THE ERA OF ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES
ATOMIC AGE CAR CONCEPT
Turbine cars look set for production, the Wankel debuts, and automated highways sound plausible for the future.
The Big Three join the compact car fray, but it is the Mustang that makes the biggest splash.
Jet planes, nuclear power, and space exploration sparked the imagination of automotive designers in the late ’50s and early ’60s like never before. Experimental cars carried names such as “Alpharay X-10″ and came equipped with engines such as the “Strato-Streak V8.” Some of the conceptual ideas seem downright silly now, but others are almost prescient. In 1962, for example, we ran an article titled the “Atomic Age Car Concept” which forecast the use of electronically controlled traffic lanes, cars powered by “fumeless” fuel cells, and television screens on the instrument panel that would map out your trip and provide safety warnings. We encouraged automotive designers to look beyond the immediate programs they were working on and put their positive thoughts into “improving the future of motor transportation on a long range basis.”
The Turbine Engine
We watched in March of 1961 as Chrysler announced its variable-nozzle turbine engine which, “improved part-load fuel consumption, reduced lag, and allowed engine braking.” This was soon followed by a look at International Harvester’s prototype tractor, powered by a 90 lb., 80 hp turbine engine, and a report on Chrysler’s 3000-mile durability test of a turbine-equipped Dart.
In 1963, Ford jumped in with a 300 hp heavy truck turbine, dubbed the 704. The company, however, said production was at least “eight to 10 years away.” With a moderate tooling investment, however, Ford suggested it could, “test the waters in off-highway construction equipment,” beforehand.
That year Chrysler unveiled its famed Ghia-bodied turbine cars. Fifty were built, each powered by the 130 hp, 400 lb engine, and leased to 200 people for “consumer research” tests over a 12-month period. We reported the cars cost $20,000 each, returned 13-19 miles on a gallon of fuel oil, and accelerated from 0-60 mph in about 11 seconds.
We covered the roots of Intelligent Vehicle Highways Systems in a 1958 feature on GM’s automatically guided vehicle prototypes. The company even built a one-mile road at its technical center in Warren, MI to test the concept.
A cable buried in the roadway sent out low-frequency alternating currents which created a circular magnetic field. A pair of tuned pickup coils mounted on either side of the bumper centerline fed changes in field strength to an on-board analog computer. If the coils had different voltage levels, the computer interpreted this as lateral deviation, and transmitted steering corrections to a servo on the power steering unit.
The 1958 Chevy test car also had a manual over-ride. To pass or turn off the guideway, a driver would flip a switch near the steering wheel, which severed the connection to the servo.
Our October 1, 1959 issue devoted six pages to one of the most unusual and misunderstood American vehicles in history-the 1960 Corvair. Largley the work of longtime engineer and later GM president Ed Cole, the Corvair’s rear-engined, rear-drive, air-cooled, unit-body, rear swing-axle design, was a recipe for disaster to a conservative American public.
Corvair’s flat-six motor was inspired by Cole’s interest in aircraft, but the use of common automotive materials, left the car’s engine heavy at 388 lb. Combined with its swing axle, lack of sway bars and often-ignored tire pressure specs-15 psi front, 26psi rear-the car was prone to oversteer. This handling characteristic inspired Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe At Any Speed,” which destroyed Corvair’s sales even though a congressional investigation found in Chevrolet’s favor.
For MY 1965 Chevrolet completely redesigned the Corvair, featuring an all-new body, articulated-link/coil suspension, frame construction and optional turbocharged engine. The styling was one of Bill Mitchell’s cleanest designs. Unfortunately, bad publicity had dropped the previous year’s sales to just 4761 units. And for ’65 the car had to compete for sales with the Mustang. By the end of 1964, GM management ordered all future development on Corvair-excluding safety upgrades-to stop.