General Motors Firebird

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For the later General Motors-produced vehicle, see Pontiac Firebird.
Two of the three GM firebird concept cars, 1956 and 1959

The General Motors Firebird comprises a quartet of prototype cars that General Motors (GM) engineered for the 1953, 1956, and 1959 Motorama auto shows. The cars' designers, headed by Harley Earl, took Earls inspiration from the innovations in fighter aircraft design at the time. General Motors never intended the cars for production, but rather to showcase the extremes in technology and design that the company was able to achieve. The cars recently joined the display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and still make regular car show appearances. The tradition of offering prototype vehicles continued with the Pontiac Banshee series.

From 1967 to 2002, the Pontiac division of GM marketed its Firebird line of pony cars, that had no direct relation to these series of Firebird concept cars.


General Motors researched the feasibility of gas turbine engines in cars as early as the 1940s. It was not until the early 1950s that the company began building an actual engine, with Emmett Conklin leading the project. The fanciful and top speed of all four concept cars is "200 MPH."[citation needed]

As these concept cars were not specifically tied to any one division of GM, the Firebird I, II, and III were adorned with the logo of the General Motors Air Transport Section (GMATS).

Firebird I[edit]

Firebird I

By 1953, the research team had developed the Firebird XP-21.[1] This was later referred to as the Firebird I, which was essentially a jet airplane on wheels. It was the first gas turbine-powered car tested in the United States. The design is entirely impractical, with a bubble-topped canopy over a single-seat cockpit, a bullet-shaped fuselage made entirely of fiberglass, short wings, and a vertical tail fin.[2] It has a 370 hp (280 kW) Whirlfire Turbo Power gas turbine engine, which has two speeds, and expels jet exhaust at some 1,250 °F (677 °C). The weight of the car is 2,500 lb (1,134 kg), with a 100-inch wheelbase.[3]

At first, Conklin was the only person qualified to drive the car, and he tested it up to 100 mph (160 km/h), but upon shifting into second gear the tires lost traction under the extreme engine torque and he immediately slowed down for fear of crashing. Racecar driver Mauri Rose later test drove the car at the Indianapolis Speedway. GM never actually intended to test the power or speed potential of the gas turbine, but merely the practical feasibility of its use. The braking system differs from standard drum systems, in that the drums are on the outside of the wheels to facilitate fast cooling—and the wings actually have aircraft-style flaps for slowing from high speed.

A miniature version of the Firebird I crowns the Harley J. Earl Trophy, given to the winner of the Daytona 500.

Firebird II[edit]

Firebird II

The second concept car, the Firebird II of 1956, was designed as a four-seat, family car. It has a low and wide design with two large air intakes at the front, a high bubble canopy top, and a vertical tail fin. Its exterior bodywork is made entirely of titanium.[4] The engine output is 200 hp (150 kW). To solve the exhaust heat problem, the car feeds the exhaust through a regenerative system,[4] allowing the engine to operate nearly 1,000 °F (538 °C) cooler, and also powers the accessories. Capable of using different types of fuel, the most common is Kerosene.[4]

The concept car was also the first use by General Motors of disc brakes on all four wheels, along with a fully independent suspension. It also featured a non=operational guidance system intended for use with "the highway of the future," where an electrical wire embedded in the roadway would send signals that would help guide cars and avoid accidents.[5] This car appears in GM's sponsored-film short "Design for Dreaming".


  • GM internal code: XP-43
  • Wheelbase: 120 in (3,048 mm)[6]
  • Length; 234.7 in (5,961 mm)[6]
  • Ground clearance: 5.5 in (140 mm)

Firebird III[edit]

Firebird III
Firebird III on display at the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962

The Firebird III debuted at Motorama in 1959. The concept car featured a fiberglass body with seven short wings and tail fins. It is a two-seater powered by a 225 hp (168 kW) Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine, with a two-cylinder 10 hp (7.5 kW) gasoline engine to run all the accessories. Its exterior design features a double-bubble canopy and included cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and air conditioning. It also featured air drag brakes similar to those found on aircraft that emerged from flat panels in the bodywork of the car to slow it from high speeds; an "ultra-sonic" key that signaled the doors to open; an automated guidance system to help avoid accidents; and a "no hold" steering system. The car's steering was controlled by the driver by a joystick positioned between the two seats.[7]


  • GM internal code: XP-73
  • Wheelbase: 119 in (3,023 mm)[8]
  • Length: 248.2 in (6,304 mm)
  • Height: 44.8 in (1,138 mm) (canopy top)[8]
  • Ground clearance: 5.3 in (135 mm)

Firebird IV[edit]

The Firebird IV debuted at the 1964 New York World's Fair, in the General Motors Futurama Exhibit. It was another sleek, aircraft-inspired, turbine-engined "future" design, which GM coded internally as the XP-790. Its designers conceived it for a future in which cars steered automatically via programmed guidance systems, to "ensure absolute safety at more than twice the speed possible on expressways of the day."[9] Though billed as being turbine-powered, the Firebird IV was non-functional. GM repackaged the Firebird IV for the 1969 show circuit as the Buick Century Cruiser. Reportedly, the show car was crushed in the 1980s.


  • Wheelbase: 119"
  • Overall length: 229.8"
  • Width: 77.6"
  • Height: 45"

Motorama theme (1956)[edit]

The 1956 Motorama movie [1] projected a vision of the future. It shows a nuclear family that are hot and perspiring in a convertible on their way to a day at the beach, but they are stuck in a freeway traffic jam. In a flashforward to the future, they are cruising at a high-speed in air-conditioned comfort along an automated freeway with no other vehicles to be seen in a turbine-powered Firebird. The movie's concept was that General Motors would provide such a future.

An example of this type of forecast is the approach in vehicle infrastructure integration using electronic vehicle control and improved highway infrastructure.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "AC Spark Plug advertisement". Popular Mechanics: 241. June 1954. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  2. ^ "Gas Turbine Auto". Popular Mechanics: 90. March 1954. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  3. ^ "GM Corporate and Concepts - 1954 XP-21 Firebird". pp. 6–7. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Flory Jr., J. "Kelly" (2008). American Cars, 1946-1959 Every Model Every Year. McFarland Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7864-3229-5.
  5. ^ "GM Corporate and Concepts - 1956 GM Firebird II". pp. 12–13. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  6. ^ a b "GM Corporate and Concepts - 1956 GM Firebird II". p. 16. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  7. ^ "GM Corporate and Concepts - 1959 Firebird III Brochure". Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  8. ^ a b "Directory Index: GM Corporate and Concepts - 1959 Firebird III Brochure". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  9. ^ "GM's World's Fair Dream Cars". Hemmings Classic Car. June 2005. Retrieved 11 February 2021.

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