Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Review: Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise And Fall Of Detroit's Coolest Creation

Mad Men meet turbines.

Jet turbines have always been the automotive future that never arrived.  Since the 1940s, companies such as Rover, British Leyland, Ford, and GM tried to develop a practical substitute to the piston engine.  It seemed like such a logical progression.  Turbines could burn almost any fuel, they had power comparable to a piston engine, had far fewer parts, and didn't need all the auxiliary bits and pieces that traditional car engines required.  Some saw turbines as a simple substitute for motor car engines.  Others as a alternative to lorry diesel engines.  and GM regarded it as the showpiece of its dream of hurling the motorist into the 21st century without an airbag. 

But it was Chrysler that went the furthest of any of them.  The smallest of the American Big Three auto makers, Chrysler sunk $50 million into developing not just a new jet power plant for motor cars, but they developed a new middle-class, middle-American saloon car to put it in.  As recounted by Steve Lehto in his book Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation , Chrysler made great strides in reducing the size while increasing the reliability of jet turbines.  They then married these to a fleet of  handmade Italian chassis, and then handed out fifty of them to ordinary Americans to evaluate by driving them around in their daily lives.

Lehto does an excellent job of conveying the excitement of the Chrysler experiment while never overwhelming the reader with what could have been rafts of details about metallurgy and power curves.  He keeps it simple and he keeps it light.  He also shows how it was as much a matter of publicity as engineering.  He discusses how head of the turbine project George Huebner was often more showman than manager as he fought to keep both the Chrysler management and the American public interested in the turbine car.  Even the test car, known only as the Turbine, was a cunning double switch as what was promoted as a field evaluation turned into free publicity as the characteristic whine of the turbine melded with the striking Italian styling and bronze paintwork to turn the Turbine into a creature sure to capture attention and literally stop traffic.  Mixed in with this, we are also introduced to the extraordinary men behind the Turbine, such as Turbine expert Sam Williams, who went on to found Williams International and metallurgical genius Dr. Amdee Roy. 

The only problem with Chrysler's Turbine Car is that there isn't a drop of suspense to it.  The story is actually very straightforward:  Chrysler develops a superior car, but they can't figure out a way to mass produce it.  They spend years and millions trying to lick the problem, but in the 1970s the US government slaps Chrysler with new fuel efficiency and environmental regulations that were so strict and with such short deadlines that Chrysler almost goes bankrupt.  In that climate, the turbine car is too expensive to develop and is dropped without much ceremony.  The fleet of turbine cars are too expensive to store and too exotic to sell without them becoming broken down heaps of rusting public relations disasters, so all but a handful are scrapped.  Today, only a couple are in running order.  Lehto tries to spin this out with a lot of foreshadowing and might-have-been speculation, but in the end it is the bittersweet story of a remarkable technological achievement that was either before its time or a simple dead end.

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