General Motors’ 1956 Firebird II: World’s First Self-Guided Car

General Motors stood alone in 1956 as the biggest manufacturing company the world had ever seen. It so thoroughly dominated the American auto industry, there was talk of breaking the company up. But Detroit’s mighty collosus didn’t spend glory days resting on its laurels, instead it looked ahead to envision a future we’re just beginning to see now.

Lead by legendary design chief Harley Earl, GM introduced a radical series of “dream cars” (now called concept cars) through touring Motorama shows. The most innovative of the series were Earl’s Firebirds, I-III. And the most radical of the Firebirds was the Firebird II, a jet-powered, aircraft-styled wonder that GM called, “the first American gas turbine car specifically designed for family use on the highway.”

Legendary GM designer Harley Earl with Firebirds I-III

Legendary GM designer Harley Earl with Firebirds I-III

The Firebird II was more than just a turbine-powered fantasy, it was an automated wonder that could steer itself down the highway while the family played board games under a plexiglas bubble top. And on its specially prepared test track, it worked. Wires embedded in the pavement sent signals to twin cones at the front of the car to control steering, braking, and speed. GM speculated that Firebird’s driver would communicate with towers alongside the road to find directions, lodging, or dining options--a lot like today’s cell service, but with attendants in the towers feeding information. 

All three of Earl’s Firebirds were jet turbine powered, but the Firebird II got the most attention. It was the only Firebird dream car to have two examples built and starred in a promotional film titled “Design for Dreaming.” The show version was a titanium-skinned, non-operational beauty queen; the runner sported painted fiberglass bodywork and a working turbine drivetrain with auto guidance. 

GM keeps both Firebird IIs in great condition to this day, with the runner still drivable. The titanium-skinned show version appeared to stun crowds at the 2008 Pebble Beach Councours where Earl’s Motorama dream cars were that year’s featured attraction.

Written by Jim Cherry