The Turbine Truck Wars: Inside Ford and Chevy’s Jet Age Battle for a Better Semi-Truck
Sixty years ago, Ford and Chevy’s endless truck wars were a lot cooler.
The story of the American automobile is a tale of ever-growing comfort. Cushy seats, supple suspensions, and now, cars that are designed with ever-increasing degrees of autonomy. Powertrains are also evolving here, as the reciprocating clamor of an internal combustion engine is gradually giving way to the quiet, effortless push of an electric motor. But there's an alternative ending if quieter, more refined power delivery is what you seek. I'm talking about gas turbines, which—nutty as it seems today—promised a more civilized car more than 50 years ago.
More than that, though, the technology opened up one of the most fascinating and obscure fronts in Ford and Chevrolet's eternal truck wars: their race to build the first viable turbine-powered semi-truck in the 1960s. Spurred on by the country's rapidly-expanding Interstate Highway System, Ford and Chevy built gleaming concepts that promised to revolutionize trucking with incredible power, durability and efficiency. On paper, the turbine engine looked like the future. So what happened?
The story of the gas turbine in cars didn't actually begin in the United States. It began in 1950 in Great Britain with the Rover JET1, work on which started back in 1946 after the end of World War II. Rover was in a unique position to give it a go—it had been involved in the production of the first working turbojet engine, designed by famed engineer Frank Whittle in the 1930s.
But the U.S. soon caught up. Stateside automakers also saw the potential of jet power to drive the wheels of a road-going vehicle. The advantages seemed clear: Jet turbines are smoother at all speeds, they have far fewer moving parts, they can run on multiple kinds of fuel, they're easier to start in colder climates and it was thought they'd deliver superior fuel economy to piston engines. It added up to a simpler, more flexible powertrain that would be more reliable and cheaper to operate in the long run. What's not to love?
Ford and Chevrolet's Turbine Semi Saga
Chrysler's famous effort notwithstanding, a practical turbine-powered passenger car proved elusive in the immediate postwar years, in no small part due to how expensive turbine engines are to build. But what if that upfront cost could be offset in a mass-produced vehicle designed to earn its keep on America's new highways? Turbine development for Ford and General Motors took a turn. They both decided to go big.
You may think the turbine engine is a bad fit for a semi-truck due to its extremely high operating RPMs and—as we now know—heavy fuel consumption. However, if you gear a turbine engine down and use inexpensive fuels, you can get a high-torque engine that's cheap to run, quieter, and far smoother than any diesel motor. That was the theory, at least.
Both Ford and GM had spent years developing their turbine engines beginning in the late 1940s, and by the time the mid-'60s came around, Ford was the first on the truck scene with a massive functional prototype called Big Red.
Ford's Big Red
Unveiled at the 1964 World's Fair along with the brand new Ford Mustang, Big Red was, well, big. At 13 feet tall and 96 feet long, it was no land train, but it was certainly longer and heavier than almost any semi-truck on the road today with a gross vehicle weight of 180,000 pounds. To haul its massive double trailers around at a cruising speed of 70 mph, it had a 600-horsepower, 955 foot-pound turbine engine that Ford called the 705, hooked up to an Allison five-speed automatic transmission to drive the tandem axles.
The 705 was originally developed for the United States military with the idea it would be a good powerplant for stuff like tanks, minesweepers, and small ships, but it was later adapted for use in Big Red. That's really why Big Red got made in the first place, actually. The public was, of course, almost completely unaware of the fact that the truck was just the people-facing, PR-oriented side of the military project.
But just because the truck was a PR push didn't mean it was any less well-designed and functional than if Ford intended to produce it en masse. The impressive engineering wasn't just limited to the truck's turbine engine; it was one of the first semis to have an air suspension, and its suspended cab was also the first of its kind.
Beyond the mechanical innovation, the interior was also very interesting. Big Red was intended for long-distance cargo hauling, so the cab was designed around supporting a crew of two drivers. Its thirsty turbine engine was also hooked up to a 280-gallon fuel tank to give it a range of 600 miles.
To avoid driver fatigue and improve transit times, Big Red had a kitchen complete with beverage dispensers, a refrigerator, and even a warming oven. There was also an incinerator toilet. While one person was driving, the other could lounge around the interior, grab a nap, or even watch a TV that was only visible from the passenger's seat.
