Days of Futurliners Past – General Motors' Parade of Progress Buses

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Full gallery here

The way the story goes, the idea for General Motors’ Parade of Progress sprang from the mind of Charles Kettering, GM’s vice president for research and the inventor of the first practical electric self starter for automobiles, as he walked through GM’s exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago. Looking at the demonstrations of the science and technology used in his company, he thought, why not put the show on the road and take the displays to towns across America?

The first Parade of Progress was in 1936, starting in Lakeland, Florida (perhaps not coincidentally, the Detroit Tigers started conducting spring training that year in Lakeland) and ending at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, stopping at 251 towns and smaller cities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and even Cuba in between, and it was seen by 12.5 million people. By comparison, less than 9 million people attended Major League Baseball games that year. If you think of how much smaller those countries’ populations were back then, you can get an idea what a major event the Parade of Progress was. That’s the equivalent of about 31 million people attending an event in the U.S. today. That’s how big of a deal the Parade of Progress was in its day.

Over the next twenty years, there’d be a total of three GM Parades of Progress, ending in 1956. There aren’t many artifacts left of those public relations campaigns, at least as far as ephemera is concerned. A quick check at eBay shows a few brochures, and some publicity photos for sale. To automotive enthusiasts, though, some the most significant artifacts possible from the Parade of Progress still exist, the Art Deco styled Futurliner buses that carried around the displays from town to town.

Kettering ran his idea past GM chairman Alfred Sloan Jr. and Paul Garrett, the automaker’s VP in charge of public relations. They seized on the idea. Movies, fairs and other forms of inexpensive mass entertainment were popular. It was the depths of the Great Depression, people wanted distractions from the economy. The GM executives correctly reasoned that an entertaining and educational show would help promote the company and its many products, not just automobiles, particularly if there was no admission charge. Radio and newspapers were the only forms of mass communications then. By making the show mobile, GM could take it to just about every community in the country, avoiding large metropolitan areas, concentrating on places where it would get maximum attention. When the Parade of Progress came to town, people literally came from miles around, with attendance sometimes more than doubling local populations.

To transport the show, in addition to nine GMC and Chevrolet tractor-trailers, there was a fleet of eight custom red and white streamlined vans, build in Fisher Body’s Fleetwood plant, where custom Cadillacs were built. When parked and ganged next to each other, they featured walk through exhibits. The PoP was staffed by 40 to 50 young men, all college graduates from top universities. They’d drive the vehicles, set up the exhibits and then change into nicer uniforms to give lectures on the displays. They’d stay at each stop for up to four days, then pack up and go to the next town. Former participants all seem to look back fondly on the experience.

It was a sophisticated public relations operation with the route chosen a year in advance. Garrett’s staff in New York City would notify the local chamber of commerce and a few days later an advance man would show up. One of them, Bob Emerick who would would eventually retire from GM as Pontiac’s PR director, described the process:

“There were three of us advance men alternating towns – hopscotching along the route. We’d work with the chamber of commerce and city officials – find an empty lot to pitch the tents, make hotel reservations, the work with the newspapers and radio stations; also the schools, civic clubs, and local GM dealers. We had a short movie that we brought along to give these groups a teaser of the actual shows.”

When the shows arrived, they were presented live and the main tent show was about 45 minutes long. While the PoP originally used conventional circus-type tents, in 1940, a new tent with an external girder skeleton was introduced that could hold larger crowds.

A mock up of the Futurliners held an animated diorama titled Our American Crossroads. The display has been restored and is in the GM Heritage Center. Full gallery here.

That year the original eight streamliners were replaced by 12 new vehicles dubbed Futurliners, plus a mockup bus display that housed an elaborate animated diorama called Our American Crossroads that showed how towns developed along with the automobile. The Futurliners had clamshell sides that opened up to reveal the displays inside. A hydraulically lifted light bar would illuminate the area at night.

The Futurliner name matched up nicely with GM’s Futurama exhibit then going on at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Also, dropping the E from future meant that GM could more easily trademark the name.

The Futurliners were barely on the road when they were mothballed two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The buses went into storage while most of the young men staffing the show went off to war. The Parade of Progress would not be revived until 1953, perhaps to coincide with GM’s Motorama shows, which were a bit more car-centric and staged in larger cities. While cars were displayed at the Parade of Progress shows, they weren’t the focus of the events, it was a soft sell.

The Parade of Progress really seems to have been about showing GM and American technology in all of its breadth, so by 1953 there were displays about atomic power, microwave ovens, jet propulsion and stereophonic sound that joined popular holdover exhibits. However, by 1953 there was more than just radio to entertain people. People could watch entertaining and educational shows for free without leaving their homes. Television spelled the demise of the Parade of Progress. With attendance declining, the last Parade was in 1956.

Full gallery of 145 photos here.

