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)