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Detroit investigated turbine technology for cars well beyond the Sixties

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Chevrolet Express. GM press photos.

In January 1966, Chrysler collected the 55 Ghia-bodied turbine-powered cars it had lent out to the general public over the prior couple years; sometime after mid-April of that year, it then destroyed all but nine of the cars. To even casual auto enthusiasts, that seemed to mark the end of Detroit’s fling with turbine engines and thus the final validation of the internal combustion engine. But, as it turns out, Detroit continued to look into the turbine as an internal combustion alternative for decades after, leading up to the turn toward electrification in recent years.

Each of the Big Three had its own gas-turbine program, though each approached the technology in different ways. Ford, for instance, might have teased a turbine for its Mystere concept car and actually installed a turbine into a first-generation Thunderbird, but the company spent most of its in-house resources on developing three generations of turbines for trucks, which it most notably showcased in the Big Red concept truck.

Chrysler, on the other hand, began working on turbines in 1945 pretty much exclusively for passenger car applications and revealed its first experimental turbine-powered car, a 1954 Plymouth Belvedere, in March 1954. Under the prodding of George Huebner and with the engineering talent of Sam Williams, Chrysler then proceeded to develop several generations of its turbine engine. The 1964 Ghia-bodied Turbine cars used a fourth-generation design and, according to Steve Lehto’s “Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation,” Huebner and his team used what they learned with the fourth-generation design and the public test program to improve successor designs.

“To offset the gloom of seeing most of the turbine cars destroyed, Chrysler announced that the user program had succeeded in proving the viability of the cars,” Lehto wrote. “Huebner told the press he was ‘gratified’ by the results of the program.”

The fifth-generation Chrysler turbine was, more or less, a stand-in in case the public test program would lead to actual turbine car production. Once it became clear that wouldn’t happen, Huebner and his team went back to the drawing board for a wholesale revamp of the turbine engine; the resulting sixth-generation turbine, which Chrysler introduced in 1967, made its way into a number of test cars, including a 1967 Coronet, an Imperial, a 1973 Satellite, and a 1973 Aspen.

As the Sixties gave way to the (somewhat) more environmentally conscious Seventies, Huebner saw the turbine as Chrysler’s answer to increasing clean air standards and managed to convince the EPA to fund a project to develop the gas turbine for automotive use, this time focused on cleanliness and fuel economy rather than on power. The resulting seventh-generation turbine powered a specially designed 1978 Chrysler LeBaron and a 1980 Dodge Mirada. According to Michael Lamm, the seventh-generation Chrysler turbine met emissions standards as far out as 1989.

Chrysler Media photo.

Chrysler, however, halted its program after the development of the seventh-generation turbine. Huebner’s retirement in 1975 may have had something to do with that decision, though Lehto cites two other factors. First, Chrysler bid on but ultimately lost out on a NASA contract to produce a state-of-the-art turbine in 1979. “The loss of the contract was the final nail in the coffin for the turbine program at Chrysler,” Lehto wrote. “The company decided not to continue investing in the technology.” Then, two years later, the funding for the turbine program from the EPA ran out, leading Chrysler to cancel its turbine program for good.

Interestingly, it appeared Ford won the NASA contract that Chrysler lost out on, leading Ford to partner with Garrett AiResearch to develop NASA’s Advanced Gas Turbine car. According to John Mortimer’s “The Nearly Engine,” Ford wasn’t so much the lead partner in the project so much as a sub-contractor to Garrett in the creation of the one-off AGT101, apparently based on a Ford Fairmont.

That, then, leaves GM. Like Ford, GM spent a considerable sum of resources investigating turbines for trucks in the mid-Sixties. The Turbo Titan III is perhaps the most well-known example, but the Bison concept truck that GM displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair was also supposed to have been powered by a gas-turbine engine. And, of course, the Turbo Titan III’s turbine engine built upon years of development that started with the Firebird I concept car of 1953 and continued through that car’s 1956 and 1958 successors. (The 1964 Firebird IV was billed as turbine-powered, but was more likely just a pushmobile.)

For most of the rest of the Sixties and Seventies, GM appeared to sit out on the idea of plugging a turbine into a passenger car. Not until the late Seventies did GM revisit the idea, first with a one-off coal dust-powered turbine-engined 1978 Cadillac Eldorado reportedly developed in partnership with Allison, and then a year later with a bid on the NASA Advanced Gas Turbine car project.

GM also brought on turbine engineer Albert Bell, whose AGT-5 gas-turbine engine, reportedly developed with DOE funding, ended up powering the Chevrolet Express concept car from 1987, the “latest iteration of GM’s long-running experimentation with the gas turbine engine,” according to the GM Heritage Center. Aside from the turbine engine, the Express shared with the Firebird II the concept of a nationwide network of limited-access highways on which the carbon-fiber bubbletop roof-entry Express could travel at up to 150 MPH.

According to an April 1987 Popular Science article on the Express, the rear-mounted AGT-5 produced about 120 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, with Bell working on increasing that output via more intensive use of ceramics.

Mortimer notes that GM continued turbine research into the Nineties, but the Express may very well have been the last effort at building a purely turbine-powered passenger car. Instead, GM – this time in conjunction with Sam Williams, the same engineer who had left Chrysler in the Fifties to pursue his own work on turbines – started to look into pairing turbines with electric motors as range extenders. In fact, one of the alternative drivetrains that GM displayed for the EV1 at the 1998 North American International Auto Show used a small gas turbine as an auxiliary power unit for a serial hybrid system, according to Mortimer.

Aside from working with Jay Leno to develop the turbine-powered EcoJet in 2006, it appears turbine research and development has again faded into the background at GM and, indeed, across Detroit.