The car that ran on brandy
Chrysler took a leap of faith with the first jet-propelled motorcar
“I’M leaving on a jet plane,” warbled Peter, Paul and Mary plaintively in their 1970 hit cover of a 1966 John Denver song.
A mere 10 years before the “Mountain high” song-smith composed his ballad of bittersweet parting, the words would have been “I’m leaving on a piston-engined plane”, which somehow just does not cut it in the lyrics department.
Just as much as it was the era of Vietnam, hippies, LSD and free love, the 1960s was the decade when the jet engine — or more accurately the gas turbine — came of age.
It was therefore virtually inevitable that someone would think of applying gas turbine technology to the everyday motor car.
Rather appropriately it was Chrysler that took on the mantle of making the only serious attempt to provide everyman — and woman for that matter — with jet-propelled transport.
Appropriate because Chrysler’s chief stylist in the 1950s, Virgil Exner, had something of a love affair with things aeronautical, as evidenced by the rather grotesque fins which towered at the rear of cars such as the 1959 Plymouth.
In contrast to Exner’s exuberant designs, the bodies of the gas turbine car had a relatively restrained and elegant design executed by Ghia of Turin, Italy and then shipped to the U.S. for completion. Chrysler’s plan was to build 55 cars. Five would be used for ongoing research while the remainder would be handed over to some 200 ordinary Americans for real-world testing, starting in 1963.
Inevitably certain myths and legends surrounded the world’s first road-going jet car. Horror stories of Aunt Betty’s nylon stockings turned into a flaming inferno or of great furrows of melted tar created by the fiery blast of the jet engine’s exhaust proved wholly fallacious.
Chrysler’s energy recovery system in fact meant that the exhaust was cooler than that emerging from one of its piston engines. Less favourable for the manufacturer was the myth that the car would be like a jet aeroplane, incredibly fast and powerful.
It was actually something of a sluggard in the performance stakes, with a noticeable amount of the sort of lag which used to afflict early turbo-charged engines.
Besides the almost uncanny smoothness of the gas turbine, Chrysler’s marketers also highlighted the new car’s ability to run on anything flammable. To demonstrate this, one of the cars shown in Paris ran sweetly on Chanel No 5, while the Mexican president was able to fire up the Chrysler on tequila.
The car brought to South Africa showed a predilection for Martell 5-star brandy, allowing for an adaptation of the South African folk song to “Brannewyn laat my gaan”.
In fact seemingly the only thing the new car could not run on was leaded petrol — the tipple of choice for most of America’s gas-guzzling leviathans of the 1960s.
Another small drawback — less so in the 1960s than the subsequent decade — was that an owner was likely to need the world’s entire supply of Chanel No. 5 for the French machine, while the Mexicans and South Africans would both require dedicated distilleries, as the Chrysler, at 21,4 litres to 100 km, was not exactly economical.
If one added to this the fact that the new car had all the aural romance of a large vacuum cleaner, it was always going to be a hard sell to get Americans to give up their great, big, burbling V8s in order to embrace the jet age.
And so it proved to be. Chrysler eventually abandoned the gas turbine project entirely in the late 1970s and for various reasons all but nine of the 55 cars used for the 1960s trial were destroyed. Of the nine, only three are still running — the rest are museum pieces.
All in all it proved to be a case of “Nice try, but no cigar!”
Chrysler’s marketers also highlighted the new car’s ability to run on anything flammable. To demonstrate this, one of the cars shown in Paris ran sweetly on Chanel No. 5, while the Mexican president was able to fire up the Chrysler on tequila … The car brought to South Africa showed a predilection for Martell 5-star brandy, allowing for an adaptation of the South African folk song to ‘Brannewyn laat my gaan’.
Legendary American car collector Jay Leno leaves the Rodeo Drive Concours d’Elegance in his Chrysler Turbine Car.