Ford took Big Red on a tour of the country, visiting several major cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. Ford touted the turbine truck as the future, going so far as to put Big Red next to the red-hot Ford Mustang in ads, and an excited public bought in. It was ready to see these supermassive transporters ripping down the country's brand-spanking-new superhighways.
Of course, that never happened. Though Ford was outwardly optimistic about turbine trucks and continued to experiment with the idea into the 1970s, the automaker knew the Big Red project wasn't feasible for production due to the same cost and efficiency issues that doomed turbine cars. Nor did it have a use for the prototype after its cross-country promo tour wrapped up.
Like most expired concepts, it should have been disassembled and crushed at that point. But through a murky series of events, Big Red actually ended up in the hands of Holman Moody, Ford's factory-supported racing team, in the late 1960s. Photos show that it was parked in Holman Moody's storage hangar in North Carolina for at least a decade before being sold at an inventory sale in 1978. Then, nothing. Big Red completely vanished.
Given the modern interest in the failed Chrysler Turbine Car from this era—a spot in Jay Leno's collection, a permanent display in the Petersen Automotive Museum, a book, countless blogs—you'd think a highly-visible, fully-functional prototype from the early jet age like Big Red would've left a lengthy paper trail once it escaped Ford's crusher. Alas, that's not the case. Neither Holman Moody nor Ford seem to have records of what happened to it. Holman Moody didn't respond to repeated questions for comment; Ford could only send us photos and told us to ask Lee Holman. "If you find it, I would be happy to speak with you about the project in general," a spokesman said.
Was it eventually destroyed? Sold again under the table? Parted out? Tucked away in someone's garage? Big Red's current whereabouts are unknown—but after extensive research, I believe it does indeed survive today in 2020, possibly hiding out in a barn in North Carolina. You can read the story about my hunt for Big Red here.
Chevrolet's Turbo Titan III
Ever mindful of the concepts coming from its rivals in Dearborn, GM was also busy developing its own gas turbine program. GM's engine was on its ninth iteration—the GT-309—by the time its first semi-truck concept came around in 1964. Called the Bison, it looked like... well, it looked like this:
Like something out of a Syd Mead illustration, the Bison was powered by at least one of GM's GT-309 turbine engines sitting in the streamlined pod above the cab. Internally this powerplant was known as the "Whirlfire Turbo Power Engine," which is about a good a name as they come. The GT-309 was capable of producing 280 horsepower and 875 pound-feet of torque, but it was apparently going to be combined with another turbine engine of mysterious origins, and perhaps an electric generator. It was just a mocked-up concept, so drivetrain specifics are hard to come by.
The Bison had the misfortune of a). competing for attention at the same World's Fair as Big Red and the new Ford Mustang, and b). not being a functional, quasi-realistic prototype that could actually go to work. It's unknown if it ever moved under its own power. The way such details faded into history reflected the fact that the Bison project was actually focused on its standardized shipping container that GM was trying to push at the time, not the powertrain.
And if you notice, the Bison doesn't have doors. That's because the huge windshield would flip forward like a giant clamshell to allow passengers to enter and exit its unconventional interior, complete with a twin-joystick steering system. It also had a built-in telephone and a Jetsons-style center console to match the streamlined exterior. Like I said, not based in reality.
A quick note about that steering system, which will make a comeback a little further down in this story. The two-handed setup was actually in development by Ford at the time as well. Ford referred to it as 'Wrist-Twist', and based on the casually sexist promo video still available on YouTube, it seemed like it was primarily meant as a way to make steering easier for women. Ford originally installed the experimental Wrist Twist on a Mercury Park Lane convertible, but thankfully, it never reached production.
OK, Chevrolet's Turbo Titan III For Real This Time
Somebody needs to get GM back to being incredible at naming things. Turbo Titan. They must've had a group of people who just came up with amazing names.
"George, I need you to come up with another cool word to put before 'Matic'!"
Anyway, The 1965 Turbo Titan III—unlike the Bison—was a working rig that GM put on display at the 1966 World's Fair, so perhaps if you've been around for a bit you saw it there. It was also reportedly sent on several test journeys from coast to coast, so maybe some people caught a glimpse on the highway as well.
The Turbo Titan III had a GVW of 76,800 pounds and was powered by the same GT-309 found in the Bison, which meant 280 horsepower and a massive 875 lb-ft of torque. And speaking of this engine, there's actually a good bit of information available and it's rather interesting. I'll tell you if those massive air intakes on the side of the truck are real in a moment.
