The Trouble with Turbines:
What Really Happened During the 1963-1966 User Evaluation Program.
In Celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Chrysler turbine car a guest article by Karl Pippart III based on original source materials from the Archives of Classic Auto Research Service.Text by Karl Pippart III, automotive historian. Copyright (c) 2013. Photos courtesy of the CARS archives.
Today, we would consider it a flex fuel vehicle. Ahead of its time? Definitely! Die hard Mopar enthusiasts know that Chrysler’s Turbine cars were employed in the user evaluation program (UEP), which was conducted from 10/29/63-1/28/66. Additionally, Mr. & Mrs. Richard Vlaha of Chicago, IL, were the first of 203 named users. The lucky participants in the UEP logged over 1 million miles in 50, identical vehicles. 50 years later, many hundreds of thousands of people have cherished memories of Chrysler’s Turbine cars, from both the user evaluation program and the New York World’s Fair.
Now, wouldn’t it be neat to examine the UEP from the inside out? During the height of the program, National Turbine Service Supervisor Bill Carry oversaw 6 Service Coordinators who were responsible for the Turbine cars in their specific zones. The mandate was to do whatever it took to keep the Turbine cars on the road and to minimize the downtime for repair and maintenance work.
Following a brief history of the early years (1954-1963), I will provide a behind the scenes look at all of the Turbine cars that were involved in the user evaluation program based on the only known, surviving set of mechanical reports and related, internal documents. This article is an exclusive, with the information contained herein being publicly released for the very first time.
On March 25, 1954, Chrysler Corporation announced that a 1954 Plymouth Belvedere 2-door was successfully road-tested in October 1953 with the CR1 turbine power plant. Chrysler’s revolutionary turbine engine now had an automobile-based platform with which to conduct real world testing.
The two 1954s were followed by a 1955 Plymouth 4-door sedan and then a 1956 Plymouth Turbine Special that traveled cross country from New York City to Los Angeles. The press and public were taking notice.
From the mid 1950s through the early 1960s, Dr. George J. Huebner, Jr. and his team continued to develop new turbine engines. The CR1 was succeeded by the 2nd (CR2) and 3rd (CR2A) generations. Among the various show, test bed and long distance evaluation vehicles were four, 1956-60 Plymouth Turbine Specials, the Turboflite concept car, two heavy duty Dodge trucks, and the CR2A outfitted Turbo Dart, which was another coast to coast runner. The Turbo Dart was followed by the Turbo Fury in January 1962. By April 1962, there were two of each and they traveled the country in pairs. Chrysler was feeling out the public to see how interested it was in gas turbine vehicles.
On February 14, 1962, Chrysler announced its intention to conduct the now famous user evaluation program, beginning in 1963. Advances in metallurgy, as well as regenerator and variable nozzle mechanism technology helped to make the gas turbine car a mass production possibility. The user evaluation program would provide critical feedback from everyday usage, while R&D work continued unabated. Running changes and upgrades would be incorporated while the cars were logging miles all over the country in all kinds of weather and driving conditions. The lower, 48 states and the District of Columbia would become Chrysler’s proving ground facility.
On May 14, 1963, a white Turbine car was publicly unveiled with the A-831, 4th generation power plant. Later that day, the press received complementary rides at New York’s Roosevelt Raceway. The sleek, two-door hardtop (overall design credited to chief stylist Elwood P. Engel) was displayed at the Waldorf-Astoria the next day. By October 1963, the user evaluation program was under way. All sorts of interesting things happened over the next 2+ years, which were dutifully documented.
Here are samplings from the original mechanical reports and internal documents on every one of the user evaluation program Turbine cars.
#01: MR #105303, dated 9/9/65: “NO CHANGE IN CAR PERFORMANCE NOTED. CALLED BILL CARRY AND WAS DIRECTED TO DRIVE CAR TO ANAHEIM FOR FURTHER TESTS.”
#02: MR #51010, 1/13/65: “Removed inside quarter trim and found window regulator arm bent. This was caused due to misalignment between the regulator pivot arm and regulator gear.”
