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Transportation Technology

The Rise and Fall of America's Jet-Powered Car 338

Pickens writes "The WSJ reports that the automobile designs of the 1950s and 1960s were inspired by the space race and the dawn of jet travel. But one car manufacturer, Chrysler, was bold enough to put a jet engine in an automobile that ran at an astounding 60,000 rpm on any flammable fluid including gasoline, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, peanut oil, alcohol, tequila, or perfume. Visionary Chrysler designer George Huebner believed that there was plenty to recommend the turbine. People loved the car. In a publicity scheme to promote its 'jet' car, Chrysler commissioned Ghia to handcraft 50 identical car bodies and each car would be lent to a family for a few months and then passed on to another. Chrysler received more than 30,000 requests in 1962 to become test drivers and eventually 203 were chosen who logged more than one million miles (mostly trouble free) in the 50 Ghia prototypes. In the end Chrysler killed the turbine car after OPEC's 1973 oil embargo. 'How different would America be now if we all drove turbine-powered cars? It could have happened. But government interference, shortsighted regulators, and indifferent corporate leaders each played a role in the demise of a program that could have lessened US dependence on Middle East oil.'"
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The Rise and Fall of America's Jet-Powered Car

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  • by nschubach ( 922175 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:37AM (#33923534) Journal

    There was a recent post on a jet powered concept car... I wouldn't call the idea dead yet. []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:38AM (#33923542)

    I remember reading about Rover doing experiments with turbines in the 40s.

  • by Bert64 ( 520050 ) <bert AT slashdot DOT firenzee DOT com> on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:41AM (#33923554) Homepage

    Jaguar recently built a turbine-electric prototype hybrid: []

  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Informative)

    by lenski ( 96498 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:49AM (#33923584)

    From the comments in the WSJ online, people who rode in them described them as nearly silent.

  • by goldstein ( 705041 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:57AM (#33923614)
    The idea that the dependence on "Middle East oil" could have been lessened is seriously misleading. Gas turbine technology is best suited to very large installations. In an internal combustion engine, one needs a high compression ratio to get good thermal efficiency. In a gas turbine engine, this is most easily achieved by making a (very) large engine that runs at a relatively constant speed. There are major practical problems in making small high compression gas turbines (among other things, conventional axial or centrifugal flow compressors do not scale well to small sizes). The result is very poor fuel economy. Chrysler wasn't the only manufacturer to build a gas turbine powered car. Rover built one in the 1950's. At best these efforts demonstrated passable, but not exceptional performance coupled with VERY high fuel consumption. This may not have seemed like a big issue when oil was a few dollars a barrel. It would be completely unacceptable now, even if one allows for the flexibility of being able to use various types of fuels. There just isn't enough of any reasonable alternative fuel to operate existing private and commercial vehicle fleets, especially if there is a massive fuel consumption penalty.
  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Informative)

    by EdZ ( 755139 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @09:58AM (#33923620)
    "Gas turbine" is the usual term for a turbine that drives via its shaft rather than by its exhaust.
    The problem with a gas turbine is that they have rather poor efficiency. They have an excellent power-to-weight ratio (which is why they're used in aircraft, and why gas turbines are used in helicopters), but their fuel economy, even when used in an electric drive system and always running at the peak efficiency RPM, will never reach that of an average petrol engine, let alone diesel. Add that a diesel engine can run on most (if not all, when correctly filtered and if the engine is tuned for it) of the range of fuels a gas turbine can, it's the better choice for a vehicle that doesn't need to lift it's own weight except when on a gradual incline.
  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Informative)

    by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:00AM (#33923634)

    > How noisy were they?

    Quiet, actually. I was at the Museum of Transport in St. Louis this spring and happened into the auto hall just as they fired up the engine on their turbine car. Having spent a lot of time working with industrial gas turbines, I was surprised at how noisy it wasn't - considerably less noise than a piston engine of equivalent horsepower from that era.

    Quite a lot of smoke though; they had to open up a garage-sized door for ventilation.


  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Informative)

    by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:03AM (#33923646)

    >> How noisy were they?

    > Extremely

    Having just heard a Chrysler Turbine Car in operation this spring, I'll have to respectfully disagree: I was surprised by how quiet it was.


  • Re:Turbine (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:14AM (#33923720)

    The problem with a gas turbine is that they have rather poor efficiency.

    Yup. When Gas Turbines were new and sexy, everyone and their dog were looking for practical applications. There were gas turbine powered trucks, cars and locomotives. All them suffered from the exact same problem, namely that they drank fuel.

