Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

GM Motorama Firebirds

The GM Motorama Firebirds' Legacy

After the success of the initial three GM Motorama Firebirds, engineer Bob McLean's research studio briefly entertained plans to design and build a fourth Firebird.

An overhead drawing showing the concept for a GM Motorama Firebird IV.
Plans for a Firebird IV sprang from this
radical overhead-view sketch.

This would have been a large three-passenger "ground-effects" machine, part of a wide-ranging study into automated roadways. It got as far as a full-sized wooden space frame and seating buck, but at that point Design Staff apparently lost interest in the ground-effects vehicle.

Design buck for the never-completed GM Motorama Firebird IV.
Work on the three-seat "ground-effects" car
got as far as this April 1960 frame model

Maybe GM's designers and engineers realized that turbine-powered passenger cars weren't even the stuff of dreams, much less of reality -- something Chrysler hadn't quite admitted yet.

The chart below provides a comparative look at the stuff of GM/Chrysler's dreams: the GM Motorama Firebird I, II, and III.

Firebird Comparisons

Firebird I
Firebird II
Firebird III
GM code designation
XP-21 XP-43
Gas turbine designation
GT-302 GT-304
Gas turbine type
Simple cycle
Maximum horsepower
400 (rpm NA)
200@28,000 225@24,000
Transmission 2-speed planetary
4-speed automatic
4-speed automatic
Fuel consumption
4-6 mpg
8-10 mpg
16-20 mpg
Wheelbase, inches
100 120 119
Overall length, inches
223 235 248
Overall height, inches
41 (55 at fin)
52.8 44.8 (57 at fin)
Overall width, inches
80 70.6
Front tread, inches
50 60
Rear tread, inches
54 57
Curb weight, pounds
2,440 5,300
Tire size
6.70x16 8.20x16
Front suspension
Independent Independent
Solid axle
Rear suspension
Ind., deDion
Ind., swing axles
Ind., deDion
Body material
Fiberglass Titanium/fiberglass Fiberglass

The Firebird program's great legacy, of course, was to lend its name to Pontiac's ponycars, starting in 1967. In that sense, it's still alive today, as are the gas turbine engine cars themselves.

Firebird III recently was taken out of mothballs and put back in running order. The fiberglass-bodied Firebird II is also fully operational (it ran alongside Chrysler's famed 1963 Turbine Car at the Straits Area Antique Auto Show in St. Ignace, Michigan), while its titanium-skinned sister is safely tucked away in a warehouse. As for Firebird I, General Motors recently reacquired it from the Henry Ford Museum and plans to restore it, too.

GM also tells us that all three Firebirds might even take to the road again, just as in Motorama days. If they ever come to your town, don't miss them.

For more information on cars, see: