The piston engine has been the king of the transportation industry for well over a century now. It has been manufactured so much that it has become a sort of general-purpose machine that can be used to do quite a bit more than merely move people and cargo from one point to another. Running generators, hydraulic systems, pumps, and heavy machinery are but a few examples of that.
Scale production of this technology also had the effect of driving prices for these engines down, and now virtually everyone in the developed world has cheap and easy access to them. In the transportation world, at least, it looks like its reign might finally be coming to a slow, drawn-out conclusion as electric cars capture more and more market share.
Electric motors aren’t the first technology to try to topple the piston engine from its apex position on top of our modern transportation industry, though. In the 1960s another technology, the gas turbine engine, tried to replace it — and failed.
Gas turbines are a type of internal combustion engine, but rather than using pistons to turn linear motion into rotational motion, the gas turbine compresses an air/fuel mixture, burns it, and uses the pressure created to drive a turbine. The turbine can be connected to anything in a similar way that a piston engine can. In fact, a mechanical connection to the turbine isn’t even necessary, such as with jet engines that simply use the pressure created by burning the fuel to produce thrust. With such versatility, it wasn’t too long before someone put one in a car and attempted to market it.
The fact that a gas turbine was put into a car isn’t altogether surprising. There have been jet engine-powered Volkswagens for making one’s PhD relevant, gas turbine motorcycles for breaking the land speed record, and even pulse jet engine go-karts built out of little more than scrap metal and hope. In the late 50s and early 60s, too, there was a little bit of a jet engine craze going on because turbines were seen as the technology of the future. All of that aside, what is really surprising is that a major car company, Chrysler, thought there was enough going for the gas turbine engine that it could build a car with one and that people might actually buy it.
Chrysler engineers couldn’t simply “bolt on” a turbine engine, though. For production cars, many issues had to be resolved such as emissions (even in the mid-20th century there were at least some standards), heating, cooling, and noise reduction. It took almost three decades to get the first prototype working, but after a series of tests and finally a trip from New York to Los Angeles in a later prototype vehicle, Chrysler started investing more heavily in the technology and began work on what would eventually be the only production car ever to run on a gas turbine engine.
While it might seem counter-intuitive to try such a radical new design when the piston engine had been thoroughly proven, gas turbines have a number of advantages over their reciprocating cousins. First, the parts count is lower, and the number of moving parts is even lower than that. Furthermore, the size and weight for engines of comparable power is much lower for gas turbines. They also have the advantage of being able to run on virtually any combustible liquid (Chrysler demonstrated their turbine car by running it on perfume at one event and on tequila at another). Additionally, at sustained high speeds they are extremely efficient. On the other hand, though, the high idle speed, poor throttle response, and pitiful efficiency at varying low speeds is a difficult challenge for these engines to overcome. And, in the early 60s gasoline was so cheap that the ability to burn unconventional fuels wasn’t a concern for most people.
Despite the challenges, Chrysler eventually built 50 production turbine cars. After realizing that the market wasn’t quite where it needed to be to deal with the engine’s shortcomings, Chrysler had almost all of the cars destroyed. Only a handful remain in existence today, and while most are in museums there are two working cars that are privately owned. While many speculate on the reasons that the turbine program was scrapped, the likely culprit was the financial trouble that Chrysler got themselves into in the late 60s. As a company, Chrysler has been limping along through bankruptcies, buyouts, and their own corporate inertia since this car was produced, which is a shame for how much innovation they showed when they had the money.
Turbine cars never took off because many of the advantages they showed weren’t applicable half a century ago, while almost all of the benefits of those cars are things that buyers look for today. Reliability, ability to burn alternative fuels, and efficiency. Ironically, all of these are benefits that electric cars have, and people are buying those in greater and greater numbers now. Perhaps turbine cars would be more accepted today if electric cars hadn’t been able to meet these needs.
Technology aside, the failure of the gas turbine engine to replace reciprocating engines in motor vehicles was more a function of economics and politics of the time than of actual usability. Now that these concerns are relevant again we’re seeing just how precarious of a position the reciprocating piston engine has been in all along. Even the gas turbine wasn’t the only internal combustion engine to try to shake up the market. The reciprocating piston engine’s low efficiency, high parts count and complexity, difficulty of performing major repairs, and the rising cost of fuel worldwide almost made its decline guaranteed at some point or another. While the gas turbine wasn’t ultimately the technology to replace pistons, it was a notable achievement that one was ever produced in a motor vehicle at all, let alone as early as the 1960s.