The Rise And Fall Of America's Jet-Powered CarS

We almost had jet-powered cars. Chrysler quietly developed a Jet-powered car in the 1960s. Steve Lehto's new book Chrysler's Turbine Car explains how bureaucracy killed one of Detroit's engineering triumphs. —Ed.

On a blustery December day in 1953, George Huebner Jr. and his fellow engineers at Chrysler rolled a top-secret car out of a garage in Highland Park, Michigan. No one outside Chrysler knew the car existed. In fact, it was hardly known within Chrysler. The 1954 Plymouth Belvedere didn't appear special until it was started. First a high-pitched whine, then a whooshing roar, split the cold air. It sounded like a jet. Powered by a jet turbine engine, the car roared without vibration. 


Over the next two decades, Huebner and his engineers from the Chrysler Turbine Lab would build more than seventy "jet" cars, including a fleet of fifty that would be lent to the public in an unprecedented publicity campaign. The plan worked to perfection as the cars logged over a million trouble-free miles on five different continents.

The Rise And Fall Of America's Jet-Powered CarS

The turbine engines required some unusual manufacturing processes, but the team hoped those issues, which would be quite expensive to resolve, could be addressed after they had proved the viability of the turbine cars. The cars also offered a solution to a problem that even Huebner and his colleagues could not have foreseen: the cars ran on any flammable liquid. Not just gasoline but diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, peanut oil, alcohol, tequila, perfume, and many other substances fueled Huebner's turbine cars at one time or another. Because this was pre-OPEC—and no one could have guessed that gasoline would ever cost more than a fraction of a dollar a gal-lon—the car's ability to burn a wide range of fuels was largely overlooked.

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 U.S. dependence on Middle East oil.

The Promise of the Jet Age

In the decades following World War II, the jet engine symbolized new technology that would propel the average American into the life of the future. After all, the cartoon "stone age family" was the Flintstones; the "space age family" was the Jetsons. Cars wore jetlike tailfins and other design touches to make them look as if they were designed by NASA and might wander off the planet one day. In 1962, John F. Kennedy announced to the world that America would lead the space race by sending a man to the moon and back. Science and technology were making promises that attracted attention and sparked imaginations. Soon, it seemed, we could all travel by rockets and jets.

The jet turbine, in its most basic form, is a relatively simple concept. Imagine a tube with a fan at the front—the "compressor" rotor—and a fan at the back—the "turbine" rotor. Run a shaft through them both, spray fuel between the rotors, inside the tube, and ignite it. When the air and fuel ignite, the combustion gives off hot gases, which expand and force their way past the turbine rotor. This causes the shaft connecting the rotors to turn, spinning the compressor at the front end of the tube. The compressor rotor will draw in fresh air and, as the blades gain speed, push more air into the combustion chamber. As more air gets forced into the chamber, the reaction becomes increasingly stronger; the rotors reach amazing speeds if everything is set up right. The exhaust from this contraption can put out enough thrust to push something as large as an airplane. Direct the exhaust at another set of fan blades that turn a gear set and the turbine can run a variety of devices: boats, trains, generators—even automobiles.

The jet turbine developed rapidly during World War II, largely driven by British and German research. Each country claimed an inventor with a patent on a jet turbine engine. Britain's Frank Whittle patented his design in 1930, while Germany's Hans von Ohain registered his with the German patent office in 1936. Both countries rushed to develop a turbine engine that could create enough thrust to power an airplane just as they went to war against each other. The later patent date of the German engine didn't reflect who flew first; the Luftwaffe put a jet aircraft into flight in 1939 and was using operational fighter jets in 1943. The British got theirs off the ground a couple of years after the Germans, and the jet race was on. Soon, inspired by the successes of the British and Germans, engineers around the globe were developing turbine technology.

The Rise And Fall Of America's Jet-Powered CarS

Chrysler began researching turbines in the late 1930s, for both civilian and military use. Its leader in this field was a brilliant engineer named George Huebner Jr. Huebner had been born in Detroit in 1910 and seemed destined to work in the auto industry. His grandfather had sold parts to Henry Ford and, not believing in credit, had required Ford to pay "cash on the barrel head" for all parts delivered. His father was a stockbroker who published Tooling and Production magazine while Huebner was growing up. Huebner told interviewers he began tinkering with cars when he was ten, around the time he decided he wanted to be an engineer. A family legend told of how the ten-year-old Huebner came across a stranded motorist with his car in a ditch near the family cottage at Port Huron. Huebner asked the man if he needed help getting his car restarted. The motorist handed his keys to the confident young man, apparently not believing the car would be going anywhere before he returned with a tow truck. As the motorist walked away, Huebner popped the hood and soon had the car running again. He pulled it onto the road and drove it to the nearest driveway, where he left it for the motorist to find later.

