What Is a Turbine Engine and Are We Entering The Danger Zone?

How the thousand-year backstory of turbine engines ended up with them under the hood of some weird cars.

byVictoria Scott|
Cars 101 photo

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Gas turbine engines, most commonly encountered deafening you in the back row of a cross-country commercial flight, have also been used in automobiles, and prototype automobiles, for over 60 years. If it seems to you, dear reader, that using a deafening 50,000 RPM fan blade to power your daily driver seems like a bad idea, you’d be right! 

For automotive applications, turbines were usually applied in one of two ways. They could use a direct-drive system where the engine directly powers the wheels through a transmission—just like with a typical internal combustion motor—or a hybrid system where the turbine powers a system of electric motors in the car. 

Complexity always an issue, that hasn’t stopped many different manufacturers, large and small, from trying to make the novel technology catch on. Today The Drive’s team is here to help you understand how these indisputably cool failed experiments sought to change the automotive landscape. 

Toyota Sports 800 Gas Turbine Hybrid Concept, Toyota

What Is a Gas Turbine Engine and How Does It Work?

Gas turbine engines come in different variants, but all styles share three critical components: a compressor fan to spin incoming air to high pressures, a combustion chamber where fuel is burnt to power the system, and a turbine spun by the burning of fuel. 

How Does a Gas Turbine Engine Work?

The turbine is connected to the compressor using a shaft, so when fuel is burnt and the turbine is turned, the compressor actively pulls in more air and pushes it into the combustion chamber, keeping the power flowing. It is similar in concept to a turbocharger, except instead of being driven by external airflow—the exhaust gases of a running engine—it is entirely self-contained. 

Turbine engines in turboprop and high-bypass turbofan applications are most commonly seen by people outside of military applications, as they are used for civilian aircraft. They are well-suited to flight applications because a byproduct of the extremely high-pressure combustion chamber is high-speed exhaust gas, which can be used for thrust. Low-bypass turbofans are frequently used for modern military jet fighters. These turbines are often paired with a second fuel injection and combustion chamber after the turbine. This system is known as an afterburner and provides extremely high thrust at the cost of high fuel consumption and heat—queues up Kenny Loggins

No matter which application, turbines are extremely popular for flight because their high compression functions excellently even in the thinner air miles above the Earth, their relatively steady operational speed is well suited to cruising at altitude for hours on end, and their high thrust allows for more efficient use of fuel. 

So what compelled engineers to use them for Earth-bound applications, where none of these benefits apply? 

Why Use a Gas Turbine Engine?

Turbine motors have several compelling reasons to consider them for terrestrial use. The first is that they have relatively few moving parts compared to a piston internal combustion engine and are theoretically more reliable as a result. 

The second reason is absurdly high torque at low RPMs from a relatively small package, due to the powerband of gas turbines. This reason has kept gas turbines prevalent in diesel-electric train locomotives where high torque is prized for starting long consists. 

The final reason is that they can frequently be run on nearly any type of fuel, whether that’s gasoline, diesel, and in the case of the President of Mexico and his technology demonstration of the Chrysler Turbine in the 60s, tequila—you know you just heard the song in your head, too.

Toyota Gas Turbine Hybrid System, Toyota

Who Started Using Gas Turbine Engines? 

Gas turbine engines for automotive applications have been around as a concept since at least the end of World War II. However, the first gas turbine engine for road use was built and driven by the UK manufacturer Rover in the JET1 developed in 1950. 

The JET1 was a concept roadster featuring a direct drive turbine motor that was intended to be the first of many Rover turbine models to come later, but it was dogged by terrible mileage (around 6 MPG) and relatively slow acceleration which kept them from releasing production models in the decades to come after it was built.

Through the ‘50s, Chrysler researched the gas turbine extensively, even retrofitting a 1954 Plymouth with a turbine motor and driving it across the US as a publicity stunt and test exercise. In 1963, they developed the most famous and widely produced turbine-powered car—appropriately called the Chrysler Turbine. 

50 roadgoing models were built and given to members of the public for a free two-year lease, with a cumulative 1.1 million miles put on them from 1964 to 1966. They suffered from similar problems as the JET1, with drivers complaining about poor fuel mileage, extremely slow acceleration, and high noise from the 60,000 RPM redline turbine. When Chrysler canned the Turbine project, all but nine of the original Ghia-bodied cars were destroyed, to prevent PR damage to the company. 

In the 70s, Toyota attempted to use a gas turbine hybrid system in several concepts, including a Century and a Sports 800. Instead of directly driving the wheels as in the JET1 and the Chrysler Turbine, the gas turbine drove a generator that created electricity which could be sent directly to motors at the rear wheels, or stored in a battery unit for later use. 

