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Yesterday's tomorrows--GM's Firebird show cars fly through Hershey

Rafay Ansar

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We're waiting for the man from General Motors before we can unload, but truck driver Jerry Fulton has opened one of the side doors on his rig. In the shadows inside, we catch a glimpse of yesterday's future.

The future had fins back then, and the object inside looks more like a fighter jet than any sort of automobile.

GM restoration specialist Mike Erdodi arrives in a new GMC Envoy, and the future can emerge. All three of GM's experimental, turbine-powered Firebird show cars have touched down at the Antique Auto Museum at Hershey, Pa., for a brief exhibition timed to coincide with the Antique Automobile Club of America's Hershey Region Fall Meet in the second week of October.

In the early 1950s, GM's Allison Aircraft Engine Division in Indianapolis was one of the world's largest producers of gas turbines, and GM vice president for research Charles McCuen had been investigating turbine power for ground transportation since 1949. Harley Earl suggested a rolling showcase for the Research Lab's efforts, and in January 1954, at the Motorama at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, the public caught its first glimpse of the XP-21 Firebird--a 370-hp, fiberglass-bodied, mid-engine single-seater looking very much like a jet with abbreviated wings.

The Firebird II of 1956 brought the turbine concept closer to family-car reality, its front-engine, four-seat configuration made possible by a dimensionally smaller, higher-speed, 200-hp turbine with a regenerative heat exchanger for fuel efficiency. Other innovations included a titanium-skinned unibody, oleo-pneumatic suspension and internally vented disc brakes.

But the twin-canopy Firebird III of 1959 returned to a fiberglass body and mid-mounted turbine; its star technical innovation was the "Unicontrol" joystick, which provided drive-by-wire operation of accelerator, brakes and steering. GM claimed further progress on the slot-car-like automatic guidance system first attributed to the Firebird II. Corporate engineers continued development on the Firebird III into the 1960s and used it as a test bed for automatic climate control, ultrasonic keyless entry, antilock brakes and automatic headlamps.

By purpose or by chance, the Firebirds have been loaded into the truck in chronological order, so first out is the Firebird III. A small crowd has gathered, eager to hear the turbine whine. But when Erdodi presses the starter, what results instead is a most un-turbine-like racket. The 7,000-pound prototype's electrohydraulic controls are powered by a 10-hp, two-pot piston engine under the front hood. The turbines, we're told, are simply too expensive to start, and all three cars are pushed and towed into the museum.

Yesterday was not as ready for tomorrow as it appeared.
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