- Hero image by Matt Parsons. In-text images taken from open-access internet

Mates, some of you may have already noticed that I am a future-oriented person. If you asked me: “What period in history would you like to live in?”, I would probably answer: “2300s, maybe 2500s”. Because that will be the time of Dyson spheres, warp drives, and immortality. At least, I imagine so.

But here is a trick. Future has always been a riddle from the past. A lot of people wanted to know what awaits them behind the corner, but none can uncover that before reaching the corner. Yes, you may object by naming a bunch of blokes with prophetic dreams and divination balls, bet even the “best” of them have never been 100% correct. At least, I never heard of such.

The science has also been wrong so many times! The science, actually, often gets riddled by things which work while they should not. Or by things should work, but they fail. Thus, the scientific diligence and mathematical logics are also not always flawless and depend on our, human, capacities to embrace the Universe. Quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

Then there are artists and creative thinkers. They often get inspired by technologies without consideration that such technologies may never happen. Because they will either be inefficient, impractical, or impossible to craft in our dimension. Let me take, for example, a French painter Jean-Marc Côté who drew the year 2000 way back in the 1900s. Looking at his paintings, you may find winged flying policemen, mop-looking robotic barbers, in-brain book uploaders, motorized travelling villas, wooden aero-cabs, heavy battle dirigibles, and other oddities. 

Therefore, guessing the future has always been a trick (though I would still risk jumping to 2500s). What seems to be no less interesting is that the humankind often experienced the future in the past, but forfeited it… for the sake of a different future. In other words, some of the uncanny technologies were successfully tested years ago, but no longer operate today. 

Here is what Jeremy Clarkson wrote in his book “I know you got soul” (2005) about the Concorde plane. Designed in the 1960s, the plane carried passengers at Mach 2 super-sonic speeds, but was sent to a museum in 2003 as inoportune:

“… as I walked off the plane for the last time, I remember thinking, ‘This is one small step for a man. But a giant leap backwards for mankind’ … We went to the moon and now we’re on our way to Mars. We invented the steam engine and immediately replaced it with internal combustion. We went to Mach 1 and then we went to Mach 2. We went across the Atlantic in three hours... and now we can’t anymore … Of course, we’ll still be able to go and see the old girl [Concorde – O.N.] in a museum. That’ll be strange though. Going to a museum to see the future. Except, of course, Concorde isn’t the future. It’s the last, tumultuous, nail-biting chapter of the past.”

Let me build on this Concorde’s example and gradually move to cars. Have you ever thought what will happen if you mount a turbine jet engine into a car? Will it look more futuristic? Will it work?

The paradox is that it will. 

The Chrysler Typhoon, better known as the Chrysler Turbine Car, was designed in the late 1950s by Elwood Engel and his team. The car’s shell was handcrafted by Italian design studio Ghia, which had earlier built Imperial limousine and the Norseman concepts for Chrysler. All in all, 50 identical turbine cars left production lines in Detroit between October of 1963 and 1964. They all were two-door hardtop coupés with air-over-oil power brakes and power steering. They all had copy-paste ignition keys. Their shells were invariably finished in a beer-coloured “turbine bronze” metallic paint. 

The Typhoons were put into motion by the A-831 Chrysler’s original unit. It weighted 186 kilograms and worked similarly to a jet engine. Its inventors were proud to declare that the A-831 had “only one spark plug and about 80 per cent fewer parts than a typical automotive piston engine.” Due to its construction, this engine did not require antifreeze, a cooling system, a radiator, connecting rods, or crankshafts. To make the magic happen, the air got compressed, heated, mixed with fuel in the burner, ignited, streamed into the turbine, and immediately cooled down. The engine had a sophisticated system of rotary regenerators which heated the air before it reached the burner and cooled it down after it did its job.

Running low on fuel? Find a supermarket! The A-831 could operate on any liquid which burned: diesel fuel, unleaded petrol, kerosene, vegetable oil, Chanel №5, nail polish remover, WD40, turpentine, and many others. Adolfo López Mateos, the President of Mexico (1958-1964), ran one of the Typhoons on tequila. Speaking of the power, the engine released 130 jet-horses at 36,000 rpm, who otherwise peacefully idled between 18,000 and 22,000 rpm. At the speed of ~200 km/h (120 mph), the A-831 reached its limits of 60,000 rpm. Six times as much rpm as the legendary Honda’s F20C can produce! 

To make the story even more beautiful, fifty Typhoons were lent to the people as a part of a user programme in 1964. All interested (and lucky!) drivers could test cars for three months for absolutely free, apart from paying for the fuel. In return, the Chrysler chaps expected a long talk with these drivers to discuss their experience. All in all, 203 Americans drove fifty cars for more that 1,6 million kilometres (1 million miles) all across the US. 

And this is where the beautiful story ends…

In April 1966, the Chrysler management recalled all cars and destroyed 46 of them. No user programmes or public displays were to be continued. 

