Steve Lehto speaks about the Turbine Car 2011.06.15

Written by David Green.

steve.lehtoTwo-hundred and three families drove Chrysler Turbine Cars more than a million miles over two years in the 1960s, and from the reports received, they loved them.

One-fifth the moving parts of a conventional piston motor, smoother running, less maintenance, and for fuel? Any liquid that burned.

The car was a real hit, author Steve Lehto told an audience last week at Stair Public Library, and then it disappeared.

Lehto’s visit was part of an author tour through the Michigan Notable Book program. His book, “Chrysler’s Turbine Car: the rise and fall of Detroit’s coolest creation,” is one of 20 books chosen for 2011 by the Library of Michigan.

Chrysler’s turbine powered vehicle program was in existence for 25 years, Lehto said, (1953 to 1978) but it’s the bronze-colored models from the early 1960s that people remember. Those are the cars that made their way to the man on the street as part of large public relations campaign.

Chrysler’s George Huebner was behind the effort.

“His goal was to build a turbine car that could be mass produced,” Lehto said. “Huebner learned early that everybody loved to see a ‘jet car.’ There was lots of anticipation about the car of the future.”

After the fourth generation engine was developed, Chrysler decided it was dependable enough for the public to us. Huebner decided to have a fleet of 55 vehicles built, Lehto said, and he wanted the design to look worthy of something that possessed a jet engine.

That was handled by an Italian designer who loved the look of cooling fins, and that was fine with Huebner who wanted the cars to look space age. The car bodies were hand-built in Italy and brought to Detroit where the engine, transmission and axles were installed.

There was enormous publicity for the loan program and it came at very little cost to Chrysler. Journalists took care of it, eager to report on the new concept. 

Many of those chosen to borrow a Turbine Car eventually tired of it before their three-month trial period ended. They didn’t tire of the car, itself, but of all the friends and relatives pestering them for a drive.

 A combination of factors killed off the turbine project—government regulations, low gasoline prices, Chrysler’s financial troubles. The company realized that mass production wouldn’t occur without some sort of major breakthrough the project was scaled back.

An alternative-fueled turbine engine might lead to a different outcome today, Lehto said, but manufacturers are hesitant to move in that direction without the [surety] of sales.

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