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 engineered for the 1953, 1956, and 1959 Motorama auto shows. The cars' designer, Harley Earl, took his 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 General Motors also used the name "Firebird" for the line of pony cars that was a corporate cousin of the Chevrolet Camaro, which has no direct relation to the concept cars.


General Motors had done research on the feasibility of gas turbine engines in cars as early as the 1940s. It wasn't 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 produced the Firebird XP-21,[1] 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 entire 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. Race car 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 a more practical design: a four-seat, family car. It is 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 (which turned out to be hard to make).[4] The engine output is 200 hp (150 kW). To solve its exhaust heat problem, the car feeds the exhaust through a regenerative system,[4] which allows the entire engine to operate nearly 1,000 °F (538 °C) cooler, and also powers the accessories. Kerosene was the most common fuel used.[4] Another innovation on the car is the first use of disc brakes on all four wheels, along with a fully independent suspension. It also featured a sophisticated 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 future cars[5] and avoid accidents. It 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.

GM built the third design, the Firebird III, in 1958 and debuted it at Motorama in 1959. It is another extravagant concept with a fiberglass body and no fewer than seven short wings and tail fins (which were tested extensively in a wind tunnel). 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 technical advancements to make it more practical, such as cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and air conditioning. It also featured "Space-Age" innovations, such as special air drag brakes like those found on aircraft, which 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 "no hold" steering. The driver controlled the steering with a joystick positioned between the two seats.[7] This gave the car a more futuristic feel and simulated the experience of flying a plane.


  • 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 future that contrasted with the (1956) present. In that present, a nuclear family of hot and perspiring convertible occupants are attempting to travel to the beach—but they are stuck, immobile, trapped in an insufferable freeway traffic jam. In a flashforward to the future, they are cruising at high speed in air conditioned comfort along an automated freeway (with no other vehicles to be seen) in their turbine-powered Firebird. The movie's concept (now more than fifty years old) was that this future was not unreasonably remote, and General Motors would provide it—and yet it is consistent with current projections (2008) for future automotive travel using electronic vehicle control and improved highway infrastructure.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "AC Spark Plug ad" Popular Mechanics, June 1954, p. 241.
  2. ^ "Gas Turbine Auto" Popular Mechanics, March 1954, p. 90.
  3. ^ "Directory Index: GM Corporate and Concepts/1954 XP-21 Firebird". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  4. ^ a b c Flory Jr., J. "Kelly" (2008). American Cars, 1946-1959 Every Model Every Year. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7864-3229-5.
  5. ^ "Directory Index: GM Corporate and Concepts/1956_GM_Firebird_II". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  6. ^ a b "Directory Index: GM Corporate and Concepts/1956_GM_Firebird_II". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  7. ^ "Directory Index: GM Corporate and Concepts/1959_Firebird_III_Bochure". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  8. ^ a b "Directory Index: GM Corporate and Concepts/1959_Firebird_III_Bochure". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  9. ^

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