The 1950s were an era full of optimism. The world had recovered from World War II, nuclear power was seen as the pinnacle of progress and modernity, passenger jets entered service, and the Space Race had begun.
The United States saw the emergence of a middle class which were able to afford a home in suburbia. This combined with the introduction of the Interstate Highway System fueled demand for cars. The American automotive industry was booming. While the decade started with 25 million cars on the road, it ended with more than 67 million. In those days the automotive industry (in)directly employed one in six Americans. The car shaped the landscape: shopping malls, drive-in theaters and drive-through restaurants appeared all over the country — the car ruled the country.
Just as today the American car industry was dominated by the Big Three: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors (GM). In order to boost sales, GM organized in 1949 a show called Motorama in which the carmaker unveiled its vision on the future. It was a huge success and within a few years the show toured around the country. Motorama was visited by millions of Americans who were entertained with music and dance, and some remarkable pieces of machinery on four wheels.
At the 1953 edition GM unveiled the Firebird XP-21. Designed by Harley Earl, the influential head designer for GM, the radical car was in fact a jet on wheels. The cone shaped nose, plastic canopy enclosing an one-person cockpit, the exhaust outlet, vertical rear fin and delta wings attached to the sleek fiberglass body — all these elements were clearly inspired by a fighter jet.
Another remarkable feature was its engine, which was the result of GM’s research program aimed to examine every form of motive power. The Firebird was the first gas-turbine powered car built and tested in the United States. The 370-horsepower kerosene-burning engine was paired to a two-speed transmission, which transferred the power to the rear wheels. For stopping power, the 2,500 lb (1,134 kg) weighing plane on wheels relied on brake drums mounted on the outside of the wheels combined with brake flaps on the wings’ rear edge.
The turbine-driven car was tested a few times, but never pushed to its limits. Initially the only who was authorized to drive the Firebird was Emmett Conklin, who was in charge of the project. The Firebird had only twee speeds, described as “fast, and faster”. Conklin drove the car up to about 100 mph (160 km/h) and shifted into second gear. The turbine produced so much torque that the Firebird broke the tires loose. Conklin stopped the car, concluded he was “too old for this #%^$&” and later Indy 500-winner Mauri Rose was put in the cockpit. He drove the car around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but proved it wasn’t suitable for racing.
The cars’ true potential was never unlocked, the question of its top speed remains open. But performance was not an end in itself. GM had created an groundbreaking work with this feasibility study. At the 1956 and 1959 Motorama shows two other Firebirds were unveiled.
The second Firebird was a more practical family car powered by a 200 horsepower turbine engine. The bubble canopy provided space for four, and its body was made of titanium which was quite hard and expensive to manufacture in those days. Another remarkable feature was the automated guidance system to navigate the “superhighways of tomorrow”, an idea that reverberates in modern-day projects like Google’s driverless car.
The third Firebird was more outrageous with its double-bubble canopy, titanium skin and no fewer than seven short wings and tail fins. The Firebird III was powered by a 225 horsepower turbine-engine. Even the steering resembled an aircraft, this was done via a joystick positioned between the two seats.
None of these space-age cars were intended for production, but served as a showcase for General Motors. Nowadays these remarkable concepts are on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan where they remind us of an era full of optimism and an almost unlimited confidence in the future — giving a whole new meaning to the term back to the future.