What defines the jet age for you?
It depends on if you’re a stylist or an engineer at heart. For most car people, it’s all about Harley Earl or Virgil Exner and their rocket fins. For me, the jet age is best defined by the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car.
Starting in the 1950s, everyone wanted rocket styling and jet-age performance in their family cars, and styling studios were happy to give that to them. The war was over, and those GIs were now years-deep in chasing their American dreams. Space was the new frontier, and from cartoons to cars, everyone wanted a part of it.
But while the P-38 lightning served as a muse for Virgil Exner’s Forward Look and Harley Earl’s treatments at Cadillac, America’s engineers wanted to play, too. If jets were what the people wanted, Chrysler was determined that jets were what they’d get.
That’s where the Ghia-bodied Chrysler Turbine car came from — an experiment of 55 cars built to test the viability of jet turbine power in the real world, and to develop the tech into something that could be mass produced.
These cars featured well engineered jet turbine engines built specifically for this purpose, funneled through TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. The engines, while not particularly fuel efficient around town, were powerful enough and were capable of running on a variety of different fuels. They were also surprisingly quiet — with a head-turning Boeing-on-the-tarmac whine — and they were dead smooth, even with a 22,000-rpm idle.
Chrysler’s program gave 50 of these cars out for three-month stints with the general public over a two-year period. If you were selected as a participant, you’d get the car free of charge for your three-month window, with the only cost being your notes on the car, used to help Chrysler to develop the technology.
The Turbine car wasn’t as outlandish as it could have been, with a more refined Thunderbird-like Elwood Engel design compared to the outlandish Exner fins of the previous years — but it had other automakers beat in terms of futuristic technology. Unfortunately, that technology turned out to be less practical than some might have hoped, both due to the cost of production and looming emissions standards.
After the program was complete, 45 of the cars were rounded up in a Detroit scrapyard and crushed. The remaining nine examples went to museums, and only two ever wound up in private hands. One car, which runs and drives, is in Jay Leno’s collection. The other one? After three decades in the Kleptz Collection, it’s now for sale via Hyman Ltd.
“I think it’s probably one of the most important post-war American cars of all time,” says Jay Leno, who drives his Turbine car frequently. “It was designed from the ground up to be totally different, although it uses many stock Chrysler components… the whole idea behind it was so revolutionary at the time — and still is!”
I’ve been in Jay’s car, and I was surprised at just how quiet and cool it was, with exhaust temps lower than that of comparable piston-engine cars. Riding in it feels like visiting a future of the past — imagine commuting with George Jetson and you get the picture. It’s also a fantastic window into America’s engineering know-how, which can sometimes get lost in a sea of modern plastic jellybean crossovers.
If you’re looking for the most exclusive 1960s American car you can find, the Turbine might be for you. This is without a doubt a rare shot at a very rare car — but with so few comparables and such unique history and technology, it’s hard to say what it’s worth. Considering all the factors, however, I expect it’ll be expensive.
But hey, nobody ever said jets were cheap.