    A gas turbine can only really be considered efficient at full load, but trucks, locomotives and cars are often not at full load. Gas turbines run at a fixed speed, and there is a lower limit on the amount of fuel they consume even when "idle". An empty truck or locomotive with a light train behind it still requires that gas turbine to be burning far more fuel than the equivalent diesel or petrol engine would.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:17AM (#33923736)

    And better []

    The Rover Gas Turbine car. []

    And they even took part in the Le Mans 24 Hour [] race more than once too.

    Two Rover gas-turbime cars (T3 and 4) survive in running order, Jet-1 is in the London Science Museum.

    Looking at the Chrysler [] effort, it looks like a "Jetsons" futuristic affair, the Rover cars looked like completely conventional cars of the time - indeed the T4 body shape was to see the roads as the P6 Rover 2000.

    You know, you'd think the bloody Yanks invented the jet engine [] too......

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @10:23AM (#33923754)

    Trains don't need rapid acceleration, but they do need efficient cruising speeds...

    Only works over flat land with no (slow) cities. I have three male generations of railroad employees in my ancestry... I had some pretty interesting experiences when I was younger, most of which, even back then, probably violated dozens of regulations. Trust me, a railroad engineer out on the mainline works the throttle and brakes at least as much as a car driver in roughly the same terrain. Their arms get tired... "Why does the throttle only have 8 stops?" "Well, you're adjusting it constantly anyway, so why put in more stops?"

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @11:00AM (#33923948)

    I can confirm this - a "normal" gas turbine is somewhere in the 25% - 30% efficient range (for producing electricity) however when you add a Heat Recovery Steam Generator (HRSG) on the back side, using the hot air from the turbine, the over-all numbers can jump to 80%+. As it is, I think even the new GE turbines which incorporate an intercooler only reach about 40%, and that is really good.

  • by Deadstick ( 535032 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @11:25AM (#33924062)
    The turbine itself was wired against tampering. All the bolts had little wires threaded through the heads that were then attached to the component the bolt was used in.

    Those are called safety wires; they prevent bolts and nuts loosening under vibration. You'll find them all over an airplane, too.

    If you were in a tampering mood, you'd need some super high-tech equipment to get past those wires: a pair of diagonal cutters and a coil of safety wire.


  • by advocate_one ( 662832 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @12:31PM (#33924438)
    anti-tamper would have had thin copper wire with little lead seals that were embossed with an inspection code, what you saw would have been standard anti-vibration wire-locking to prevent bolts and nuts from undoing themselves.
  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @01:48PM (#33924986)

    "The turbine itself was wired against tampering. All the bolts had little wires threaded through the heads that were then attached to the component the bolt was used in. "

    That's called "safety wiring", and has been used for many, many years to keep aircraft fasteners from coming loose. It is also standard on much aerospace ground equipment, and would be normal for such an automotive turbine.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:3, Informative)

    by Sulphur ( 1548251 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @01:51PM (#33925004)

    Rover experimented with a gas turbine auto. A heat exchanger* doubled the fuel efficiency, but it was problematic to make. []

    *Think cycles: In the compression cycle you want to remove heat to get more mass compressed, and in the combustion cycle you want to put heat in. A piston engine does not lend itself to heat exchange in combustion.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:5, Informative)

    by dogsbreath ( 730413 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @01:54PM (#33925020)

    They have an excellent power-to-weight ratio (which is why they're used in aircraft, and why gas turbines are used in helicopters), but their fuel economy, even when used in an electric drive system and always running at the peak efficiency RPM, will never reach that of an average petrol engine, let alone diesel.

    Exactly. They make an excellent engine for a race car unless they rewrite the rules to make it impossible to use a turbine. []

    As to sound levels, one of the biggest complaints against the turbine at Indy was how quiet it was.

    Sigh. That was a great race.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:3, Informative)

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @02:34PM (#33925278)

    I think you're overstating it. TBO is useful, but there's simply no way you're going to power a 747 with a piston engine. Same goes for large helicopters. Aircraft like that need a powerplant with a very high power-to-weight ratio; before turbines came along, there simply were no large helicopters, only the tiny two-seaters. Now, we have helicopters that can pick up electric transmission line towers and set them in place, or are used in logging in roadless forests. No helicopter with a piston engine could lift that kind of weight. Power-to-weight ratio is easily the most important feature of turbines.

  • Turbine Motorcycle? (Score:3, Informative)

    by sanman2 ( 928866 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @03:10PM (#33925524)
    But how tolerant would turbines be against the ordinary bumps and shocks of traveling on a road?

    When you have a turbine spinning at high RPM, anything that bumps the damn thing hard enough can make it go out of whack.

