by David Fetherson & Tony Thacker
“The Car of The Future” was the descriptor used in reference to the Chrysler Turbine when it was unveiled at Essex House in New York City on May 14, 1963. The event signaled the public launch of Chrysler’s plan to build 50 such cars and have the public test them under everyday conditions.
Customer reaction tours of CR2A-engined turbine cars had been held in 1962, and later that year the company announced it would build 75 cars for public evaluation. That number was eventually scaled back to 50—nonetheless an ambitious program.
The story behind the car’s design is far more fascinating than its powerplant, which the testing public ultimately deemed too thirsty and lacking in power. In 1960, after ousting William C. Newberg from the presidency, chairman of the board Tex Colbert hired Lynn A. Townsend as administrative vice president. Once his feet were under the desk, Townsend voiced his dislike for Virgil Exner’s designs, and in particular his latest penchant for debuting new styling ideas on low-priced models like the Valiant instead of top-end models. Despite profits of $11 million in 1961 (and $65 million in 1962), Townsend began to talk about a different direction and in November hired Elwood Engel from Ford.
Engel, who had been passed over at Ford, now became vice president of styling. Exner would continue for a time as a consultant. Meanwhile, according to Dana Waterman, Maury Baldwin was initially assigned to design the turbine car. Waterman, who was with Baldwin at the time as
studio engineer, said in a recent interview, “Maury tried hard to point out that the relatively low-powered, slow-accelerating turbine engine would perform poorly in a conventional production car. It wouldn’t fit the high-tech, jet age image of a turbine engine. Baldwin was proposing a small mid-engine two-seater along the lines of the Fiat X1/9. Evidently, he didn’t consider, or hadn’t been told about, the coming 50-car test-drive program, for which the two-seater would have been ill suited. It was about this time that Chuck Mashigan came over from Ford and was assigned to the Advance studio.
“Engel wanted something like a Thunder-bird and kept telling him, ‘Come on Maury, get hot!’ and Maury kept refining his little rear-engine job. Finally, Bob Bingman, who was at a level between Maury and Elwood, told him that he couldn’t keep on being diametrically opposed to the boss’s direction. There was a heated discussion and the upshot was that Maury was removed and offered a grade-8 job with Chuck Mitchell in Interiors. He, of course, turned it down and left the company to set up a successful design shop on his own.
“Sometime after his arrival at Chrysler, Chuck Mashigan was called up to Elwood’s office. When he got there, Elwood opened a book to a certain page and said to Chuck, ‘You know that one all right, don’t you?’ Chuck said, ‘I sure do; that’s a fiberglass T-Bird model I did while I was in the Ford studio.’ Engel told him, ‘Well, we’re going to put a turbine engine in that car, Chuck, and you’re going to be in complete charge of the body design.’”
Of course, Engel, as vice president, has always been credited with the design, which, because of its similarity to the Thunderbird, was often nicknamed the “Engelbird.” Credit notwithstanding, Chuck’s initial design was for a two-seater coupe complete with turbine references on the head and taillights, as well as the hubcaps.
The two-seater design was quickly parlayed into a four-seater, which retained the turbine motifs. Finished inside and out in Turbine Bronze, the 50-or-so four-seater two-door hardtops were built by Ghia in Turin, Italy, and shipped to Detroit, where the “fifth-generation” engines were installed. Incidentally, Luigi Segre had died unexpectedly that February. Assembly in Detroit was slow with about one car being built each week.
About 40 were loaned out for consumer evaluation, 203 people having been selected from 30,000 who applied to Chrysler to be part of the pilot program. The first was delivered to Mr. Richard Vlaha in Broadview, near Chicago, in October 1963. Chrysler took care of servicing plus insurance and running costs, but the consumer was expected to pay for fuel, maintain the appearance, and complete the evaluation paperwork.
In all, over one million miles were racked up during the program, which lasted until 1966. The styling was the number one compliment, but drivers also liked the ease of starting no matter the weather. They appreciated the mechanical attributes of the engine, but about one-third of the users complained about inadequate performance, especially slow acceleration from a standstill.
Perhaps, when all was said and done, Baldwin had been right, and a small, lightweight two-seater was what was needed to sell turbine power to the public.