I just received word from the brother of Norm James that Norm died on April 13, 2020.
Norm touched my life on several occasions. When I was a kid I was enthralled by the Firebird III. When I worked at GM Design Staff, during my lunch hour walks around the lake I would often stop at the Research Staff lobby and study the forms of the FBIII on display. The theme was ’50s, but the form vocabulary was ’60s shear. Quite a departure from what was going on in the production studios of the day.
I made contact with Norm James several years ago through Dean’s Garage. He sent me a signed copy of his book, Of Firebirds and Moonman. I’ve read it cover to cover more than once. His account of working at GM Styling for Harley Earl was amazing. It was a completely different place then when I was there in the ’70s. Norm was gracious to allow me to reprint his design experiences and remarkable candid photos of the Firebird III at the Mesa Proving Grounds in Dean’s Garage, The Future is Back.
About Norm’s life
Norman John James August 26, 1932–April 13, 2020
American aerospace engineer Norman John James, designer of Firebird III, the General Motors futuristic gas turbine concept car that was unveiled at the 1959 Motorama display at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, passed away in peace at age 87 in his Heron Creek (North Port) Florida residence. He is the author of the book, Of Firebirds and Moonmen.
Norm is the owner of more than a dozen aerospace, automotive, telescope and design patents. His creative industrial design career spanned more than half a century and included work on U.S. government contracts.
At twelve years of age in 1945, Norm was stricken with polio and became paralyzed in his right leg. With his homemaker mother caring for him daily and his tailor-by-trade father praying, Norm was able to successfully continue his education and eventually fulfill all their dreams.
Born in Jamestown, New York to Basil and Constance James (Christian Orthodox immigrants from Albania who met, married, and Americanized their names in the early 1920s), Norm relished being a “First Generation American.”
After graduating from the Jamestown High School, Norm received his bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. His first professional employment was with General Motors Styling, then with the GM Defense Research Laboratories to work on lunar vehicles. Later he worked with Sundberg-Ferar on the design of the L-1011 interiors and finally with Rohr Industries/Goodrich Aerostructures/United Technologies on mass city transit, surface effects ships, the X-33 and aircraft engine nacelle and thrust reverser systems. After working for Rohr-UTC for fifteen years, Norm retired in 2015 at the age of 83.
In 2015, Pratt Institute recognized Norm with its Career Achievement Award for “meeting the high standards of the institute for the design of the Firebird III gas turbine 1958 Motorama concept car; for development work on the Lunar Roving Vehicles that rest on the Moon; for a body of work including 4 Design, 5 Utility and 13 Pending Patents.”
After his wife of 47 years, Ginna Froelich James, passed away on June 25, 2019. Norm sold his San Diego home in California in September 2019 so he could move to Florida and live with his family and be cared for personally by his sister-in-law Zayra and younger brother Peter. Though he was suffering from both post polio syndrome and congestive heart failure, this did not deter Norm prior to his death from working on his laptop in Florida on potentially new provisional patent telescope designs.
He is survived by his brother Peter N. James; his niece Juliana Ashley James in Los Angeles; Natalia James Drumm, a niece in North Port, Florida; Gabriela Calderon Weaver, a niece in Orlando, Florida; Syreena James, a niece in Virginia, and three grand nephews Mason, Liam, and Lincoln Drumm, all of whom he first met several years earlier in Florida when his automotive designs were on display at a museum in Jacksonville.
Norm was preceded in death by his eighteen month old brother Robert in 1937, and on May 27, 2005 by his commercial artist older brother Herbert Andrew James, the father of Syreena and retired fencing coach at Cleveland’s Case Tech; Herb was an All Ohio fencing champion in three weapons—foil, epee, and sabre—and Norm dedicated his book, Of Firebirds and Moonmen to his brother, a mentor to young and old in the James Family.
A week prior to his passing, the normally low-keyed “make no waves” very conservative Norman John James (everyone knows that was Norm) told his brother, “If President Trump is not reelected President, we lose the United States as we know it.” Any American regardless of political affiliation wishing to remember Norm is encouraged to (a) donate in his name to the Smithsonian Institute, (b) vote on November 3, 2020 and (c) support the campaigns of non-corrupt political candidates seeking elective office. That was Norman John James: A proud First Generation American and son of Ellis Island immigrants who raised their family to be truthful in what is surely the Land of Opportunity.
Submitted by the James Family in honor of Norman John James
August 26, 1932—April 13, 2020