They say that art and design reflect the times in which they occur. That was certainly true of automotive designs in the 1950s. As jet flights became common and the first steps were made towards space travel, the thoughts and the eyes of the American public turned skyward. Noting this trend, In 1953 GM commissioned Harley Earl to build a car that would come as close to actually being an aircraft as early 1950s technology would allow. The result was 1954’s Firebird I.
Looking at the vehicle for the first time, it’s easy to mistake it for a small fighter plane. The swept back wing design was tested extensively in wind tunnels before being sent to production. The driver got in and out of the cabin through a bubble-shaped canopy. In fact, the only thing about the exterior design that gives away its status as a road-based vehicle are the four wheels.
The Firebird I was powered by a 370 HP Whirlfire Turbo Power gas turbine engine that exhaled gasses from the rear at a temperature of 1250º F. Given that the fiberglass body was exceptionally light, the potential top speed of the Firebird I was great indeed. However, it had a tendency to become uncontrollable when driven over 100 MPH. The wheels would lose contact with the road because of the extreme engine torque. So its full capabilities were never discovered.
The big worry with driving the Firebird I wasn’t getting it running, it was slowing it down once it got going. The was no brake pedal or steering wheel, merely a single joystick. Pushing it forward accelerated the craft, turning it left or right steered it, and pulling back slowed it down and brought it to a stop. The brakes were mounted outside the body, so they could be cooled by open winds, and rear flaps on the wings raised up to let wind resistance help reduce the Firebird I’s speed.
The Firebird I had other features which were highly advanced for its time. The headlamps switched on automatically at dusk, thanks to an electronic system that detected light levels. The key sent out an ultrasonic signal which popped the canopy open from a distance. There was even a built-in timer, so the driver could set the craft to start on its own before he or she got in.
Like almost all concept cars, no one seriously thought about putting the Firebird I into mass production. It was meant to showcase GM’s technological edge, and it did just that. It’s still displayed at car shows across the country, where it draws sizable crowds. Perhaps one day a daring race car driver will test its full capabilities. If so, don’t be surprised to see it in flying over your house.