Part of the select group of employees who worked on this secretive aircraft-focused project was executive engineer George Huebner, the man who would become famous for building nuclear missiles. But, before he got such grim ideas, he began researching the feasibility of powering a car with one of these powerplants. Shortly after the Second World War, Chrysler became interested in automotive applications, which led to a separate project and naturally, management chose Huebnerled to lead it.
After years of innovative work, the research team built a stable prototype. It made its public debut on June 16, 1954, under the hood of an otherwise-stock Plymouth Belvedere. Two years later, the second-generation turbine unit was fitted inside another Plymouth that was driven by the famed engineer from New York City to Los Angeles.
By this time, people were taking notice, and the gas turbine enthusiasm was at an all-time high. Ford and GM were working on similar designs, and the latter carmaker even released a crazy concept called Firebird XP-21, which looked like a fighter jet on wheels.
In the early 1960s, as the fourth-generation turbine unit was completed, management decided to stop experimenting with existing models and create a new car around it. The design was handed down to ex-Ford stylist Elwood Engel whose portfolio includes the Ford Thunderbird. He envisioned a completely new car that would rival both the aforementioned model as well as the Chevrolet Corvette - in terms of looks, at least.
That vision turned into reality in 1963 when the revolutionary vehicle uninspiringly dubbed Turbine Car was unveiled at the Essex House hotel in New York City. Chrysler announced a limited production run of 50 units that couldn't be bought but instead would be loaned out to the general public to test its practicality.
The A-831 delivered 130 hp (97 kW) at a whopping 36,000 rpm along with 425 lb-ft (576 Nm) of torque that was directed to the rear wheels through a TorqueFlite three-speed automatic. The innovative powerplant - which required a meticulous eight-step procedure to start - used one spark plug and about 80% fewer parts than a conventional piston unit, making it inherently more durable and easier to maintain.
Apart from that, another major advantage was its capacity to run on multiple fuels, such as unleaded gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and JP-4 jet fuel. According to the manufacturer, it could also burn a variety of flammable liquids like furnace, peanut, or soybean oils. Furthermore, if those who loaned the car didn’t like the way its exhaust gasses smelled, they could pour a few ounces of perfume in the tank, as one of the carmaker’s representatives demonstrated at a press gala in Paris.
Nevertheless, the versatile engine’s kryptonite was leaded gasoline. It was able to burn the fuel, but the lead additive left deposits that would end up damaging its internals, so the people who ended up driving the vehicles were advised not to use this type of gasoline under any circumstance.
All fifty cars initially announced were manufactured from 1963 to 1964. They were identical in every way, including the metallic paint called Turbine Bronze. Chrysler gave them to people for three months at no charge, under the condition they kept a diary and provided extensive feedback before turning the car in. The user program ran from 1963 to 1966, with a total of 302 individuals participating. It helped engineers identify a series of issues with the turbine engine, including poor fuel consumption or starter malfunction at high altitudes.
Not quite a production car, nor a typical concept, the Turbine Car was as close as ordinary people got to driving a vehicle powered by a jet engine on public roads and one of the coolest cars ever built in the U.S.
We recommend that you watch the episode of Jay Leno’s Garage that you can find below if you want to learn more about this fascinating car and hear the audacious jet noise as it's being fired up.