GM Motorama Firebirds

The GM Motorama Firebird's Beginnings

The first GM Motorama Firebird (the Roman numeral "I" is retrospective) appeared at the 1954 Motorama, staged in the grand ballroom at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The car was basically a delta-winged jet fighter on four wheels.

GM Vice-President of Styling Harley Earl had seen photographs of a Douglas F4D Skyray and showed them to Robert F. (Bob) McLean. For the previous year's Motorama, McLean and Earl had designed the Corvette, which quickly entered production. And in working on that project, Earl and McLean had developed a strong student/mentor relationship.

Bob McLean was unusual in that he'd recently graduated from Cal Tech with dual degrees: one in mechanical engineering, one in industrial design. He'd owned and raced sports cars, and he understood aircraft, so he seemed a logical choice to head the design team for the first Firebird -- not that the project was all that difficult. McLean's job was basically to translate the Skyray into a fiberglass-bodied Motorama showstopper: a single seater, nominally a "sports car," with the driver shoved forward under a Plexiglas bubble and a turbine engine behind.

Most Motorama cars wore one of GM's five domestic nameplates. The 1953 Corvette, for example, was a Chevrolet. The 1951 XP-300 gave a glimpse at Buick's future. Firebird I, however, carried no marque name. Instead, it represented all of General Motors. That was appropriate, because it was a collaborative effort between GM Styling and General Motors Research Laboratories.

GM's Harley Earl and NASCAR's Bill France with a Firebird-topped NASCAR trophy
Earl and NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., admire
the Harley Earl Trophy. Topped with a Firebird, it's
still presented to Daytona 500 race winners.

The man responsible for supplying turbine engines for the entire Firebird series was a young research engineer named William A. (Bill) Turunen who worked on experimental engines. He founded GM's turbine program in 1949 and continued to manage it throughout the Firebird era.

In a 1996 telephone interview, Turunen recalled that, "Harley Earl got interested in getting some cars for the Motorama shows. We'd been working on gas-turbine engines to see what their feasibility might be for truck and automotive use. Earl got together with our head of research, Charley McCuen, and the three of us met in Harley's office. He asked if we could make an engine for this car they were working on. The car was just an idea at the time. Earl had seen pictures of one of the jets and was intrigued with that shape."

"Not knowing any better, we said sure, we'd do it," Turunen continued. "So that was the start of the Firebird program. We made an engine for the first car...using one of the first vehicular turbines around. Then, in progression, Earl wanted another [car] for the next Motorama, so that became the Firebird II. Harley did what Harley wanted to do. He was a heckuva nice guy to work with, and I worked very closely with him. But he had very, very definite ideas."

Learn more about how Harley Earl's ideas became the first Firebird on the next page.

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