GM Motorama Dream Cars - Dreams From Another Day

Bob Merlis
Roy Ritchie

They weren't concept cars or show cars. They were dream cars. That was what Harley Earl, General Motors' styling chief, called these blindingly bright visions of the future. That vision and its reflection, realized at GM's Motorama, still fires the imagination. In essence, the Motorama was an all-GM car show with an emphasis on "show." The signature setting was New York's Waldorf-Astoria, although it traveled the country with stops in Boston, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Motorama tour of 1956, with five days of shows in each of five cities over the course of four months, was the work of hundreds of stage hands, actors, singers, musicians, technicians, and producers, the matériel packed onto 125 tractor trailers. The cost to mount the '56 edition of Motorama was estimated at $10 million ($79 million in today's dollars), which is no small investment, even for the biggest, most successful company in the world.

The value of the endeavor was realized in the huge throngs who waited hours to get a glimpse of the dream cars and the production models that Earl and his minions had created. With more than two million in attendance, this was an elemental exercise in viral marketing. Earl's own larger-than-life theatrical style was reflected in the Motorama productions, films, and displays, but those dream cars were the real draw. The Motorama was memorable for most who attended, and life-changing for at least one. Zora Arkus-Duntov went to the Waldorf in January of 1953, and so taken was he with the Corvette prototype that he wrote a letter to Chevrolet's R&D director, Maurice Olley, lauding the design and suggesting improvements. Soon thereafter, Olley hired him, and Arkus-Duntov moved to Detroit. He would spend nearly twenty years fostering the Corvette's performance.

Ultimately, the Motoramas outlived their usefulness. Television advertising proved to be more cost-effective, and there also were nagging concerns about the competition. Admission to the Motorama was free, and picture taking was encouraged - a sweet deal for Ford and Chrysler operatives who only had to wait in line to get the skinny on GM's future offerings. By 1961, the idea had run its course. The last Motoramas displayed no dream cars; the focus was on glitzed-up production models, the designs for many of which had been influenced by Motorama dream cars of earlier years.

This year, GM is sending fifteen or sixteen Motorama-era dream cars to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in recognition of the influence they've had on design over the years. On a sunny day in mid-May, five of them were assembled on the campus of the GM Technical Center for group and individual portraits, the subjects and the setting interrelated icons of twentieth-century design.

Sprawling across 330 acres in Warren, Michigan, the campus is a trove of perfectly maintained, mid-century architecture, the work of Eero Saarinen, whose later projects included Saint Louis' Gateway Arch, the avian-inspired TWA terminal at JFK airport, and the main terminal of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. Upon entering the gate, eyes immediately fall on the Firebird II parked, appropriately, on a helipad. Both the car and the slab of concrete are emblazoned with GM's stylized Air-Transport Division logo.

When the campus was officially dedicated on May 16, 1956, the Firebird II was on hand for the occasion. Whereas 1954's Firebird I was strictly "monoposto," the Firebird II offered seating for four; two examples were built and survive. The fiberglass version is powered by a Whirlfire GT-304 gas turbine; the titanium one that was rolled out has no running gear but sports a real aircraft-style steering "yoke" and was designed for driverless operation on the electronic highway of the future. The Firebird I could have addressed tailgating issues with its 1000-degree-Fahrenheit exhaust, simply melting whatever might be following too closely. Firebird II was cooled by a regenerative gas turbine that made it more thermally and socially responsible than its predecessor. Earl thought of the Firebirds - Firebird III came in '58 - as "ground-based aircraft," and designwise, he was on the money. The canopy roof, twin jet intakes, single "stabilizer" fin, outboard fuel tank "bombs," and hood-mounted air brakes made the Firebird II a wingless fighter jet for the whole family. Keep in mind that The Jetsons wouldn't debut until 1962.

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