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Turbine Cars: Past, Present, and Future

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 2015-05-07 Larry Chen, Elana Scherr, TEN Archives, Walker Dalton, FCA Corporate Archives

Turbine Cars: Past, Present, and Future

There have always been options and alternatives to the great V8. Turbine engines enjoyed quite a bit of fame in the 1960s. Concept cars whirred and whooshed around auto shows, and even the Indy 500 felt the hot breath of turbine-powered roadsters. On the salt flats and dragstrips, turbine cars broke records and caused arguments about the place of thrust in motorsports. Then it all settled down and we agreed to power everything with piston engines forever onward. Or did we?

lotus 56 3 front © Provided by Hotrod lotus 56 3 front

Without requiring us all to take advanced aeronautical engineering, let’s do a quick review of gas turbines, starting with what’s so great about turbines in the first place. Turbine engines have a high power-to-weight ratio and only a few moving parts, which makes them low-maintenance—although the maintenance is expensive when it is needed. Turbines can run on almost anything flammable and make incredible torque. Once a turbine is running, it’s a very efficient and very reliable powerplant, so you can see why we trust our air travel to jet-powered planes. Speaking of that, you’ll see the term “jet” thrown around a lot when looking at vehicles powered by turbine engines. Except in the case of some land-speed and drag-racing cars, that isn’t accurate. A true jet, turbojet, or turbofan engine creates thrust through superheated and compressed air. If you put one of those babies in a car, the wheels are just along for the ride. The kinds of turbines you’ll see in wheel-driven cars are usually turbo-prop or turbo-shaft engines, designed to use the gas to spin a propeller or rotor in a plane, helicopter, or stationary powerplant.

Most of the Art Arfons dragsters and land-speed cars were true jet-powered machines, moved by thrust alone. © Provided by Hotrod Most of the Art Arfons dragsters and land-speed cars were true jet-powered machines, moved by thrust alone.

The basic idea of the turbine engine is related to steam power and has been around since ancient Greece. Although there were many studies and papers and some experimental engines built in the early 20th century, the need and available materials weren’t really in sync for full-on turbine development until WWII. That development meshed up with the automotive world when Chrysler got a military contract to design a turboprop aircraft engine. After the war, it continued with the research, this time with an eye on terrestrial vehicles, eventually leading to the M1 Abrams tank engine. Other companies were also considering turbine power for street and performance cars. British car company Rover had a working concept called Jet I in 1950, and kept working with turbines through the 1960s. GM had some turbine cars, too, including the various Firebird (no relation to the later Pontiac) concepts in the mid-1950s. The Firebird cars were never intended to go into production as personal transport, but Chevrolet did look seriously at turbines as an option for semitruck power during this time, as did Ford. Other large truck manufacturers also considered turbines for fleet vehicles, and there were even a handful of turbine-powered American LaFrance fire trucks in use around the country. Of the Big Three, Chrysler seemed to be the most interested in turbine-powered cars, perhaps due to a personal interest on the part of engineer George J. Huebner, who headed up a passenger-car program testing Chrysler’s turbine engines in Plymouths in the mid-1950s. These weren’t just proving-ground jaunts either; in 1956, a turbine-powered Plymouth drove from New York to Los Angeles—3,000 miles, and the first ever transcontinental land-based turbine road trip.

Chrysler made several turbine-powered cars in the 1950s and kept experimenting with turbine engines through the early 1980s. © Provided by Hotrod Chrysler made several turbine-powered cars in the 1950s and kept experimenting with turbine engines through the early 1980s.

Chrysler’s success with the 1950’s cars led to the production of 55 turbine-powered machines in 1963 as part of a national test program in which the cars were loaned for three-month periods to interested families across America. After the end of the program, in 1967, all but nine cars were destroyed.

Chrysler developed its own turbine engine for passenger cars, but many racers used surplus engines from helicopters or planes to build “jet” cars. © Provided by Hotrod Chrysler developed its own turbine engine for passenger cars, but many racers used surplus engines from helicopters or planes to build “jet” cars.

