In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Jet Age reached its peak in America. From sci-fi movies to heavily-stylized kitchen appliances, Americans were obsessed with jets, rockets, and space travel. Thanks in large part to designers like Harley Earl, American cars were heavily influenced by the world of aviation, first with the tail fins of the late 40s, later morphing into the wild looking afterburner-motif taillights, flight-deck inspired dashboards, and names like Jetfire, Rocket 88, and Satellite. But aside from the superfluous styling cues, advanced aviation technology also influenced the engineering departments of the big three.
Chrysler emerged as a leader in adapting aerospace tech for the road. Their research into alternative power sources began before World War II, which led the US military to sponsor the development of a turboprop engine for aircraft. In the 1950s, Chrysler engineers capitalized on that experience and set about developing the gas turbine engine for automobile use. The turbine had a few shortcomings to making it ideal for use in an automobile, such as the lack of engine braking, high fuel consumption, high heat, and acceleration lag. But it had enormous potential thanks to its relative simplicity, near-silent operation, exceptional power-to-weight ratio, and low maintenance. Chrysler’s first successful track test came in 1954, followed by a 3,020-mile cross-country test, using a turbine-powered ’56 Plymouth sedan. That experience fueled a new generation of turbine engine that was more powerful, compact, and efficient than ever before. They followed that successful test with the wild-looking, Exner-designed Turboflite concept car, which toured the country to gauge public reaction to a gas-turbine automobile.
With enthusiasm high, Chrysler announced in February 1962 that it would build approximately 50 turbine-powered cars for a public real-world test program. Styling was done in-house, overseen by the new design chief, Elwood Engel. Engel replaced Exner in 1961 and introduced a more sophisticated, slab-sided design language, which he honed while working at Ford – which explains the Turbine’s passing resemblance to a late 50s Ford Thunderbird. The jet-age motifs were more subdued than the wild fins and chrome of the Exner era, and the Turbine Car was understated yet distinctly elegant. To save on tooling costs, Chrysler contracted with their longtime partners Ghia in Turin, Italy, to build the body shells, which were then shipped to Michigan to mate with their bespoke chassis. All except one were painted a unique shade of bronze with a black vinyl roof and bronze interior.
Fifty-five Chrysler Turbine Cars were built, encompassing five prototypes and 50 production cars. Chrylser opened the program to a nationwide pool of applicants who vied for a chance to drive one of the vehicles free of charge, for three months at a time over two years. It allowed Chrysler to compile massive amounts of data and priceless public relations from a relatively small pool of vehicles. After the highly publicized test program, all 50 cars returned to Chrysler for evaluation. Engineers crash-tested one prototype and, to prevent the remaining lot from becoming “used cars” and tarnishing the project’s image, consigned 45 of the remaining production cars to a Detroit scrapyard where they were summarily crushed and burned. While this seems appalling today, it is not uncommon for a manufacturer to destroy prototypes to protect their technology.
Thankfully, one Chrysler exec came up with the idea of setting a few cars aside for static display in educational museums around the country. Nine were spared, including three retained by Chrysler. At the same time, six went respectively to the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood, MO, The Henry Ford, The Smithsonian Institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (later the Petersen Automotive Museum), the Detroit Historical Museum, and the Harrah Collection Museum of Reno, NV. Today, all nine of the legendary Chrysler Turbine Cars remain, yet only two are in private hands – one in Jay Leno’s Collection, and the other, chassis number 991231, is offered here for the first time in over 30 years.
Chassis number 991231 is the crown jewel of the Kleptz Collection, with the distinction of being the only Chrysler Turbine car available on the open market today. As offered, it is in exceptionally well-preserved condition, finished in its original metallic bronze paintwork with complementing upholstery, all original fittings and fixtures, and a host of spares, documents, and technical information. It is believed that 991231 spent much of its service life on the West Coast, performing “VIP duties,” meaning it was retained by Chrysler and loaned out weekly to executives, sales managers, award-winning salespeople, and anyone else who Chrysler Corporation thought should experience this wholly unique automobile. Allegedly, it was initially slated to be one of two cars donated to the Natural History Museum in LA, likely to save on shipping costs back to Detroit. William Harrah approached Chrysler requesting one of the Turbine Cars for his museum, and the company obliged, giving him 991231 along with a spare engine.
It is believed that the car never ran while at Harrah’s, and some assume it was related to terms of the donation, though the collection did have several thousand vehicles by that time. When much of the Harrah collection was dispersed, 991231 was acquired by Domino’s Pizza founder and noted car collector Tom Monaghan. Frank Kleptz acquired the Turbine Car from Mr. Monaghan in the late 1980s while at the AACA National Meet in Hershey. It was not running at the time, though Kleptz did get spare engines along with the deal. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, Kleptz got serious about getting the Turbine Car up and running, and he enlisted the help of GE Engine Services, who reproduced several essential precision parts and aided in the rebuilding of the engine. While it has seen limited use over the past decade, it remains operational and has recently been test-fired, making it one of just a few running examples extant.
Cosmetically, the car is in beautifully well-preserved original condition. The paintwork and bespoke trim are in excellent order, and it wears original tires and color-keyed wheel covers. The orange-bronze interior is relatively conventional in its layout, except for the stylized center console with its unique controls and levers, lending the car a distinctly space-age and purposeful character. It is accompanied by a vast file of engineering drawings, technical information, and historical documentation. The sale will also include a spare engine and transmission assembly.
As one of only two Chrysler Turbine Cars in private hands, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire one of the most fascinating, technically sophisticated American cars of the twentieth century. The remarkable Chrysler Turbine Car was the pride of the Kleptz Collection, and it will undoubtedly take center stage in its next custodian’s collection.