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GM Motorama Firebirds

Designing the GM Motorama Firebird III

By far the most intriguing and influential of the GM Motorama gas turbine engine cars was the Firebird III, which arrived in late 1958. It turned out to be the only member of this trio to have any appreciable impact on GM production cars.

Dave Holls, then head of the Cadillac studio, said that Firebird III was important because it broke the old corporate rules of surface development. No longer did stylists have to include VP of Styling Harley Earl's traditional highlight lines in their designs.

This new direction appeared on all 1959 General Motors production cars; you notice it especially in the rounded, more tubular surfaces of that year's Cadillac. As for a direct design influence, the 1961 Cadillac picked up the Firebird's rear "skegs" -- those stubby little fins that hung down off the bottoms of the rear fenders. In addition, the Firebird III had very little chrome and almost no parallel lines. And finally, after putting the ultimate twist on tailfins, GM began to tone down the fin treatments on production cars.

Of course, most of these changes happened after Earl retired in late 1958.

The two men most responsible for the Firebird Ill's development were again Norm James and Stefan Habsburg. Because he'd decided to pursue a management career, Bob McLean handed the assignment to these two. "[McLean] gave the analogy of ordering dinner at a restaurant," James said in a telephone interview. "He wouldn't go in the kitchen and cook the meal himself, but if he didn't like what we'd served him, he'd send it back."

GM Motorama Firebird III designer Norm James exits a mock-up of the vehicle.
Development of a third-generation Firebird began in
1957. Stylist Norm James climbs out of a design
buck in December of that year.

"The way our studio was set up," James continued, "was a carryover from the Firebird II. Stefan and I would work together to develop the car and would be responsible for it. Stefan handled all the technical and mechanical elements, and I had charge of the car's styling and aesthetics."

Early in the program, Harley Earl told McLean that he wanted the Firebird III to be an extension of the theme laid down by Pontiac's 1956 Motorama dream car, the Club de Mer. "Build on the Club de Mer," suggested Earl. And so, in the beginning, James and Habsburg built on the Club de Mer theme.

Norm James again: "But then one day Mr. Earl came in and described the show atmosphere he wanted to create. He said, 'I want people to stand in line four across around the city block, just waiting to get in. In the grand ballroom, people will be crowded around the car so deep that they'll have to stay for an extra show to get a clear view of it.' And he wanted the car itself to look like 'what you'd expect the astronauts to drive to their rocket launchpad on their way to the moon.' Speaking in generalities about the car's appearance, Mr. Earl said, 'You know, when you go to a Las Vegas show, you don't expect to see your wife up there onstage. You expect to see a real floozy. I want this car to be a real floozy!'"

The fin-laden GM Motorama Firebird III as seen from the rear.
To stylist Norm James, a floozy meant fins, and from
the rear, the Firebird III showed off plenty of them.

James interpreted the floozy reference to mean that Earl wanted tailfins: big, tall ones and lots of them. He even made a sketch of the Waldorf ballroom as Earl envisioned it: a sea of heads with a series of tall fins, an open hood and gullwing doors thrusting out. This, he felt, was what Earl sought in his quest for ever more-striking concept cars.

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