The GT-309 was the ninth and final iteration of GM's turbine engines and was their best attempt at making a turbine at least as-good-as a comparable diesel. The issue it needed to solve with turbines were mostly sorted out by this point, including engine braking, exhaust temperature, and intake noise. One vital problem still remained, however: fuel economy.
GM's engineers got close. In fact, the SAE claimed the fuel economy of the Turbo Titan was equivalent to that of a diesel semi when cruising at 65 mph. However, they could never quite beat rolling coal when it came to most other speeds and conditions.
The idle speed of this turbine was around 33,000 RPM, reduced down to 4,000 before reaching the modified Allison MT-42 automatic transmission. The six-speed MT-42 in question did not have a torque converter, because the output shaft of the engine was not fixed to the initial turbine/compressor stage. That meant the output turbine itself could act as a sort of fluid coupling. The power from the output turbine was then sent through the manually-shifted automatic transmission to a tandem axle with two selectable ratios of 7.17:1 and 9.77:1.
And where did all of the air for this engine come from? Yes, the two massive scoops on the side pods of the truck were functional. Those intakes also house the Turbo Titan's headlights which would flip outward when the driver needed them.
You'll also notice the truck's Twist-Wrist-type steering featured in the image above. GM called it "Dial Steering" and it was a lot bigger than the smaller unit found in Ford's experimental vehicle. But it's nearly the same for all intents and purposes. Chevrolet never states the real reason as to why they preferred to use this type of steering for the Turbo Titan, however, I get the impression that it was just sort of a trendy thing to do at the time—especially in something as futuristic as a turbine truck concept.
A GM Heritage Center spokesman even said the automaker doesn't know what happened to its turbine-powered concept trucks. Based on what we've seen and heard, there's a good chance they were crushed or otherwise destroyed, since that's the typical fate for concept vehicles that don't end up in a warehouse or a museum. However, we did manage to get our hands on a very rare video: The long-forgotten promo embedded below is now the only footage of the Turbo Titan III on the internet. You can even hear the turbine spooling up at the beginning.
What Happened to Turbines?
The turbine truck was a dead end to GM soon after the Turbo Titan project came to a close. However, Ford continued developing the idea into the 1970s, going as far as opening a factory in Toledo in 1971 to produce its latest turbine engine, dubbed the 707. The 375-hp 707 was a single-stage gas turbine made of iron and nickel that used a complex regenerator to finally deliver the fuel economy needed—at least in the logistics industry.
Ford even fitted several of its production W-1000 tractors with the 707 turbines and used them for regular supply runs between Dearborn and Toledo for a few years. It seemed the future of trucking might finally be at hand. But as Hemmings writes, cooling and manufacturing cost issues eventually forced Ford to abandon the idea and shutter the plant in 1973.
Despite how advanced the 707 was, it still fell victim to the two big issues that killed turbine trucks overall. The first is the incredible amount of noxious emissions gas-turbines put out; in particular, the extra-dirty nitrogen dioxide sort. The Clean Air Act of 1970 was careful to regulate these emissions rather heavily, and the go-go futurism of the mid-1960s took a backseat as automakers navigated the rocky decade that followed.
The second is the fuel economy issue. It just could not be overcome. The fact of the matter is, turbine engines are thirsty machines even if they can run on any kind of combustible liquid. The silence, reliability, and smooth power delivery are just not good enough reasons to install one in a big truck when practical performance is on par with a diesel.
And even if you put it in a working vehicle that'd earn money to offset the cost, turbines are still extremely expensive to make, given the manufacturing standards involved in building a machine that safely spins 35,000 times a minute.
Like two superpowers who mutually realized they were jousting with made-up weapons, Ford and Chevy dropped their pursuit of the perfect turbine truck and moved on to bicker about half-ton payload and towing capacities for the next few decades. Pretty much every other heavy truck manufacturer has also tested a turbine-powered concept at one time or another. However, those trucks were just regular-style cabs with experimental engines. Big Red and the Turbo Titan were wholly-realized glimpses of the future.
Some companies are still attempting to put turbine engines in wheeled vehicles, typically alongside an electric motor. However, with ever-tightening emissions regulations and ceaseless advances in electric powertrains, it's highly unlikely you and I will be riding into the future in a turbine car. Or truck. Pity.
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