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John Swartley
November 6, 2023
210 views

A GM Parade – The Futurliner

After walking through the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, GM’S VP of research, Charles Kettering, decided they needed to take their science and technology on the road to all the towns across America utilizing the Parade of Progress program. The “E” was left off “future” so GM could copywrite the name “Futurliner”.

The Futurliners were custom-built vehicles designed by Harley Earl for the Parade of Progress promotion. The Parade of Progress debuted in Lakeland Florida February 11, 1936, using eight Futurliners and followed by nine support vehicles. This parade stopped in 251 cities and was viewed by twelve and one-half million people. One must realize that there were no 4-lane highways and the top speed of the “Silver-Topped-Streamliner” was about 40 MPH. The original Futurliners had 4-cylinder diesel engines and a manual transmission. The tours were disrupted in 1941 by the war. 

In each town, the parade would terminate at a location where GM would set up a large tent and an information kiosk. This would allow the company to display all their new products. In the second generation Futurliners, the new products would be on display on the stage that was built inside each vehicle. The highlighted displays “predicted” the future of jet engine technology, agriculture, traffic engineering, stereophonic sound, microwave ovens, television, and other innovations.

In 1952 with the country headed for prosperity, GM rebuilt the eight original Futurlines and built four new ones. The refurbished and new vehicles were equipped with the new “Jimmy-Six” gasoline engine and automatic transmission with a two-speed “splitter” which gave the Futurliners an 8-speed transmission.  The driver had to crawl under the vehicle to shift the two-speed splitter.

The new Futurliners were 33 feet long, 8 feet wide, more than 11 feet tall, and weighed more than 12 tons. The Furturliners featured heavily styled art deco, streamlined bodywork, a deep red side, a white roof, and white sidewall tires. The driver was located centrally with only two more seats for extra drivers. 

The Futurliners were still underpowered for their weight and the top speed was a little under 40 MPH.  The Futurliners were equipped with dual rear and front tires, each of the dual front tires had its own set of bearings and brakes to help it turn easier. 

In the early tours, 1936-1941, a large tent was used to display GM’s new products. On later tours, 1953-1956, the displays were in each individual Furturliner.  They continued to use large tents to present programs to the audience. Note the portable electric generator mounted in a semitrailer, in photos, that was on display and furnished power to the presentation. 

I have read different reports referring to the drivers and staff as being college graduates or Veterans for the 1952-1956 tours. They would hire local extra personnel at each location. 

From the list I found on Wikipedia and other sources, maybe I can give a little of the history and possible status of some of the twelve Furturliners. The Futurliners had a 20ft, 8in wheelbase, were 32 feet, 10 inches long, stood 11 feet, 6 inches in height, 7 feet 10 iches wide, and weighed 30,000 pounds. The top speed was 38 MPH. They each had one driver seat and two passenger seats, and the driver was 10 feet off the ground. 

#1 Futurliner was promoting heating and air conditioning, which would be a new product for GM’s Frigidaire Department at the time. This actual Futurliner location is unknown currently.

Futurliner #2 was Our American Crossroad. The display started out as a sleepy small town, then the buildings would flip displaying a modern active town. The location of this Futurliner is unknown, the display is now located at General Motors Heritage Center. (Click HERE to see an interesting video of the operation of the display online.) 

Futurliner #3 had a cutaway of an Allison Jet engine. It had a hydraulic light bar that extended above to light up the display. #3 has an interesting post-tour life I will describe later.

Futurliner #4 had Diesel Power Parade and Power for the Nations Lifelines. I could not find any photos or information on #4; I am sure it is still out there.

Futurliner #5 was World of Science and Versatile Metal, I could not find any information on the display, more information on its post-history later.

Futurliner #6 display was Energy and Man plus High Compression Power and Energy. 

Futurliner #7 display was Out of City Muddle focusing on urban highway congestion.

Editor’s note: This was before the Interstate Highways were built.

Futurliner #8 display was Around the Farmhouse Clock, focusing on modern appliances on the farm.

Futurliner #9 hosted the information center for the tour. 

Futurliner #10 was a good example of displays on both sides of the Futurliner. One side had All American Roller Derby, and the other side displayed future designs for automobiles.

Furturliner #11 display was March of tools and Car is born. Futurliner #12 display was Precision and Durability. I did not find any information on either of these two Futurliners or Displays.

Under the “successful failure” category of the tours, one of the successful displays was a new “hot item” called television. It did not take GM long to realize they could display their new products via television a lot cheaper and in more homes. After a little over three years people quit attending the displays and the tours were canceled. The mighty Futurliners were “put out to pasture.”