Of the nine remaining Chrysler Turbines, only about three are running and driving. You won’t be surprised to find out that one of those belongs to comedian Jay Leno, although you might be surprised that Jay invited us over to go for a ride. We were, but the man loves turbine cars and wanted to share the joy. The Chrysler car is incredibly subtle considering its radical nature. There’s nothing about its Ghia-built exterior that screams, “I have a wild space-age powerplant!” Jay’s car is the same coppery metallic hue of 54 of the 55 turbine cars: Turbine Bronze Metallic. Of course. The Chrysler’s lines are very 1960s, but not concept-car radical. Only the rear, with its afterburnery taillights hints at jet fighters and spacecraft. The interior is split by a long silver console that runs from the front seat through the rear buckets. A small badge on the glovebox declares it to be “Turbine power by Chrysler Corporation,” and a closer look at the gauge cluster shows a startling 2,000 degrees and redline of 60,000 rpm. The car starts as soon as Jay turns the key, and its engine whines quietly. “It pretty much drives like a 318,” he tells us, as we pull out into California traffic, and he’s right. There’s no high-pitched scream, no tugging at the brakes when we come to a stop sign, despite the fact that the engine idles at 22,000 rpm. Chrysler addressed all the uncivilized behaviors of a land-bound turbine, even developing a heat-exchanger element to the exhaust so the tailpipe emissions come out cooler than those of a standard piston engine. “People always say, ‘Oh, they set the grass on fire, they were so hot,’” Jay says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” He grins at us as we pass SUVs and hybrids. “Doesn’t this still feel like the future?”

Jay likes turbine cars so much that he had his own turbine machine built. The EcoJet is powered by a Lycoming (now Honeywell) LTS101 helicopter turbine, and it’s so loud inside you have to use a headset like, well, a helicopter.

Jay likes turbine cars so much that he had his own turbine machine built. The EcoJet is powered by a Lycoming (now Honeywell) LTS101 helicopter turbine, and it’s so loud inside you have to use a headset like, well, a helicopter.
© Provided by Hotrod

The turbine car did feel like the future, and it was very well received by the test drivers in 1964, but a combination of factors kept it from going into full-scale production. Fuel economy just wasn’t a big issue yet, so the turbine’s ability to burn diesel or kerosene was not a positive so much as a trial, since those fuels weren’t commonly available outside of grimy truck stops and airports. There also wasn’t enough of a mechanical support network, and it just wasn’t worth it to the moneymen at Chrysler to put the car into production.

The lack of interest from the company heads didn’t stop manufacturers from pursuing turbine research. There were numerous test cars made during the 1970s. Even Toyota gave it a try. Chrysler’s program lasted all the way into the 1980s. Just think, the police could have been driving turbine-powered Diplomats. That’s so Batman.

There were two Howmet cars built. Both still exist today, along with a third recreation. © Provided by Hotrod There were two Howmet cars built. Both still exist today, along with a third recreation.

While Detroit’s engineers were trying to make the turbine viable for daily drivers and long-haul truckers, racers were hoping to capitalize on its power-to-weight advantages on track. All kinds of tracks. In 1962, Dan Gurney was briefly behind the wheel of a turbine car at Indy. In 1964, Donald Campbell set Australia’s salt flats ablaze with a 403-mph run in the turboshaft-driven, land-speed car named Bluebird. Back here in the states, Art and Walt Arfons were starting careers based around turbine-powered dragsters and Bonneville cars. Rover’s continued turbine work resulted in The Rover BRM turbine car, which ran at Le Mans in 1965, driven by Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill. It finished 10th overall. A few years later, the Howmet TX, a small prototype car—which was basically a seat in front of a Continental turbine wrapped in aluminum and gullwing doors—would try for the French checkered flag. The Howmet didn’t do so well at that race, but it would later win two SCCA races in the U.S. The most famous of the turbine corner-turning racers were the Granatelli STP cars built for Indy in the late-1960s.

HOT ROD was definitely interested in the turbine cars, putting Granatelli on the cover in both 1967 and 1968. © Provided by Hotrod HOT ROD was definitely interested in the turbine cars, putting Granatelli on the cover in both 1967 and 1968.

