Written by Matthew Copes
By the end of the Second World War it had become abundantly clear that piston engines were largely obsolete, especially in sectors like military aviation.
In the late ‘40s, America’s Big Three automakers began tinkering with gas turbines for various applications, and by the mid-’60s Chrysler had built a number of family car prototypes powered by these advanced engines.
These Jetson-like automobiles would never go into production, but the engines themselves showed great promise.
By the early ‘50s the “Jet Age” had arrived, and gas turbine engines had become increasingly common in everything from French jet fighters and British helicopters, to Soviet ice breakers and American locomotives like Union Pacific’s mighty GTELs.
Then in the early ‘60s Ford and General Motors unveiled their own turbine-powered machines.
Unlike Chrysler’s however, theirs weren’t boring sedans and wood-paneled station wagons, but massive commercial vehicles chock-full of features and amenities straight out of the future.
In at least one respect, their timing couldn’t have been better.
With the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in the previous decade, construction was well underway on a vast network of “superhighways” built to nationally uniform standards.
As a result, people and freight were moving around the country more efficiently than ever.
But though the new gas turbine trucks looked good on paper, it was unclear whether they’d be able to outcompete newer, more powerful, and more fuel-efficient turbocharged diesel engines being produced by companies like Cummins, Caterpillar and Detroit Diesel.
It’s a classic tale of competition, economics, and regulation, and ultimately, a concept that may have been too far ahead of its time.
Now, turbine trucks – the gas-powered big rigs of the 1960s.
Ford Big Red
As early as the late ‘50s, Ford executives realized that the days of long-haul trucks picking their way through a mishmash of small and poorly maintained state and country roads, only to arrive at their destinations days or weeks later than expected were long gone.
Featuring low gross weights and relatively underpowered gasoline or diesel engines, the trucks that had been the mainstays of regional and long-haul transportation weren’t particularly well-equipped to transport heavy loads between cities hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
Nicknamed Big Red, Ford’s gas turbine tractor-trailer made its debut at the American Trucking Association’s national meeting in Los Angeles in October of 1964.
Featuring a traditional cab-over-engine design, the tractor’s engine, drivetrain, and driver amenities put it in a class of its own.
Though it wasn’t legal at the time, engineers predicted that in the near future, short wheelbase, tandem drive axle tractors pulling multiple trailers would be the most efficient commercial vehicles.
But at the time, one 40-foot (12.2 m) trailer was the limit, and it wouldn’t be until nearly two decades later that standard trailer length was increased to 48 feet (14.6 m).
Nevertheless, Ford bigwigs were confident that in just a few years, pending transportation legislation would make their machine legal, and with a big jump on the competition, grabbing the lion’s share of the emerging market would be a piece of cake.
From nose to tail, the big Ford measured just over 96 feet (29.2 m) when coupled to two 40-foot (12.2 m) trailers, the first of which was attached to the tractor by a standard fifth-wheel-kingpin coupling, while the second trailer was connected to the first by a tandem axle dolly.
Engineers managed to get the gaps between the units down to just 2 feet (.6 m), which collectively improved aerodynamics by nearly 40% when compared to conventional combination vehicles.
Both the tractor and trailers featured air-ride suspensions, and other than the steer axle which was rated at 12,000 pounds (5,440 kg), each axle set could shoulder 44,000 pounds (19,960 kg).
But though Ford’s Big Red was impressive, most industry insiders and journalists were unconvinced that it would ever go into production, at least in its current form.
If Ford was to silence its critics and make millions of dollars selling jet-powered commercial vehicles to penny-pinching trucking companies, efficiency would be key.
This meant that its trucks would have to pull huge loads using as little fuel as possible, and they’d need to be reliable enough to run around the clock while keeping the drivers happy and comfortable.
But since drive time was limited by federal regulations and biological concerns like sleep, the spacious cab would need to be designed for team operation.
With nearly 350 cubic feet (10 cubic meters) of interior space, Big Red’s cab truly was a “home away from home,” at least by truck standards.
And since two men would live and work in the vehicle for weeks on end, amenities included a galley-style kitchen with a sink, an oven, a refrigerator, and a folding table.
Then there was a 9-inch black and white television, a radio, two climate control systems to keep the spacious cab comfortable in any weather, and an incinerating toilet that turned “solid waste” into ash.