Huebner did so well in school that he skipped a few grades and enrolled at the University of Michigan at the age of sixteen. At first he studied economics, thinking he might follow in his father's footsteps and become a broker. But he soon turned his attention to engineering. Before he obtained his degree, he began working for Chrysler. He eventually completed his mechanical engineering degree from Michigan by taking classes in his spare time.

Among the projects Huebner worked on at Chrysler was the A-86 aircraft turbine project. The A-86 was a turboprop aircraft—an airplane with propellers driven by jet engines. Although the fighter plane in which the engine was installed flew successfully, World War II ended shortly thereafter and further plans for its use were scrapped.

During the immediate postwar era, most engineers thought jet turbines, though fine for aircraft, would not be suitable for use in cars. Their main reasons were that the engines could never be made small enough to fit under a car's hood, that turbines burn too much fuel, and that the exotic materials needed for the intricate parts would be too expensive. But Huebner and some of the other engineers he worked with thought otherwise. Even as they worked on traditional automobile powerplants, Huebner and his colleagues would sit around, often after hours, discussing the possibilities of a turbine-powered car.

The British hadn't quit working on turbines after the war, and they were leading the way in placing one under the hood of a car. A 1950 <i<Motor Trend article entitled "Will Gas Turbines Propel the Car of Tomorrow?" began with the sentence: "There's no reason why not. That's right . . . none." Lightness and simplicity were obvious advantages. The gas turbine weighed less than a piston engine of equivalent strength, and it had far fewer moving parts. It was also easier to work on and burned a wider range of fuels. The arguments laid out in the article were so compelling that a reader might have thought the piston engine was doomed.

And research was being conducted worldwide, according to the article. A company in Czechoslovakia was developing a turbine-powered car. The French were said to have a working prototype. The British had several companies racing ahead on developing a turbine car, including the venerable Land Rover. In the United States, even Boeing was known to be working on an automotive gas turbine. Motor Trend noted that the firms working on the engines were "all airplane manufacturers . . . and they're the ones who are making no secret of their gas turbine research. But we can be sure that NO major auto manufacturer is ignoring the new power source in [its] plans for the future."

Motor Trend didn't know about the clandestine turbine research being conducted in Highland Park, Michigan, by George Huebner and company. Bud Mann, an engineer who worked on turbines at Chrysler for over thirty years, later said,

The A-86 program [for military aircraft] fueled an idea that had been germinating in the minds of several Chrysler Research engineers for some time. Chief among them were Sam Williams, Dave Borden, and Bill Chapman, all dedicated engineers entranced with the notion that the smooth power surge of a turbine would provide an incredible experience in a passenger automobile. But the outstanding character and moving force of that program was George Huebner. He made this project his whole career, perhaps even to the detriment of others, which should have received a bigger share of the research pie. But, right or wrong, it is clear that the project could not have gone nearly as far as it did without a person of his dedication and personality.

At the time of the turbine program, Huebner was Chrysler's director of research, an office he had achieved by climbing steadily through the ranks at the automaker. In 1946 he had been named chief engineer of Chrysler, and he marked his tenure by placing more emphasis on the basics—chemistry, metallurgy, and physics. He was an early adopter of the electron microscope and the computer; he was even given an award by the Society of Automotive Engineers for his use of the computer in 1959.

Huebner also did not confine his work to automobiles. He spent time with Chrysler's missile program—in the 1950s and '60s Chrysler built guided missiles for the U.S. government—and he helped develop a turboprop engine for the military. The turboprop engine coupled a jet engine with a gearbox and a large propeller.

The Rise And Fall Of America's Jet-Powered CarS

Huebner sat down with his engineers and laid out the project as he saw it. He led them methodically through the process of bringing the concept to a practical conclusion. The first step compared the characteristics of aircraft to the requirements of an automotive engine. The result was sobering, according to Mann. "Aircraft turbines consume six to eight times as much air as a piston engine; in the process, they devour fuel like sharks in a school of tuna; hot end materials are very exotic; cost is generally of little or no consequence."

Worst of all, "There is no such thing as 'light load'—they don't idle worth a damn." The reference to cost referred to how, up until this point, turbines had been developed by the military, with its almost limitless budget. The same would not be true for Chrysler, whose engineers would have to find ways to design an economically feasible engine. Huebner divided the engineering hurdles they faced into categories of descending difficulty. The first category was a set of engineering problems that "looked impossible and which would require early solution before we could concede even to ourselves that we had a possibility" of success. 


