One of the great things about writing books is that you get to meet people who did cool things. Like fly jet packs or build turbine cars. Once in a while, I meet them after the books come out. It's too late for them to make the book, but it's still pretty neat. The other day, I spoke to a guy in this picture.
In the early 1960s, Chrysler built a fleet of turbine cars and lent them to the public as part of a huge experiment - and publicity stunt. The car bodies were built in Italy by Ghia and shipped to the US where the engine and trans were installed, along with a whole bunch of other stuff like wiring, and it was all done at a small facility on Greenfield Road in Detroit.
The facility is still there but it is a bit run down. In fact, it looks worse today than it did when I snapped these pics.
When I saw it last, there was some activity there but in more recent times the building was abandoned. But in 1963 or so when the black and white pictures were taken, it was a beehive of activity. In all, a total of 55 of these Turbine cars were assembled (Chrysler built 78 turbine-powered cars over the life of the program - 55 were the Ghia ones) and most of them were hand-assembled in this building.
I wrote the book Chrysler's Turbine Car in 2010 and have since heard from all sorts of people who have read the book. Many had connections to the story and knew people I had interviewed for the book. And the other day I got a note from a guy who said, "I think I am in one of the pics in your book."
He was referring to the assembly line pic above and said he thought he was standing in the far back.
He gave me his phone number and I called him. I told him that I had a much higher resolution copy of the photo and I could send him a clearer version of the worker in the back. At least, it would be a little clearer.
After seeing the closeup he confirmed it was him. That is Jerry Hornung at 19 years old who had just been hired to work at Chrysler as a driver - mechanic. He was based in Highland Park where there was some road testing done. Much of it was mundane, just putting parts on cars and taking them for drives. The drives might be in traffic or might involve running out to the Chelsea proving grounds
In 1963, he was asked if he might want to go over and help with the building of the Turbine Cars. Strangely, some of the guys with higher seniority didn't want to go. Jerry had the impression that some of the guys who'd been around a few years didn't like change and were just as happy to send the new kid over and have him learn the new project.
When he saw the cars being uncrated, he remembered liking them because the turbine bronze color of the paint was similar to the paint job on the '57 Chevy he drove at the time.
The cars were then brought into the building and placed on stands. Work would be performed on the car and then it would be picked up by an overhead gantry and moved to the next station. At one station, Jerry had to remove the interior of the car so that the electrical wiring could be installed. Since all of the cars were handmade, the interior panels from one car might not fit into another car (mainly because the holes for the screws would be in different spots). So Jerry would remove all of the pieces and wrap them and number them so they would not get confused with the pieces from another car on the line.
As the car got toward the end of the line it would get a rear axle and wheels and someone - in the foreground of the top picture - installed the engine and transmission.
Jerry remembers that the workplace was clean - the floor was cement but so smooth Jerry and the rest would often just slide under the cars without bothering to use creepers. And one day while Jerry was under a car he heard a co-worker come in and announce, "President Kennedy has just been shot."
One incident from his time there sticks in his mind: one of the Turbine Cars was taken out for a quick spin on a local piece of highway that had not been opened to the public yet. With Jerry in the passenger seat, the rear axle locked up. On the side of the road the mechanics looked at each other and realized that someone had forgotten to put gear lube in the rear axle. The car was brought back to the Greenfield Plant on a flatbed. They covered the vehicle with a tarp - workers on the program knew there would be hell to pay if too many people saw a broken down Turbine Cars hauled around on a flatbed.
Before he left Chrysler, he wound up over at Highland Park again and had another interesting assignment. A replica of one of Richard Petty's stock cars had been brought in and Chrysler was studying it, trying to figure out how Petty always managed to get so much more speed from his cars than other drivers of Chrysler products. Was it weight reduction? They decided to see how much weight they could remove from the car without it being too obvious. Jerry was warned not to lean on the fenders as he worked because they had been acid-dipped; they looked right but were thinner and lighter than stock. The engine was removed and Jerry stood in the engine compartment trimming off every single piece of metal he could spot. A screw stuck through a half inch? It got lopped off. A piece of metal overlapped at a weld an inch? It was cut. At the end of his shift, Jerry swept it up and weighed his work: he had saved two pounds.
Jerry worked there for a few more months but left Chrysler when he had the chance to run a gas station. It turns out it wasn't such a great decision and he was soon looking for work again. With cars in his blood, he found work at the GM proving grounds in Milford, Michigan. He ended up making a career of it.
It's been more than 50 years since Jerry worked on the Turbine Cars but the memories of the program are still a highlight of his career. Vivid still are "the pictures in my head of the most unique vehicle I've ever been privileged to work on." And that's from a man who worked at Chrysler's Chelsea proving grounds and GM's Milford proving grounds.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation.
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