#03: MR #105155, 12/16/64: “Remove hail dents to hood, cowl, deck lid and refinish panels.”
#04: MR #106177, 4/5/65: “Accident damage on vehicle was examined at the Atlanta Training Center.”
#05: MR #106214, 1/12/65: “Replace engine assy. . Rt. regenerator burned up.”
#06: MR #51023, 1/4/65: “Car rolled down hill into telephone pole, damaging front end of Turbine car.”
#07: MR #106245, 3/11/65: “Paint car complete.” . . . “Car had multitude of scratches & small
knicks.” [Note: The original color was called Fire Frost Copper #867-N-97115; today it is referred to as Turbine Bronze Metallic.]
#08: MR #51171, 7/16/65: “2. on 14 July 0800 AM discovered car broken into.” [Note: After participating in the UEP, #08 joined #02 as a national tour car.]
#09: Based on the MRs in its file, car #09 had no less than 4 different power plants from December 1st, 1964 through September 15th, 1965, including PP #s 21, 46, 37 and 29.
#10: MR #105908, 12/19/64: “2. Hood ornament stolen.” [Note: A not uncommon occurrence as the hood ornament was highly prized by souvenir hunters.]
#11: MR #105304, 8/9/65: “1. R&R GAS GENERATOR. TURBINE SIEZED.” [Note: #11 still exists.]
#12: MR #51145, 3/22/65: “Frt. bumper grille assy. and parking light housing were damaged during User period. This damage was done when wash rack hooked to bumper grille assy to pull car through wash rack.”
#13: MR #51017, 1/18/65: “Oil was leaking from power turbine bearing. Oil fire in regenerator cores.”
#14: MR #51075, 5/17/65: “7. Contact Hartford Ins Co. Re-wife backed into husbands new Buick.-Rear of Turbine & front of Rivieras don’t fit too well together”.
#15: MR #105685, 4/28/65: “Car to be used as back up car at New York Worlds Fair.”
#16: MR #106676, 6/14/65: “Replace seat belts. New belts with retractors.” [Note: Retractable seat belts were being installed in Chrysler’s production car lines beginning with the 1964 models.]
#17: MR #105702, 6/29/65: The user “said he was showing the car to an interested party at the time. The driver’s door was open, and a woman driver drove her car right into the end of it.”
#18: MR #106682, 6/30/65: “0-60 14 sec. With 2 people & ½ tank of fuel.”
#19: MR #105642, 2/13/65: “Upon removal of #G30R it was noted that center electrode had been scraped clean. Questioning of user disclosed that he, user, had on his own removed center electrode in an attempt to clean.”
#20: MR #106642, 5/24/65: “Ordered left windshield wiper pivot. Housing cracked.” [Note: This problem plagued a number of cars during the UEP.]
#21: MR #105644, 2/17/65: “Inspection of fuel system disclosed considerable water. Necessary to drain tank, clean system and filters.”
#22: MR #61367, 10/25/65: “This car was used as a static display car at the New York World’s Fair.” . . . “Souvenir hunters took their toll on this car.”
#23: MR #51124, 3/11/65: “Brake lining worn 70%-replaced lining and checked drums for out of round condition.” [Note: The Turbine cars were rough on brakes, as noted in many of the Mechanical Reports.]
#24: MR #105146, 10/21/64: “User ran into a flock of pheasants knocking off the left door outside mirror.”
#25: MR #106204, 12/5/64: “Update electrical system according to bulletins 29 & 31.” [Note: The shop manual was supplemented by a series of technical service bulletins and service letters.]
#26: MR #51177, 4/12/65: “Modify vehicle for Worlds Fair operation.”
#27: MR #105293, 6/11/65: “1. SHIM LEFT FRONT SEAT UP ¾”. (DRIVER IS 5’-2” TALL).”
#28: MR #105729, 6/10/65: “Dealer sub-let repair and refinish of damage to left front fender and door and touched up left rear quarter panel. This damage occurred while user was refueling car in his own yard.”
