Fortunately -- after the unfortunate crash that badly injured driver Charley McCuen and wrecked the first Firebird -- the Firebird I's female plaster body molds were still intact down in GM Styling's fabrication shop. GM VP of Styling Harley Earl quickly ordered up a fresh set of fiberglass skins. These were finished just in time for the car to be shown at the 1954 Motorama.
The Firebird I's gas turbine engine was originally designed for heavy duty trucks, because GM Research was much more interested in adapting turbine power -- which in principle operates much like the turbojet engines in aircraft and stationary power plants -- to 18-wheelers than to passenger cars.
Designated GT-302, but also known as the "Whirlfire," this engine was physically huge, much larger and heavier than any contemporary piston V-8. It used a combination starter/generator and drove through what was basically a reprise of the Model T Ford's two-speed planetary gearbox. Shifts were controlled by hydraulic pressure, and there was no torque converter. A cone clutch engaged reverse, making it theoretically possible to put the car into reverse at speed to provide braking, just as it had been in Tin Lizzies.
As for chassis details, the front suspension employed conventional coil springs between upper and lower A-arms, but with ball joints instead of kingpins -- one of Ford's better ideas. The deDion rear suspension used longitudinal single-leaf springs. Brakes were 11-inch Alfin drums with dual master cylinders, one for the front wheels, one for the rears. In addition, braking flaps were built into the stubby "wings" to help slow the car from higher speeds. The flaps were split horizontally so the top halves flipped up at 90 degrees while the lowers flipped down.
The GM Motorama Firebird I's frame was a conventional ladder type, pointed at the front, with six cross-members and a kickup over the rear axle. The nose section housed a fiberglass fuel tank and had a single headlamp at the bottom. Dry, the Firebird I weighed 2,440 pounds, less than half as much as either of the two subsequent Firebirds. It also had roughly twice the horsepower.
Normal testing of this early iteration of GM's research turbine revealed two problems. First, the GT-302's fuel mileage was totally unacceptable: four to six mpg on average. Second, off-the-line acceleration didn't match that of most piston-driven cars. Once the turbine started revving, power eventually exceeded that of a typical 1954 V-8, but response was sluggish below 18,000 rpm.
That all changed when Earl called research engineer Bill Turunen back into his office in late 1954 to lay plans for a second turbine car, which would materialize as the 1956 Firebird II.
Continue to the next page for more details on the GM Motorama Firebird II.
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