The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a Ford

We’ll probably never again see something like the combination real world test and publicity campaign that put 50 Chrysler Turbine cars in the hands of American families to test drive for a few months in the mid 1960s. That we’re talking about it more than 50 years later shows just how effective the PR for the Turbine was. Consequently, the Chrysler Turbine is undoubtedly one of the best known concept cars ever. Less well known is the fact that the Chrysler Turbine as we know it started out as a Ford.
First off, I’m in no way implying that Ford had a role in developing the turbine engine that was the heart of the Turbine cars. Chrysler’s turbine program was entirely the brainchild of senior Chrysler engineer George Huebner, though Ford Motor Company and General Motors both have had significant turbine research programs. However, when you say “Chrysler Turbine car”, people don’t visualize whirring fan blades and regenerators in their minds’ eyes. If they’ve ever heard a Turbine car run, their ears might think of the whooshing sound they make, often compared to a very powerful vacuum cleaner, but the predominating mental image most folks would have would be the very sleek, copper toned bodies that Ghia built to be powered by the jet engines.
One of two Turbine cars still owned by Chrysler.
While the Turbine car’s powertrain was the result of years of research at Chrysler, its exterior design began as a concept for the Ford Thunderbird. In 1960, Chrysler chairman “Tex” Colbert brought in Lynn Townsend to run the company. Townsend wasn’t a fan of Chrysler’s chief designer, Virgil Exner Jr., and he liked even less Exner’s penchant for introducing new styling themes on lower end models. Meanwhile, across town in Dearborn, Elwood Engel had been passed over for the top executive styling position at Ford. Seeing an opportunity to change the company’s styling direction and ease Exner out of power, Townsend made Engel vice president for styling at Chrysler, making Exner a “consultant”.
When the decision was made to build a short run of semi-production Turbine cars, Engel initially assigned designer Maury Baldwin to the task. Baldwin came up with a small, two-seat, midengine sports car that on paper sounds a lot like Ford’s 1962 Mustang I concept. That proved to be at odds with management’s decision to make the Turbine a four seat family car. Engel then turned to Chuck Mashigan, another Ford expat.
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a FordThe Henry Ford Museum’s Chrysler Turbine Car
We recently ran a story about Larry Miller, a clay modeler at Ford who got his job after meeting Henry Ford as a teenager. Chuck Mashigan’s story is in the same vein. Already married, his wife suggested to him in 1954 that he look into a career designing cars. When he said that he had no training or experience, she pointed out the skill with which he both sketched automobiles and then carved models out of bars of soap. “You show them your work, and they’ll hire you,” she told him.
This wasn’t as unrealistic as it sounds today. Remember, this was before most of today’s professional design schools were established. The Pratt institute in New York was about the only place where you could study industrial design. General Motors set up the Fisher Body Craftman’s Guild scholarship program primarily as a means of identifying design talent.
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a FordThe Chrysler Turbine car on display at the Gilmore Car Museum is actually on loan from the Detroit Historical Museum, which owns it, a gift from the Chrysler corporation.
With his wife’s encouragement Mashigan made up some drawings and applied for a position at General Motors, who indeed turned him down because of his lack of experience, as did Chrysler. When he showed his shopping bag full of drawings at Ford, however, they took him on as a 90 day probationary hire, reporting to Alex Tremulis, who headed the advanced design studio at FoMoCo. After a little more than a month of doing sketches and some clay modeling, Mashigan was called into Tremulis’ office and told that both the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury studios had requested that he be assigned to their work groups. His first position as a permanent hire was supervising the studio doing the work on the first Thunderbird.
At Elwood Engel’s request, Mashigan moved to Chrysler around the time the 50 turbine car project was just getting underway. By then Baldwin’s two seat sports car had been set aside. Mashigan recalled being summoned to his boss’ office. Engel opened up a book to show Mashigan a photo of a concept car and said, “You know that one all right, don’t you?”
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a FordFord La Galaxie show car
Mashigan replied, “I sure do; that’s a fiberglass T-Bird model I did while I was in the Ford studio.” Mashigan had been in charge of that project, through the design process, the full size clay model, and the finished fiberglass show car.
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a Ford
Engel then told the designer, “Here’s why I called you up here: I want you to design that vehicle to be a full size running car, and we’re going to put a turbine engine in it. You’ll be in complete charge of getting that vehicle designed.
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a FordFord La Galaxie, front view
While none of the accounts specifically identify the Thunderbird concept, it’s assumed that Engel and Mashigan were talking about the 1958 La Galaxie show car. The back end of the Turbine car is pretty much a copy of the La Galaxie, the headlights and grille are similar and, interestingly, period color photographs show the La Galaxie was also painted with copper colored paint. The La Galaxie also ended up influencing the design of the 1961 “Rocket Bird” Thunderbird, which may be why some Chrysler insiders referred to the Turbine car as the “Engelbird”.
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a FordChrysler Typhoon Turbine Concept
Mashigan’s first iteration of what would become the Chrysler Turbine was a two-seater with an extended rear deck called the Typhoon that featured most of the Turbine’s signature styling elements, including its turbine inspired headlights and hubcaps. The second model Mashigan sculpted shortened the deck and lengthened the passenger compartment to add a back seat, resulting in the now familiar lines of the Turbine car.
The Chrysler Turbine Car Started Out as a FordChrysler Typhoon, rear view
The Chrysler Turbine cars pictured here are the ones on display at the Gilmore, Henry Ford and Walter P. Chrysler museums. Of the eight Turbine cars that were not destroyed, two still belong to Chrysler. For this year’s Eyes On Design car show, a charitable event put on by Detroit’s car design community, Chrysler brought one of their Turbines. Eyes On Design is held every Father’s Day on the main lawn of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate. To get to the reviewing stand, which is located right in front of the main house, cars exit the show field at the carriage house end and then use the quarter mile long driveway up to the mansion. That’s how I was able to shoot the video at the top of this post.
With so few Chrysler Turbine cars that exist and even fewer that are on display to the public, it’s a rare opportunity to see one. To see and hear one whoosh by as it is driven is an even rarer opportunity. Considering that what we know as the Chrysler Turbine stylistically started out as a Ford concept car, watching it drive on the grounds of the home of Edsel Ford, who started Ford’s styling department, seems completely appropriate.
Museum photos by the author.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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