Because Big Red’s floor was nearly 6 feet (1.8 m) above the ground, drivers entered and exited the cab via an air-actuated aluminum ladder that was extended and retracted by a switch located near the driver-side door.
Both driver and co-driver enjoyed stylish, swiveling leather seats, and thanks to its 7,000 square inch tinted safety glass windshield, all-around visibility was excellent.
Long before the term ergonomics became popular in trucking circles, drivers were surrounded by an array of easy-to-see gauges that monitored everything from engine and road speed, to air, oil, and fuel pressure.
In addition, Big Red had a number of features that wouldn’t be standard on most commercial vehicles until decades later, namely a recessed steer axle that significantly decreased turning radius, and add-on fairings between the axles that improved aerodynamic efficiency.
But with a gross weight of 170,000 pounds (77,100 kg), Big Red needed a lot of oomph to get moving and stay moving.
To give it the muscle it needed, Ford used its own 705 turbine that weighed less than 1,500 pounds (680 kg) yet produced nearly 600 horsepower, making it lighter and more powerful than most diesel engines of the day.
One glaring problem however, was that like most turbines, the 705 spun at more than 30,000 rotations per minute, compared to around 2,000 for diesels.
Ultimately engineers were able to reduce the speed at the output shaft by nearly 90%, and the engine produced a respectable if not exceptional 950 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 RPMs.
The 705 burned standard diesel fuel and was coupled to an Allison HT-70 automatic 5-speed transmission.
For maximum efficiency, the engine featured a two-stage compressor with an air-to-air intercooler that pushed colder, denser air into the combustion chambers, the results of which were more power and better economy across the entire operating range.
Capable of pulling its massive loads at 70 miles per hour (113 km/h) for approximately 600 miles (966 km) with its 280-gallon fuel capacity, at first glance fuel consumption was an abysmal 2.15 miles per gallon (9 kilometers per liter).
However, considering that Big Red was more than twice as heavy as the trucks against which it could compete, fuel mileage was actually above average – at least in some applications.
Ford marketers and engineers claimed that since their truck could cruise at higher speeds where turbines were most efficient, operating costs would be drastically reduced, and profits would be maximized.
And because two drivers could live and work comfortably in the truck on long hauls, and since Big Red could haul twice the tonnage, companies would need far fewer power units.
But despite these rosy projections, Big Red never lived up to the hype.
In regard to fuel consumption estimates, the numbers were based on longer than average hauls across relatively flat terrain, but in mountainous areas and on shorter routes, they’d be far less efficient.
After the show in Los Angeles, Big Red set out on a 5,500-mile cross-country trip making its first stop in Dearborn, Michigan, on its way to Montreal, Boston, and ultimately Washington DC.
But though the trip thrust the impressive new truck into the national spotlight, due to state and federal length and weight restrictions, its route options were severely limited, and in the real world, few trucking companies were willing to make huge investments in vehicles that couldn’t go wherever they were needed.
Worse yet, by some estimates, if Big Red would have gone into production each unit might have cost nearly twice as much as comparable diesel-powered trucks.
General Motors Bison
Smaller, flatter, and definitely odder than Big Red, General Motors’ Bison looked more like an unused prop on the set of a low-budget sci-fi movie than a working commercial vehicle, which ironically, it wasn’t.
Like their counterparts at Ford, GM engineers had been developing turbine engines for more than a decade, and they’d even anticipated the widespread use of standard shipping containers like the ones used on intermodal and international shipments today.
Whereas Ford’s truck was solely a combination vehicle, the Bison could be configured as a straight truck or a combination vehicle, depending on customer requirements and application.
But despite its supposed power, speed, and versatility, GM’s truck couldn’t accommodate two drivers on anything but the shortest routes, because it was strictly a day-cab tractor – meaning that it had no sleeper.
In its prototype form, the Bison was only intended to service local and regional lanes, but it did have comfy seats, retractable stairs, a robust climate control system, and a huge one-piece windshield that gave occupants panoramic views.
Quirky and unique, the Bison made a big splash when it was unveiled at GM’s Futurama exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
What most spectators didn’t know however, was that the truck wasn’t operable because it lacked working engines and vital drivetrain components.
The fact was that much of the engineering work hadn’t yet been done, and needless to say, the Bison was little more than an eye-catching gimmick.
On the flip side, if the Bison had ever gone into production, it would have had a huge leg-up on the competition in one very important area – horsepower.
