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Design Review: GM Futurliner (1939-56)

The most beautiful and bizarre promotional vehicle ever produced

This Design Review is very special as it has to do with one of my all-time favourite vehicles. The Futurliner built in 1939 by General Motors was a truck-like promotional vehicle that participated in the Parade of Progress - a mobile exhibition promoting new technologies for the future.

It all started in 1933, when Charles Kettering, chief engineer at GM, visited the Chicago World’s Fair and was inspired to create a similar exhibition that could travel across the States. The resulting Parade of Progress started in 1936 and its success prompted GM to commission the design of 12 custom vehicles - the Futurliners - which debuted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The Futurliners were designed by Harley J. Earl (1893-1969) - the first ever head of design and vice president of General Motors - and his great team of industrial designers including Robert E. Bingman, Raymond Smith and Manuel Tavarez.

As a side note, Harley Earl was one of the greatest pioneers in the automotive industry with significant contribution to the form, proportions and design process of the modern car. He introduced the idea of the concept car with the Buick Y-Job of 1938 (now regarded as the first concept) and he was the man who first incorporated aero-inspired design elements into the design of American cars.


Above: Harley Earl in the proto-concept, the Buick Y-Job

Back to the Futurliner. At 10 metres long, 2.4 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall, you can imagine how it must have stood out like nothing else on the road at the time.The Futurliner's monovolume proportions, art deco styling and imposing dimensions made it one of the most beautiful buses in the history of automobiles.

The vehicle’s design was clearly inspired by trains and airplanes of the era, with the original glass dome resembling the cockpit of bomber aircraft and the red and white graphics towards the sculpted rear end referring to some of the fastest locomotives of the 1930s.

The gold GM logo stood proudly at the front, above the centrally located quad headlights which offered an automatic dimming function when approached by traffic (this system is the grandfather of today’s active lighting technology).

The large chrome strips surrounding the vehicle and the fonts used for the lettering afforded it a futuristic look. When stationary, a deployable light tower was raised from the roof and the electrically operated side doors on both side revealed a retractable stage for various exhibits.

Another unique design element of the Futurliner was its eight wheels (four out front and four at rear) with 20-inch custom whitewall tires made by US Royal. An early version of power steering, which often failed, was necessary to move the world’s first dual wheels on the front axle, while each wheel featured separate drum brakes, working really hard to slow down the Futurliner's huge 14-tonne mass.

In order to sit in the central, cab-over driving position and enjoy the amazing view from up above, you had to climb six stairs. The driving experience would be frightening at first, and even though the front visibility was excellent, the extreme heat produced by the bubble dome glass gave a hard time to the volunteers sitting in the cabin. Speaking of those, despite the vehicle’s enormous size, there was room for only three people in each Futurliner, with the stage taking up most of the space.


Above: The whole fleet of Futurliners on the Parade of Progress attracting the interest of pedestrians

From 1940 to 1946, 12 Futurliners and 32 support vehicles, traveled across the USA and Canada, stopping in more than 150 different locations each year, attracting thousands of visitors who would rush in to check out the gadgets and technologies of the future.

The exhibition would be arranged around a large tent called Aer-o-Dome - with a capacity for 1500 spectators - and each Futurliner featured a designated theme. Among the exhibits was stereophonic sound, microwave ovens, television, modern agriculture equipment, a cutaway jet engine and other new and exciting technologies.

Early Futurliners (1940-1946) were fitted with two four-cylinder diesel engines and a manual gearbox, allowing for a top speed of 64km/h.

After a hiatus during and after World War II, the Parade of Progress restarted and the updated Futurliners (1953-1956) received redesigned cabins with air conditioning, a more conventional roof and a more modern military-spec GMC inline six-cylinder engine producing 108kW.

The complex transmission offered the driver 24 gear ratios to choose from, between a manual two-speed gearbox, an automatic four-speed Hydramatic gearbox and a three-speed power take-off unit. Thanks to the modifications, top speed was increased to 80km/h while conditions inside the cabin became more liveable for the drivers.


Above: The updated Futurliner #3 with a 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car

Besides revamping the fleet of Futurliners for the second round of the Parade of Progress, GM also updated the exhibits they carried, adding themes for nuclear power, versatile metal powder, automobile manufacturing processes as well as road and infrastructure improvements.

It's believed around 13 million people in 300 cities around USA visited the Parade of Progress before the final one in 1956. The demise of this promotional tool came due to the increasing popularity of television which significantly affected people’s attendance at the exhibitions. Ironically, it was a sign of things to come, a change of habits and social behaviour driven by the same kind of new technology showcased by the Futurliners and the Parade of Progress.

What Happened Next?

After their second and permanent retirement, all 12 Futurliners were sold or donated by General Motors. Their enormous size and unique characteristics made storing and maintaining them very difficult for their new owners. Some of the trucks were used as marketing tools and others were lost or completely damaged to the point of no return.

Today, 60 years after their production, nine Futurliners are known to still exist, but only three are in road-going condition. Among those, Futurliner 3 with the cutaway engine exhibit was restored in 2014 and is considered to be the most accurate representation of the original vehicle.

Futurliner 11 has also been meticulously restored and was sold at auction for US$4 million, both in 2006 and again in 2015, while Futurliner 10 is in great shape and a regular feature at car shows in the US.

VERDICT

Futurliners are a testament to American automotive design (and marketing) in its best form. Those bizarre promotional vehicles did a great job in placing General Motors at the forefront of technology in the minds of millions of people, leaving a mark in the history of automobiles.

Although never intended for production (as they were clearly not practical for any other use) Futurliners were wonderfully designed as fit for purpose, transporting and exhibiting the most exciting pieces of new technology in style.

Harley Earl and his team managed to create automotive monuments that incorporated the best parts of design and engineering from their time and we should be thankful that some of them are still around, serving as nostalgic time-travel capsules.

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