Ford and General Motors are the perfect example of a rivalry that has given the auto industry more than you can imagine. Authors of vehicles like the Ford Mustang – you know their history – or the Chevrolet Camaro, these two manufacturers have been competing for more than half a century to be the most innovative, reputable and advanced automaker in the United States. And this career has led them to test all kinds of technologies, including gas turbines in both cars and large trucks. This is the story of the war that Ford and GM waged to triumph with the turbine truck in the 1960s.
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First of all, gas turbine technology is not an invention of any of these manufacturers. The origin dates back to 1950 in Great Britain, at the hand of the Rover JET1 developed after World War II. Rover tried to implement the first operational turbojet engine in a car, a invention of engineer Frank Whittle in the 1930s. It offered a multitude of advantages, such as smooth running at any speed, fewer moving parts, operates on almost any type of fuel, is easier to start in cold climates, and was believed to be more efficient than traditional combustion engines. In addition, the propulsion system was simpler and more flexible, as well as reliable and cheap to maintain in the long term.
Thus, the United States soon noticed this technology and Chrysler was the first to implement it in a passenger car. However, the turbine engines They had a high manufacturing cost, which made the project unviable, especially in the years after the war. A decade later, the situation had changed.
The turbine truck war to triumph: Ford moves first
The economy was in a sweet spot. Ford was developing the Mustang, a car that would change the rules of the game forever. The country now had new roads and highways that made land transportation increasingly viable. So what if they combined the gas turbine engine with an oversized vehicle designed to earn a living on the road? Ford and GM saw this opportunity and decided to go big with the development of the turbine truck.
In the mid-1960s, Ford revealed the so-called Big Red. Unveiled at the 1964 World’s Fair alongside the new Ford Mustang, the Big Red was a 4-meter-high truck almost 30 meters long with a gross weight of 80 tons capable of traveling at cruising speeds of 70 mph (112 km / h). The power came from a motor of 600 hp turbine with a maximum torque of 1,300 Nm which Ford christened 705. The block was associated with an Allison five-speed automatic transmission.
The gas turbine was initially developed as a military project. However, Ford managed to assemble a huge turbine truck with which the brand launched a public relations campaign by visiting several American cities. Among its main features was an air suspension and a suspended cab. This cabin was designed to travel long distances. Two drivers could travel who would take turns throughout the journey at the wheel. Meanwhile, the resting driver had a beverage dispenser, refrigerator, oven, incinerator toilet, bed, and even television. All this together with a huge 1,000-liter fuel tank that gave it a range of close to a thousand kilometers.
GM fights back with the Chevrolet Bison and Turbo Titan III
General Motors would not take long to move forward and in 1964 presented the Chevrolet Bison. Developed by its gas turbine program, the ninth generation of this engine is called GT-309. It generated 280 hp of power and a maximum torque of 1,200 Nm. Meanwhile, the Bison was a prototypical truck equipped with a GT-309 turbine housed in an aerodynamic compartment above the cabin, which also housed another turbine engine of mysterious origin and an electric generator.
GM’s turbine truck was a simulated concept and the details of the powertrain are unknown. It is unknown even if he got around on his own. What was clear is that the company had focused on the development of this truck and not on the powertrain. Highlights, for example, its cabin without doors, where the huge front windshield was turned to give access to the interior. In addition, it was controlled by a dual-joystick steering system, included a telephone and a futuristic-style center console.
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A year later, in 1965, GM revealed the Chevrolet Turbo Titan III. Unlike the Bison, it was a functional turbine truck that the company exhibited at the 1966 World’s Fair. It had a gross weight of 35 tons and was powered by a 280 hp GT-309 turbine with 1,200 Nm of peak torque. The engine’s idle speed was around 33,000 rpm, which was reduced to 4,000 when associated with a modified Allison MT-42 transmission, while the two air intakes seen on the front were functional and housed the truck’s headlights. The joysticks that equipped the Bison were also preserved, but in a second generation that GM called ‘Dial Steering’.
What happened to the turbine engines?
GM’s turbine truck didn’t get much further after the Turbo Titan III project. The American giant abandoned this technology, even though it had achieved a fuel consumption similar to that of a diesel engine at speeds of 65 mph (105 km / h). However, Ford decided to continue experimenting with gas turbines in the 1970s.
In 1971 he opened a factory in Toledo (Ohio, United States) to produce his new turbine engine, named 707. This propellant generated 375 CV of power and was made of an alloy of iron and nickel. Ford used a regenerative complex that made it possible to obtain the fuel consumption required in the trucking industry. In fact, the company used the 707 turbine in its production W-1000 trucks to transport supplies between Dearborn and Toledo. Despite Ford’s efforts to come up with this technology, cooling problems and manufacturing costs forced the company to abandon the idea and close the plant in 1973.
Ford’s 707 gas turbine was very advanced for its time, but the turbine truck concept fell victim to anti-pollution laws. This type of engine emits large amounts of particles that are harmful to health, such as nitrogen dioxide. Thus, the Clean Air Act of 1970 was in charge of regulating these emissions, collapsing all those revolutionary advances that saw the light in the 60s.
The end to one of the chapters of the war between Ford and GM
Silence, reliability and smooth power delivery did not make up for fuel consumption and high manufacturing costs of the turbines. Ford and GM realized they were struggling with a technology with no hint of the future, so they abandoned the idea of the turbine truck. Both manufacturers focused on pick-ups, vehicles that today continue to represent a very important volume of sales in the US market and in which Ford and Chevrolet are clear references.
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Both the Big Red and the Turbo Titan III are a clear example of the evolution of the automotive industry in the 1960s. This technology experienced a boom similar to what the electric car is experiencing today. Advances in this field are unstoppable and it seems less and less likely that we will live in a future in which internal combustion engines or even gas turbines have a place.
Ford Big Red
Chevrolet Bison & Turbo Titan III
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