    In India, they've been selling a turbine-powered scooter since the 80s, but somebody just took a stationary turbine-generator and fitted into a scooter chassis.

    A turbine-powered motorbike would be easier to develop than a car, and you might get much better acceleration. []

    Just don't get too cocky and put on an afterburner.
  • Re:Turbine (Score:3, Informative)

    by dj245 ( 732906 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @04:08PM (#33925918) Homepage
    Requiring no water-cooling system, oil or catalytic converter, it will provide vehicle weight savings of up to 15% - with a consequent reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions - compared to a piston engine. Further environmental benefits will be gained from its fast warm up (a few seconds, as opposed to several minutes for a conventional engine), cleaner combustion and lower manufacturing energy requirements.

    This is some misleading advertising. Are they seriously proposing to run a turbine at over 10,000RPM* on bearings that have no oil? You need oil at those speeds for mechanical bearings. And then, the oil is going to heat up so you will probably need to cool it also. Maybe they can get away with air cooling for that but it is still misleading.

    *this is probably the minimum for a small and efficient turbine of this size. It would probably be 30,000 RPM or more.
  • Re:Turbine (Score:3, Informative)

    by turgid ( 580780 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @04:33PM (#33926054) Journal

    Back in the day, there used to be a BBC TV programme called Tomorrow's World, which was half an hour on a Thursday evening and all about science and technology.

    As a small boy in the 1980s I loved watching it. I remember once there were some scientist/engineer types on talking about the future of the car, about how to improve efficiency into the 100-200 miles per gallon range. The idea they had was a gas turbine/electric hybrid. There would be a small (about twice the size of a baked bean tin) ceramic gas turbine (which could run at very high temperatures) connected to an electrical generator feeding into batteries which would power electric motors at each wheel. The electic motors could also be used for regenerative breaking.

    That was a cool programme in those days and one of the things that got me into science and engineering.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:3, Informative)

    by tunabomber ( 259585 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @04:49PM (#33926160) Homepage
  • Re:Turbine (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 17, 2010 @05:08PM (#33926270) []

    "Oil-less carbon-air bearing system"

  • by ray-auch ( 454705 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @06:38PM (#33926744)

    Both minivans and SUVs were developed to get around the CAFE standards because there was a demand for vehicles that if they were under the CAFE standards would have made it impossible for the auto manufacturers to meet those standards

    That "impossible" is not an engineering impossible, but rather a political / can't-be-bothered type of impossible.

    Elsewhere in the world where CAFE-type standards were set a lot higher than the US and without the big loophole (eg. Europe, Japan) there doesn't seem to be any problem satisfying the demand for family vehicles - and median household sizes are pretty similar in EU and US (around 2.5), so family car demand will be also. I have a large 7-seater (7 adult seats not 5+2kid-sized) that you'd probably call "station wagon" or maybe "minivan". It does 50mpg, fully loaded - that's over 40mpg in US gallons.

    Since that would be the large end of the station-wagons, and CAFE is average across the smaller more efficient cars as well, and CAFE standard was 27.5mpg (without using the light-truck loophole), what on earth was the problem ?

    It sure wasn't the US companies being backwards in engineering knowledge - that car of mine is a Ford, and right now I could go out here and buy a Ford with better mpg & CO2 than a Prius. Not in America though, oh no, these cars are strictly not-for-US-market.

    So why does Ford continue to sell the US market inefficient rebadged 1970s stuff ? Because they can, because low US CAFE targets allow them to, and because it makes more profit without needing to invest any money in modernising their US factories or technology.

    Nothing to do with "impossible" and everything to do with "why bother when we can make more money using a loophole to sell old cheap inefficient stuff".

  • Re:Those Bastards .. (Score:5, Informative)

    by iamhassi ( 659463 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @06:44PM (#33926806) Journal
    Jaguar is building another jet powered car [], except this time the jet engine is used to charge a battery that will power an electric motor similar to what the Chevy Volt does. Volvo tried the same thing in the 90s with a jet powered hybrid. []
  • by Jon Abbott ( 723 ) on Sunday October 17, 2010 @07:48PM (#33927288) Homepage

    If it's anything like this turbine-electric hybrid Hummer [], it gets 60 MPG and can go from 0-60 in 5 seconds.

  • Re:Turbine (Score:2, Informative)

    by Phoghat ( 1288088 ) <> on Monday October 18, 2010 @06:16AM (#33930496)
    Andy Granatelli, inventor of STP Oil Treatment and builder of the Turbine Powered Indycar. The main complaint of officials was it was too damn fast.

The rich get rich, and the poor get poorer. The haves get more, the have-nots die.