Chrysler LeBaron Turbine

You can thank this car for two things. First, the styling direction taken for the handsome 1981 Chrysler Imperial Coupé, and second—in a roundabout way, of course—for the powertrain fitted to America's main battle tank, the M1 "Abrams" tank.

It's not as if this car has a tank-tuned turbine motor or anything, but that Chrysler's constant development of the technology ended up seeing it applied to military applications when it was clear the Environmental Protection Agency wasn't going to be happy with any iteration of the technology.

In 1972, Chrysler was given $6.2 million to develop turbine technology, and that development culminated in this flashy prototype and a handful of other, more sedate ones—usually a normal production car with slats cut into its fenders to accommodate the peculiarities of a turbine engine. Below, there's a source list as long as my arm, and I won't get into the specifics of Chrysler's turbine history—to say there's a lot of ground to cover is an understatement. I'll leave it to the experts. 

Suffice it to say, with the company's bottom line beginning to sink farther into the red through the '70s and the impending rise of electronic engine management and other new technologies that would breath new life into conventional engines, putting turbines in cars probably wouldn't have worked out anyway.

As cool and as interesting as turbine technology is, Chrysler's final generation was packed with exotic materials—including ceramics—but was rated for a measly 10.6 L/100 km (22 U.S. mpg) on a good day. Power? At most, 125—only when water was used to cool the compressor inlet.

You may point to Jay Leno's EcoJet one-off prototype and its 650 horsepower helicopter-derived Honeywell LTS101 engine an example of what could have been—but turbines just stink for cars. I just drove a 645 horsepower Dodge Viper through the desert and back, with major blocks of time spent in bumper to bumper traffic, with the car not breaking a sweat. I certainly was! I should add that even with stints above 145 km/h (90 mph) I was still able to equal—and better—the average fuel consumption of Chrysler's final turbine engine.

Of course, there are even conspiracy theorists that think the technology could be used to reduce our dependance on foreign oil—I kid you not! (If governments really cared about reducing oil use, they should simply hand everyone a free bicycle…)

Chrysler didn't have the benefit of hindsight in 1977, of course, so a LeBaron with rich Corinthian leather was given a snazzy new hand-laid fibreglass nose and trim—making it the final custom-bodied turbine car the company would make.

When Chrysler president Lee Iacocca asked for a loan in 1979 to the tune of $1.5 billion US, two conditions of the deal both sealed the fate of turbine engines for cars—and handed the U.S. military the perfect heart for its upcoming all-new main battle tank. The government insisted Chrysler stop turbine development, as well as sell off Chrysler Defence, with General Defence acquiring the division.

Guess where all of the turbine engineers and research went? 

Sources