Is it a bird, a plane? Nope, it’s a Firebird.
Ještêd, at 1,012 metres is only the 347th highest of the Czech Republic’s mountains yet is a coveted location. The reason being since 1973, at the summit resides an award winning single piece circular building, hyperboloid in shape, pointedly aiming another hundred metres toward the heavens. Partly hotel, but mainly transmitting TV signals, this striking edifice which took six years to construct came from the mind of Karel Hubáček, co-founder of SIAL, a Czech architectural studio.
Melding elements of beauty with science fiction, a sense of playfulness with functionality, the tower serves the important function of searching further into the great unknown. And whilst Hubáček, surviving enforced wartime labour, concentrated his work upon buildings for humans, he might perhaps have been influenced by something equally futuristic, but on four wheels.
GM’s Firebird I concept stood for high performance. II being the futuristic family car, whereas III was GM’s own trip to the final frontier – an earthbound automobile with otherworldly ideals.
Introduced as a laboratory on wheels this new for 1958 experimental concept lauding “an amazing experience in automatic car control”, gave us not only jet-age looks but sounds also. Powered by the sublimely named Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine, which turned at an impressive 27,000 rpm whilst generating around 225bhp, the power roar and hot exhaust of Firebird I had been gentled to be more efficient, safer and quieter for occupants at least. Standing to the rear of Firebird I would have deafened only moments before incinerating you.
Holding this (potentially) 200mph bolide to the ground was a chassis which, if observed from underneath resembled an open-ended spanner with added cross members. Forwards, a welded frame was home to the wheelhouse, side rails and cowl. To the rear, the turbine sat in a subframe connected with the transmission and differential.
Bidding farewell to such archaic devices as universal joints and a prop shaft was a de Dion rear axle; suspension being performed by air/oil springs to “eliminate uncomfortable pitching to provide a softer ride.” The 3,000 psi required in order for the system to work was made by an ancillary 2 cylinder, 10 hp high silicon aluminium engine, placed up front. This also powered the air conditioning, alongside power-assisted steering.
Steering too is an old fashioned term, for this car had the unicontrol or in modern parlance, joystick. Incredibly similar to the system found on the Lunar Rover a decade later, forwards increased speed, pulling back retarded such (with rear bodied air drag brakes functional above 30mph), acting on integral drums with sintered linings within the wheel.
Gentle motions in regard to port or starboard seem effective at lower speeds; one wonders the outcome of a series of bends taken at speed – or an emergency manoeuvre – or one sneezing. Three point turns should be relatively straightforward though at 248.2 inches long and weighing over five thousand pounds, leave plenty of room and make sure that verge isn’t too soft.
Should ones hand develop cramp, control could be handed either to your passenger in the opposite bubble or, if alone on the freeway, cruise control. Should you be lucky enough to be travelling on GM’s Arizona proving ground, a buried electric cable in the tarmac, would, at the press of the auto beam guide button, keep you on the straight and narrow. Autonomous driving was alive, if perhaps unrealistic many years before Google was but a twinkle in Larry Page’s eye.
Of course, the main talking point of Firebird III is the styling; a rocket ship for the road, an aircraft inspired automobile, a culmination of fins, fuselage and futuristic fun. Regardless, the vehicle was never to see a production line, just look at it! Under the auspices of (a soon to retire) Harley Earl’s direction, Norman James, who later could be found at Lockheed, created a car with seven fins. The upper fins radiate backwards, as does the double-bubble canopy, quite the reverse of a teardrop shape, “like shock waves” emanating from the car’s nose centre point. Even the passengers are part of James’ invisible force lines, part of the car’s skeleton of axes.
Should your author have been around at these car launches, one could regard oneself as a spaceman rather than a mere driver. How does one describe the door opening mechanism and angles other than a boyhood dream? You even got a sonic key to open and start Firebird. Ensconced within your personal glass bubble, derrière on armchair quality upholstery and just three gauges (tachometer, fuel gauge and speedometer – all of which having significant scales) to occasionally glance. Visibility too would be excellent although the keener eyes out there will have noticed the lack of rearward apparatus. Was their no department within GM for laser guns to blast away indignant or erroneous traffic? Or were mirrors thought unnecessary?
As a test bed for future technologies, this car showed the way; parabolic reflecting fluorescent headlights, controlled by sensors not humans. This set up allowed running lights along with automatic high or low beam. To the rear, should the anchors deploy heavily, inertia operated warning lights would deploy. Normal braking flashed a rearward warning. And pre-dating Volkswagen by decades, turn signals flashed, resembling an arrow. GM introduced a “colourfully wired magic box” of sensors for brake stability, eminently more futuristic than ABS, no? The brochure ends with “Imagination in Motion!” I’ll say.
Practicalities aside (…exactly which rear fin removed your partner’s index finger as he pointed…?) Firebird III, along with its two forebears, transmits signals readily as Hubáček’s mountain top lance. And whichever age you choose to posit, the confidence shown by both Czech and American is tantalising inasmuch carefree. The World War long over yet the planet teetered on the edge of darker, unknown horizons, but still managed to bring forth such architectural delights.
Neither design manages to relinquish our earthly bonds, but both make for a more interesting planet. A Firebird drive to Ještêd’s summit for a sunset picnic would for this writer, blow a Tesla-based trip into a black hole. We can reach for the stars from our gravitational base.