I found my research on the post-Furturliners’ lives as intriguing as their touring history. The National Automotive and Truck Museum’s web page has the most information on the Futurliners. One of the Furturliners was in an accident while on tour in 1956 and was never replaced. 

Soon after the Parade of Progress was completed, GM gave two Futurliners to the Michigan State Police, #11 and #8.  One to convert to their Safetyliner and the other one for parts. One side of the Safetyliner was gun safety and the other side was automobile safety. 

One Futurliner ended up in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Oral Roberts renamed it Cathedral Cruiser. He used it in his Ministries as far away as Mexico, Central, and South America, and in the southwestern United States. The Cathedral Cruiser helped draw large crowds.

Bob Valdez purchased Futurliner #9 in 1984 and converted it into a living space so he could travel with it. GM donated Bob a new engine and after 10-12 years of hard work, Bob’s beautiful totally restored Futurliner was ready to hit the road again. After owning his Futurliner for 24 years, Bob listed it in 2007 on E-Bay for $1,000,000 and as of 2008, it had not sold. In 2016 Bob sold his Futurliner to ChromeCars of Germany, and as of 2018, they are restoring it again. 

Peter Pan Bus Lines purchased a Futurliner, (number unknown,) and completed the restoration in the year 2000. After a New York collector brought the Futurliner to the Peter Pan Company to have it restored, Peter L. Picknelly, owner of the Peter Pan Bus Lines purchased it in 1998. Peter tried to sell his Futurliner on E-Bay Motors in 2011, but it never reached the minimum of $2,000,000. He equipped it with a 4-71 Detroit Diesel and rents it out and uses it for promotions today.  

In the 1980s, Joseph Bortz met a co-restauranter who claimed he had a Futurliner in his backyard. After some discussion, Joe found out the gentleman had four more at a different location. Since they both ran restaurants, the man explained to Joe his plans to cut the Futurliners into pieces using a chainsaw and display the pieces as conversation items in his restaurants. 

Thankfully, Joe realized the historical value of the Futurliners and purchased all five of them. Joe immediately donated Futurliner #10 to the Car & Truck Museum in Auburn Indiana in 1993. Futurliner #10 originally displayed an “Opportunity for Youth,” exhibit, which included winning model cars from the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild contest; also displayed the 3-Dimensional Sound exhibit, aka, surround sound. 

Futurliner #10 was initially sold to musician Vic Hyde, then later toured the Midwest promoting Goebel Beer and promoting Dreisbach and Sons Cadillac-Chevrolet-Oldsmobile in Detroit. Somehow it ended up as one of Joe Bortz’s five Futurliners as you can see in the photo of Joe Bortz’s rusty collection. 

Don Mayton began his dream of rebuilding a Futurliner after seeing how Bob Valdez had converted his to a customized motorhome in California. The National Automotive & Truck Museum, (NATMUS) asked him to head up the restoration of the Futurliner Joe Bortz had donated to the Museum. 

Don started off with a few volunteers and as the word of the restoration spread curious retired auto workers, engineers, and other interested people would stop by and soon would be crawling under the Furturliner each with a tool in their hand. 

Bill Bicknell Engine Company agreed to rebuild the 145-HP, 302 GM engine for free. They found NOS, (new old stock) engine blocks in California and in time had a complete running engine. Ron Bluhm from GM’s power train division helped get the transmission rebuilt.

The dual range Hydromantic transmission was equipped with eight speeds, behind the transmission was a Dana/Spicer 3-speed transmission with PTO that allowed sixteen gears forward and disconnect from the driveline to operate the electric generator when on display location. My understanding was it had to be manually operated by crawling under the Futurliner.

Although the 10:00 x 20 white sidewall tires were a common truck size, the original Futurliners tires had General Motors Parade of Progress U S Royal Fleetway in raised lettering on each tire. Don tried to find a tire manufacturing company that could make new tires with the raised lettering and finally found the Coker Tire Company could if Don would send them a tire to copy from. However, the cost of engineering and developing the tire mold was not in the museum’s budget.  

During this time Ron Pratte was restoring Futurliner # 11 and needed tires, and found out about Don Mayton’s progress in finding the tire manufacturing company, Coker Tire Company, and agreed to pay for the cost of the molds. Don shipped one of their tires to Coker Tire Company and the mold was completed. For Don’s help, Coker Tire Company and Ron Pratte donated the complete set of tires to the National Automobile & Truck Museum. By then there were other Futurliner restorations in progress that would need the special tires. 

