Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

1958 General Motors Firebird III

General Motors’ over-the-top Motorama shows might have peaked in 1959 with their wildly futuristic Firebird III dream car. With its jet turbine engine, record-setting seven fins, twin bubble canopy, super low stance, air drag brakes, automatic guidance system, and stick steering, the Firebird promised an exciting future indeed. 

That makes perfect sense as legendary styling chief Harley Earl described his goal for the car, “I envisioned an entirely different type of car which a person may drive to the launching site of a rocket to the moon.”  

Firebird III Features: 

  • Jet turbine engine
  • First car with onboard computer
  • Self-guidance system with cruise control
  • Steering, braking, and acceleration commanded by Unicontrol joystick 
  • Air drag brakes
  • Fiberglass bodywork

Either the driver or passenger can control the Firebird III with its Unicontrol joystick, located between them on the center console, offering opportunities to hand off driving when one or the other tires. Its turbine engine is located aft, up front, a small internal combustion engine is onboard to power all the car’s accessories. 

A star of GM’s 1959 and ’61 Motoramas, the Firebird III was also displayed at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair where it shared a scene with Elvis Presely in his movie, It Happened at The World’s Fair.

We went to the moon just ten years after the Firebird III’s debut, but nobody was driving cars like Harley Earl had dreamed of. Today the Firebird III, along with its predecessors Firebirds I and II, rests comfortably at GM’s Heritage Center in a suburb of Detroit where it’s maintained in pristine operating condition. It’s frequently lent to car shows and museums where the Firebird III’s daring space age style still brings a smile to onlookers. 

Firebird III 1959 Statistics

  • Turbine Engine 
  • 225 H.P.
  • Acceleration, braking, steering control through joystick/analog computer
  • Length: 248 inches
  • Weight 5,275  lbs.
  • Width: 81 inches
  • Height: 57 inches (to top of fin)
  • Wheelbase: 119 inches
  • Fiberglass body

By Jim Cherry