The Futurliner is a singular looking vehicle. I really can’t think of anything else on the road that looks like it. Attributed to Harley Earl, as with other Earl designs he probably did some of his famous hand waves and GM’s talented team of designers did his bidding. It’s very large, 11′ 7″ tall, 8′ wide, and 33′ feet long with a 248″ wheelbase. It’s also heavy, about 16.5 tons. Unique to the Futurliner are duallies up front. There are side by side front wheels and tires, each one with it’s own drum brake. Even with a total of six brake drums, they weren’t very adequate to slow all that weight and one of the Futurliners was rear ended by another. With all that rubber to turn, the buses had an early version of power steering but apparently the pumps frequently failed due to the load.

Full gallery of 145 photos here.

As built in 1939, the Futuliners were powered by front mounted four cylinder diesel engines driving through 4X4 mechanical gearboxes (I believe that means a four speed with four ranges for 16 total speeds, not four wheel drive). In 1953 the Futurliners were updated. Their clear plastic domes over the driver’s cabin had proved to be rather warm, so a more conventional roof (with a hatch) was installed.

The engines were replaced with 145 horsepower 302 cubic inch six cylinder OHV units from GMC. A four speed hydramatic replaced the manual transmission was coupled to another two speed box, plus a third 3 speed power take off unit (though that one requires the driver to stop the vehicle and go to the back of the bus to select the appropriate range). The result was 24 gear ratios to choose from. With only 145 hp and a quarter mile time of 41 seconds or more (and a trap speed of just 28 mph), the Futurliners needed all those gears to get to all those towns. In addition to a metal roof, for driver comfort GM added air conditioning units made by its Frigidaire division. Sitting with their heads 11 feet off of the ground, however, made for some uncomfortable driving, particularly when going under overpasses.

Full gallery of 145 photos here.

Of the 12 Futuliners that were made, nine are known to still exist in one form or another. Seven have either been restored or are considered restorable. The two basket cases have been used to restore other Futurliners. One bus is currently being restored in Sweden, and the Futurliner that is considered to be the most original is currently being restored in Utah. That bus has been the model for other restorations, including the restoration of Futurliner pictured here. The remains of Futurliner #5, which donated parts to the restoration of has been converted into a rather clever flatbed car and truck hauler and is currently for sale at asking price of $1.25 million.

Coker Tires reproduced the original U.S. Royal General Motors Parade of Progress whitewalls. Full gallery here.

After GM retired the Futurliners for good in 1956 they were sold off or donated. A couple ended up with the Michigan State Police, the Peter Pan Bus Company bought and restored one, and one was used by the Oral Roberts Ministries. Number 10 was bought by the Goebel Brewing company, based in Detroit (now there’s a brand for hipsters to bring back). They called it the Goebel Land Cruiser and referred to it as “A new concept in public relations”. They drove it to fairs, picnics, parades and the like to show people how beer was made. Apparently at one point in its service to Goebel, Futurliner #10 overheated and, not having any spare coolant, the beer that was kept cool onboard for distribution to employees of the local beer distributors sponsoring the events was used instead to fill the radiator.

Note the body by Fisher badge by the door. The 33,000 lb. Futurliners had duallies in front as well as in back. Full gallery here.

Financial issues that led to Goebel’s purchase by Stroh’s also caused the discontinuation of the Land Cruiser. The Pulte Construction company, also then based in Detroit, bought the Futurliner to use as a promotional vehicle for a new development in Florida. Driving the Futurliner south, somewhere near Tallahassee it threw a rod and the engine caught fire.

A commanding driving position if there ever was one. The white pod to the left of the steering wheel is the sensor for the Autronic Eye automatic dimmers. Full gallery here.

Fast forward to 1998. Car enthusiast and retired GM plant manager Don Mayton saw one of the Futurliners while in Palm Springs on business. He knew he had to have one, but he also realized it would be beyond his means. Still he kept looking. Mayton lives on the west side of Michigan, not far from Grand Rapids, in Zeeland, and it turned out that he found a Futurliner not that far away. The National Automotive and Truck Museum, NATMUS, located in Auburn, Indiana, adjacent to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, had acquired Futurliner It needed a restoration and Mayton and his crew of volunteers not only made arrangements through the museum’s Partner Program to raise the $200,000 or so needed for the restoration, they performed the restoration themselves, meeting every Tuesday to work on it one way or another.

Full gallery here.

As restorations go, it’s somewhere between completely original and grandfather’s axe. Much of the framework for the body had to be reproduced as did the special U.S. Royal whitewalls embossed with “General Motors Parade of Progress”. Someone still had a couple of original tires which were sent to Coker Tire for reproduction. Castings of the big GM badge up front and the General Motors Parade of Progress lettering along the flanks were taken so they too could be reproduced. One of the volunteers fabricated a completely new wiring harness. Interestingly, the keyed power switch is behind one of the outside access panels down below the driver’s compartment. Once that switch is activated, the driver can push a button to start up the GMC six. Actually, separate key switches and floor mounted starter buttons were commonplace when the Futurliners were being built.

Full gallery here.

