1954 General Motors Firebird I (top); 1957 General Motors Firebird III. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Bill Vance
“Dream cars,” also known by the more formal name of concept cars, began when General Motors showed its Buick Y-Job in 1939. It was meant to express GM’s view of what future cars would look like, and to not only test public opinion, but also to lead it.
There was an interruption in auto production during the Second World War, but when peace came it brought a new optimism in North America. The Depression’s ravages and war’s deprivations were over and the jet plane and atom had arrived. Technology could accomplish anything!
Nowhere was this more evident than in cars. Home handyman magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated envisioned dramatic, sleek mechanical marvels that would whisk us swiftly and silently along elegant elevated highways. Some of these wondrous carriages would even fly.
This peek into the future came not so much in production cars as it did in a new crop of dream cars. And as the world’s largest carmaker, General Motors produced more of them than anyone and showed them at its lavish, travelling Motorama shows. None better exemplified this futuristic age than the 1950s Firebird series. They were festooned with wings, fins, jet intakes and bubble tops, symbolizing the fascination with jet planes of GM’s chief stylist Harley Earl.
Many saw gas turbines as the automotive power of the future and several companies were working on them. Rover demonstrated one in 1950 and set some records, and Chrysler showed a road-going turbine powered Plymouth in 1954. GM was also researching turbines so it’s not surprising that Earl chose turbine power for the Firebirds.
The first 1954 Firebird was a dramatic, delta winged, fighter plane-inspired, fibreglass-bodied, single seater with a clear plastic dome over the driver. The turbine engine was in the rear, and although it was a show car it was a fully drivable test bed for the turbine and other technology.
Tests found the truck turbine sluggish off the line at low r.p.m., but once revved up, the heavy turbine’s 400 horsepower rose dramatically. It proved so fast that a GM engineer almost lost his life at GM’s Milford, Michigan proving ground when he underestimated the Firebird’s high speed power and shot off the track. Unfortunately, its four to six mpg fuel consumption, even on kerosene, was unacceptable.
For the Firebird II, Earl ordered a four-seater, seen as more appealing and practical to the public than the single seater. He wanted Firebird II clad in a titanium body, which was rustproof, lighter and tougher than steel but very difficult to form and weld. The fabricators eventually learned how to shape the panels and glue the body and body frame together with epoxy.
A dorsal fin, two big jet-like air intakes, hidden pop-out headlamps and passengers riding under a plexiglass dome were very futuristic. A fibreglass-bodied version was also built and test-driven from Detroit to Atlanta and back by GM engineers with no mechanical problems, although they did have a pretty warm ride in spite of air conditioning.
In the Firebird II, engineers had set out to correct the mechanical deficiencies of the Firebird I. They improved engine efficiency by fitting rotating heat exchangers that captured waste exhaust heat and used it to heat the incoming air. Fuel economy increased to eight to 10 mpg.
Replacing the conventional suspension was an advanced hyrdropneumatic system much like the Citroen DS19’s with air and oil in dual-chambered vessels at each wheel. A pump pressurized the oil which compressed the air that acted like a spring. It also allowed the ride height to be adjusted. There was an electronic guidance system that locked onto a wire in the highway, freeing the driver from steering.
The 1958 Firebird III had a low, flat body with the driver and passenger riding under separate clear domes incorporated into gullwing doors. The major styling thrust was a garish collection of rear fins, including a large dorsal fin and six other fins. Two extended up and out above the wheels at about 45 degrees, two small ones sloped downward beside the wheels and two sloped down at the rear of the car.
The steering wheel was replaced by a joystick, and suspension was by oil/air as used in Firebird II. A smaller, lighter gas turbine in the rear provided competitive fuel economy of 16 to 20 mpg. The drum brakes had an anti-lock system, and a small auxiliary 12 horsepower piston engine powered the steering, braking, suspensions systems, etc.
Although some concept cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette, and more recently, the Plymouth Prowler, did make it to production, most didn’t. Cars like the Firebirds were styling and technology exercises to expand the horizons of stylists and engineers and to test public opinion. As such they were useful and exciting exercises for both manufacturers and the public.