Jay Leno’s 1964 Chrysler Turbine car * Jay’s Jet
Mopar Action mag. Feb. 2010 (10-27-2009)
by Steve Lehto, an award-winning author from Detroit
After World War II, Chrysler launched whole hog into the field of automotive turbines. They hired as many technological experts as they could find – metallurgists, mechanics, engineers, turbine specialists and started refining the technology to put a jet engine into a car and make it practical for everyday use. That required making the engines smaller, Inexpensive, more efficient and, let’s face it, idiot-proof. Have you ever seen the cockpit of a Boeing 727? Could you toss the airliner keys to an average American driver and say, “Hey, drive this thing around the tarmac for a while”?
Chrysler first crammed a turbine engine into a car in the 1950s and by the early 1960s they had an engine – their 4th generation – that could do the job. To advertise the achievement, Chrysler built a fleet of 55 cars and launched one of the biggest public relations events in automotive history. They lent 50 of the cars to average Americans with no strings attached. Want to drive a turbine car for a few months? Apply to the program and if your name was drawn, you got one. Put fuel in it and drive it. There were no other costs to the driver. More than 200 people were lent the cars within a couple years and they logged over a million miles in the process, proving the viability of the turbine powered autos.
There are two. things you should know about these cars. First, they could use any flammable liquid for fuel. Kerosene, diesel, peanut oil, tequila, Channel #5, anything that burned would work. In the mid-1960s, though, few people worried about finding alternatives to gasoline. The stuff was so. cheap, why would we ever want to burn anything else? The second issue was with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had been charged with fighting the relatively recent phenomenon of smog. Their first target? Tailpipe emissions.
Just as Chrysler perfected its first successful turbine car program, the EPA announced new tailpipe standards, standards which would measure emissions from a cold start. The engines in the turbine cars spit out a little unburned fuel on startup – nothing major – but enough to cause the cars to run afoul of the approaching higher standards. When Chrysler realized that the EPA wasn’t going to cut them any slack for the newfangled cars, they decided to kill the program. [Stop! We are supposed to believe that Chrysler would put catalytic converters on their other cars (like everyone else) but nothing on the Turbine car? Sure. Yeah, Right. The fact that the oil co's, and politicians, would loose millions had noting to do with it. . . . see Chrysler Turbine Car, history ] They offered the cars to museums across the country, but only half a dozen felt the car was worth acquiring – even though the cars were being offered to museums for free! Chrysler kept three of the cars and then destroyed the 46 that hadn’t found homes.
While the cars had been highly visible during the years of the program they gradually fell off the radar as the years passed. Some museums relegated them to storage. When Chrysler had donated them to museums, they disabled the engines. Chrysler also donated crate turbines to the museums, so it was only a matter of time before a couple of them ran. One car was donated to a private museum and that museum later sold the car to Tom Monahan. Eventually, that car found its way to a car collector in Indiana. Other than that one car, all the others were in museums or in Chrysler’s possession.
Jay Leno is a well-known car collector. He has a large collection of cars, running to all ends of the spectrum. Electric, steam, old, new, production, prototype, racing, touring, custom, he has them all. Up until this year, however, he did not have a Chrysler turbine car. In early 2009, Leno performed a series of free shows for the benefit of communities hardest hit by the recent devastation in the economy. He spent time near Detroit, doing shows at the Palace of Auburn Hills. For those unfamiliar with the geography of southeast Michigan, Chrysler’s World Headquarters, where the Walter P. Chrysler Museum and Chrysler Archives are housed – can be seen from the Palace parking lot. Jay knew the three surviving turbine cars were nearby.
Leno has cultivated friendships at many of the auto companies and when he was in town, he spent some time over at the Archives, driving a few of their cars around the track which is also on the site. One of the cars they brought out was a turbine car. After driving the car, Leno asked them something to the effect of: “Do you guys really need three of these cars in your collection?” It was a good point: The cars are identical to each other. Same color, same interior, same everything. Literally, the only difference between these cars is the last two digits of their VINs. Even the keys to the three cars are cut identically.
One of the changes in recent times – think “pre-bankruptcy” – saw the museum and archives at Chrysler spun off as stand-alone entities. That way, creditors of Chrysler could not pick over the collection or insist it be sold off piecemeal to repay debt. Of course, not being under the umbrella of Chrysler means the archives and museum must find other sources of operating cash. While it would make little sense to sell most of the cars, the notion that the museum needed to retain three identical cars did seem a little silly. Jay wanted to buy one and was willing to pay for it. A deal was struck and the car soon found itself in California.
On this warm Saturday in Burbank, traffic was light. The turbine car sounds like a jet taxiing along a runway; upon acceleration, the whooshing sound – there really is no other word for it – climbs in intensity. The gauges betray a little of what is under the hood. The tachometer reads to 60,000 and the temperature gauge measures “inlet” temperature. At the point the fuel is ignited inside the engine, the temperature hovers around 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, figures like these do not appear on the dash of your typical Mopar.
The rest of the turbine car was custom built for this power plant. The result reminds many people of a mid-1960s T-Bird; both cars were designed by the same man. Younger people wonder what the car is, and why it sounds so funny. Those a bit older recognize the car. “Hey, that’s one of those turbine cars. Whatever happened to them?”
The car runs quite smoothly on the winding canyon roads outside of Burbank. The engine’s internal parts all spin, rather than reciprocate, and the whooshing sound is very smooth. Nothing like the outboard motor rumble of a big block from the same era. The steering is surprisingly light – isn’t that how all the Mopars from this era steer? And the front coil spring suspension gives a supple ride. Even the transmission – a modified TorqueFlite – shifts as if nothing unusual is happening under the hood. The only drawback among the accessories, and this is admittedly quite picky, is that the car has no air conditioning. When the engineers were figuring out the plumbing for the transmisssion and brakes, they just couldn’t bring themselves to saddle the engine with another parasitic draw for an AlC compressor. It’s not a problem; just roll down the windows and enjoy the sounds of the turbine.
Jay turned the car around and headed it back toward Burbank. As a car guy, he has put a lot of thought and study into all the cars he owns. “One of the problems with this car was probably that it seemed so much like any other car out there. People won’t switch technologies unless there is a marked improvement going from the old to the new,” he explained to his passengers – myself and MA editor, Cliff Gromer. And the way these cars were pitched to the public back then was that they were just like piston-engined cars. They were just cooler, used fewer parts and would cost less to maintain. There was something about how they were multifuel buried deep within the literature but no one seemed to notice that angle all that much since other fuels weren’t an advantage over gasoline, the cheapest fuel on the market back then.
Jay pulled the car back into the garage, right next to his Eco-jet and not far from his turbine-powered motorcycle. A hundred feet or so away are his 1970 Hemi Challenger and 1966 Hemi Coronet. The turbine car program may have died, but at least one of the surviivors of the program has finally found a good home – a home where it will be treated like royalty, a home among friends. *
See our page on the history of the Chrysler Turbine car