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.”
Editor’s Note: John Swartley will be continuing his investigative report on the whereabouts of the remaining large red buses in the upcoming part of this article series.