GM Motorama Firebirds

GM Motorama Firebird III Prototypes

From GM Motorama Firebird III designer Norm James's sketch of the envisioned Motorama crowd came a new series of styling studies, starting around March 1957. These were initially inspired, as James put it, " a Nike two-stage missile I'd seen at an air show. The missile had four dominant second-stage fins midway along its length, set at 45 degrees to the launch rail. The Club de Mer's twin windscreens then evolved into a set of fully separated blisters, and the front end tapered down to a nose inlet patterned after the North American Aviation F-100 fighter."

On his own initiative, James made a full-sized string drawing of this missile/fighter car. It had four fins, keyed to the location of the rear wheels. But James felt the rear didn't look right, due to the long, barren, extended overhang. "Stefan [Habsburg] and I were concerned with this big plank-looking afterbody" he reflected, "so at one point Stefan walked up to the board and said, 'What if we try something like this?' Whereupon he proceeded to add a large dorsal fin and the two trailing lower skegs."

"My first thought was, 'hey, you can't do that! You can't integrate a three-fin set with a four-fin set';" recalled James. "But I could also see immediately that Stefan had created the mass balance that the design was missing. I went up and re-proportioned the tail elements; then we both stepped back to see what we'd created. It looked good, so I developed full-sized string drawings for the corresponding front, rear and half-plan views."

Note: String drawings use yarn stretched between pushpins, a technique invented by James.

"Once it was all done, we called in Bob McLean to take a look," said James. "He seemed pleased and told us to keep going with the Club de Mer version but to also build a second mockup of the new design."

Harley Earl with the assorted prototypes produced while developing the GM Motorama Firebird III.
Like a proud parent, GM VP of Styling Harley Earl
poses with the whole family of gas turbine-powered
concept cars he had conjured up when the
Firebird III was being tested at General Motors's
Mesa, Arizona, proving grounds in 1958.

When both mockups were ready, McLean invited VP of Styling Harley Earl to visit the studio. James isn't certain whether Earl had seen the missile/fighter mockup previously, but there's a good chance he had, because Earl often roamed the studios after everyone else had left for the night.

In this instance, though, Earl unlocked the studio door and walked in. McLean was standing beside the Club de Mer mockup; James and Habsburg stood by their newer theme model, hearts pumping. Earl glanced at the Club de Mer mockup, then immediately caught a glimpse of the missile/fighter model, leaned forward, did a smooth right turn and made a half circle around the new theme car. It didn't take long for him to make up his mind. He liked it. This, he smiled, would be the Firebird III.

After this endorsement, the designers set to the task of creating the Firebird III. Learn more on the next page.

For more information on cars, see: