Firebird III Motorama Production Filming at the GM Mesa Proving Grounds

The Firebird III at the Mesa Proving Grounds.


Be sure to read the previous post on Dean’s Garage, Of Firebirds and Moonmen, Part One. In that post there was an excerpt from the book about the design phase of the project, and photos from GM Styling including construction of the car. Part Two takes us to the General Motors Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona with photos including many candid shots by Norm James. At the end of the post are links to the Firebird III brochure, additional excerpts on the GM Heritage site, a book review by SpeedReaders, where to purchase Norm’s book, and a link to an index of the book.

Motorama Production filming

by Norm James from his book, Of Firebirds and Moonmen

Arriving in Phoenix, I was picked up at the airport by a Firebird team member. On the way to the proving grounds, I heard that the Firebird III was down, and in the shop. Apparently, they were having problems with a small gear in the turbine accessories power train. A gas turbine depends on the natural flow of incoming air to keep cool. This is no problem as long as it is running, however, when it shuts down, it enters a soak period when heat from engine hot spots migrates into adjacent engine parts. What was happening was that this particular gear would heat up above its operating limit, and if they restarted the engine before it cooled down, it would break and have to be replaced. With the engine buried in the center of the vehicle, this turned out to be a five or six-hour job. They had extra gears but they found it more expedient to just keep the engine running, or if they had to shut down, allow it to cool completely before restarting.

Even with this problem, they were okay on their schedule to start shooting the action shots for the Motorama film. They brought in a Hollywood camera truck, which, in addition to the truck bed, had shooting platforms hanging off both bumpers and on top of the cab. Harry Wolfe, the cinematographer, would be behind the 35mm Mitchell camera and Hal Moore would be seated right behind him, when the action started. Any spaces left on the truck were fair game for anyone.

Most of the shooting would be done on the five-mile main track, which was circular and slightly banked. There were a few other roads within and others outside servicing the garages and engineering facilities. While the Motorama film was the main production that we all came to Arizona for, GM Photographic also had a small film crew taking 16mm footage as targets of opportunity made themselves available. The still photographer was Chuck Ternes, who had been with us at Styling, documenting the Firebird III from its first days as a mockup. I was shooting 35mm black-and-white negatives and color slides with my Nikon S2.

The circular track provided the setting for the opening shot. The camera truck drove on the inside lane, with the camera looking back to see the Firebird I, in the same lane. Panning slowly outward, it would find the Firebird II in the next lane then continuing the pan, pick up the Firebird III in the top outside lane, all while zooming and framing to keep all three cars in that same view.

With the main shot secured, they continued filming over the next several days, taking breaks where they had to reconfigure the car or setup for special shots. One such break was when they needed a camera shot, looking down into both canopies from above and behind. The canopies had special aluminized coatings applied to protect the interior against the sun. Since the reflective coating would have defeated that high-camera view, we also had two canopies made, without coatings, strictly for this one particular shot. Emmett Conklin, the Research Staff engineer who was doing all the driving, said afterward that for the first time, the heat from the Arizona sun was almost unbearable. The Firebird III had a high capacity air-conditioning system that served it well, but only now did we realize how important a function the aluminized coatings had been performing. I felt vindicated, first for going to the trouble of aluminizing the canopies, but most of all, for staying with the short (backward) blisters, instead of changing to the longer teardrops. That would have doubled the heat load on the air-conditioning system. Perhaps it was that intuition that said the teardrop did not look right.


Mechanical problems

Several times, during the shooting, they had to stop to attend to some mechanical problem with the car. They would pull the car in, under a tent, to shield it from the sun, then open up anything that had a hinge to cool it off. Large fans were set up to blow into the engine compartment while they made their fixes, hoping there would be enough light left to get another action shot. One evening, the shooting ended at dusk, and with its lights on, some of the best photographs were taken. Afterward, we—the lucky ones—could go back to the motel and wash up before a nice night out on the town, while our counterparts at Research Staff had to hunker down and work through the night to be sure the car was ready in the morning.Our motel, the Sands, was very new and quite modern by the day’s standards. It was the first time I had been in Arizona, and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The days were hot, some ten to fifteen degrees hotter than anything I was used to, but it was dry and surprisingly bearable—I loved it. The Firebird team was provided with half dozen or so Pontiac convertibles that we divvied up, I, pooling with Stefan [Habsburg] and Bob McLean. We drove around by day under clear skies and a burning sun with the top up, and the air-conditioning going full blast. Almost every evening, huge thunderclouds would build up, and we would have horrendous lightning storms, followed by flash flooding through the downtown streets. The rains cooled everything down for a balmy top-down Detroit-like evening. Then, almost as suddenly, the clouds would break up in time to see a gorgeous sunset.

We would usually look for a nice steak house to have dinner and discuss the events of the day. Afterward, some of the team found relaxation swimming in the motel pool at two in the morning under the pleasant balmy sky; definitely, this was not Detroit. In the morning, after a nice breakfast, we drove back to the proving grounds, eager to see how the night crew had performed. We always found the “bird” ready. We couldn’t help thinking about the coming Saturday. Hopefully, the filming would be behind us and we would be ready for the press conference, wondering if the car would be okay, hoping that some other small mechanical problem would not ruin our day.

