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Remembering GM’s Firebird I

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Three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Mauri Rose stands alongside Firebird I prior to his test drive on a deserted road in Arizona. Could these be the wheels that inspired Pontiac’s eight-lug wheel designs of the early 1960s? Photos courtesy General Motors.

Firebird. It’s a name that conjures up images of power and energy, freedom and superiority. A name that has become synonymous with everything that’s desirable about American muscle cars. But where did Pontiac get this name from?

Back in the early 1950s, when one-off prototypes were regularly being created to showcase the future of automobile design, General Motors started on the creation of a series of three rocket-shaped cars that they called Firebird. Designed by Harley Earl and his staff of stylists at GM, the first of these showcars was the Firebird I, the car shown here.

GM Firebird I

With test driver Mauri Rose seated in the canopy-covered cockpit, he gets some last minute advice from the car’s creator, Harley Earl. Note the big wheel chocks that helped prevent the car from rolling forward.

Firebird I was introduced in 1953 as the Firebird XP-21, and was the first car ever built and tested in America that was powered by a turbine engine. With its rocket inspired pointed nose it was designed to slice through the wind with ease, and featured a jet-like vertical fin and small wings in the rear.

GM Firebird I

The excitement builds as this staged photograph showcases just how the testing began. Rose gives the okay sign that he was ready to go.

Its compact Whirlfire Turbo-Power turbine engine produced approximately 370 horsepower at a speed of 13,000 RPM. It was located in the rear and propelled the car via a two-speed transmission directly linked to the rear wheels. With its body crafted of lightweight fiberglass-reinforced plastic, the overall weight of Firebird I was around 2,500 pounds.

GM Firebird I

In the Arizona desert Firebird I reached a speed of only around 100 MPH because the tires had traction problems due to their inability to handle the excess torque of the turbine engine. But determining the Firebird I’s top speed capability was never the focus of the test, only whether or not it was feasible for a turbine engine to power a passenger car.

The GM Heritage Collection stated: “Designed strictly as an engineering and styling exercise, Firebird I was intended to determine whether the gas turbine could be used as an efficient and economical powerplant for future vehicles.”

Today, Firebird I, along with Firebird II and Firebird III, resides in Michigan at General Motors’ North American Heritage Collection in Sterling Heights.