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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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Jay Leno on gas turbine powered cars...

I  was most fortunate to acquire recently what I think is one of the most collectible post-war cars ever made – the Chrysler turbine car.

For those of us of a certain age, this is an iconic car. I first saw it at the World’s Fair in 1964. In fact it was the only reason I went to the World’s Fair. I was 14 years old and I had heard that they had a turbine car running around in a pit. You looked down on the car and it drove in this pit – a fifth of a mile long or thereabouts – and it sort of went in circles.

I was mesmerized because this really seemed like the jet age: it epitomized everything you thought the future would mean.

I remember reading articles at the time that said the piston engine would be obsolete within 10 years – ‘Is this the future?’  

In fact I actually built my own turbine car, the Eco Jet, which is a running, driving car on the streets of Los Angeles right now, because I never thought I’d be able to acquire one.

Although Rover built the first turbine car, Chrysler came closer than anyone to putting one into production. Back in the early ’60s Chrysler did something that would not even be possible today in our litigious society. They came up with 50 turbine cars and the idea was that they would give them to 203 members of the public: everyone from doctors and dentists to college students. The oldest person to get one was 83, the youngest was 20. They would drive the car for 90 days and keep a diary saying what they liked and what they didn’t like.

Don’t forget, the jet airplane was reasonably new when all this happened. You had an engine in a car that was spinning at 44,000rpm; a whole new type of power plant that could bring untold riches or untold dangers. And they just released these jet cars into society. Amazing…

At the time the Chrysler turbine car came out, it ran on any type of fuel that would burn with oxygen. When they took it to Mexico City they ran it on tequila; in Paris they ran it on perfume. But in early ’60s America gas was 25 cents a gallon so there was no real advantage to having an alternative-fuel vehicle. In fact it was a disadvantage, because the turbine can’t run on leaded gasoline and that’s all that was available in America at the time. So people had to go out of their way, to truck stops and places, to try to find diesel fuel. It was considered a huge hindrance.

Driving my turbine car today I fill it up with diesel, which is now much cheaper in America than gasoline is. But it will also burn on anything – biodiesel, peanut oil, vegetable oil, anything. The Chrysler gets about 19 miles to the gallon on the freeway, which isn’t bad for a turbine, but around town the mileage is not good because the engine idles at 22,000rpm. But it’s quiet and extremely smooth. The big trick at the dealership was to run the engine, stand a nickel on top, on its side, and not have it fall over.
The cool thing about the turbine is that it’s not a turbine engine put in an existing body or chassis: the car was designed by a man named Elwood P Engel, who also designed the Thunderbird, and the bodies were styled by Ghia in Italy. It’s quite stylish and restrained, by ’60s standards.

What’s nice about my Chrysler is that it’s 100% original – original paint, original interior. Since it belonged to a corporation, I’m the first owner.In a sense I’ve bought a brand new version, even though it has 60,000 miles on it, of the same car I saw at the World’s Fair.

Chrysler built a total of 55, including five prototypes. Of those, 46 were destroyed when, because of upcoming emissions and fuel economy standards, it didn’t look like the gas turbine programme was going to go. Nine were given to museums, three cars currently run, and there are only two now in private hands – mine and another car that belongs to a friend of mine in Indiana.

The great advantage of turbines is that they are relatively simple, with few moving parts. The bad news is that when something goes wrong it’s usually catastrophic. I don’t think turbines will be used now because they have the same problem the Wankel had: they do what a traditional engine does just as well, but don’t do it better. And that’s the key.

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