Emmett Conklin was Supervisor of Testing for the Firebird program and drove the Firebird III for all the action footage and Mauri Rose was the man in the second seat, mostly for face recognition, as a three-time Indianapolis five-hundred winner, but also as the GM staff engineer that he was. There had been a lot of earlier press footage of him as the driver of the high-speed Firebird I that truly was his forte. Harley Earl appeared toward the end of the week, as did Lawrence Hafstad, VP of Research Staff; and they were both given rides around the track. Our spirits were up because we had completed all of our Motorama footage and all that remained were shots of opportunity—formal and informal—of the team members and the bird. My best shot of the week was of Chuck Ternes, the photographer, about to take the (now classic) photo of Harley Earl and the three Firebirds.

The press arrived early Saturday morning. All of us were hesitant but feeling better because of the good day we had Friday. The Firebird III was shown to the press, first as a static display, then with all of its hoods, decks and doors open so they could get a good view of all the stuffings, more than had ever been done for a Motorama show car before (or concept car since). The engine was then started, and it began a continuous series of rides for VIPs and the media. By noon, the press conference was over, and it was an unqualified success; the car performed flawlessly and we were all ecstatic. Now we could get our own personal photos, posing with the birds. This time, all the big smiles were real On Sunday, after the press conference, we all had an opportunity to relax. McLean, Stefan and I took our convertible for a ride in the Arizona high country, along the Apache Trail. McLean, the westerner, filled us in on the story of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine and the treasure of gold that was supposedly buried nearby. Going up the trail, I was surprised at how the landscape slowly changed from the arid desert with the Soccoro cactus to the rich green pines of the plateaus, as we rose in altitude. It was also the first time I had been exposed to the effects of low pressure at altitude, and how peaceful and quiet it seemed.

From the high ridges and mountain trails along the plateau, we would stop at lookout points for grand views and to take pictures. I was astounded to be able to see so far, and to observe the effects of atmospheric perspective, as the haze diminished the contrast of the distant mountains.

With our task in Phoenix complete, the team began returning to Detroit. McLean and Stefan would fly back earlier and I would leave a day later. At the Motel, as others were already departing; I found myself split from my usual group, and being hungry, was surprised to find myself sitting down and sharing a pizza, one on one, with Mauri Rose. This turned out to be one of the high points of my trip. Back in Detroit, we found ourselves waiting for the press release date for the Firebird III. It happened on Sunday, September 14, and the Detroit Newsmagazine section had a full color cover and four inside pages on the design and building of the car.

Firebird III during the Motorama production shoot

Firebird III photos found online


Of Firebirds & Moonmen: A Designer’s Story from the Golden Age
by Norman J James
Xlibris Corporation, 2007
217 pages, 67 photographs, 43 illustrations
List price: $21.99
ISBN: 978-1-4257-7653-4
Purchase the book through Amazon
Purchase the book through Barnes & NobleLinks:
Download the Acrobat index of Of Firebirds and Moonmen
Firebird III brochure on Dean’s Garage
SpeedReaders book review
About the Author from Xlibris
Description of the book from Xlibris

  1. What a joy to read this article and see the photos. I had forgotten how creative and dramatic the design. I seem to recall a golden metal (titanium) version parked in the executive garage at Styling. Anyone fill in the details?

  2. According to Norm’s book, the Firebird III was painted a color called moon dust, a warm metallic silver. There is a color photo of the car in front of Styling in the post featuring the Firebird III brochure. There were three Firebird IIs built, and one had a titanium body that was burnished bronze in color.

  3. Norm James


    As Gary said, the Firebird III was painted in a silver-gold metallic finish but it was also over painted with a pearescent clear coat. This may have given it that golden sheen, depending on the illumination. The Firebird (I) was also pearlescent over a white base.

    The Firebird II Motorama car was the titanium-skinned car, but it did not run. It was set-up for Motorama demonstrations only. The titanium skins were all brush finished (as a side note, my boss Bob McLean would have been instrumental in this decision. In later years, McLean left GM and joined John Delorian. He may have also been instrumental in the Delorian having a brushed stainless steel finish (?)

    There was also a fiberglass version of the Firebird II, which was the running car and was used for filming it in motion. Since the turbine engine was the main theme, it was necessary to show it really worked.

    The third version was a fiberglass shell that was made strictly as a prop for the Motorama film they had to make. A few years later, that shell was used to demonstrate a Research Staff “Free Piston” engine and power train. The nose and a few other details were modified to look different, but it was made from that third shell and that prototype became known as the XP500.


  4. Norman Gaines Jr.

    First, what a fantastic car. The pinnacle of the “car-as-rocket” period of American car culture, and the only car I ever saw that reminds me of a coelacanth. I have seen a lot of cars in my years as a car person but the F3 is the only one I’d pay to ride in. Even though I suspected that, just like every bubble-top custom car, there was going to be a need for 50,000 BTU of a/c to keep you cool, and none of them had that. But what a car. Was there ever a time when it was “set loose”, i.e. driven on an actual street?

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