No Minister

The Power of Glamour

I’m shamelessly using the title of this book, which I would recommend you read even if you can’t stand the fashion industry- perhaps especially if you can’t stand it.

For the simple fact is that our societies are driven as much by these ephemeral things as by the literal nuts, bolts and electronics of our technological world.

From vacation brochures to military recruiting ads, from the Chrysler Building to the iPad, from political utopias to action heroines, Postrel argues that glamour is a seductive cultural force. Its magic stretches beyond the stereotypical spheres of fashion or film, influencing our decisions about what to buy, where to live, which careers to pursue, where to invest, and how to vote.

The post I put up the other day on cleverly painted water towers reminded me of a couple of other such things that I’ve come across recently.

First up is the emergence of a very rare turbine-powered Chrysler car from the 1960’s.

The 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car was one of 55 that were built to evaluate the use of turbine engines as part of an automobile powertrain and given to real-world drivers for short loans.

The thought was that a relatively simple, smooth operating engine that could run on a variety of fuels would offer a reliable and efficient alternative to piston engines, but poor emissions and fuel economy doomed it to the history books after a couple of years of testing.

All but nine of the cars were sent to the crusher after the project was complete in 1966. Chrysler kept two, five were sent to museums and two ended up in private hands.

Not surprisingly, car nut, Jay Leno, (former host of The Tonight Show back when it had mass appeal) owns one, but the second privately owned one is back on the market for the first time in decades.

It looks very cool on these shots although if you click on the link you’ll see that the front view is not so great: obviously YMMV. But the inside is just gorgeous, right down to the “turbine look” in the centre console.

As crazy as it might have sounded originally, turbines have been used to power other machines, perhaps most notably the US Abrams Tank.

It’s no coincidence that Chrysler was the original manufacturer of the Abrams.

Despite turbines only really being effective when they’re running at constant speed the big advantage is that they can burn any fuel, which was one inspiration for the turbine car. But as the article notes, they’re fuel hogs. The Abrams uses 10 gallons (38 litres) just to start up and the same per hour when idling.

I suppose there are people – likely military people – who find the Abrams glamorous.

The other piece on this subject that I ran across arose from a criticism by Senator Cruz of the Harris-Biden Administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords. Cruz said that they cared more about the people of Paris than Pittsburgh.

It’s the usual soundbite alliteration beloved by politicians and it rather annoyed right-wing writer Claire Berlinski (There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters), who lives in Paris and took Cruz to task for his populist shout-out:

An American writer named James Lileks, who lives in the Mid-West, acknowledges what Cruz was doing but then gently points out to Berlinski that there are two cities called Paris; the one she loves and defends and …. the newer Paris.

I’m sure there’s some lovely modern architecture in Paris. Few people go to Paris to seek it out. Only the die-hard architectural masochists feel required to make a pilgrimage to the Pompideu HVAC Museum:

I recall reading all the gushing guff published in the 1980’s when this thing was opened: about its “challenging”, “shocking” and (of course) “revolutionary” design. People go to see what’s inside, where it’s not at all like this. But they don’t go to admire the building.

Then there’s the Mitterand Library. The four buildings stand like open books, which is nice. They have a serene, spare quality, and also would not be out of place as the HQ for the advanced species that has colonized earth, eliminated 92% of the population, and now rules with a gentle hand because the survivors know the death rays strike without warning or sound.

Which brings me to this Paris concert hall, and the idea of Europe as synonymous with Grandeur And Splendor Which True Murcans Must Reject.

Do you get the sense of some alien creature blindly advancing on the city, its tentacles dripping with silvery ichor?

Of course it’s likely that there are people who do find these structures glamorous, in the same manner of an Abrams Tank.

Lileks finishes up his piece by pointing out what such things may mean for French society, in the context of Berlinski’s remark about what Cruz’s remarks mean for American society:

She’s right about Paris being the seat of arts and culture. Paris is beautiful, but its beauty is an artifact of its past.

Which brings me back to the idea Claire expressed: the sentiments she gleaned from the remark about the values of the Parisian elect “are not the mark of a healthy and self-confident society.” I think one could say the same about the structure above. It doesn’t just reject the norms and forms of history; it erases them and insists they never were.

Perhaps these are the marks of a society that loathes itself – either for what it was, which it feels was characterized by iniquities and inequities, or for what it is, which is not as great as it used to be when we were awesome. The contradiction can drive one barmy.

You can’t unmoor Parisians from the past, but you can dissolve the bonds that carry the past into the future. The city becomes a bustling pretty crypt, full of altars to gods no one believes in.

