The XP-21Firebird, the first gas-turbine automobile to be built and tested in the United States, debuts at General Motors' annual Motorama display of concepts and new models at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Jan. 21, 1954.
It became one of three Firebird concepts developed by GM to test the feasibility of gas turbines in automobiles.
The first concept, with a fiberglass-reinforced plastic body and an engine named "Whirlfire Turbo-Power," was developed by a team led by Charles L. McCuen, general manager of GM Research Laboratories Division.
Styling was led by longtime GM design chief Harley Earl, who wanted the car to look more like a jet fighter rather than a standard sedan. The final concept was inspired by a Douglas F4D Skyray, a fighter interceptor aircraft that Earl had seen in an in-flight magazine, according to David W. Temple, author of GM's Motorama — The Glamorous Show Cars of a Cultural Phenomenon.
Following World War II, the dawn of the jet age, automotive engineers were convinced that turbines could replace piston engines. While they generated heavy noise, heat and emissions, they featured fewer moving parts, burned a variety of fuels efficiently and produced a sizable amount of power for their weight.
Unlike a jet airplane, which develops thrust by moving exhaust gas through a tail cone, the Whirlfire Turbo-Power engine propelled the Firebird I through a power turbine acting on the rear wheels via a transmission. The engine produced 370 horsepower at a power turbine speed of 13,000 rpm.