#29: MR #51140, 3/17/65: “Right arm rest torn due to interference between seat back and arm rest. Trim shop recovered arm rest.”
#30: MR #51182, 4/18/65: “User damaged front wheel & tires. Slid into curb during winter.” . . . “User ran into rear of another car.” [Note: #30 still exists.]
#31: MR #51197, 5/17/65: “Car in accident in St. Louis, Mo. enroute to Pittsburgh, Pa.” [Note: #31 still exists.]
#32: MR #51095, 6/28/65: “2. REMOVED SOLENOID AND FOUND TERMINAL WIRE BROKEN INTERNALLY DUE TO TERMINAL VIBRATION, RESOLDERED SAME AND OPERATION WAS NORMAL. SOLENOID GOOD AS NEW NOW.”
#33: This Turbine car was out of service from 12/12/64-12/24/64. It required the R&R of two new, turbine power plants. After that work was completed, according to MR #105170, “as car was being backed off hoist the oil pump drive shaft sheared off.”
#34: MR #105947, 2/2/65: “PREVIOUS ATTEMPT TO ELIMINATE THE NOISE BY INSTALLING A NEW STARTER WAS UNSUCCESSFUL.” . . . “REPLACED THE ACCESSORY GEAR BOX.” [Note: #34 still exists.]
#35: MR #105936, 12/24/64 “SPECIAL NOTE THIS VEHICLE WAS EXPOSED TO 100 + MILE AN HOUR WINDS WHICH CAUSED A GRAVEL STORM” . . . “THE CAR SUFFERED SEVERE DAMAGE.” [Note: Car #35 was removed from the user about five weeks before his allotted time was up so all of the gravel storm damage could be repaired. His user period actually went from 11/9/64-12/31/64, and not to 2/9/65 as officially published.]
#36: MR #51108, 2/5/65: “User ran into back end of a panel truck damaging front end of Turbine car.”
#37: Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. also provided personal injury coverage to the user(s). As noted in Chrysler Corporation letter dated February 4th, 1965, “Medical payments coverage is available for injuries sustained to persons entering into or alighting from the insured vehicle.” This clarification of the insurance came up as an issue when the wife of one of the users smashed her thumb in the door of a Turbine car and incurred medical-related expenses for her treatment.
#38: MR #51024, 1/26/65: “Hood pad eaten away above engine by rats while car was parked in User’s garage.”
#39: MR #105956, 1/13/65: “4. Heater had overheated causing smoke and odor in car. Defroster ducts were melted.”
#40: MR #106227, 2/11/65: “Replace engine 041 with 010. Engine developed oil fire which destroyed cores.”
#41: This particular Turbine car was put into service as a New York City VIP vehicle through at least January 1966. [Note: It would have been a stable mate to the Imperial Parade Phaeton, which was another non-production, Chrysler VIP vehicle.]
#42: In a letter dated February 5th, 1965, from the Midwest Turbine Coordinator to the user, was written the following passage: “As you know I have a master key which will eliminate the need for anyone to be at home when I pick the car up.” The “universal key” operated all cylinders & locks in all of the UEP Turbine cars. [Note: Car #42 still exists.]
#43: MR #106192, 12/11/64: “Careless filling of tank was causing spillage of fuel down fender apron. User was advised to watch for this in future.”
#44: MR #105473, 3/3/65: “User reported no-start condition, no light off. At the writer’s request, dealer towed car in, cleaned all fuel filters. Dealer found car to be out of fuel.” [Note: Car #44 still exists.]
#45: MR #105714, 5/8/65: “This car had ‘water in fuel problems’ during its use period. There was quite a bit of dirt in the filters.”
#46: MR #106620, 11/27/64: “Grille damage. Occurred in auto wash. User apparently, in starting car, placed gear selector in park while still hooked to moving chain. Hook or chain broke and badly damaged lower grille area.”
#47: MR #105480, 3/16/65: “User called to inform us that he had damaged the right rear quarter panel on turbine car, while parking the car in his garage.” [Note: Car #47 still exists.]