After almost 17 years of “labor of Love,” the National Automobile & Truck Museum’s #10 Futurliner was again on the road for the public to enjoy. The journey began when Joe Bortz donated the Futurliner, and a new shop was built to restore it in. Many volunteer hours were utilized to solve the many challenges on this amazing journey. 

Not only did NATMUS complete this historical project, but they also kept detailed information each step of the way.  Future generations will be able to read about their awesome accomplishments. Futurliner #10 is listed on the 

National Register of Historic Vehicles.  

After the Michigan State Police discontinued using their Safetyliner, it sat in a junkyard near Spring Lake Michigan. Canadians Richard and Mario Petit purchased and restored Futurliner #11 (Fido) to help sell cell phones. Futurliner # 11 had displayed March of Tools and A Car is Born in the Parade of Progress.

 In 2006 in a deal brokered between Canadians Richard and Mario and Steve Davies, president of the Barrett-Jackson Auction, the Futurliner was auctioned off on January 21, 2006, for $4,000,000 in Arizona. The new owner was Ron Pratte, a real estate developer in Chandler, Arizona.  Ron drove it home and started a very detailed restoration process. 

In 2015 Ron decided to auction off his elaborate collection which the Futurliner was part of. Being a Vietnam Veteran, he decided to donate the Futurliner proceeds to the Armed Forces Foundation. On January 17, 2015, in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Futurliner sold again to an undisclosed bidder for another $4,000,000, and $650,000 additional money was raised to help the Veterans. The Marine Corps Color Guard along with other military Veterans were at the auction. Click HERE to see a very interesting video covering the auction.

Futurliner #3, the “Power for the Air Age,” featuring a cutaway Allison J-35 jet engine passed through the Joe Bortz collection in the 1980s. Later it sat in storage in a warehouse in Dana, Indiana, before William Pozzi bought it and then sold it to Brad Boyajian owner of the American Movie Trucks.

In 2011 Boyajian sold it to Rick and Amy White, co-founders of a computer company. In 2013 the Whites hired Kindig-it Design of Utah, to restore it. The Futurliner was featured on two segments of Velocity Channel’s Bitchin’ Rides in 2014. The restoration was complete with the jet engine. Click HERE to see a video of the completed Futurliner at the SEMA show in Las Vegas in 2014. 

In 2016 it was consigned to Motorsport Auction Group in Reno, at $2.6 million it did not meet the reserve. Again in 2017, it was offered for sale in the Hemmings.com classifieds by Ardell Brown Classic Cars. As of 2018, the #3 Futurliner resides in the Dennis Albaugh Collection. 

Futurliner #8 was rear-ended in 1956 by another one that had lost its brakes on a mountain road. This damaged the vehicle, so GM decided to take it out of service. They gave it to Michigan State Police as a parts vehicle for the one they used for their Safetyliner. This part Futurliner was sold to Jack and Bill Braun of Spring Lake Michigan, to promote their junkyard. 

In the mid-1980’s it was sold to Brent Knight of Roselle, Illinois. In the late 1990’s it was found in a junkyard in Yuma, Arizona. Later William Bozzi bought it and sold it to Brad Boyajian, (see #3). In 2007, Brad sold it to Nicklas Jonsson in Sweden, Jonsson has an active Facebook page on his restoration now.

ChromeCars is an Automotive Archeologist company located in Germany. ChromeCars is dedicated to finding rare and unique vehicles in every corner of the world. Bob Valdez sold his #9 converted Furturliner to them in 2016. Note the oblong windows Bob had installed. ChromeCars now owns three of the Futurliners. 

Futurliner #7 was originally purchased by Square D electrical firm and owned until 1960. After 1960 #7 toured the country for a racing team until 1967 when it ran out of gas and was pushed under a tree close to a junkyard. In the Parade of Progress, it carried the Out of the City Muddle display depicting innovative traffic concepts and transport options in cities. (Note this was before freeways.) 

20 years later #7 was purchased by Kendrick Robbins who planned to make a salad bar out of it. Robbins stripped most of it out and then sold it to a heavy equipment operator. In 2017 ChromeCars purchased it and shipped it to Thuringen, Germany. I found a January 26, 2017, video of the new ChromeCars owners visiting and climbing all over it like a couple of kids with a new toy while it was stored in this shed in the United States. In the video, it showed the Futurliner was nothing but a shell.

ChromeCars produced a video of the unloading of Futurliner #7 at their shop in Germany. Note how they crafted two pipes with specially made brackets to keep from lifting the frame. In the video, it showed how they had increased the height of the shop door. During the unloading ceremony, a young lady brought them a cake made in a Futurliner image. Both videos were in German, but I got the message about what they were doing.

