Who Killed the Multifuel Car?

05/19/2011 04:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

We all heard about General Motors and how they "killed" their EV1 electric car program. The EV1 electrics were produced from 1996 to 1999, and were on the road until 2003 before GM rounded them up and -- for the most part -- destroyed them.

Proponents of the plug-in cars screamed, and a documentary was even made. Perhaps some of that backlash led to GM creating the Chevrolet Volt, which became available in 2010. While many point to this as an example of how the automakers learn from their past, others -- particularly old timers -- had an eerie feeling: Didn't something like this happen before?

Yes. Almost 60 years ago, Chrysler unveiled an automobile to the press that contained a remarkable engine worthy of the space age. The power plant contained one-fifth the moving parts of a piston engine, weighed less and -- here's the kicker -- ran on any combustible fuel you could pour in the tank. The engine was a turbine and Chrysler had developed one specifically for automotive use. It fit under the hood of a car, and the controls of the car were similar to those on any other car.

From 1953 to 1963, Chrysler fine-tuned the technology and even drove the turbines cross-country to garner attention for their newfangled cars. In 1963, they built a fleet of the cars and lent them to the public. Any person who was lucky enough to have their name drawn from the 30,000 people who submitted applications was given a turbine car to drive for three months. Chrysler paid the insurance and maintenance. All you had to do was put fuel in it. The recommended fuel was diesel, which was only available at that time at truck stops. The car would run fine on unleaded gas, but that was a little harder to find back then. Here's the cool part: Users were told they could run the car on home heating oil if it was available to them, or even on kerosene.

The problem was that gasoline in the 1960s cost much less than a dollar per gallon. It wasn't how many dollars per gallon you paid; it was how many gallons you got for a dollar. Many people looked at the multifuel capability of the car as nothing more than a parlor trick. Chrysler demonstrated the car being driven on Chanel No. 5 perfume and tequila. One test driver described driving the car on a tank of peanut oil and said it smelled like someone was baking cookies. But what if the cars had made it into production? You would pull into a "gas" station and take a look at the various fuels available. You could choose the cheapest one and refuel. If enough of these cars had made it onto the road, demand could have brought more alternative fuels to the market.

Some critics will note that the turbines didn't get great gas mileage and throttle response seemed sluggish compared to other cars of the day. These things are true, but many of the engineers who worked on the program will tell you that these were simply engineering problems to be solved. If only they'd had a little more time.

In all, Chrysler let 203 families borrow the cars (and do over a million miles of driving!) and then rounded the cars up and destroyed most of them. Automakers have always been leery of letting their prototypes get out into circulation. (Nine of the 55 turbine cars from the user fleet survived; Chrysler retained three and the other six were donated to museums.) Still, Chrysler continued their experiments on turbine cars until 1978.

What killed the Chrysler turbine car was more a convergence of forces no one in the auto industry had seen coming. New tailpipe standards and fleet fuel economy numbers were things the turbine engineers couldn't solve quickly enough, and Chrysler hit its first ugly financial patch right around this time. The full story takes up a whole book, but the upshot is this: Detroit built a car as early as 1953 that would run on any number of fuels, some of which could have been manufactured here. What if the turbine car had gone into wide scale production? Would we still be tied to petroleum as we are today?