Dream Cars: the lost wonders of the automotive age

Dream Cars, an exhibition at Atlanta's High Museum, features the most amazing, doomed, gorgeous automotive designs of the automotive age. Streamlined or blobby, three-wheeled or magnificently finned, these are the cars that leapt off the cover of popular science pulps and into the showrooms, where they died an obscure death. The museum's site has some beautiful photos and curatorial notes on each of the cars in the exhibition, which runs to Sept 7.

The Firebird XP-21 was the first gas turbine-powered car built and tested in the United States. At the 1954 Motorama, General Motors made it clear this was a design study created to determine the practicality of the gas turbine for use in future vehicles. Harley Earl, GM's styling chief, made the decision to initiate the development of the Firebird I in the styling department rather than the engineering department. He took styling cues from the Douglas F4D Skyray jet, and the car's "needle" nose, swept-back wings, vertical tailfin, and plastic bubble top cockpit reflected this inspiration. As it was described in the press at the time, "the first impression one gets of the Firebird is that it is a jet fighter on four wheels – an impression that prevails even while the car is standing still."

Although the Firebird I's lofty power output was intriguing, the gas turbine engine could not provide economical performance. Besides its impractical single-seater design, its jet engine was too loud, its exhaust temperature at the tailpipe was 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and its low fuel economy was unacceptable. But it was a Motorama sensation, and two successors followed at later Motoramas: the Firebird II in 1956 and the Firebird III in 1959. The Firebird series symbolized the era's obsession with outer space and air travel.

Dream Cars (via Kadrey)

Notable Replies

  1. Some of these days, and it won't be long...

  2. For any BB readers (or writers) in Britain, there are some interesting cars in The Science Museum, including the worlds first gas-turbine engined car, Rover's Jet 1. (152 mph in 1952)
    Harley Earl's GM Firebird one did indeed look like a jet-age car in 1954, but rover's jet-1 ran as early as 1950, its successors becoming gradually more practical, culminating in the Rover BRMs running at the Le-Mans 24 hour race, with Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart coming in tenth overall place in 1965.
    Other Rover jet turbine cars can be seen at the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust Museum at Gaydon in Warwickshire.

  3. Jim_R says:

    Interesting stuff. A show on PBS a while back put some of these 'concept cars' on display. Most of them shared one characteristic: a complete lack of comfort and safety features. No radio, no heat, no AC, and please don't get in a wreck in one. Some of them have a small motor, and hold enough gas to get them onto the turntable at the show with the pretty girl.

    Another prototype got my attention recently, it was an image being used as clickbait on the ad section of several sites I follow. A cute little round green car. I clicked once on the image, and nope, no information there, it was just spamming some penny stock.

    So did a little research, and after a bit of searching, turned up the story of the pea car:

    Turns out it was a prop used in this commercial:
    [vimeo 9554934 w=640 h=480]

    So, there ya go. No safety features. The designers at Asylum Models put a small Honda engine in it, and the stunt driver sat with his knees up under his chin. Cute, though.

  4. It's a dream car AND a transparent-headed fish!

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