Norm John James

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




  1. Brian Baker

    Norm made you feel like a lifelong friend instantly. When he learned that I taught design history here in Detroit ,he became a source of rare information for my students that is now irreplaceable.
    Modest to a fault, his NASA designs combined with his telescopes and dream cars makes his accomplishments among the most profound of any designer of the 20th century.

    Enjoy your journey among the stars Norman.

    Brian Baker SAH. Principal Historian, Automotive Hall of Fame

  2. Chris

    Dear James Family,

    Thank you for sharing your memories of Norm’s life. He was a man that contributed markedly to this great country of ours. My condolences to each of you. May God bless and keep all of you.

  3. I read Norm James book about a year ago because the Firebird III turbine car was always my favorite dream car. What impressed me most was James’ solid work ethic. He was a member of my father’s generation, and great men of that period were quiet yet assertive and yet always striving for something better. James’ recollections were kind and thankful to the many who helped him train and develop his talents step by step. His solid dedication to his work came through as proud satisfaction, for he proved to be a goal setter never tempted to grandstand with bloated ego trips. GM wisely developed the skills of talented thinkers like James so the corporation could showcase possibilities for new and innovative technologies.

    I wish I could have shaken Norm’s hand, for I admired his example that influenced others to look forward to great things yet to come. I still keep a model of the Firebird III concept car on my desk to always remind me that our tomorrows will be full of beautiful and exciting new wonders.

  4. I’m deeply moved by the news of Norm’s passing. We were colleagues in the Research Studio under Bob McLean in 1956 and I will never forget his low-key but effective humor and his wonderful insight into design. We kept in touch in recent years when I complained that in his book he left out the XP-56 we were working on! Recently I found some images of Norm in the space buck we created. It was wonderful working with Norm and our mutual friend Stefan Habsburg, who features in my recent book “Karl Ludvigsen’s Fast Friends”. Norm deeply deserves the recognition he received and is receiving.

  5. Edmond Phillibert

    I’m very sad to learn the Mr James’ passing. I think we’ve lost a great guy. he liked to share his experience: I had the privilege to talk with him about some projects on which he worked in the GM research studio. We will miss him. All my condolences to his family and friends!

  6. Stan Mott

    Norm and I exchanged many humorous inner-office memos while in ’56 GM Styling. One of my favorites from him was on management’s efforts to jazz up the bleak Tech Center hall by asking employees to bring in their own paintings and hang them up. Norm’s proposal was a gigantic full width mural on one end of the same bleak hallway that showed a hyper real image of the same bleak hallway going off into the distance to a vanishing point. Thank you, Norm.

  7. Glen Durmisevich

    I first became aware of Norm and his work on the Firebird lll shortly after joining GM Design when I came across a film in the Design Library with Norm and Stefan Habsburg demonstrating their use of yarn to do a full size layout of the FB lll. It was and still is a fascinating vehicle.

    I spoke with Norm a few years ago hoping to get him to attend the EyesOn Design when we had all the Firebirds at the show. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it. It would have been great to meet him in person. A true futurist.

  8. Leon Dixon

    I am so very sad to see that Norm has passed. A true man of vision. I continue to be amazed at the Firebird III and Norm’s other works of genius. His work continues to be an inspiration.

    I can only say to others, recognize and appreciate these rare, amazing persons while they are still with us on this side… because they are too soon gone. Here is hoping that Norm’s accomplishments, examples and life remain in our collective memories and automotive history far beyond our temporary existence. Thanks Norm.

  9. Ken Pickering

    I just agree with everything that has been said above. Norm was a good friend and I will miss him. RIP Norm.

    Ken Pickring

  10. Ken Eberts

    I knew he was a sharp guy but didn’t know how sharp. From my memory he was a really nice guy,very reserved. He drove a new green Pontiac GTO and at least once he brought his telescope to work to show us. I believe it was mounted with water so it didn’t vibrate. His invention. Sorry to hear of his passing. Bob Robilliard had quite a group of interesting designers working on the L1011.

  11. Norm was one of the good guys. He had a mind that never stopped coming up with ideas that were always novel and interesting.

  12. Paul Sumner

    So sad to hear of Norm’s passing. Worked alongside Norm at Rohr/Goodrich/UTC and found him always to be a kind and helpful colleague, my sincere and heartfelt condolences to his family

  13. Richard Sanderson

    I met Norman James only one time, on August 5, 1972, when I was 17 years old. That day, our paths crossed at an astronomy and telescope-makers’ convention called Stellafane, which takes place annually in Springfield, VT. Norman displayed a futuristic, sphere-mounted telescope that he had designed and built, and it was the talk of the convention. I’ve attended Stellafane 48 times over the years and have examined hundreds of homemade instruments, but his telescope was without a doubt the most memorable.

    I was so pleased to reconnect with Norman five or six years ago on Facebook, where I shared a picture I had taken of him standing with his telescope in 1972. He sent me photos and diagrams depicting various versions of the telescope.

    Among amateur telescope makers, an award from Stellafane is very prestigious. In 1972 Norman captured 1st place for mechanical excellence and 2nd place for optical excellence. He also made quite an impression on a 17-year-old kid from Massachusetts!

  14. Norman Gaines Jr.

    Sad to hear of Mr. James’ demise. Even sadder to think that at the twilight of his years he backed a two-bit adulterer and scoundrel who made a grift and a mockery of the American Presidency. And I say that as an American and an Episcopalian.

  15. It has been a year since Norman’s passing. I am touched by the comments about my uncle. We miss him, we miss his smile and great sense of humor. Thank you, Gabriela Weaver

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