Date:30 November 2009
Meet our favourite petrolhead’s custom-built turbine supercar, which runs biodiesel and could theoretically top 390 km/h.
When I was a kid, jet-powered cars seemed like the future. I watched on TV, and they’d get in their jet car, fire it up and zip away. I read about the Rover-BRM gas turbine car in the ’60s, and I went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 to see Chrysler’s own spin around and around on the stand. I’ve always been a big fan of these cars. And recently, I was able to buy one of the nine original turbine cars from Chrysler. Owning it has been the thrill of a lifetime. Even though my 1963 Chrysler turbine car was built 45 years ago, to this day, when I’m driving it, people say, “Ooooh, look how smooth that car is!”
So I thought, why not try to build a new one? It would be great if I could run a turbine car on biodiesel, especially a non-food sourced fuel. So I sat down with Steve Anderson and Frank Saucedo from General Motors’ Advanced Design Studios and told them what I had in mind. I’m not a designer, so I couldn’t really convey what I was looking for; they had to give me some ideas. They’d sketch something and ask, “Is this it?” I’d say noooo, and then they’d offer another design: “How about this?” I remember Ed Welburn, GM’s VP of global design, was at one of our meetings, sketching on cocktail napkins. I mentioned that I liked the look of the Cadillac Cien show car. The GM design team kept sketching. I knew I’d know the right design as soon as I saw it. And I did.
We decided to call the car the EcoJet, and it was one serious project. My chief mechanic, Bernard Juchli, along with fabricator Jim Hall and the rest of the guys in the shop, did a wonderful job building it. Metalcrafters, the company that builds many of the concept cars at auto shows, constructed the carbon-fi bre-over-Kevlar body. The chassis was basically built inhouse at my garage. Alcoa provided technical support for the hydro-formed frame rails, aluminium space frame, the subframe structures and the turbine-bladeinspired forged alloy wheels. Each one of those wheels was made from a 180-kg billet of aluminium.
In keeping with this car’s environmentally friendly theme, we didn’t want to use any animal-sourced products. Instead, the interior is crafted from materials that can be recycled, like Alcantara, a man-made suede.
We used as many GM components as we could, like the Brembo carbon-fi bre brakes – the same ones used in the Corvette ZR1. The suspension arms come from a Z06 C6 Corvette, as do the heavily modified frame rails.
The turbine itself is a Honeywell LTS-101, like the ones used in Bell 222 and US Coast Guard Dolphin helicopters. It puts out 485 kW and 790 N.m and 790 N.m. A four-speed automatic transaxle was adapted from a C5 Corvette. We had to use an automatic because the turbine requires a constant load. A manual would cause the turbine to overspeed – like pushing in the clutch on a car with the engine redlined.
Because the jet runs at 60 per cent of its maximum 40 000 r/min at idle, the output shaft speed translates to 3 300 r/min. So we asked Hot Flush to engineer us a custom torque converter with a stall speed of 3 500 r/min – just above the turbine’s idle. But here’s the fun part. In order to reduce the overall length of the car, we stacked the engine on top of the transmission. Weismann, the same talented guys that built the transaxle for the McLaren F1, constructed a 1:1 transfer gearbox that drops the output shaft of the engine 15 cm, reverses rotation and sends the power back to the torque converter, not unlike a V-drive in a boat. And these guys are right here in California. (Southern California is still the hot-rodding capital of the world.)
When the EcoJet was fi nished, we raced a jet plane on an airport runway, and we beat ’em up to 260 km/h. Speed’s not a problem for this car; it’s geared to do 394 km/h. The turbine needs to spool up to generate power, so there’s a noticeable lag before it picks up speed. You put your foot on the brake, bring up the revs, then accelerate. As with any jet engine, all that power is up at the top end of the range. It’s a lot of fun to drive on the street and it’s extremely smooth. But this car is very noisy, and that racket comes mostly from the air intake. Chrysler’s engineers were geniuses back in the ’60s. Their turbine is reasonably quiet because they wanted people to hear that jet engine sound – whirrrrr! We’re working with K&N and Flowmaster to seal the intake better and develop a filtering system to cut the noise. We basically need an intake muffler.
I’ll admit the fuel economy isn’t great. The glass cockpit has a fuel-fl ow meter,and the EcoJet idles at around 30 litres per hour. At 110 km/h we burn 50 litres per hour, and at full throttle it burns over 200 litres an hour. Remember, this is a jet.
When the original Chrysler turbine came out in the ’60s, you’d have to go to a truck stop to fill up with diesel, or use home heating oil.
But the EcoJet also runs on B100 biodiesel. We get ours from Seattle Bio-diesel. There are two 68-litre fuel tanks: a left tank for Jet A fuel and a right tank for biodiesel. We start the car on jet fuel and switch to B100 once we’re out on the road. We always switch back to jet fuel before shutdown, so we don’t gum up the fuel-control unit. We haven’t noticed a real fuel-economy difference between the two fuels. A turbine gobbles any fuel that burns with oxygen – uuurrrrrrppp! It’s like a big guy at a buffet. It just eats everything.
Refining the car has been a continual process. The doors operate with solenoids. Push a button and it goes kercluuunnk – so we’ll find a quieter switch. But the really tough part is done. It’s on the road now, and it doesn’t overheat. The transmission fl uid stays very cool, and the car runs smoothly.
I like that the EcoJet is a usable vehicle that looks like a car of the future. There’s a Batmobile quality to it. You get the feeling you’re on your way to fi ght crime when you get into it. But that concept car look is balanced with practicality. It’s not one of those “You could never drive that; look where the headlights are!” kind of cars.
Okay, so there’s no trunk. You wouldn’t want to take it on a trip. Since I don’t play golf, I don’t really care about room for a golf bag. There’s about the same amount of storage space as there is in an Audi R8. You can carry an insurance card and one pack of M&Ms.