The fascinating history of the GM Futurliner

(February 24, 2011) The announcement on the Hemmings Blog of the pending sale at auction of one of the 12 GM Futurliners raised the curiosity of MotowayAmerica's Nostalgia Highway.

We had some vague recollection of General Motors bringing "the future" to towns and cities across the country in a traveling road show in the 1940s and 1950s, but we were foggy on the history.

So we took some time to research GM's Parade of Progress and the huge buses called Futurliners used to transport the show from city to city.

We have compiled a history from various sources including materials from the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States' "GM Futurliner Restoration Project."

Parade of Progress
caravan circa 1941

Don't miss at the bottom of the page a link to a YouTube video of a ride in a restored Futurliner.

The Parade of Progress was the brainchild of Charles F. Kettering. Inspired by GM's science and technology exhibit at the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair, he convinced General Motors management to bring those educational exhibits to the people of America who could not attend the Worlds Fair.

Futurliners were a group of stylized buses designed in the 1940s by Harley Earl. The Futurliners were used from 1940 to 1941 and again from 1953 to 1956. A total of 12 were built, and nine were still known to exist as of 2007.

Each Futurliner displayed modern advances in science and technology such as jet engines, stereophonic sound, microwave ovens, television and many other modern innovations of the time.

The Parade of Progress was halted by World War II. The vehicles were refurbished by GM and the Parade resumed in 1953, only to be discontinued permanently in 1956 as a victim to one of the very technologies the Futurliners had featured — the television.

Besides the twelve Futurliners, the Parade of Progress included 32 support vehicles.

Parade of Progress Timeline

    • 1933
      Charles F. Kettering convinces General Motors to create a traveling road show to bring science and technology exhibits to the people of America.
    • 1936 (February 11)
      The first Parade of Progress hits the road using nine custom built Streamliners.
    • 1940
      The Streamliners are replaced by 12 first-generation Futurliners and join the Parade of Progress, replacing the original nine Streamliners.
    • 1941 (December)
      To date the Parade has played to 12.5 million people in 251 cities. With the entry of the United States into World War Two, the Parade of Progress is shut down and the Futurliners are put into storage for the duration of the war.
    • 1946
      Several Futurliners are used in a Detroit parade commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the automobile.
    • 1953 (May 12)
      The Futurliners are rebuilt into their second (and final) form. The Parade of Progress resumes operation with new and updated exhibits.
    • 1956
      The Parade of Progress is shut down. The Futurliners are eventually sold or given away.

The Futurliner is a massive bus like vehicle, 33
feet long, 8 feet wide, and 11-feet-7 inches tall with a whopping 248-inch wheelbase.

Restored Futurliner cockpit

An unusual feature of the Futurliner is its dual (side by side) front wheels. Each wheel has its own set of brakes, brake drums and bearings. Nearly all of the Futurliners had problems with their power steering pumps failing, presumably because of the tremendous force required to turn the wheels.

The vehicle has an incredible 19 access and display doors. Two massive 16x5-foot doors open to expose the display housed within the vehicle. A 16-foot lighting panel is attached to the top of the overhead doors and a large light bar rises from the roof another 7-foot up above the Futurliner for additional illumination. To provide electricity for all this lighting, a massive twin 6-71 200KW Detroit Diesel generator was used.

The pre-1953 Futurliners were powered by 4-cylinder diesel engines and 4x4 mechanical transmissions. The 1953 version, however, is powered by a 3inline 6 cylinder OHV GMC gasoline engine.

The power plant makes145-horsepower from the 302 cubic inches. It not only is called upon to propel the massive Futurliner over the highways and byways but to turn a huge generator for electricity during the show.

Compression ratio is 7.3 to 1. Bore and stroke are each 4 inches. It produces 262 foot pounds of torque at 1,400 rpm. The engine is serviced through a large access door located at the left front of the vehicle.

To say the Futurliners were underpowered would be an understatement. But remember, superhighways were not yet in existence and 45 mph speeds were probably adequate.

The engine is coupled to a Korean War vintage four speed Hydramatic automatic transmission that is bolted to the backside of another two speed gearbox.

This gives the driver the option of selecting from 8 forward speeds. Complicating this a bit more is another 3-speed PTO gearbox. To shift this gearbox, the driver must leave the cockpit (presumably with the vehicle stopped) and travel to the rear quarter of the vehicle and manually select one of the three gears. With this combination, the driver now has 24 selections to choose from.

Parade of Progress show
in Charlotte, N.C., in 1953

Some of the original "Paraders," as they referred to themselves, recall attainable speeds of not much more than 40 mph! The Futurliners packed two 45-gallon gasoline tanks.

Because the brakes were so poor, one Futurliner rear-ended another and consequently they were instructed to stay 300 feet apart. They all had radio receivers but only the lead and tail vehicle had transmitters. The Futurliners were nicknamed the "Red Elephants."

The original Futurliners, prior to their 1953 refurbishing, had bubble canopies over the cockpit (driver’s compartment), similar to a fighter plane of the era. This arrangement was brutally hot for the drivers and the vehicles were not air-conditioned. The cockpit is reached by climbing a stairway to the top of the vehicle. This positions the driver’s head at about the 11-foot level and makes for a terrifying first time experience when going under an overpass.

In 1954 Parade of Progress show provided 26 exhibits for visitors to enjoy. To move the exhibits 44 vehicles were used. They consisted of 12 Futurliners, 10 tractor-trailers, four trucks and 18 passenger cars.

This presentation focused on the marvels of science and how they would affect our lives in the future. The demonstration incorporated a model jet plane that would streak across the stage in a fraction of a second — depicting the speed at which we would travel.

Chemicals were poured into a pop bottle and 90 seconds later would jump out as synthetic rubber. In yet another foretelling of the future a small "rocket shop" would take to the heavens, depicting the yet unknown of scientific research in outer space.

And what about the strange spelling of the big buses? The name "FUTURLINER" was spelled without the "E" in FUTURE so GM could copyright or trademark the name.

There are nine known surviving Futurliners including the one to be auctioned at the May 12-15 Auburn, Ind., auction.

Check out a Futurliner video circa 1953

Take a ride in a restored Futurliner

Unrestored second-generation Futurliner to be auctioned in Auburn, Ind., in May