This is an installment in a series of posts looking back on show cars that we feel deserved a little more attention than they got. If you have a suggestion for a Forgotten Concept topic, please shoot us a line or leave a comment below.
Chrysler LeBaron Turbine
First Seen: 1977
Description: Turbine-powered midsize coupe
Sales Pitch: “Turbine concept with a new dramatic aerodynamic design.”
Though not a concept car in the conventional “show car” sense—it was never seen on the auto-show circuit—the Chrysler LeBaron Turbine did feature an advanced-technology engine and predictive design features. The concept car was built using a production “M-Body” Chrysler LeBaron coupe featuring a number of design modifications, including a revamped front end.
Powered by the seventh generation of Chrysler’s turbine engine—which mated to a 3-speed automatic transmission—the LeBaron concept was said to be capable of running on any of a number of hydrocarbon fuels, including diesel, kerosene, coal oil, and alcohol, though its powerplant was tuned for gasoline. The LeBaron’s engine was rated initially at 104 horsepower—about the same as a Chrysler 6-cylinder engine of the day—and was later tweaked for 125 hp.
The concept car was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which may explain why the LeBaron concept was never displayed at auto shows. Chrysler claimed that the LeBaron Turbine improved on the disappointing fuel economy observed in previous Chrysler turbine vehicles, though that wasn’t a huge achievement–the concept’s fuel economy was still no better than a comparable 1977 production vehicle. Furthermore, the LeBaron concept did not improve on the other drivability issues that plagued turbine engines, such as long start-up times and pronounced throttle lag.
Chrysler ran into serious financial issues in the late Seventies that stalled turbine-car development, and the program was officially retired in 1983. Sharp-eyed observers will note the extent to which the LeBaron concept influenced Chrysler’s 1981-1983 Imperial, a picture of which can be seen below.
In crime, motive is everything, but what about automotive engineering? The multi-decade momentum of Chrysler’s turbine program is evidence that mission creep isn’t limited to just war and colonialism. What began in the Fifties as way to produce faster, smoother-running automobiles had morphed into an alternative-fuel, high-mileage project by the Seventies—this despite the fact that the turbine engine never demonstrated any serious potential as an efficient automotive powerplant.
However, just as Mazda continues to beat the Wankel-rotor drum (though less loudly these days), Chrysler would not give up on the turbine engine. Luckily for auto enthusiasts, the company’s alternative-engine program did produce two very distinctive-looking cars for us to look back on and enjoy.
Chrysler LeBaron Turbine Gallery
(Click below for enlarged images)