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GM tells the story of the Firebird II

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The Firebird II brochure from the 1956 GM Motorama. Images courtesy of

Driver information display. Adjustable pedals. Beverage cooler. Ventilated seats. Encoded key. Semi-autonomous operation. Two-way communication with an operator in the event of an emergency. Today, these are features that can reasonably be expected on any mid-priced family sedan, but in 1956, the year the GM Firebird II was first shown to the public, much of this list was the the stuff of science fiction.

Described as “the latest in a distinguished line of ‘blueprints come true,'” the Firebird II followed the equally experimental Firebird I, the first gas turbine automobile built and tested in the United States. While the Firebird I was all about performance and potential, the Firebird II was about solving the problems created by the Whirlfire gas turbine engine used in the earlier car. Equally important, the Firebird II served as a blank canvas, allowing GM engineers to paint a picture of what the family car of the future might look like, and how it might function.

One weakness of the Whirlfire Turbo-Power engine used in the Firebird I was high exhaust temperature, while another was excessive fuel consumption. For the Whirlfire GT-304 gas turbine engine developed for the Firebird II, GM engineers devised a regenerative system that cooled the exhaust (reportedly by as much as 1,000 degrees) while preheating the incoming air. Doing so meant that less fuel was required to reach the engine’s operating temperature of 1,650 degrees at the turbine inlet, giving the Firebird II fuel economy “approaching that of present piston engines.” The regenerative system quieted the exhaust note as well, addressing one more problem inherent in earlier automotive gas turbine engine designs.

Some features predicted by the Firebird II, functional or not six decades ago, proved to be quite accurate. Though the semi-autonomous cars of today don’t rely on embedded wires and “Autoway attendants,” the principal is very much the same; sensors allow hands-free operation of a vehicle, within a defined set of parameters. Should assistance be needed, an operator is the press of a button away, and features like power-assisted disc brakes and self-leveling suspensions are now commonplace. Back-up cameras are standard fare, too, and the DOT is expected to approve rearview cameras (in lieu of rearview mirrors) in the near future.

Not all the gadgetry predicted by the Firebird II came to pass. Folding control sticks haven’t replaced the steering wheel, and likely never will. Titanium remains as light and corrosion-resistant as ever, but prohibitively expensive for use in crafting the bodies of production cars. Gas turbine engines advanced to a state of near practicality in automobiles, but never managed to best the advantages of the piston engine.

Perhaps General Motors summed it up best by saying, “For though there will never be a production car precisely like the Firebird II, there may well be GM cars containing elements of its engineering and design.” Automakers dreamt big in those days, and sadly we’ll never see another such rolling laboratory from a major manufacturer again. Perhaps that makes this trip to the past, courtesy of GM’s 1956 Motorama handout on the Firebird II, that much more entertaining.

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