1950s America was an age of cooperation and competition, of unlimited imagination and a blindingly bright future. We were racing the Russians to space while breaking the sound barrier on Earth, and automakers looked to jet turbine technology with eager eyes and open minds. This gave birth to a slew of turbine car concepts from both GM and Chrysler, and the 1958 Firebird III concept remains amongst the most memorial.
This 13-minute promotional video of the Firebird III turbine car remains an irrevocably American slice of nostalgia from a time when nothing seemed impossible, and jet-powered cars were just one of the many promises the future held.
First shown at the 1959 Motorama show and wearing a skin made from titanium (seriously), the Firebird III was the third of what would ultimately be six turbine-powered concept cars. Designed by the great Harvey J. Earl himself, the Firebird III looked more like a wingless jet fighter than a futuristic car with its two domed passenger cabins and seven fins/wings at the back end that made extensive use of one of GM’s earliest wind tunnels. It was what was under the hood that made the Firebird III something worth remembering though.
The Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine was tapped to produce a then-impressive 225 horsepower at full-speed while delivering mediocre fuel economy (a big jump from the gas-guzzling nature of earlier turbine concepts). Also on board was a 10 horsepower two-cylinder engine to help run the accessories, and it featured numerous “cutting edge” technologies like anti-lock brakes, cruise control, and air conditioning. It also had a high-pressure air-oil suspension system that delivered a smoother ride than anything on the road.
Alas, once automakers figured out how to make cheap power from big-displacement V8 engines, interest in turbine cars quickly faded as GM, Ford, and Chrysler engaged in horsepower one upmanship. It’s crazy to think just how close America came to having turbine-powered automobiles though, and there’s be even been a renewal of interest as new technology allows for smaller and far more efficient turbines. A company called Wrightspeed has even developed a turbine-hybrid system for large trucks. Could turbine cars rise again?