EVs and hydrogen vehicles seem to be all the rage these days but, in another era, gas turbines were the flavor of the day. While electric vehicles had their fans 100 years ago (especially women who could maintain their femininity, so to speak, with a quieter, cleaner vehicle), they soon fell out of favor as economies of scale and advances in the internal combustion engine made their disadvantages disappear. After World War II, gas turbines begun to have their day but eventually fell out of favor when their disadvantages couldn’t be overcome.
The idea for the 1953 General Motors XP-21 Firebird 1 (America’s first gas turbine vehicle to be built) came from GM Styling VP Harley Earl, who designed the car’s aircraft-inspired plastic body. Created only as an engineering and styling exercise, the Firebird 1’s raison d’etre was to determine the viability of gas turbines for personal transportation. The turbine motor was christened “Whirlfire Turbo-Power” and was developed under the direction of the general manager of GM Research Laboratories, Charles L. McCuen.
The Whirlfire Turbo-Power engine was capable of producing 370 horsepower at a speed of 13,000 rpm − remember, this was during an era when the best from Detroit could muster less than 200 horsepower − with that power being harnessed to the rear wheels via a transmission similar to a conventional car’s. Despite gas turbine automobiles having fewer moving parts than a conventional internal combustion motor, and despite the advantage of being able to use gasoline, kerosene, or diesel, gas turbine motors were not fuel-efficient and emitted a lot of nitrogen oxides (although the production of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons were nil). Drivability also was a bit difficult as throttle response was quite poor.
An improved Firebird II appeared in 1956, with Firebird III appearing in 1959 and Firebird IV debuting at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. However, all these vehicles were purely experimental to showcase GM’s abilities in design and engineering. After attempting to improve the gas turbine’s street practicality without success, GM abandoned the cause.