What’s left as a belief system? Statism, Art – which is either ancestor worship or institutionally “disruptive” modernism – and the notion of the Perfected Future, in which men in suits and their severe but glamorous wives go to structures like the one above and sit through a twelve-tone opera with a blank face

Written by Tom Hunter

May 13, 2021 at 11:36 am

Posted in Art, Europe, History, Humour, Ideologues, Technology, USA

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6 Responses

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  1. There is no reason why functional things cannot be beautiful and rival or even surpass the exhibits in Art galleries in terms of form

    Bridges can be exceptionally beautiful, their form defined by the laws of physics (statics)

    The flying buttresses of medieval Cathedrals attract attention of the tourist

    The Gas turbine’s virtue arises from its excellent power to weight ratio, along with its unfussiness with regard to fuel – GT railway locos were experimented with, in some cases using coal dust as fuel, in other fuel oils like good old bunker C as well as kerosene of course

    There major problem is GTs work best at close to full power, in start stop applications such as cars they use lots of fuel just spinning up which is why their fuel economy is poor. At operating speeds they are more efficient than the ICE, it is idling and then spinning them up that eats through the fuel

    For aircraft though they work out really well spiining up at the beginning of the flight and spinning down at the end with their power to weight ration paying major dividends

    There have been marine applications as well, usually naval vessels, but also a few cruise ships, in the later application interesting things have been tried like using the waste heat from the gas turbine to generate steam for driving the venerable steam turbine – they use this configuration in power stations as well, power generation being a major use of the Gas Turbine, usually using natural gas to fire them

    The first GT Car was built by Rover I believe and I think they raced them at one point

    Its not the end of the road for automotive GTs though, their low weight and mechanical simplicity might find them useful for Hybrids in a turbo electric configuration

    We will see


    May 13, 2021 at 1:42 pm

  2. Andrei – you can get good fuel economy at partial loads on a GT if they are designed for it. And it makes them even more complex. The major problem for GTs is they have to spin at a very high speed, especially those in the 200-500kW range. That means for many potential users is they need a massive gearbox to reduce the speed down to something that can be managable. It is OK if it is a fixed speed reduction like in helicopter but very hard/ expensive to have multiple speeds. Even a ruggedised torque converter has a hard time.
    Tom The Abrams tank has a very high fuel consumption because it is very heavy (over 60 ton and capable of about 60km/h) and not exactly streamlined nor having low friction components. The smaller British heavy tanks, at least in the earlier version, had a detuned Merlin engine and it used massive amounts of fuel.

    Chris Morris

    May 13, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    • Chris GT cars didn’t use mechanical transmissions, they used automatic transmisions which technically are an hydraulic transmission, the torque convertor, paired with a mechanical one

      For optimal fuel consumption you want the turbine spinning at a constant rate regardless of the output power demand and increase or decrease the fuel accordingly using feedback mechanisms- in power stations this is what exactly happens until the output demanded exceeds the max of the turbine’s capacity at which point the AC power frequency drops and the generator has to be tripped out – this is why you get brownouts to try and prevent this happening and blackouts when the engineers running the system can’t prevent it

      The reason for reduction gearing is that for a given power output the smaller the diameter of the turbine the higher the revs required yo meet it. To fit a turbine into a car you need to make it small, thus high revs.

      This was all worked our by Charles Parsons when he developed steam turbines for marine and power generation use in the late 19th century. He had to develop new machining techniques to mill the gears for the reduction gearing to a high enough accuracy that they wouldn’t fail, loosly speaking .

      The same is actually true for ICEs which have an optimal operating range which is why we need some sort of transmission and why some car makers are using CVTs (Constant Variable tranmissions) – and onto the theme of this post, cars with CVT are plain unsexy or unglamerous) , boring cars, that are boring to drive, for boring people

      Gas turbines thus far have found themselves used in applications where they maintain more or less constant angular velocity for long periods of time

      The only exceptions being military such as the Abrams Tank and fast patrol boats where the long suffering taxpayer foots the fuel bill


      May 13, 2021 at 9:46 pm

  3. The Abrams tank has a very high fuel consumption because it is very heavy …

    Really? While the actual fuel consumption between the Abrams and the Chrysler car will differ – at least I’d hope the Chrysler didn’t chew 38 litres per hour – the fact that both platforms have poorer fuel efficiency than if they’d had ICE power units (even multi-fuel ones) would suggest that it’s not weight that’s a factor.

    And I notice that nobody has commented on that girl on the cover of the book. 🙂

    Tom Hunter

    May 13, 2021 at 8:13 pm

  4. The Volvo VNL trucks with a 16 litre diesel loaded to 40 tonnes get about 6mpg (US gallons) and that’s with wheels on roads
    The Abrams is rated as 1500HP. This table here indicates a diesel generator that size will use about 80 gallons an hour. so that is comparable to the 1/2mpg the tanks get at full speed.

    Chris Morris

    May 13, 2021 at 9:24 pm

  5. Tom what girl on what cover?

    The book I looked at had a beautiful symmetrical curve on it that simply leads you into the book, the whiteness of it reminded me of virginity, freshness, perfection, an endless beach, life stretching on wards to the hills, a chaste life of bareness.

    Sorry but I think I missed that girl.

    Going back for a more careful examination.


    May 13, 2021 at 9:58 pm

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