The 1950s was a time when cars were as glamorous as supermodels, with bright paint jobs and chromed to the nth degree. This car is none of those things, looking far more like a missile that would have been used by the military to take out hostiles during warfare. The first of four distinct models by GM between 1953 and 1964, the Firebird 1 XP-21 was designed for one purpose alone — testing out a new type of engine. The engine in the Firebird 1 was a Whirlfire Turbo Power gas turbine engine with a two-speed gearbox. This motor was able to crank out a whopping (for the time) 370 horsepower rated at 13,000 RPM. The estimated top speed of all four generations of these concept vehicles is 200 miles per hour. The engine also expels jet fuel at a staggering 1,250 degrees Farinheight.
The car was so impractical that for the longest time, only one driver was qualified to operate it. That distinction belonged to Emmett Conklin who lead the project. However, Mauri Rose—a driver who's honoured in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame—did eventually drive the car at Indianapolis Speedway managing a top speed of 100 mph before shifting into second gear, which he promptly slowed out of for fear of crashing it. Once he shifted into second, the wheels began to lose traction quickly.
The man responsible for the XP-21s extreme styling was legendary GM styling Vice President Harley J. Earl who helped design the Buick Y-Job and the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. To say that he helped bring about one of the most iconic cars ever invented would be an understatement.
Earl and his XP-21 also have a NASCAR connection. The Harley J. Earl Trophy, awarded to the yearly Daytona 500 winner features a miniature version of the XP-21 on the top of NASCAR's most coveted trophy. Three of the four concept cars were designed by Earl, though they never made it beyond the concept stages. Still, GM did eventually turn the Firebird IV into an additional concept vehicle, one with tons of technology that modern cars seem to draw inspiration from. Apparently though, the fourth generation of the Firebird concept was crushed at some point in the 1980s.
While the styling of the car is certainly a bizarre one, there was a good reason for that. Because of the light 2,500-pound fiberglass body, the fins on the car that give it a shark-like appearance were there to help it slow down from the incredible projected top speeds. The 1953, 56, and 59 models all debuted at Motorama auto shows, and 56 and 59 versions of the car featured more "sensible" styling despite featuring technology that made them unfeasible to put into production at that time.
There have been many attempts at turbine based vehicles since the 1950s, the most practical of which was the Chrysler Turbine Car (actual model name) of which 55 were made. However, none of them have the distinction that the GM Firebird 1 XP-21 has. It was the very first gas powered one to be tested in the United States and that's a pretty cool thing. Another little interesting fact, GM did produce a series of cars over four generations between 1967 to 2002 that share the Firebird nomenclature. Though this would be under the Pontiac brand and this Firebird would have nothing in common with the aeronautical inspired concepts designed by Earl in the 1950s.
These were cousins of the Chevrolet Camaro, GMs famous 'Pony Car' which competed with the Ford Mustang. While the XP series never made it past the concept design phase, they did influence a lot of modern design choices and luxuries we take for granted, such as aircon and disc breaks used on future models, there was even an attempt at some automation in the later models. All that was possible because of one of the most extreme concept vehicles in existence — both from a design and performance point of view. It would be incredible if GM picked these back up and see what modern innovations they could eke out of the platform, given what they could do in the 1950s.