Huebner would become known as the father of Chrysler's turbine program, and almost all photographic evidence of the era contains images of Huebner standing near his turbines, grinning like a proud father. But while Huebner was the one who shepherded the program through Chrysler, it was an engineer named Sam B. Williams who overcame the technical obstacles of making the automotive turbine viable.

Williams was born in Seattle in 1921. He attended Purdue University, where he obtained a doctorate in mechanical engineering. He came to Chrysler during the war. Everyone knew him as Doctor Williams, but his closest friends called him Sam. Although he worked closely with the flamboyant Huebner, Williams couldn't have been more different in his demeanor. Bad eyesight forced him to commit large quantities of data to memory, and he often spoke softly. In later years an interviewer, when he asked a colleague why Williams didn't speak more loudly, was told Williams didn't need to speak up. People listened to him; he was a "man used to being listened to."

Visitors to his office in later years would ask about the rows of mini-cassette tapes he had lined up on his desk. Was he dictating letters faster than his secretary could type? No, his assistant would record himself reading technical journals and give the tapes to Dr. Williams. That way he could stay on top of the latest advances in the industry. On one occasion, a journalist insisted on an interview with Williams, and he finally relented. The writer hurried to town only to find Williams away on "last minute" business. He got a great tour of the facility where Williams manufactured jet engines and spoke to Williams on the phone, but he never knew if Williams had simply dodged him.

One of the first tasks Williams tackled was developing a turboprop engine for the U.S. Navy. Williams became fascinated by the concept of the turbine engine. He knew it was simpler than a piston engine and had fewer parts, and he believed it could be scaled up or down depending on the needs of the project. By 1946, Williams was submitting patent applications to Washington describing his improvements on the gas turbine power-plant; before he was done he held seventy-six patents on turbine engines.

Williams had no doubt that the turbine could be scaled smaller to fit into a car. Through innovation and invention, Williams and his engineers worked through all the problems others saw with the automotive turbine. After eight or nine years on the automotive project, Huebner and Williams rolled out a working turbine-powered automobile in 1953.

Was the end near for the piston-engine auto? Motor Trend thought so. In 1950 it had written:

The competitive life-expectancy of the good old internal combustion engine is predictably short. As so often happens in history, first solutions to problems are complicated ones, steadily simplified in practice until, one day, the original solution has only historical interest. At any rate, prepare to welcome the greatest prime mover development since Watt harnessed the teakettle and un-harnessed the horse.

Bud Mann joined the team in 1950. Mann had been teaching mechanical engineering at Lawrence Institute of Technology in Southfield, Michigan, for three years when he decided to stop talking about engineering and go out and actually do some. He applied for a job at Chrysler because of its gas turbine program. The job didn't promise much career advancement, but the area of work was cutting edge. He found the assignment challenging, calling upon everything he had learned in school and as a professor.

One of Mann's first assignments was to spin turbine wheel discs to destruction in a lead-lined "spin pit" and study the resulting "garbage" for clues as to how to improve the design. "My reputation as 'chief trash picker' grew with each bursting wheel. Bill Chapman and I still carry mementos of one spectacular test when the lid of the spin chamber lifted, oh so briefly, at the instant of failure. We spent two rather painful hours in Chrysler's medical office while a nurse gingerly picked tiny bits of lead and high nickel alloy from our arms and bellies."

On another occasion, Mann ran a prototype turbine inside a test cell. The turbine's internal parts were those they were considering using, but the makeshift housing of the unit was sheet metal. If everything ran fine, they'd eventually make the housing sturdier. Mann ran the engine up to full speed and watched the gauges of his dynamometer. Suddenly there was an explosion as a piece of the power turbine blasted through the side of the sheet metal housing and punched a hole in a nearby wall. Mann duly noted there was a flaw in the turbine wheel, grateful that the piece of turbine wheel hadn't flown his way on its exit from the turbine. 


Before 1950, the United States was self-sufficient with respect to energy. In other words, it was capable of manufacturing or producing as much energy as it needed. If it chose to buy oil from Saudi Arabia or some other faraway place, it was only because the price was right. Gasoline prices stayed low and petroleum was plentiful. Nobody gave much thought to fueling up the huge cars of the day while gasoline prices routinely hovered below twenty-five cents a gallon. The writing was on the wall, though. In 1947, the United States had exported more oil than it imported.

By 1950, it was importing more oil than it was exporting. Once the situation tipped, there was no coming back.

This was an excerpt from the forward and first chapter of Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise And Fall Of Detroit's Coolest Creation on sale now, reprinted with the permission of the author Steven Lehto and the publisher.