Chrysler LeBaron Turbine

Car of the Day #87: 1977 Chrysler LeBaron Turbine

Chrysler LeBaron Turbine
Chrysler LeBaron Turbine Car • via Chrysler

You can thank this car for two things. 

First, the styling direction taken for the handsome 1981 Chrysler Imperial Coupé, and second (in a roundabout way, of course) for the powertrain fitted to America's main battle tank, the M1 "Abrams”.

It's not as if this car has a tank-tuned turbine motor or anything, but that Chrysler's constant development of the technology ended up as military applications when it was clear the Environmental Protection Agency wasn't going to be happy with a Turbines 4 Carz publicity drive.

Nevertheless, in 1972, after years of previous turbine designs, Chrysler was given $6.2 million to develop turbine technology. This flashy prototype and a handful of other, more sedate ones (usually a normal production car with slats cut into its fenders to accommodate the peculiarities of a turbine engine). 

I won't get into the specifics of Chrysler's turbine history—to say there's a lot of ground to cover is an understatement. I'll leave it to the experts, like Mark Olson, who runs and has driven the cars on more than one occasion. As in…his family were one of about 200 who were allowed to use one as a daily driver in period.

In 2009, Jay Leno, also a turbine car aficionado, actually hosted Mark and his wife, Lynette, for their 38th wedding anniversary. Class. 

Back to Chrysler. The company's bottom line beginning to sink farther into the red through the '70s, and the impending rise of electronic engine management and other technologies allowed fossil fueled vehicles to remain a majority for more than 50 years. 

As cool and as interesting as turbine technology is, Chrysler's final generation was packed with exotic materials—including ceramics—but was rated for a measly 10.6 L/100 km (22 U.S. mpg) on a good day. Power? At most, 125 squirrelly horses, when water was used to cool the compressor inlet.

You may point to Jay Leno's EcoJet one-off prototype and its 650 horsepower helicopter-derived Honeywell LTS101 engine an example of what could have been— but outliers aside, turbines just stink for cars. 

When I drove a 645 horsepower Dodge Viper through the desert and back, with blocks of time spent in bumper to bumper traffic, a few hundred highway miles (and the odd spell above 145 km/h (90 mph), I was able to equal — if not better — the rated fuel consumption of Chrysler's final turbine engine, with ~125 hp.

Chrysler didn't have the benefit of hindsight in 1977, so a LeBaron with rich Corinthian leather was given a snazzy new hand-laid fiberglass nose and trim — becoming the final Pentastar turbine car in the process.

What comes next is still a bit murky, and like all failed high-profile automotive programs, subject to a wide range of truths.

If you have an hour to spend, the 2023 documentary The Chrysler Turbine Car: Engineering a Revolution by Hagerty on YouTube is a great place to begin.

One item I came across was that reportedly when Chrysler president Lee Iacocca asked for a loan in 1979 to the tune of $1.5 billion US, conditions of the deal reportedly sealed the fate of turbine engines for cars — and handed the U.S. military the perfect heart for its upcoming all-new main battle tank. The government insisted the financially weak Chrysler stop its turbine car development, as well as sell off Chrysler Defense, with General Defense acquiring the division.

Of course, there are conspiracy theorists that think less fuel sensitive turbine technology could have been used to reduce our dependance on foreign oil — I kid you not — allowing us to more easily burn other fossil fuels extracted from good ‘ol North American shale and offshore wells. 

(Side note: If governments really cared about broadly reducing oil use, they should simply hand everyone a free bicycle who asks for one…)

A more believable theory (replace “turbine” with “fuel cell”) is that by the late ’70s, Chrysler was hip to the fact turbines were not up to its standards for production, and it was easier to blame a government than it was to admit that it, Chrysler, and its white collar leadership, had spent untold millions becoming sucked into a nascent technology its engineers couldn’t crack.

Whatever the case may be — and no matter how invested in this saga you are — it’s a helpful reminder that most moonshots remain on Earth.


Thank you to my supporting members: Ben B., Brad B., Chris G., Daniel G., Damian S., Daniel P., Drew M., Ingrid P., Karl D., Luis O., Michael J., Michael L., Michelle S., Mike B., Mike L., Mike M., Richard W., Sam G., Sam L., Wiley H.