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1977 Chrysler LeBaron Turbine Concept

The 1977 LeBaron Turbine was the product of nearly 25 years of Chrysler research on gas turbine engines. But ultimately, the program reached a dead end.

As we’ve tried to show here at Mac’s Motor City Garage, Chrysler’s fabulous 1963 Turbine Ghia was no one-shot wonder. The corporation’s ambitious research program on gas turbines had begun nearly a decade earlier with the first-generation CR1 engine of 1954, which produced 100 shaft horsepower but unfortunately suffered some drivability issues, including significant turbine lag and no provision for engine braking. (See our feature on the 1955 Plymouth turbine car here.)

From there, steady improvements produced the fourth-generation A831 engine used in the now-famous Turbine Ghia (55 cars built, nine in existence, three still running). The fourth-gen engine weighed just 401 lbs, produced 130 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque, and could run on virtually any liquid hydrocarbon fuel from kerosene to tequila.

When the Turbine Ghia’s public demonstration period ended, the development program continued as the engineering team worked through the classic issues with gas turbines in passenger cars, including high fuel consumption and excessive exhaust emissions, particularly oxides of nitrogen (NOx). In 1972, the U.S. Department of Energy, actively looking for alternatives to gasoline and internal combustion engines, stepped up with funding and some technical participation to support the effort. The lucrative contract included the production of 14 test engines and several running prototype vehicles. In its seventh design generation, the turbine was capable of up to 123 hp in an emissions-compliant tune.

To showcase the DoE program, Chrysler dropped the gen-7 turbine into the car shown here, an extensively restyled 1977 LeBaron coupe. Based on the company’s M-body platform, the LeBaron concept featured a 112.7-inch wheelbase, a curb weight of 3884 lbs, and coupled the gas turbine to a three-speed automatic Torqueflite transmission. It’s worth mentioning that elements of the LeBaron Turbine Concept’s front-end styling would later be seen on the production 1981 Imperial.

There was even serious consideration at that point of putting the turbine into limited production, but the Chrysler Corporation Loan Guarantee Act of 1979, more famously known as the Chrysler bailout, put an end to those plans. The government bailout committee, led by the Secretary of the Treasury, determined that the turbine car was too risky and expensive for a company in Chrysler’s precarious economic condition.

While the LeBaron concept represents the swan song of the Chrysler turbine program, it’s fair to say it wasn’t the very last turbine car produced by the automaker. Chrysler also built a turbine-powered 1981 Dodge Mirada below. Years after the program ended, a Chrysler turbine enthusiast tracked down and located the LeBaron and Mirada prototypes parked at a DoE facility at a nuclear power plant in Ohio. Today both cars reside safe and sound in the extensive historic vehicle collection of Stellantis, the car company formerly known as Chrysler.

Quote from Mel Surbook (1/24/2022)

When I was hired at the Chrysler Proving ground I was replacing a guy that worked in the turbine group. He said all you hear about “why” the program was dropped is BS. He said the real reason was due to the “lag” in the throttle response. The company could see many lawsuits that would be filed from this and did not need either the expense nor the negative publicity that would result from it. He said that this characteristic had been improved a lot but not eliminated. (he was in the engine group).


Images: VintageWeb; Dean's garage

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