#48: MR#106220, 2/4/65: “Body damaged by hail. Repair body as per estimate.” The estimate was $99.66.
#49: MR #61358, 10/14/65: “The New Jersey state inspection was due on this car, during the month of Oct. Car was inspected and returned to user.”
#50: MR #61472, 8/24/65: “Car serviced per Product Planning request.”
|Chrysler Corp. President L.L. “Tex” Colbert holding his hand to the “cool” exhaust of the 1954 Belvedere Turbine Special. A breakthrough in regenerator technology allowed for such a photo-op.|
|Dr. Huebner and crew pose with the CR1 turbine and transmission assembly as it hangs from a chain hoist above the 1954 Plymouth Belvedere. 120 shaft hp equaled 160 hp generated by a conventional, motor vehicle engine of the time period.|
|1955 Plymouth Turbine Special with Chrysler technician (George Stecher) under the hood. Nestled between the fenders is the CR1 power plant. All of the 1954-62 Turbine Specials were destroyed.|
|Chrysler Corp. President Lynn Townsend watches intently as the turbine power plant and transmission assembly are being raised up into the engine bay on the Turbine car assembly line. The bodies were crafted by Ghia of Torino, Italy, and then they were shipped to the U.S. for Chrysler to finish the balance of the work.|
|May 14, 1963, unveiling of one of the
prototype, Chrysler Turbine cars at New York’s Roosevelt Raceway. Outfitted with the 4th generation, A-831 power
plant, a total of 50 identically painted, trimmed and equipped “production” cars participated in the user evaluation
program from 1963-1966.
This car was the only one painted white and wasused in the movie "The Lively Set"
|Overhead view of the 1963 Chrysler Turbine’s engine bay. Dr. Huebner was unwavering in his belief that the turbine power plant was a practical alternative to the reciprocating piston-based, internal combustion engine.|
|Mr. & Mrs. Richard Vlaha of Chicago, IL, were the first of the 203 users in the Turbine car evaluation program, which began in October 1963. Chrysler Corp. President Lynn Townsend is on the right. The Vlahas are still alive and there is a Turbine-themed website being constructed at vlaha.com.|
|A scanned copy of a certificate of registration for one of the Turbine cars during the UEP. Note the declared price of the car for registration fee/tax purposes. The Turbines had to comply with all 48 contiguous states’ motor vehicle registration, titling and passenger car safety inspection laws.|
|The highlighted chassis components include the battery, air intake, power plant, front suspension system, exhaust ducts and rear suspension system. During the user evaluation program, when something bad happened to the regenerators, it was necessary to replace the entire power plant assembly.|
|View of the Chrysler Turbine car with VP of Design Elwood P. Engel. Engel is generally credited with the overall design of the 1963 Chrysler Turbine car, which has held up well over the succeeding decades. Ghia’s handcraftsmanship of the bodies resulted in non-interchangeable body panels between the fifty cars. When a mishap occurred, it required much effort to repair, and save, the damaged panel.|
|Front driver’s side view of Turbine car #9912-31 after a traffic accident. The Turbine cars that participated in the user evaluation program were subjected to all sorts of mishaps and calamities. Most were minor, but a few incidents tested the Turbine team’s considerable talents.|
|Rear ¾ view of one of the Turbine cars during the summer of 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. By 1965, Chrysler would have a total of 3 Turbine cars at its New York World’s Fair exhibit: Two for giving rides to the public and one for static display. The display car became a victim of souvenir hunters by the time the NYWF ended in October 1965. Does anybody still have a Turbine hood ornament or wheel cover stashed in the attic or closet from one of the 50 cars?|
|Text by Karl Pippart III based on original source materials from the Archives of Classic Auto Research Service. History of Chrysler Corporation Gas Turbine Vehicles March 1954-June 1966 by Chrysler Corporation Engineering Office Technical Information; revised edition, August 1966. PLYMOUTH 1946-1959 by Jim Benjaminson; Motorbooks International; 1994. All photographic images credited to Classic Auto Research Service except for the white Turbine car (Credit: UPI Photo).|
Page last updated - 10-24-2013