The apotheosis of the fin era, and perhaps its sexiest avatar, the Firebird III can still move its designer almost to tears.
Norm James apologizes for his passion, but it’s what makes his storytelling a thrill. He can take you right there with him to the moment Harley Earl seized his design and said “This is it. This is exactly what I wanted.”
It turns out that what Earl wanted, James says, was a “ oozy”— a statuesque beauty with lots of feathers and frills that could draw a crowd four deep around the block.
Earl was the stuff of legend. He was the automotive industry’s first professional automobile designer, and in hiring him General Motors took a dramatic leap into the future. Known throughout GM Styling as Mister Earl, he loomed over staff in stature as well as authority. Tucsonan Jim Ewen, another GM designer at the time, says “He was a huge man, and very impressive. He was the most forceful man I’ve ever seen. He was the boss, and everything revolved around him.”
In Earl’s wake followed a GM hiring trend that favored radical thinking over conventional wisdom. Sputnik 1 had grabbed the world’s attention in October, 1957, and by 1958, the space age was the hottest thing on the ground. The company sought out industrial artists and sculptors in the nation’s top schools—the Art Center School in Los An- geles and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn—and brought them in as much for their imaginations as their skills.
They plucked James straight from his junior year at Pratt, and negotiated with the school to furnish on the job train- ing to complete his degree requirements. James was put to work almost immediately on MOTORAMA cars, the one- of-a-kind stars of the free, annual MOTORAMA car show where the next year’s production autos were introduced. The show traditionally debuted at the prestigious Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York before touring around the country. It was in that setting that Earl’s vision lay.
James recalls Earl’s words from an early meeting of the de- sign team for the Firebird III team, “’You know, when you go to Las Vegas to see a floor show you don’t expect to see your wife on the stage, you expect to see a real oozy.” Several engineering decisions already were rm. The car was to be operational (some years’ cars were not), and was to feature an innovative gas turbine engine, as had the Firebird II.
But as for the surface design, Earl’s vision was only de ned by a sense of irresistible impact, a nearly over-the-top spectacle that wafted pure charisma through a charged atmosphere.
James says, reliving the moment, “He started describing how people would come to see the (MOTORAMA) show, and they’d line up around the block and around the build- ing three or four deep. And when they get into the auditorium to see the car, there would be so many people around it that you couldn’t see the car, and you would have to stay an extra show, and that would make it even more spectacular.
“(So) my first drawing was of a crowd scene …. I envisioned ns and things sticking out at angles so if you’re standing around it, they’re threatening your personal space, and that would make little breaks in the crowd, which would make it an interesting scene. I literally took Earl’s rst description to do a crowd scene and worked on it from there.” James also made sure some tantalizing ns stood up just enough over the crowd to keep those waiting enthralled.
There’s nothing like hearing him tell it in person but James’ 2007 biography, Of Firebirds and Moonmen, includes that drawing among many others that illustrate the book’s end- to-end, pre-CAD processes in designing, developing and building the classic Firebird III. His portrayal of the personalities and the take-no-prisoners brio of mid-century GM Styling culture seems to beg for its own Mad Men series. Eight years on, the popular memoir is available in hardcover, paperback and now in Kindle.
Ewen was responsible for interior features like the joy stick used for steering. He says the challenge was, “You have to hang onto it all the time, so it has to be very comfortable.” Ewen was made part of Earl’s and James’ team after just six months with GM, based on what he calls the “rocket-shippy” nature of his drawings.
But Ewen acknowledges that James deserves credit for the Firebird III’s overall design. “We broke a lot of design rules that General Motors had,” James says, and once he approved James’ design, James says Earl told GM’s design committee to stay out of the studio. James gets a little choked up recalling his most exciting moment in the development process. “I just was in the ma- chine shop watching them assemble it, and I saw them put on the front panel, the berglass. All of a sudden the thing came to life. Oh it was fantastic!”
In 2015 the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation-Tucson Modernism Week in partnership with General Motors Heritage Center recognized the designers and exhibited the Firebird III at MOCA Tucson.