Firebird. It’s a name that conjures up images of power and energy, freedom and superiority. A name that has become synonymous with everything that’s desirable about American muscle cars. But where did Pontiac get this name from?
Back in the early 1950s, when one-off prototypes were regularly being created to showcase the future of automobile design, General Motors started on the creation of a series of three rocket-shaped cars that they called Firebird. Designed by Harley Earl and his staff of stylists at GM, the first of these showcars was the Firebird I, the car shown here.
Firebird I was introduced in 1953 as the Firebird XP-21, and was the first car ever built and tested in America that was powered by a turbine engine. With its rocket-inspired pointed nose, it was designed to slice through the wind with ease, and featured a jet-like vertical fin and small wings in the rear.
Its compact Whirlfire Turbo-Power turbine engine produced approximately 370 horsepower at a speed of 13,000 RPM. It was located in the rear and propelled the car via a two-speed transmission directly linked to the rear wheels. With its body crafted of lightweight fiberglass-reinforced plastic, the overall weight of Firebird I was around 2,500 pounds.
In the Arizona desert, Firebird I reached a speed of only around 100 MPH because the tires had traction problems due to their inability to handle the excess torque of the turbine engine. But determining the Firebird I’s top-speed capability was never the focus of the test, only whether or not it was feasible for a turbine engine to power a passenger car.
The GM Heritage Collection stated: “Designed strictly as an engineering and styling exercise, Firebird I was intended to determine whether the gas turbine could be used as an efficient and economical powerplant for future vehicles.”
Today, Firebird I, along with Firebird II and Firebird III, resides in Michigan at General Motors’ North American Heritage Collection in Sterling Heights.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Richard Lentinello.