the view through the windshield
1958 Firebird III: Inspired By Jets
the view through the windshield

The 1950s were a time of invention. Considering all of the game-changing new products developed for the Second World War, the possibilities seemed limitless. General Motors had been researching the feasibility of gas turbine engines in cars since the 1930s. In the early 1950s, the company began building an actual engine.

By 1953, the research team had produced the Firebird I, which looked like a jet aircraft with wheels. It was the first gas turbine-powered car tested in the U.S. The Firebird II, introduced in 1956, was a more practical design - a four-seat, family car. It also had a gas-turbine powerplant producing a respectable 200 hp.

The third design, the Firebird III, was built in 1958 and exhibited at the 1959 GM Motorama. It featured seven short wings and tail fins. The two-seater was powered by a 225 hp gas turbine engine - with a small, two-cylinder gasoline engine to run all the accessories. The Firebird III's exterior design featured a double bubble canopy. Despite its wild styling, the car was actually roadworthy and featured many technical advancements such as cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and air conditioning. It also featured an "ultra-sonic" key which signaled the doors to open and an automated guidance system to avoid accidents and joystick steering. It also had a DeDion independent rear suspension.

The Firebird III rode on a 119-inch wheelbase, was 240 inches long - the length of a Cadillac Series 75 Limousine of the period - and was a mere 44 inches tall at cockpit bubble apex and 57 inches high at the rear fin. The sleek, futuristic beast weighed a hefty 5,275 pounds, despite its titanium and fiberglass body panels.

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In 1992, I purchased a 1:43 scale model of the Firebird II. It it a heavy white metal model, handcast by Great American Dream Machines.

These Firebird concept vehicles excited the public but - despite GM's best efforts - technical hurdles, high powerplant costs and appalling gas mileage rendered the gas turbine impractical for passenger car use.

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I first saw the Firebird I at the Collier Auto Museum in Florida in the early 1990s. I spotted the Firebird III on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum during a 1995 visit. I finally saw all three Firebirds displayed together at the AACA Antique Auto Museum in Hershey, PA in October 2008. (posted 4/28/11)

Remember When: 1958
auto blogIn 1958, the U.S. experienced the worst recession since World War II. Jimmy Hoffa took over the Teamsters Union; Nikita Kruschev took over the USSR.

At Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was completed. In March, Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army and became a Very Well-Known Soldier.

First-class letter postage increased from 3¢ to 4¢. Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite, was launched.

Starting in 1958, automobile manufacturers were required to post factory sticker prices in the windows of all cars sold in the U.S.

New products included Sweet 'n Low and Bic pens. The hula hoop was introduced; 25 million were sold in the first four months. The first Pizza Hut opened in Wichita, Kansas.

New TV shows included 'Peter Gunn', 'The Rifleman' and '77 Sunset Strip'.

'Kookie' Edd Byrnes' hot rod from the TV show, '77 Sunset Strip', on display at the Peterson Automotive Museum in 2002

'Volare' was awarded record of the year at the Grammys. Other hits included 'At The Hop' by Danny and the Juniors, Frank Sinatra's 'Witchcraft', Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode', Jerry Lee Lewis' 'Great Balls of Fire', Get A Job' by The Silhouettes and 'Tom Dooley' by The Kingston Trio. Rock and roller Little Richard quit the music biz and enrolled in preacher school at an Alabama Negro college run by Seventh Day Adventists.

New movies included 'Gigi', 'South Pacific' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'. In 1958, an unknown named Steve McQueen appeared in a B-grade horror flick, 'The Blob'. The title song became a minor hit that year; it was written by another unknown, Burt Bacharach. In 1958, a movie ticket cost 65¢.

Tropical fish were the most popular pet for Americans in 1958; 120 million of them resided in tanks in American homes. (On any given morning, a million or two were found floating upside down.)

Lana Turner's daughter, Cheryl Crane, fatally stabbed her mother's mobbed-up boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, in Lana's Beverly Hills mansion.

Famous people born in 1958 Include Michael Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres, Madonna, Prince, Kevin Bacon, rapper Ice-T, Drew Carey, rocker Joan Jett, Jeff Foxworthy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sharon Stone and Andrea Bocelli.

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Pius XII tomb

Other deaths included Pope Pius XII, songwriters Lew Brown and Harry Revel, blues composer and musician W. C. Handy, actor Tyrone Power, radio and television actor Tim Moore (he played The Kingfish on 'Amos 'n' Andy'), rocker Chuck Willis who performed 'C.C. Rider' (a #1 R&B hit as well as a #12 pop hit in 1957. Willis' version of the old blues song gave birth to the dance craze The Stroll), Elvis' mom, Gladys Presley, and movie producer Mike Todd, killed in an New Mexico air crash (he was married to Elizabeth Taylor).

The NY Yankees won the World Series, beating the Milwaukee Braves 4 to 3.

Other Pages Of Interest

copyright 1997, 2011, 2014-19 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive.

If I have slandered any people or corporations in this blog, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.

Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.