Firebird III, an extravagantly finned, double-canopied gas-turbine car, is introduced this week by General Motors. It has as much shock value as any car ever built—"the car which a person may drive to the launching site of a rocket to the moon," as Chief Stylist Harley J. Earl put it. In its styling the Third Bird, 37th in Earl's procession of GM dream cars since 1936, is frankly inspired by the work of the missile men, and its shape is futuristic indeed. But the real news is beneath that silver-, pearl- and gold-tinted plastic skin:
1) A unique driver-control system featuring a single stick which eliminates the conventional steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator pedal.
2) An electronic guidance system which, on an appropriately rigged roadway, permits hands-off driving.
3) An improved version of GM's regenerative gas-turbine engine, mounted in the rear.
4) A "Little Joe" two-cylinder, 10-hp, front-mounted gasoline auxiliary engine, which provides the power for all accessories.
5) A 110-volt generator which can be used to provide household current in case of storm damage or crippling enemy attack.
6) A remote control system by which the double-bubble canopies over the "passenger capsule" can be opened from some distance away. A sonic "key" carried by the operator sends out a high frequency note to a microphone in the car, which actuates the door-opening mechanisms.
7) Contour seats which represent an enormous advance over Detroit's conventional showroom-bounce bench seats. GM stylists said the usual bench seats may permit a buildup of as much as 70 pounds of pressure per square inch on the backside; this is what causes the urge to squirm on a long trip. The new seats, which, incidentally, would go over big on a suburban lawn, are designed to limit maximum pressure to three pounds per square inch.
These are not all the goodies on Firebird III, by any means, but they are the most important. The most revolutionary and dramatic single feature is undoubtedly the single stick control. The dozen journalists who attended a preview of the car the other day at General Motors' Desert Proving Ground near Phoenix first rode in it, then tried out the single stick business on a Chevrolet convertible. Wow!
To begin with, the Chevy had no steering wheel or steering column—an obvious safety advantage in case of panic stops which throw the driver forward. The control stick was just forward of the driver's armrest. You grasped the knob at the top of the stick gently with the left hand, pushed forward on the stick, and the car accelerated straight ahead. You pushed the stick to the right and the car turned right. You pushed the stick to the left and the car turned left. You hauled back on the stick, and the brakes were on.