Chrysler was into "word-of-mouth" communications before there was any conception of "social media."
The heyday of the famed Chrysler Turbine car program occurred during the early and mid 1960s when the company let every-day families in the metro Detroit area and across the U.S. test drive one for up to three months at a time. According to Allpar.com, 50 cars were given to 200 drivers and families on a rotating basis 1963-65, from more than 25,000 applications.
Steve Lehto, raised in Birmingham, Mich., didn’t get to ride in any of the Chrysler Turbine Cars growing up, but definitely knew about them.
“I’ve been familiar with the [Chrysler Turbine Car] stories since I was a kid. You’d still see them from time to time when I was growing up,” said Lehto, 49, who still lives in metro Detroit and practices law from offices in Royal Oak, Mich.
Lehto is the author of Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation*, first published in 2010 by Chicago Review Press. Now in its second printing, the book includes a forward by famed auto collector – and late night talk show host Jay Leno. (*Be sure to check the bottom of the post to see how you can win an autographed copy of Lehto's book.)
“What everyone liked about [the Chrysler Turbine Car] was that it was an attempt to do something different,” Lehto said. “Everything about it was unique, and people saw it as a huge step forward for a manufacturer. It really resonated with people.”
Lehto said his childhood interest in the Chrysler Turbine Car was “reignited” about five years ago when his brother, Rick, mentioned in passing that he works with someone at Williams International who was involved with the program.
“It was one of those ‘aha!’ moments,” Lehto recalled as being inspired to dig into the turbine car program and write a book. “I interviewed a ton of guys at Williams,” added Lehto, who spent several years working on the book.
Williams International, which develops and manufactures small gas turbine engines, is the company many of the turbine car program engineers joined after the program ended in 1973.
Numerous publishers passed on the book, and it wasn’t until Jay Leno became involved that it finally found a publisher. One of Lehto’s previous books, Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder, was the focus of a newspaper advertisement, “Death’s Door Makes a Great Christmas Gift.” After Leno found out about the headline and mentioned it on his show around the 2006 Christmas holidays, Lehto sent him a copy – along with a manuscript of his turbine car book. A few months later, Leno called Lehto, said he how much he liked the manuscript.
It was a couple years before Lehto heard again from Leno when Leno called him “out of the blue” to ask how to get a hold of Bill Carry. Carry, who later would be on the cover of Lehto’s book, was one of the program’s engineers. Leno had just purchased a Chrysler Turbine Car and wanted Carry to walk him through it, show him the ins and outs.
Leno also invited Lehto to his garage the next time he was in California. A couple months later, Lehto took him up on the invitation. During the visit, Leno asked about the book. When Lehto said he was having trouble finding a publisher, Leno offered to write the forward to help.
With that plug from Leno, Lehto’s Chrysler Turbine Car manuscript was soon accepted by Chicago Review Press.
Lehto said the response to the book has been very positive and a bit surprising, especially from mainstream media. Early on when he was trying to find a publisher, Lehto was often told that it was just a “car” book and they don’t sell. The book has received reviews and coverage from the Wall Street Journal – being the first ever book it reviewed in September 2010 – New York Times, Vanity Fair and many other outlets.
With the success of the book, many more people, most former Chrysler employees have come forward and contacted Lehto about their involvement in the project. He said he has received mail, emails and phone calls from a lot of people involved either directly or indirectly with the project.
“The number of people who have made a point to go out of their way to say ‘thank you’ for the book is without a doubt a high point,” Lehto said.
As an example, in February, Lehto received a call from Frederick B. Wiggins, one of the chief engineers who developed the TorqueFlite transmission used in the Chrysler Turbine Car – which was used predominantly from 1956 through the early 1990s at Chrysler. Wiggins told Lehto he was able to go on numerous Turbine Car road trips, including on the one pictured. Of the 55 Turbine Cars made, only one or two were made without a vinyl top (second car) – like in the one the engineer drove.
What about an update to the book?
While nothing is in the works, Lehto said he’s heard enough stories and other information from all the people who have contacted him since the book’s publishing that it’s not out of the realm of possibilities.
For a chance to win a Steve Lehto-autographed copy of his book, in the comments below or via Twitter including #TurbineCar hashtag, simply answer:
- Which current Chrysler Group vehicle would you most like to see as a turbine-powered model and why.
From the comments and tweets, we'll randomly select five winners. Please, no more than one comment and one tweet per person. Entries must be submitted or tweeted on or before 11:59 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 9, 2011. We'll start contacting and announcing winners on Monday, April 11, 2011.
For reference, per Allpar.com, here are engine specs from the 1964 Chrysler Turbine Car:
- 130 horsepower at 3,600 rpm (output shaft speed); 425 lb-ft of torque at zero rpm!
- Weight: 410 lb - 25 inches long, 25.5 inches wide, 27.5 inches tall (without accessories, which make the overall length 35 inches).
- Fuel requirements: what've you got? diesel, unleaded gas, kerosene, JP-4, others. No adjustments needed to switch from one to the other.
- Compressor: centrifugal, single-stage compressor with 4:1 pressure ratio, 80% efficiency, 2.2 lb/sec air flow
- First stage turbine: axial, single-stage, 87% efficiency, inlet temperature 1,700 degrees F.
- Second-stage turbine: axial, single-stage, 84% efficiency, max speed 45,700 rpm
- Regenerator: dual rotating disks, 90% effectiveness, 22 rpm max speed
- Burner: single can, reverse flow, 95% efficiency
- Maximum gas generator speed: 44,600 rpm
- Maximum output speed, after reduction gears: 4,680 rpm
- Exhaust temperature at full power: 500 degrees