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April 15, 2012

News & Features

The fantastical concepts at the World's Fair had lasting impact

Special to NWautos

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Top: The General Motors Firebird III. Bottom: The Ford Seattle-ite XXI.

For many, the only thing more thrilling than the concept cars at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair was catching a glimpse of Elvis.

Production automobiles already had modern monikers such as Futura, Starfire, Nova and Galaxie. But with the concepts, automakers promised that true space-age innovation was in our future.

Did they get it right, or were the Century 21 Exposition's "cars of the future" just fantasy? Turns out it was a little of both.

Then vs. now
  • 1962
  • Drivers: 91 million
  • Vehicles: 79 million
  • Interstate miles: 15,426
  • 2010
  • Drivers: 210 million
  • Vehicles: 242 million
  • Interstate miles: 47,182
  • Source: U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration

Let's look at the history of the automotive future through two prominent concept cars at the fair: Ford's Seattle-ite XXI and General Motors' Firebird III.

Ford Seattle-ite XXI
Ford's Seattle-ite XXI was approximately 3/8 scale and wasn't functional. But it forecast exciting technologies such as multiple propulsion sources and interchangeable body configurations.

Most notably, it had six wheels, the front four of which were steerable. They moved in tandem and were intended to improve traction and braking efficiency.

The front section of the car could be decoupled from the passenger compartment to create a sporty two-seat capsule that could be driven efficiently with 60 horsepower. Put back together, the car could motor powerfully with 400 horses.

Six-wheeled cars with interchangeable ends never happened. Neither did a nuclear fusion powerplant, one of the Seattle-ite XXI's intended power sources. But its ability to run on multiple fuel sources reflects the modern use of dual-propulsion systems, such as those in the Toyota Prius and the Chevrolet Volt.

The futuristic Ford boasted a viewing screen that displayed engine information, road and weather conditions, and an automatic rolling road map that could estimate the time of arrival at specified locations. That describes current GPS units.

It also featured variable-density glass, something you'll find in a modern Mercedes-Benz SL-Class sunroof.

GM Firebird III
GM's Firebird III, with its dual-bubble cockpit, looked like it could have beaten a then-unknown Neil Armstrong to the moon. It was wrapped in a titanium skin, and its seven jet-fighter wings made Cadillac tailfins look subtle.

The Firebird III was operational and powered by a gas turbine engine. Controlled by a joystick, it had no steering wheel, brake pedal or throttle, so it looked and operated like an airplane.

The Firebird's joystick and "air drag" brakes (to slow the car from extra-high speeds) never made it to production, but its cruise control and anti-lock brakes did. So did the "ultra-sonic key," which worked much like today's remote locking fobs.

Engineers of the day also dreamed of an automated guidance system that would help to avoid accidents. Technology such as Volvo's City Safety has achieved some of that functionality, and Google and Volkswagen have demonstrated autonomous cars.

However, the government's 1972 five-mile-per-hour bumper standard (and common sense) pretty much doomed the Firebird III's wings.

Not all of the technology that the Seattle-ite XXI and Firebird III predicted made it into the future. But what did get through is an impressive array of enhancements to safety, comfort and convenience.

A Seattle Times ad from 1962 shows that $2,964 could buy you a brand-new Chrysler Newport. That's $22,000 in today's dollars, which can get you a base midsize sedan such as a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Ford Fusion.

While they don't look like futuristic concept cars, they have anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, remote locking, cruise control and multiple airbags. Spring for a GPS unit, and a 1962 "car of the future" is parked in your driveway.

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