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The 1956 Firebird II: A Car Ahead Of Our Time

Bill Wilson
14 July 2013

Perhaps one of the the most unusual looking vehicles ever to come out of Detroit was the Firebird I.  Introduced in 1954, it was basically a jet plane on wheels.  While never intended for production, the concept proved so popular that a second model was released in 1956.  The updated version had a gas turbine engine as its power plant, just like the original.  But it also featured several modifications intended to make it a more practical vehicle.

From One Seat to Four
The Firebird II could seat four adults comfortably.  It had air conditioning, power seats, and even built-in snack trays, which passengers could use to enjoy a meal.  Whereas the Firebird I was intended for solo pilots, its successor was clearly created to appeal to more practical tastes.

A Kinder, Gentler Jet Engine
Like its predecessor, the Firebird II was powered by a gas turbine engine.  In the first version this created a number of problems, including dangerously hot exhaust gasses that might have melted any vehicle that pulled up too close behind it.  This time around the builders dropped the power output almost in half, from 370 to 200 HP output.  They also added a regenerative system that lowered the engine temperature by 1000ºF.  This, along with a system that vented the fumes at a 90º angle, relieved any worries that the Firebird would set anything behind it ablaze.

More of a Shark Than a Jet Plane
The exterior saw an extensive redesign as well.  While the original looked amazingly similar to a fighter jet, the 1956 version came closer to resembling a shark, with a wide, flat body and fishlike rear fins.  Harley Earl, who was the brains behind the vehicle, had the exterior made from brushed titanium.  Twin air intakes in the front drew in air for the turbine.  The vehicle was the first ever built with four-wheel disc brakes, and a specially designed compartment could hold up to eight pieces of luggage.

An Early Vision of Accident-Free Driving
The biggest single cause of traffic accidents is driver error.  That’s why many recent innovations, such as rear view cameras, are aimed at reducing the potential for human misjudgment.  Auto builders in the 1950s were aware of this problem as well.  A solution proposed at the time will sound familiar to anyone who ever owned a slotted toy race car track.  The idea was for a highway that operated by remote control.  It would allow the person behind the wheel to sit back, relax, and enjoy a snack, while human or machine controllers guided the vehicle, keeping it from colliding with others.

The Firebird II was built with an internal guidance system designed to link up wirelessly with this anticipated traffic system, via electronic cones that were in the front section of the vehicle.  Once automated control took over, the driver and passengers could kick back and relax while the central network (eerily similar in concept to the Internet) took over.  The fact that this was done using 1950s technology makes it all the more incredible.

A Vision That Never Came True – Yet
The idea of a remote control road system never became more than a nifty concept, and the Firebird II, along with its predecessor and its later 1958 version, is now used as a draw at car shows.  But the principles that underlie its design remain at the cutting edge of transportation technology. And, with computerized driving devices becoming more common, a future version of this groundbreaking vehicle may yet be seen cruising down a fully automated highway while its passengers watch TV. Time will tell.

PHOTOS: See more of the 1956 GM Firebird II Concept

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