In fact, each Bison would have had not one, but two turbine engines – the first of which would have produced 280 horsepower, while the second would have thumped out another 720 horsepower.
However, due to the tractor’s low-slung design, there just wasn’t room for either engine under the cab between the frame rails.
Instead, both would have been housed in a bulbous pod above the fifth wheel.
Though unconventional, this setup proved aerodynamically beneficial, because the pod itself acted as an airfoil that allowed the air to flow smoothly over the cab between the tractor and trailer.
In addition, due to the height at which they were mounted, the engines would have ingested cleaner air than they would have if they’d been positioned closer to the road surface.
This made a lot of sense since dust, sand, and road debris sucked into turbines can significantly decrease blade life, and in some cases cause catastrophic compressor failure.
While accelerating, ascending grades, and pulling more than one trailer, both engines would have sent power to the drive wheels.
Then, once the truck was up to speed on relatively level ground, the larger engine would’ve switched off, and power would have come solely from the smaller, more fuel-efficient unit.
Though the powertrain was still in development, engineers claimed that power from the twin turbines could be distributed to every axle on both the tractor and trailers through a system similar to the ones found on diesel-electric locomotives.
This system could have provided far better traction and engine braking power in various conditions, but it was also complex, pricey, and untested.
Likewise, the two-engine power setup would have been heavy, costly, and maintenance intensive, all of which meant that the Bison wouldn’t have been a viable option for many trucking companies, most of which measured profits in pennies per mile.
Bison’s would have been controlled by awkward twin-stick steering mechanisms akin to modern joysticks, and regardless of setup, each cab would have sat well forward of the two front steer axles.
On straight-truck models, the front and rear axles would have turned in opposite directions, thereby improving maneuverability in tight areas like loading docks and city streets.
Sadly, no Bison ever saw a city street, a loading dock, or a long stretch of American interstate for that matter.
In the end, the project was scrapped before a working prototype had ever been built.
Chevy Turbo Titan III
Though GM’s Bison barely qualified as a prototype, the company’s Chevrolet division used the technology testbed as the basis for a turbine-powered big rig that actually worked.
Known as the Turbo Titan III, it too was destined for ultimate failure and obscurity, but before disappearing forever it nearly became a production vehicle.
The brainchild of esteemed designer Bill Mitchel of Corvette Stingray fame, the Turbo Titan III got its power from a Whirlfire power plant that was a slightly modified variant of the Bison’s smaller turbine engine.
Connected to an Allison manual transmission, the Whirlfire was so named for the satisfying whine it emitted across its operating range.
Producing about 300 horsepower and 1,000 pound-feet of torque, the Turbo Titan III wasn’t any more powerful than most diesel-powered trucks of the day, but it was far more practical than the Bison.
Gone were the locking fifth wheel and twin steer axles.
Instead, the Turbo Titan was configured like traditional heavy-duty trucks, with twin drive axles and just one steer axle.
Featuring bumper-mounted scoops to funnel air into the turbine, the tractor’s small cab was nicely appointed, but gadget-happy engineers opted to forego a traditional steering wheel for the gimmicky twin-stick apparatus from the Bison, though this probably would have been dropped quietly if the Bison ever went into production.
Pulling a shiny 40-foot trailer and tipping the scales at nearly 77,000 pounds (34,900 kg), Chevy’s Turbo Titan III purportedly made a number of coast-to-coast trips to evaluate its performance in a variety of terrains and weather conditions.
When cruising between 55 and 65 mph (88 and 105 km/h), the turbine was nearly as efficient as a diesel engine, but during acceleration and when climbing grades, fuel consumption was known to jump by as much as 40%.
With additional development the Turbo Titan III could have been a viable alternative to diesel trucks, but since the only prototype ever built was a day cab with no beds, sinks, ovens, televisions, or waste incinerating toilets, it would have been restricted to local and regional routes.
With increasingly strict fuel efficiency regulations, the growing clamor for environmental protections, and the passage of the first Clean Air Act in 1963, the prospect of seeing thousands of turbine trucks on America’s highways became increasingly unlikely.
By the end of the 1960s Chevrolet’s Turbo Titan III and Ford’s Big Red had been retired.
But though Ford’s impressive turbine truck was bought and restored by a private collector in the ‘70s, nobody – apparently not even executives at Chevrolet or GM – seemed to know what happened to the Turbo Titan III.
Chances are it was sold for scrap decades ago, though it could be under a musty tarp in a barn somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.