Early in the restoration by NATMUS in Indiana, they realized the need for some major parts to complete their project on #10. They worked out a deal with Brad Boyajian if he would buy Futurliner #5, they could swap parts. Brad was in the process of doing some restoration work on #8 at that time. 

Brad sent the front axles to Indiana and kept the rear axle he needed to repair #8 which was rear-ended as noted before, while on tour back in 1956 and never fixed. 

This did not leave Brad much to work with. He had a 1978 garbage truck chassis sitting on his lot, so Brad modified what was left of the Futurliner and placed it on the garbage truck chassis. 

Futurliner #5 now has a 236-ft wheelbase, 2000-lb air-sprung axles front and back, Cummins NTC-230, 855 cu. in. straight-six Diesel engine running through an Allison 600 series 5-speed transmission. By the way, the cab now tilts for engine access. Brad installed a hydraulic ramp for easy loading. 

Sometime in 2018, ChromeCars purchased Futurliner #5, now a car hauler, from Brad. I found a video of the new ChromeCars owners driving it around in the United States before they shipped it to Germany. 

The video showed in detail how the loading ramp and everything else worked. ChromeCars now has three Futurliners and they were discussing the possibility of getting as many Futurliners together as possible and starting another Parade of Progress!!

The Bill Bicknell Engine Company that rebuilt the engine for Futurliner #10 found enough parts to rebuild the second one. The crew at the National Automobile & Truck Museum realized they had enough parts along with the engine to build a trailer so the public could see the engine and special drive train. 

They also mounted the generator on the trailer instead of in the Futurliner to operate all the lights. The engine would also be a backup for the Futurliner in case something happened to the one in the Futurliner. They made a beautiful canvas cover for when it was not in use.

Like most projects of the Futurliner size, the museum had to build a new shop to work in. To add more challenge to the project they started to build a new building and found out it did not meet zoning requirements because of the size of the land. So, before they could get started, they had to disassemble a section of the existing shop before they could proceed. 

In the 1936 to 1941 Parade of Progress, the Futurliners transported the new displays that had to be unloaded into huge tents set up for the occasion.

Starting with the 1941 Parade of Progress, most of the new displays were mounted in the Futurliners.  GM designed the Aer-o-dome to be erected without any inside structure. The shell held up the canvas in a tent in which 1,500 people were seated comfortably. This allowed them to perform more live demonstrations in front of a seated audience. 

We humans are kind of an interesting species. Why do we let historical valuable artifacts lie around in junkyards for years rusting away? Most of the Futurliners rusted away for over 20 years before people started realizing their historical value and restoring them. Maybe the key word is “restore,” maybe we humans just like the challenge of the restoration process. 

I see in many interesting articles in BCM how the proud owners of a completed bus conversion display all the hard work they did over several years in detailed photos. As I visit car and tractor events there are always proud owners displaying their photos of rust to completion of their restoration projects.

Don Maton who headed up the restoration program for the Futurliner #10 in Indiana, commented in one interview how he and his volunteers would meet every Tuesday for 17 years to work and they built up a camaraderie relationship that will last for the rest of their lives.

I see the same camaraderie relationship in the Eagle bus rallies I attend.  Most of the members have long passed their bus conversion projects but their relationships will last forever. 

I want to thank Gary Hatt of the BCM for suggesting I research Futurliners. For some reason, I thought the big red machines were just another bus. This project has been very educational for me, and I hope for you readers also. There is a lot more information on the internet if you are interested.

Article written by John Swartley

Ten years after retiring from AT&T in 1990, John realized he needed something to keep his brain functioning. He bought a computer, (something he swore he would never do) and he started researching and writing his family’s history. This started his addiction to researching and writing.

In December of 2012, John’s first article was published in Bus Conversion Magazine. He says, “Thanks to Gary for publishing many of my articles I have been able to satisfy my “Bus Nut” addiction.”

To keep busy he writes a newsletter and publishes it in PDF format for about 150 people, whenever he finds something interesting to write about. He writes Swartley, “war stories” about his telephone career that Telecommunication History Group publishes in their Connection news, a quarterly newsletter.

He has written history booklets about the Silver Cliff/Westcliffe and Springfield Missouri telephone companies.

When he is not writing, he keeps busy by helping build hands-on exhibits for the Springfield Discovery Center which he has done for over twenty years.

You can email John with any questions or comments at
jrswartley66@gmail.com

Click HERE to read other articles by this Author
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