This system was developed to avoid the extremely low acceleration speeds and potential start/stop issues of directly connecting the turbine to the drivetrain, but the battery system and complexity nearly doubled the weight of the Sports 800 while losing over half the horsepower. Toyota abandoned the gas turbine hybrid research early in the 1980s and split hybrid research and turbine development into separate divisions.

More recently, the Marine Turbine Technologies Turbine Superbike, known as the Y2K for its debut year, became available for sale. With a Rolls Royce 250-C18 gas turbine engine, it produces a staggering 320 HP and 425 ft/lbs of torque and holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive—and powerful—production motorcycle ever built. The top speed is a claimed 227 MPH, but getting to experience this wild ride will set you back $270,000. It was also featured in the excellently terrible movie Torque.

Messerschmitt Me 262, Bild Bundesarchiv

When Did Gas Turbines Originate?

Gas turbine engines have been around as a concept since 1000 AD, in ancient China, when heated air was used to spin what we would now call a turbine to power moving art pieces to be displayed at festivals at night. More modern gas turbine engine patents date back as far as 1791 when John Barber patented a rudimentary design for horseless carriage propulsion, but the gas turbine engine did not achieve industrial success until 1939 when the Neuchatel power plant went online in Switzerland. 

The same year, the Heinkel He 178 took flight as the world’s first purely turbojet-powered aircraft, and despite issues with flight time and reliability, it paved the way for the postwar jet era as many other engine manufacturers refined and perfected the jet concept for later aircraft towards the end of the war. 

The German Messerschmitt Me 262 became the first operable jet aircraft in 1944, following in the He 178’s footsteps, and although its use was limited as the Third Reich collapsed, it did prove that turbine-powered aircraft were here to stay as it boasted a top speed almost a hundred miles an hour higher than the fastest piston-powered Allied aircraft at the time.   

Jaguar CX75, Jaguar

What Models Currently Feature Gas Turbine Engines?

Gas turbine engines are currently unused for production cars. The closest that one has gotten to production in the recent past was Jaguar’s CX75 concept, which used diesel-fueled micro-turbines to power an electric hybrid system, but the car was scrapped as the financial crisis worsened. 

The aforementioned Y2K Superbike is the only terrestrial vehicle for road use that can be purchased, but they are built to order and have production numbers in the single-digits per year.

Lotus 56, Victoria Scott

What is the Racing History Of Gas Turbine Engines?

Gas turbine engines were experimented with in racing repeatedly, as the major issues consumers had with them (poor fuel consumption and noise, namely) were much smaller problems for race teams. 

The most successful cars were fielded by the STP race team at various Indy races in the 60s, starting with the Parnelli Jones driven STP Paxton Turbocar. Powered by an ST6 gas turbine helicopter engine positioned to the left of the driver, it produced 550 horsepower, had four wheels drive, and featured a driver-controllable air brake for deceleration. The car was fast—leading almost all of the 196 laps of the 1967 Indianapolis 500—but a bearing failure forced retirement with eight miles left in the race. In 1968, the car was totaled during practice, and it never raced again. 

The Lotus 56 followed hot on its heels, attempting to win the Indianapolis 500 with the iconic wedge-shaped profile of Lotus open-wheeled cars for a decade to come but the same ST6 gas turbine engine that powered the STP Paxton Turbocar. Despite USAC rules (the governing body of Indy racing at the time) mandating air intake sizes that almost eliminated turbine cars completely from racing, the 56 attempted to make up for the lack of power with advanced suspension and sophisticated aerodynamics. 

The car, unfortunately, killed driver Mike Spence when he misjudged a turn in practice and slammed into the turn one wall. Carroll Shelby immediately withdrew his other turbine-powered cars from the 500, stating that it was impossible to make a turbine-powered race car competitive safely. USAC quickly moved to completely ban gas turbine cars from Indy, and that spelled the death of the 56. It lived on briefly in the 1971 F1 season, but never achieved success. 

Gas Turbine Engine Fun Facts

You know you want more gas turbine engine facts!

  • The 1963 Chrysler Turbine had a scant 130 HP but a shocking 425 lb/ft of torque at a standstill.
  • The Me 262 in WWII was credited with an over 5:1 kill ratio in the period it was used, with 542 Allied kills to a scant 100 Me 262s destroyed. 
  • The Lotus 56 piloted by Mike Spence achieved the second fastest lap to date in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history in 1968 - 169.6 mph - just hours before killing Spence.
  • Volkswagen once built a turbine-powered bay window Bus prototype that they intended to produce once efficiency and cost were satisfactory… still waiting on that.
  • The Howmet TX turbine car is to this day the only turbine-engine-powered car to win a race - two SCCA regional races in 1968.

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Check out a video of Jay Leno’s fully operational 1963 Chrysler Turbine car below!

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