Take it from Jay Leno: It's a great book 2011.06.08

Written by David Green.

lehto.lenoBy DAVID GREEN

Author Steve Lehto spoke with dozens of people associated with the Chrysler Turbine Car project. Engineers, designers, drivers—everyone he could find who was associated with what he calls “Detroit’s coolest creation.”

And once his book was published last October, it started all over again. 

“Since the book has come out, I’ve been contacted by even more people who had some kind of association with the program,” he said, “and also people who just remembered the car.”

He asks those people if they happen to have any photographs of the car and many have. Now he has an overflow of information that never made it into the book, and he will share some of these new stories and new photographs when he visits Stair Public Library at 7 p.m. Thursday.

His visit comes through the Library of Michigan’s Notable Books program.

Lehto says a lot of people are quick to latch onto a conspiracy about why Chrysler shelved the turbine car project and most of the existing models were destroyed. 

It must be the work of the oil companies, some people think, since the amazing turbine could run on a variety of fuels, from peanut oil to perfume.

Lehto doesn’t buy it. To him it’s clear that economic problems at Chrysler, along with some government regulation, got in the way of further development.

In those days—the early 1960s—people talked about how many gallons of gas they got for dollar, Lehto said, rather than the way we look at it now: how many dollars for a gallon.

Oil was plentiful, gasoline was cheap and although the Turbine Car was unique, it wasn’t viewed as a way to wean the U.S. off oil.

The vision of an alternative fuel vehicle is what resonates with people today, Lehto said. 

It would have really been a game changer to have a car that would burn a variety of fuels that weren’t imported.

However, no one is going to mass produce a turbine engine without a known market.

“I’ve had several engineers tell me that the hip thing to do is put a hybrid on the road, a gas engine car with battery,” Lehto said, “but they say that’s not the best approach.”

A small turbine engine would charge a battery for an electric vehicle. That’s the environment in which a turbine would work the best.

Turbine builders have also told him they could build small turbines if the market were there.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “It has great potential.”

Lehto’s interest in the Turbine Car comes from growing up in the Detroit area. He remembers seeing them on occasion. He was one of those who always assumed the turbine was the car of the future. Once it became obvious that wasn’t the case, Lehto always wondered what happened to them.

He met someone who was involved with the project in the 1960s and that kicked off his writing project.

Lehto had trouble getting the book published initially—it was just another automotive book with limited interest—but now it has now gone through several printings.

He’s had a call of apology from his publisher admitting, “We were wrong. It is more than just a car book.”

The same can be said for his talk Thursday night in Morenci: It’s more than just a talk about cars.

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