There were nearly a dozen different types of engines entered in the 1967 running of the Indy 500. Some were supercharged, some turbocharged. There were overhead cams and dual-overhead cams and all manner of cylinder numberings. They didn’t all qualify, but they tried to. All eyes were on the Ken Wallis–built, turbine-powered STP “Wooshmobile,” brainchild of Andy Granatelli, and piloted by Parnelli Jones. The Pratt & Whitney gas turbine sat opposite the driver and gave the car the swollen look of an overfed anaconda. It was fast, though, and clever, with an air-brake flap that came up to assist in deceleration and four-wheel drive to lend a hand doing the opposite. The car was leading the race until a transmission bearing sent Parnelli coasting back to the pits just a few miles short of the win. Rumor has it he consoled himself with a jacket that read “Indianapolis 490 Champion.” Nothing would console Granatelli, except the thought of winning in 1968.

Hot Rod Cover 1967 May © Provided by Hotrod Hot Rod Cover 1967 May

The 1967 car caught everyone off guard—nobody expected it to do much, as previous attempts to run turbine cars had failed to produce fast laps, but after seeing Parnelli fly by, leaving them like the earth-bound mortals they were, the drivers in the piston-engine cars began to worry. Before Parnelli’s transmission had even finished its bearing snack, the other racers were whining louder than his Pratt & Whitney engine. Indy’s sanctioning body, the United States Auto Club (USAC), cut the allowable air intake for the turbines nearly in half for the following year. This prompted a lawsuit by Granatelli, but it didn’t discourage him, nor several other teams—including one backed by Shelby—from building and entering turbine-powered cars in the 1968 Indy 500.

That’s Clive Chapman, son of Colin, driving the car. Lotus oversaw the certification and restoration of this car with assistance from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. © Provided by Hotrod That’s Clive Chapman, son of Colin, driving the car. Lotus oversaw the certification and restoration of this car with assistance from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. When you see the Lotus 56-3 in person, its design is startling. Other IndyCars at the time still had a sort of hand-rolled cigarette profile, rounded in the middle and skinny on the ends. The rear placement of the turbine, and the fact that it needed no radiator or cooling setup meant that the nose of the Lotus car could be incredibly low. There’s no wing—Granatelli was probably tired of hearing driver complaints that it “scared them”—but the body shape was said to provide superior aerodynamics compared to its ovoid competitors. © Provided by Hotrod When you see the Lotus 56-3 in person, its design is startling. Other IndyCars at the time still had a sort of hand-rolled cigarette profile, rounded in the middle and skinny on the ends. The rear placement of the turbine, and the fact that it needed no radiator or cooling setup meant that the nose of the Lotus car could be incredibly low. There’s no wing—Granatelli was probably tired of hearing driver complaints that it “scared them”—but the body shape was said to provide superior aerodynamics compared to its ovoid competitors.

Granatelli had split with Wallis, who went to Shelby, who had previously expressed no interest in turbine racing, but now wanted to—God, it’s like high school dating! Andy’s new date to the prom was Colin Chapman, he of the legendarily light Lotus. Together, Granatelli and Chapman brought a pie pan’s worth of wedge-shaped, turbine-powered Lotus 56-3s to Indy, and even with the choked-down intakes, several of them qualified. Although the turbine engines were reliable, the nuts and bolts around them disliked the heat and hardship of 200 laps on the brickyard, and cars #60 and #20 ended just outside the top 10, retiring on laps 191 and 188, respectively. Graham Hill, back again with turbines, drove the #70, set a qualifying record, and was in the top five until the back end made just enough contact with the wall to put him out of competition. One by one, the other cars fell victim to small parts failures, and Granatelli was once again sent home to salt his pasta with tears of disappointment. He would get his Indy win in 1969, but with a more traditional car. None of the other turbine cars in 1968 even made the field—Shelby’s duo was pulled rather than get caught cheating, as Wallis had supposedly been working on a variable intake that would open at speed. Although turbine die-hard Jack Adams would try once more the following year, the continued USAC restrictions on intake size regulated the turbines out of competition.

