The car that ran on brandy

Chrysler took a leap of faith with the first jet-pro­pelled mo­tor­car

The Witness - Wheels - - FRONT PAGE - SI­MON HAW

“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!”

PHOTO: CHRYSLER300CLUB.COM

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’.

PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Leg­endary Amer­i­can car col­lec­tor Jay Leno leaves the Rodeo Drive Con­cours d’El­e­gance in his Chrysler Tur­bine Car.

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