GM Motorama Firebirds

In the 1950s, General Motors considered the gas-turbine the engine of the distant future. To get the point across, it built a series of equally futuristic cars -- the GM Motorama Firebirds.

In contrast, Chrysler Corporation seemed to believe that turbine-engined cars were right around the corner in the mid-1950s. In April 1954, Chrysler engineer George Huebner stuffed a gas-turbine engine into an innocent-looking 1954 Plymouth. He then took the car from city to city and invited the press to drive it. Reporters loved it, giving Chrysler's turbine research program instant national notoriety.

By dropping gas turbine engines into otherwise everyday cars, Chrysler implied that this exotic form of power was just a step away from production. But General Motors, which actually had a running gas-turbine car before Chrysler did, took a longer-range view. GM developed turbine cars for its annual Motoramas. Called Firebird I, II, and III, they were obviously "cars of the future." As such, they said to Americans that turbine automobiles might be feasible someday, but not today.

That wasn't what people wanted to hear. Americans in the 1950s yearned for the future, and they wanted it now. Chrysler recognized that desire, played on it, and consequently got so much credit for developing automotive turbines that the public didn't give a hoot about GM's efforts. To most people, GM's turbine cars were just futuristic styling exercises; the power source was incidental.

This bothered Harley Earl, GM's legendary vice-president of styling, who dominated every Motorama from 1949 through the last one in 1961. Motoramas, as you may or may not recall, were hugely lavish displays that traveled around to major cities across the country in convoys of trucks and buses. When you entered the exhibit hall, there sat all the newest General Motors cars. At center stage was a continuous presentation of Broadway-style stage revues: pretty girls and good-looking guys singing and dancing their hearts out.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

GM Motorama Firebird on display at a 1954 Motorama
The Firebird gained its greatest fame as the
centerpiece of the 1954 Motorama touring shows. See more classic car pictures.

But the stars of these shows were always the dream cars. Every Motorama unveiled a new crop, so people kept coming back. (Then again, GM never charged admission.) Some Motoramas attracted as many as 2.3 million spectators nationwide.

Of course, the purpose of these shows was to bring home to the public the fact that the corporation had an eye on the future -- and that GM, more than any other automaker, was technically able to create just about any mechanical marvel you could imagine. But since each Motorama gave its audience an artful glimpse of things to come, Harley Earl had to keep looking further and further ahead and delivering more and more spectacular dream cars.

At first, when Chrysler started grabbing headlines with turbine-powered Plymouths, Earl wasn't too worried. He already had the Firebird I -- the first of the GM Motorama Firebirds -- nearly finished. But as time passed, the turbine wars tilted toward Chrysler and, do what he might. Earl couldn't catch up.

Learn more about Earl's valiant efforts and the first of the Firebirds on the next page.

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