Sharp-eyed folks might notice that not only is the turbine unlikely to require any of the lubricants being advertised on its flanks, unless someone was using them for fuel, it also most certainly did not use Perfect Circle piston rings, since a turbine has no pistons. These small details came up during Granatelli’s lawsuit with USAC in the late-1960s and caused him quite a bit of grief, but now it’s just funny. © Provided by Hotrod Sharp-eyed folks might notice that not only is the turbine unlikely to require any of the lubricants being advertised on its flanks, unless someone was using them for fuel, it also most certainly did not use Perfect Circle piston rings, since a turbine has no pistons. These small details came up during Granatelli’s lawsuit with USAC in the late-1960s and caused him quite a bit of grief, but now it’s just funny. The engine is a Pratt & Whitney ST6N-74. It’s similar to a small aircraft engine, but was designed as a generator engine for ground-based power needs. It’s mounted behind the driver’s cockpit and exhausts straight up, so as to avoid toasting the marshmallows of the drivers behind it. No gearbox is needed, the turbine offers handfuls of torque no matter what the rpm. A turbine engine will run on almost anything flammable, a thought that might prove soothing to race-team accountants, but would have offered little solace to the driver, sandwiched between the fuel tanks. © Provided by Hotrod The engine is a Pratt & Whitney ST6N-74. It’s similar to a small aircraft engine, but was designed as a generator engine for ground-based power needs. It’s mounted behind the driver’s cockpit and exhausts straight up, so as to avoid toasting the marshmallows of the drivers behind it. No gearbox is needed, the turbine offers handfuls of torque no matter what the rpm. A turbine engine will run on almost anything flammable, a thought that might prove soothing to race-team accountants, but would have offered little solace to the driver, sandwiched between the fuel tanks.

After the Indy attempt, the other Type 56 cars got moved around, raced here and there, and at one point Lotus even worked on an F1 car with the same design. Apparently, Colin Chapman had been won over to the idea of an engine that could go a whole season without maintenance, so much less finicky than those delicate Cosworths. The #70 car went back to Lotus for repair after the crash, but was never raced again, which means that today, it’s in almost the exact same shape that it was when Graham Hill first let his foot off the brake and rolled across the bricks in 1968. STP housed it for many years, eventually presenting it to NASCAR’s king, Richard Petty, a fellow STP sponsoree and car collector. Petty sold it at a Mecum auction in 2012 to a Texas-based philanthropist named Milton Verret, and Milton invited us to take a look at it. The #70 car was being run on Jet A—basically, kerosene—on the day we got to see it, and when the start cart set things a-whirring, it was hard not to look up expecting an airplane. The driver sits in front of the turbine, helmet barely visible through the heat shimmer of the exhaust. Since there’s no shifting and no Neutral setting, a driver’s main duty is simply to keep the car from running away. As soon as you lift your foot off the brake, it begins to pick up speed. The demo drives were limited to two-digit speeds; there was no trying to beat Hill’s 171.208-mph qualifying laps. Even at slow speeds, just to see the car on the banking of Fontana’s two-mile oval—or more than the sight, the sound of it fading around the far side of the track and whirring back down the straight—was an incredible trigger to a memory we’re not even old enough to have; a field of open-cockpit race cars, gridded up at Indy, each an experiment in performance, each an alternate reality that could have been our present, if only a bearing, or a ruling, had been different.

After riding in, and watching turbine cars in action, we wanted to get behind the wheel of one. Conveniently, Milton also owns a turbine-powered street car. It looks like a mildly customized 25th Anniversary edition Corvette. It sounds like a passenger liner preparing for takeoff. It feels like it’s got a stuck throttle. It’s a turbine-powered 1978 Corvette, and we got to drive it a few (supervised) laps around the Fontana Auto Club Speedway.

1978 corvette turbine car front end © Provided by Hotrod 1978 corvette turbine car front end

Let’s work backward. When we were sitting in the Corvette, ready to take it out of Park, we had our foot mashed to the floor—because there’s no Neutral, and the second the car goes in Drive, it’s ready to move. It doesn’t take off like a rocket, but it does move noticeably, even with the brakes on. One starts to understand what made the builder, Vince Granatelli, upgrade the brakes from stock Chevy parts to state-of-the-art (for 1978) ventilated NASCAR discs on all four wheels. Once we released the brakes, the car picked up speed, easily reaching a happy cruise at around 60 mph while our left foot hovered anxiously over the brake. Needing something to do with our right foot, we hit the gas. It takes a second, then there’s a clunk, and speed increases. It doesn’t take long to see 90, even 100 mph. A 1979 testdrive story of the car in Motor Trend claims 111 mph in a quarter-mile run, but we didn’t have a chance to try for the promised 180-mph top speed before we were reined in by a handler in the passenger seat, a man who helps keep this and other turbine cars running for Milton, and who has no desire to see his hard work smeared against the wall in turn 3.

1978 Crovette Turbine Car Engine Bay © Provided by Hotrod 1978 Crovette Turbine Car Engine Bay

01 The engine bay is filled with a stationary power-generating turbine (Pratt & Whitney ST6N-74, if you want one for your own), so this particular model was never meant to fly. However, the design is basically the same as would be in a small helicopter. A turbine engine doesn’t idle at 800 or a 1,000 rpm like your average piston engine. No, they tend to spin at five-digit speeds, and even with reduction gearboxes, the ST6N in the Corvette has an rpm higher than your average muscle-car shift point, which is why it needs such brawny brakes, and why it felt so strange to drive.

02 Directly over top of the engine intake is a condenser for air conditioning. Shrouding directs the intake air through this before it goes in the engine. A turbine normally uses a circular intake, so the Vette gives up some power to have working air, but you can’t get out of your Jet-Vette all sweaty. It just isn’t done. At the back of the engine is the gearbox that drops output from 100 percent and 37,500 rpm to a less tire-roasting 6,250

03 Among the exotic bits and pieces were some recognizable parts, like the alternator and power-steering pump. “It could have had any alternator,” Vince said. “It just runs the lights and stock gauges. There are four or five different mounting pads on the front of the engine. We just found what was comparable to stock, from an rpm standpoint, [a shaft that] was [spinning a speed] most like a crank pulley.”

04 On the front of the engine is a vacuum pump for the brake booster since it can’t get vacuum from the turbine. Nearby are the starter and a generator for the turbine’s 24-volt system. There are several batteries in the trunk area. The red cans to the side are a water-injection kit. “Could be water or methanol,” Vince said.

05 Cables run back to the throttle pedal and the transmission, which is a Turbo 400 with specialized gearing and a hefty driveshaft. There are numer-ous heat shields to protect the hood and the wiring. “The exhaust duct can get up to 900 degrees centigrade [that’s 1,652 Fahrenheit],” Vince told us. Additional heat diffusers run along the underside of the car, but the air still rippled and distorted for a good five feet behind the Corvette while it was running. The heat of the underside was one of the reasons why current owner Verret changed the wheels from the 15-inchers that Granatelli used to the oversize Centerlines you see in the photos. The more ground clearance, the better!

This car would be worth owning just for the fun of the start-up procedure, which involves pressing buttons labeled “Igniters.” It might not be the most sensible car for daily driving, but when have we ever been about sensible? © Provided by Hotrod This car would be worth owning just for the fun of the start-up procedure, which involves pressing buttons labeled “Igniters.” It might not be the most sensible car for daily driving, but when have we ever been about sensible?

How did this one-of-a-kind Cor-jette come into being? Who thought it would be a good idea to put an 880hp gas turbine in a brand-new Corvette? Well, us, but we weren’t even born when this machine got dreamed up, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for answers. Things start to sort themselves out somewhat when you realize that Vince Granatelli is the son of Andy Granatelli. Vince had one of the turbine IndyCars sitting around and tried to sell it to a friend, Herb Orlowitz. The friend, a man after our own heart, asked if it was street legal, and then if the engine could be put in a street car. Rather than tear up the racer, Vince offered to use one of the leftover turbine engines from the Indy program and build a streetable car. “I had to find something with a long enough front end for the engine,” Vince told us. “I was initially thinking either a Lincoln Mk V, but I’d already done some work with the new Corvettes; in fact, Herb had a 1977 Vette with a big-block and a Paxton that I’d made run. That’s how we met, and that just seemed like the right car for this.”

1978 corvette turbine car © Provided by Hotrod 1978 corvette turbine car

The Future of Turbine Street Cars

We barely scratched the surface of turbine car history, and the best part is, it’s still unfolding around us. One of the problems with using turbines in cars is that they aren’t terribly efficient in on/off throttle applications like street driving. A happy turbine is one that’s spooled up and running at a constant rpm. This makes them ideal for hybrid applications, charging the battery for an electric motor. FedEx is trying a pilot diesel turbine/electric hybrid truck program in its fleet right now. The vehicles are retrofitted by northern California company Wrightspeed, using Capstone turbines built just around the corner from HOT ROD. Now if they would only paint them Turbine Bronze.

turbine engine future © Provided by Hotrod turbine engine future

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