GM Motorama Firebirds

Creating the GM Motorama Firebird III

After viewing the space-aged concept car designers Norm James and Stefan Habsburg had created to be the GM Motorama Firebird III, GM VP of Styling Harley Earl was very pleased, but he did make a few recommendations.

Among them, he suggested the car's nose be extended about five inches in plan view. James brought it out to a prow and added a windsplit up the center of the hood, running rearward between the twin cockpits.

In August 1957, Earl left for his annual tour of European motor shows. During his absence, the GM styling committee, led by Earl's second in command, Bill Mitchell, came into the studio. These men weren't nearly so pleased as Earl with what they saw, and they ordered three of the Firebird III's fins removed. Reluctantly, James and Habsburg took them off.

When Earl returned, he viewed the full-size clay model in the styling auditorium and, of course, noticed the missing fins. "After a pause," recalled James, "Mr. Earl began, 'You know, when I came into the studio that day for the first time and saw the mockup, I could actually see the finished car at the Waldorf, and it was exactly as I'd pictured it.' Another pause, and then he continued, 'Now why don't you take the car back and make it the way it was when I left?' With that, he turned and walked out. Stefan and I were way in the back of the auditorium, and, wow, were we ecstatic! If there'd been 'high-fives' back then, we'd be doing them."

The Firebird III used an improved version of GM's experimental gas turbine engine, the GT-305, which was finally as fuel-efficient as a small piston V-8 of the period: 16 to 20 mpg. The GT-305 also offered less weight and bulk than the GT-304.

The GM Motorama Firebird III featured gull-wing doors and an abundance of fins.
The twin-canopy cockpit on the Firebird III was
inspired by the 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer Motorama
special. It featured a flip-up door and dome
combination, plus seven fins. With all its various
hatches and covers open, the Firebird III looked
like a Swiss Army knife.

Beneath the GM Motorama Firebird III's wild body was an unusual "tuning-fork" frame. This employed a deep longitudinal rail that ran between the two cockpits, aft of which it attached to a U-shaped section that cradled the powertrain, including another modified four-speed Hydra-Matic. Up front, welded to the main rail, was a T-shaped subsection that supported the front suspension plus a small, four-cylinder piston engine that provided power for the Firebird Ill's many subsystems.

Continue to the next page to learn more about the Firebird III.

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