The future back then
© GM
April 2021

The future back then

By Andrea Neumeyer
Alternative drive concepts, new types of controls or self-driving vehicles – these are subjects that have been fueling the imagination of automotive engineers not only in our day and age.

All of them can be found in this photograph that’s more than 50 years old. It shows three General Motors concept cars from the 1950s whose interiors and exteriors as well as their propulsion systems were inspired by a new age in aviation: the age of jet aircraft. Even the name of these futuristic cars – Firebird – matched their styling and engineering design featuring bubble canopies as cockpits, joystick controls and turbine propulsion, all taking cues from jet fighters.

There will be vehicles that will not be pulled by any animal and drive with incredible force

Leonardo da Vinci

The visionaries from Detroit led by GM’s legendary chief designer Harley J. Earl (the gentleman in the picture) installed a display instead of a rearview mirror with a rear-mounted camera supplying the images. But the most stunning highlight, no doubt, was the fact that the Firebird models II and III were able to drive autonomously using an “auto guide.” Two coils near the front wheels would receive electronic impulses from a cable buried in the road, convert them into steering commands and keep the car on course. Old television commercials feature a “dream highway” on which drivers are cruising completely relaxed in autonomous mode, radioing a glass tower from their cockpits that transmits traffic information and the best route to a screen in their Firebirds. The key driving data were accessible on this screen as well. A vision of the future that was to become a reality only half a century later due to digitalization.

Firebird I (1953)
  • Erstes Gasturbinenauto in den USA
  • First gas turbine car in the United States
  • Design from aeronautical engineering
  • Lightweight body made of fiber glass reinforced plastics
  • Propelled by a gas turbine acting on the rear wheels via a transmission
  • 370 hp at 13,000 rpm
  • One of the first cars to have been optimized in a wind tunnel
Firebird II (1956)
  • Autonomes Fahren mittels elektronischer Leitbahnen in der Straße
  • Autonomous driving by means of buried electronic conductors
  • Lightweight titanium bodywork
  • Design featuring a jet look with turbine shafts at the front
  • Plexiglass canopy as the cockpit
  • Independent suspension with automatic ride height adjustment
  • Weather and traffic information displayed on a screen
  • Electric gearshift
  • Individually controllable air conditioning system
Firebird III (1958)
  • Fiber glass body with seven wings and fins
  • Generative gas turbine engine
  • Door is opened with an ultrasonic key
  • Steering and braking using a joystick in the center console
  • Autonomous driving mode
  • Cruise control
  • Automatic lights including emergency lighting