Shel Woodard and the real Chrysler Turbine

Photo credit: Brad Constant

DETROIT -- In a quiet spot on the Chrysler stand at the Detroit auto show is the Chrysler 300 Turbine concept car. As concepts go, it's mild: matte finish "Turbine Copper," 22-inch wheels and a billet grille, all to honor the 1963 Chrysler Turbine show car.

It made me smile. My late father-in-law, Sheldon Woodard, would have grinned. Fifty years ago he was Chrysler's lead manufacturing engineer on the project to build the world's first turbine-powered car.

That was back when my wife, Kathryn, was a youngster in suburban Detroit. She recalls getting picked up after school by her father and sometimes another giggling engineer and being stuffed into the back seat of some advanced prototype for a joyride -- um, concept testing.

She especially remembered the turbine car prototype. Its weird sound, for one thing. And a grown woman leaping into the air.

So I asked Shel for the full story.

Chrysler killed the project just as it was nearing production, so it should have been a sad tale. But Shel kept on grinning and laughing as he told it. The car that never was left an indelible mark on him, even decades later.

He knew my wife's story well. Shel and a design staff engineer had checked out the prototype that day and drove home to Franklin to collect his daughter. They had stopped at traffic light in downtown Birmingham just when a well-dressed woman walked behind the car.

"When the light turned green, I nailed it, and when that exhaust hit she went about a foot straight up," Shel said, starting to giggle again. "There's a rumor the turbine'll melt the nylons off a woman's legs. Nah, it blows them off."

He explained that the Chrysler turbine processed 200 times as much air as a piston engine. And, like an aircraft jet engine, it spooled up before it started to move the car, so the engineers' pedestrian victim got a sustained blast of warm air.

Shel had his own take on why Chrysler didn't build the turbine car. He recalled then-Chairman Lynn Townsend taking one for a spin the weekend before the board was to vote on production. Townsend was stranded in a smoking hulk when a pebble defeated the air filter and the turbine ate its own rotors -- a cascading catastrophe.

But weep not for the Chrysler Turbine. The technology lives on in the turbine engine of the M1 Abrams, the U.S. Army's main battle tank.

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