Law professor authors book about Chrysler's turbine car


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Steve Lehto repeatedly directs credit for the publication of his book, Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation – a 2011 Michigan Notable Book – to comedian and car buff Jay Leno.

“Car books are notoriously hard to get published,” said Lehto, 48, of Grand Blanc, a lawyer in private practice in Royal Oak who teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

He is the author of two other books – Michigan’s Columbus: The Life of Douglass Houghton and Death’s Door: the Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder – both of which are also notable books.

Lehto will be speaking at the Glenmoor Gathering of Significant Automobiles at the Glenmoor Country Club in Canton, Ohio on Sept. 16. David Kleptz, son of car collector Frank Kleptz, will be there with his father’s turbine car. According to Lehto, this is one of four running Turbine cars left.

Chrysler’s Turbine Car chronicles the invention of Chrysler’s car containing a jet engine — beginning in 1953 and ending in 1978. According to Lehto, engineers implemented jet propulsion technology into automobiles, creating a car “capable of running on tequila if need be.”

“Today, with the current oil crisis and increasing concerns about pollution, a car with a jet engine would be in high demand… had it not previously been destroyed without explanation,” said Lehto.

Lehto’s brother Rick works at small turbine engine manufacturer Williams International in Walled Lake with Bill Carry (who is on the book’s cover), one of the car’s engineers.

“It dawned on me that suddenly I have this pool of resources to interview these guys...” explained Lehto. “I could do an oral history and get the information from the guys who worked in the program. I interviewed about 20-30 guys, who are still in this area and were engineers in the program back in the day... It came together really, really well.”

Per Lehto’s research, three factors killed the program: tailpipe standards, the OPEC oil embargo, and Chrysler’s financial troubles.

In the early 1970s, the federal government regulated tailpipe emissions. At the same time, the OPEC oil embargo occurred, forcing the feds to raise the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, the average gas mileage of a carmaker’s fleet.

“At its introduction, [the government] picked a number out of thin air that the car companies struggled to meet. Turbine cars didn’t get great gas mileage because that is not what they’ve been working on. This was right around the same time Chrysler was running into its first financial troubles,” said Lehto. “...Chrysler said, ‘At a better time, we could make this happen, but right now we can’t.’ And they killed the program...”

Lehto’s relationship with Leno began when his previous book, At Death’s Door: The Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder, was advertised in a newspaper with the headline: “Death’s Door Makes a Great Christmas Gift.” It was mentioned on The Tonight Show in 2006.

Lehto gift-wrapped his book and sent it to Leno, along with the unpublished manuscript for Chrysler’s Turbine Car, knowing Leno’s affection for cars. Several months later, Leno called Lehto out of the blue, telling him he liked the manuscript.

“(In 2009) when Michigan was having financial troubles, Jay did a couple of free shows for auto workers,” recalled Lehto. “When he was in town, he went to Chrysler and talked them into selling him one of the surviving turbine cars. He called me again – ‘I need you to get me in touch with (Bill Carry) to service my car.’”

Leno invited Lehto out to his California home in 2009, showing him his 105 classic automobiles and letting him drive his turbine car. The book was still unpublished and Leno stated he’d write a forward.

From there, Lehto sold the book, which has been critically lauded by the Wall  Street Journal, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair. In Burbank, Calif., he appeared with Leno at a book signing, showing up in Leno’s turbine car.

“I’ve always liked cars and I’ve always been a Chrysler guy. Chrysler was known in the 1960s for having some of the more creative, cool cars on the road. And I remember seeing those cars on the road back in the 1960s. You don’t realize you’re seeing history until later,” says Lehto.

“It’s more than a car book. The multi-fuel aspect really changed things. That lost opportunity really resonates with people.”