Rover, the British automaker, had built a running turbine car before the GM Motorama Firebird I had been completed, and they had set some speed records with it in Europe. Charles L. McCuen, research engineer Bill Turunen's boss, initially planned to break the Rover's records by taking Firebird I to GM's track near Mesa, Arizona.
Wind tunnel tests showed that the car's aircraft shape -- plus the 400 shaft horsepower of its turbine engine -- would allow speeds over 200 mph, more than enough to outrun the Rover. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Mauri Rose, then on Chevrolet's payroll, would do the driving.
GM's Harley Earl chats with test driver Mauri Rose,
a three-time Indy 500 winner, during shakedowns.
But before heading to Mesa, McCuen decided to do a little testing himself at the GM Proving Grounds near Milford, Michigan. According to one of designer Bob McLean's staff, design engineer Stefan Habsburg, "[McCuen] was completely fooled by the gas turbine's acceleration, which starts out deceptively slowly but then builds and builds and builds. On the far high-speed turn of the Milford oval, McCuen was going way too fast and lost it despite the track's high bank."
"The guard rail was designed for standard-height cars, but the Firebird I stood only 41 inches tall at the cockpit," Habsburg continued, "So when Charley lost control, the car went under the guard rail. It rolled and ended up in the grass on the other side. The body got totalled, and the only thing that saved McCuen's life was the headrest built into the contour seat."
Three additional factors conspired to make the Firebird I's performance unpredictable. First, the turbine gave no engine-braking effect, meaning that when McCuen lifted his foot off the accelerator, the car didn't slow appreciably. Second, because the car copied the look of a jet aircraft, its narrow 50- and 54-inch tread widths effectively raised the center of gravity, thus making the car more tippy than McCuen expected. Third, the suspension had been tuned not for cornering but for straight-line stability on smooth, straight roads.
The crash left McCuen badly injured. He spent months recovering, went back to work briefly, then took early retirement in 1956. His accident ended GM's plans for setting new turbine-car speed records.
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