The restoration was complete in 2006, with its first showing at the Meadow Brook concours (now the Concours of America at St. John’s). While the NATMUS museum still owns Futurliner the volunteers store it in a garage near Grand Rapids from spring through fall and take it to car shows and other events, educating the public about it, which is how it came to be in Milford. Of all of the restored Futurliners, it is considered to be the most authentic, still featuring its original to 1953 drivetrain.

If you want to read more about the Futurliners in general or #10 and how it was restored, the project has an entire website devoted to it and the restoration. If you want to help pay to maintain Futurliner there is an assortment of models, apparel, as well as a book and DVD on the Parade of Progress Futurliners and the restoration of #10 that you can buy to help support the project. What Mayton and his crew of volunteers have done with the Futurliner is highly praiseworthy, devoting their time and energy to restoring a piece of not just automotive history but American history as well, without any thought of recompense. Now that the Futurliner is done, Mayton and his team are restoring one of Bill Mitchell’s custom Buick styling concept cars.

Full gallery here.

Though the volunteers who restored it may need to educate members of the general public about the Futurliner and GM’s Parade of Progress, the buses are fairly well known to car enthusiasts. Every now and then one will come up for auction, like the time that super collector Ron Pratte bought a restored Futurliner for $4.1 million at Barrett-Jackson’s 2006 Scottsdale auction. That resulted in a bit of Futurliner speculation but sales since then haven’t met presales estimates. I suppose there is a limited market for big tall vintage Art Deco buses. If you are part of that market, however, Pratte is selling off his entire collection, including his Futurliner early next year at the 2015 B-J Arizona auction.

Full gallery here.

With only a handful of Futurliners in roadable condition, the chances of seeing one in the metal are rare, so I was excited to see that #10 would be participating in a Pontiac Oakland club show out at Baker’s in Milford. However, when I got to Baker’s that Sunday there was obviously not a Pontiac show going on. I asked someone and they told me the show was on Saturday. I could have sworn that the flyer I saw said something about the 20th. When I said I was disappointed to miss the Futurliner, the guy said, “Oh, they’re over at the Proving Grounds and are coming back.”

The Futurliner as built in 1939. Note the bubble canopy over the driver. That proved to be uncomfortably hot.

Milford is the location of the General Motors Proving Grounds, about two miles from Baker’s. There’s no record of any Futurliners being at the Proving Grounds since before 1953. There is one photograph showing a 1939-53 Futurliner at GM’s main road testing facility so this was the first time a Futurliner was at the Proving Grounds in over 60 years. I hopped into the press Audi A3 I had that week and headed up towards the test track. On my way there, though, I could see the Futurliner coming towards me, headed back to the restaurant. It’s rather hard to miss. I quickly pulled off the road to wave as they went by and then I had to wait. The bus has a top speed of not much more than 45 mph – or at least the driver told me that he wouldn’t want to drive it much faster than that. The road they were on has a 50 or 55 mph speed limit. Traffic was piled up for about a half mile or more behind it as it trundled down the road. Finally, a guy in a BMW took some compassion on me and let me merge.

I had some errands to run in that part of town so I ended up hanging out with the volunteers a good deal of the day, off and on. They let visitors climb up into the cabin and sit behind the wheel, donations appreciated. It has to be the weirdest driving position short of the tail steerer on a hook & ladder rig. If you think an SUV gives you a commanding seating position, think again. The Futurliner being a cab-over design, there is a rather long and complicated linkage between the steering wheel and the wheels that are being steered.

Full gallery here.

While the displays were swapped around between the vehicles, this particular Futurliner is known to have been used to promote GM’s Fisher Body Craftmen’s Guild and the display space currently features materials about the Guild along with artifacts from the Parade of Progress.

Full gallery here.

You can describe the dimensions and what a great expression of the Art Deco design ethos it is, but the Futurliner is such a singular vehicle that words fail. It’s just this big red tall thing that grabs your eyes and won’t let go. It’s one of those vehicles that you really have to see in person to appreciate. The idea that a company like General Motors would make something this weird just boggles the mind, but then once upon a time they also made the Corvair, the rope drive Tempest and the Pontiac “cammer” OHC inline six.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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2 of 26 comments
  • Lightspeed Lightspeed on Aug 11, 2014

    Except for being strangely narrow, truly one of the most beautiful and striking vehicles ever made.

  • 1000songs 1000songs on Aug 14, 2014

    I was at BJ when Mr. Pratte paid the astronomical sum for his Futureliner. Complete tomfoolery.

  • Stephen My "mid-level" limited edition Tonino Lambo Ferraccio Junior watch has performed flawlessly with attractive understated style for nearly 20 years. Their cars are not so much to my taste-- my Acura NSX is just fine. Not sure why you have such condescension towards these excellent timepieces. They are attractive without unnecessary flamboyance, keep perfect time and are extremely reliable. They are also very reasonably priced.
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  • Lou_BC Jay Leno had said that EV's would be good since they could allow the continued existence of ICE cars for enthusiasts. That sentiment makes sense. Many buyers see vehicles as a necessary appliance.