Thursday, July 21, 2011
Futurliner: GM Forward into the Future
Starting with the revolutionary Buick Y-Job of 1938, General Motors virtually created the concept car. A vehicle designed not for sale, but for trying revolutionary ideas and testing the public's reaction to them. These vehicles were fully operational, and GM Styling Chief Harley Earl actually tended to drive them as his personal transportation.
But one of the most ambitious programs involved GMC Truck and Coach- the legendary Futurliner. The Futurliner is special because it was created not just to dazzle the public, but to literally carry the superiority of General Motors from town to town.
Charles Kettering came up with an idea he called "Parade of Progress", which involved taking the impressive science and technology exhibits GM created for World's Fair displays and caravaning them through smaller towns across America. The transport vehicles themselves would be rolling advertisements for GM.
The Parade of Progress began in 1936 with a fleet of nine specially bodied trucks known as Streamliners. Their concept was to use specially designed trucks that would not only carry the display, bit could also house them. The success of the program convinced GM to reach for something grander and in 1940, the twelve Futurliners made their debut.
The Futurliners were made by the GMC Truck and Coach Division to a space age design by styling wunderkind Bill Mitchell. They were huge bright red coaches- thirty three feet long and almost twelve feet high- and featured a plastic domed driver's canopy, dual front and rear wheels with enormous whitewall tires, an entire lower body covered in ribbed aluminum and enormous gold GM letters on the front. They proudly carried the General Motors Parade of Progress lettering in cast aluminum on their flanks, and in addition to hauling the display, their sides opened up to house displays inside the vehicles. Mechanically they featured enormous four cylinder diesel engines and four speed transmissions. Quite a sight to see these twelve bright red spaceships coming down the highway- they very clearly carried the message that General Motors was carrying the future.
The Futurliners were utilized in the Parade of Progress until the war placed the effort on hiatus. They were stored until GM decided to resume the program in 1953. Several modifications were made to the behemoths- the plastic domes (which were very hot) were replaced with a more permanent roof and wraparound windshield, they were repainted in a two tone red and white combination, the powertrains were updated to six cylinder gas engines with Hydra-Matic transmissions, the net result of which made them much more pleasurable to drive. They carried the Parade of Progress to some thirteen million spectators before the program ended after the 1956 season. That newfangled television, which many people saw for the first time at the Parade of Progress, was seen as a better way to spread the word of General Motors.
The twelve coaches were sold or donated, and many had long second careers- Goebel Beer, The Michigan State Police, Peter Pan Coach Company, and even Oral Roberts made use of former Futurliners as promotional vehicles. Amazingly, nine of the twelve have survived in varying condition. One in Van Nuys has been converted into a Motor Home, a couple have undergone meticulous restorations - one sold for over $4 Million dollars at a Scottsdale Auction- and one is even being painstakingly restored in Sweden. GM's largest concept vehicles continue to fascinate and delight to this day.
Here's a GM Film from the '50s about the Parade of Progress
And a great site about the restoration of Futurliner #10 is here.