be outdone, Rover's American cousins made more than one run at
producing their own jet turbine cars and the ones that screamed FUTURE
the loudest were General Motors' Firebird experimental turbine cars.
For GM the Firebird was more than just a chance to build a car with
a turbine engine. It was an excuse to build a test bed for every
gonzo technology and styling idea that ever flew out of a box of
The first of these, 1953's Firebird I, looked less like a motor car
than a toy one-seater fighter plane from its huge intakes to suck in
air and the occasional bird, the exhaust port that looked like the
tail pipe of a Sabre fighter, and the "wings" that even sported
working air brakes.
1956, GM rolled out the Firebird II, which was less fighter plane and
more 21st century family car for the small family with very
deep pockets. This time it was a four-seater and instead of
having a GRP body it was made of titanium. And those aren't
booster rockets hanging off the rear, they're the fuel tanks.
Under the hood they'd made a few improvements as well, such as
lowering the weight of the turbine engine and adding heat exchangers
that both warmed the intake air and cooled the exhausts. In
addition, they used a new steering system that used control levers
instead of a steering wheel, and added air conditioning and a beverage
How many cup holders it had is still a trade secret.
saw GM move away from the Jetsons and toward Batman with the Firebird
III. This gull-wing doored two-seater had some of the most
ferocious tail fins ever to come out of Detroit.
In addition to more tweaking with the turbine engine, which
included cruise control and adding a ten-horsepower auxiliary motor to
run the non-drive systems, the Firebird III replaced most of the
controls with a joystick which operated the steering, gear shift,
throttle, and brakes.
was also designed to promote GM's idea of the Dream Highway of
Tomorrow; the keystone of an automotive future where jet-powered cars
would travel along automated motorways where the car's "electronic
brain" would follow metal strips buried in the tarmac, leaving the
driver to enjoy the scenery or, if you're in North Dakota, nap.
We're still waiting on this one, too.
It was all very exciting, but for all the work and imagination that
GM put into it, the technical hurdles and the appalling gas mileage
sent the Firebirds the way of all the other turbo cars; to the museum.