improvements, but 1963 was when things took a big turn for the program. That year, the official Chrysler Turbine Car was introduced from 1963 to 1964. The bodywork was constructed by Italian design studio Carrozeria Ghia, and Chrysler completed the final assembly. A total of 55 cars were manufactured, five prototypes and a 50 cars for a public user program. The car was designed by Elwood Engel and Chrysler featured the cars with power brakes, power steering, and the Torqueflight 3 speed transmission. It featured a metallic, bronze-colored paint called "turbine bronze". The user program from October 1963 to January 1966 that involved 203 individual drivers in 133 different cities across the United States cumulatively driving more than one million miles. The program helped the company determine a variety of problems with the cars, notably with their complicated starting procedure (People were used to pressing the gas pedal down in their cars to start them, but doing this with the turbine motor would completely flood it and required you to reset the system by flipping a switch in the engine bay.), relatively unimpressive acceleration (plenty of torque, not enough horsepower), and sub-par fuel economy and noise level. The experience also revealed key advantages of the turbine engines, including their remarkable durability, smooth operation (You could balance a nickel on the top of the motor), and relatively modest maintenance requirements (1/5th of the moving parts of a basic ICE of the time, could take almost any combustible fluid as well). After the user program ended in 1966, Chrysler reclaimed the cars and destroyed all but nine, reasons being the import tax on the car bodies, and the price of 1 billion dollars for a ware house and production line of the turbine engines (in 1964 money!). Chrysler kept two cars, five are displayed at museums in the United States, and two are in private collections. 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. Chrysler's turbine engine development continued through the mid-1970s, with later compact versions of the engines being installed in the Dodge Aspen. But in 1979, Chrysler had finished developing a turbine-powered New Yorker it planned to release in 1981. But this time it wasn’t a test or a pilot program, it was the real deal. The firm envisioned a car buyers could conveniently purchase from their nearest dealership, one that returned about 22 miles per gallon according to America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the next step was figuring out tooling. But that same year, Chrysler found itself waist-deep in financial issues. It received loans from the American government in a bid to stay afloat. And one of the conditions was that it had to stop its turbine program, which many argued was nothing more than a money-sucking vortex that would never bring profits. But we'll never know that for sure now, will we?

I honestly believe that with enough time and research, we all could've been driving turbine cars by now, or at least for a while. If I could own or drive any car in the world, it would in fact be a 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car, just because of how amazing and cool I think they are, and I'm sure with enough tooling, they could've been had better acceleration too. I know not everyone might agree with me on that, but i'd like to think the turbine cars were the closest we ever got to the Jetson's cartoon of the 1960s.