The “official” explanation was that Ghia bodies cost too much to import and turbine engines too expensive to craft, which made the car unfitting the market. However, there also circulated a “conspiracy” explanation. Chrysler was afraid that the Typhoon owners would get irritated with the absence of servicing support and replace the state-of-the-art A-831 with a piston engine. Worse than that, as the time would pass, the world’s rare and unique Typhoons would end up on the scrapyard. Such a scenario risked tarnishing the good name of the Chrysler company and engineers. On top of everything, Chrysler faced financial difficulties in the 1960s and applied for governmental support. The government agreed but required to abandon researches on the turbine units as they proved to be fuel inefficient, polluting, and too risky to develop for such a big company as Chrysler was.

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Only nine Typhoons preserved up to now. You may find them in the museums and private ownerships (f.e. check in Jay Leno’s garage).

Now, the curious thing is that in the 1960s, when the Korean and Chinese engineers discovered the wonders of internal combustion, Americans were building jet cars. The latter are extinct today and, paradoxically, have never been replaced with anything similar. Isn’t this the future in the past?

But Americans were not the first to mount the turbine into an on-land vehicle. They were the most advanced adopters, but not pioneers.

In March 1950, British Rover rolled the JET1 prototype out to the public. That was a heavy cabriolet for two, the grand tourer, with the turbine engine fitted behind the seats. It also had distinguishing massive air grills in front and on sides. In 1951 the Rover engineers won the Dewar Trophy for their outstanding achievements; for you to know, none could win the Trophy since 1929. In June 1952, the JET1 hit ~240 km/h (~150 mhp) on the Jabbeke highway in Belgium, which was the ground-breaking speed for the mid-century, not only for the turbine vehicles. The JET1 is currently on display at the London Science Museum.

In 1954 Fiat presented its Turbina concept. That was the second such car in the world, but “the first turbine car built in Continental Europe,” as the manufacturer branded it. The Turbina had neither gearbox nor clutch. Its 300 bhp engine was mounted behind the driver’s seat and reached its maximum efficiency at 22,000 rpm. The car’s top speed was ~250 km/h (160 mph). The Turbina’s drag coefficient was as low as 0,14 and remained unmatched up to the mid-1980s. However, as it happens with Italian engineering, the concept looked good but did not drive well. It demonstrated an uncanny appetite for petrol and liked overheating. So, it was shelved. You can see it on display at the Automobile Museum of Turin today.

Then, in 1960s Rover starred again. Its jet-turbine sports car jointly developed with the British Racing Motors (BRM) participated in 24 hours of Le Mans in 1963 and 1965. In 1963, the Rover-BRM was marked as “experimental” and competed in its own category. In 1965 the car was allowed to join the stack of the 2-litre class cars. It performed impressively then, finishing tenth overall, seventh in the concept class, and the first British car. The average speed was ~160 km/h (98,8 mph) with the fuel consumption reaching ~17,4 l/km (13,51 mpg). Overall, in both Le Mans races the Rover-BRM survived all 24 hours with their performance being among top-10 in the 2-litre class.

French Renault also had its turbine attempt in the mid-1950s. It was called Étoile Filante and, regardless of roaring power and aerodynamic body, got shelved. The same thing happened to the Firebird concepts by American General Motors. 

In the late 1980s, a decade after Chrysler fully abandoned its turbine affair, Toyota showed off with the GTV concept (Gas Turbine Vehicle). It was based on the Carina chassis and engineered for the daily commute. Therefore, it was not fast (148 bhp), but well-suited for the city streets. It also looked good!

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Speaking of the most recent times, the Jaguar presented its C-X75 hybrid electric two-seater in 2010. The concept was also was turbine-powered, but somewhat indirectly. Both of its diesel-burning micro-turbines generated electrical currents, which fed the four motors, which produced 780 bhp. Such a solution allowed the car to roll for over 900 kilometres without re-charging or re-fuelling. It also looked environmentally friendly. 

However, the C-X75 was also shelved due to the economic crisis of the 2010s. Jaguar does not plan to invest in turbine-electric engineering any more, unlike the Chinese company Hybrid Kinetic with its H600 concept. These chaps took the idea, re-thought it, refined it, teamed up with Pininfarina, and voila! The luxury and affordable car of tomorrow with no range anxiety! For more details on the H600, read my previous article “Electric future. Battery reboot”. 

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But let me return to modern day America. Specifically, to Jay Leno’s garage where the EcoJet concept currently resides. This is a hand-crafted monster which was designed by the General Motors team around the Honeywell LTS101 helicopter turbine engine. The EcoJet develops 650 bhp and uses a lot of parts from a C5 Corvette to harness that power (including brakes and automatic transaxle). It is also veeeery noisy at its full throttle with exhaust temperatures reaching above 540°C (1000 Farengheit). By the way, the exhaust gases smell like French fries. 

The EcoJet was assembled for demonstrating the potential of a turbine technology in our environmentally friendly world. Aaaaand for some petrolhead showing off.

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After all said and done, if you think that the in-line six piston engine or the electric instant-torque motor are the coolest options to drive you into the future, then you were not paying attention. 

Or were you?

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