Far ahead through the dramatic wraparound Plexiglass windshield, looking downward at the tractor-trailer drivers who wave and honk from their puny trucks, you swear you can even glimpse the future.
Just as Apple doesn’t wait for the next electronics show to flaunt its latest inventions, neither did General Motors in the ‘50s.
Between 1953 and 1961, GM’s Motorama shows toured the US highlighting the latest technological developments as well as future forecasts of things to come.
At the tour’s launch at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, Motorama included a ballet, whose dancers related the story of engineering from the discovery of fire to the present day. There were models dressed in custom Christian Dior gowns and, of course, concept cars.
The 55,000 visitors to the tour’s opening day were treated to the prototype Chevrolet Corvette (not yet announced for production), the Cadillac Le Mans, the Buick XP-300 and LeSabre, the Oldsmobile Starfire and the Pontiac Parisienne – each, unbeknownst to its builder at the time, destined for deification. – DC
The past is harder to see from the Futurliner’s driver’s seat, partly because the prodigiously large rearview mirrors are mounted too far back for the pilot to use without contorting in his throne-like central perch.
The Futurliner’s life started when General Motors’ chief engineer, Charles Kettering, visited the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and concluded that General Motors (GM) should produce a mobile analogue, a “Parade of Progress”, to take a similar, company-centric exhibition on the road.
The show was such a success that by 1940, GM constructed a dozen special-purpose exhibition vehicles it dubbed “Futurliners”. These monsters were 33ft (10m) long, 8ft wide and 11ft 4in high, and weighed 30,000lbs (13,607kg).
Having been rebuilt and updated in 1952, Futurliner No 10 now belongs to the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States (NATMUS) in Auburn, Indiana. It received a restoration between 1998 and 2005 by a team of dedicated volunteers.
Inside, Futurliners carried displays highlighting some aspect of engineering development, and showcased those displays through massive, 16ft-long doors that opened on each side to create a stage area topped by a marquee:
Each also wore a 15ft light bar that rose another 7ft above the Futurliner’s roof, which illuminated the area with three dozen fluorescent tubes and a pair of incandescent spotlights.
You enter the Futurliner’s cab through the door on the vehicle’s right front side; its matching left counterpart provides access to the engine compartment beneath the floor of the cab. The quality of No 10’s restoration is evident from the precision of the doors’ operation as they click smoothly open and closed.
Once past the door, it is a long climb up the narrow stairwell to a roomy cab. The central driver’s seat is comfortable, placing the driver behind a nearly horizontal steering wheel. The hoop’s large diameter and thin plastic rim are artefacts of its time, and the spread of instruments and gauges on the dashboard provide additional cues: the retro-futuristic Autronic Eye rises like a periscope from the dashboard to peer through the windshield, and automatically dims the headlights when it “sees” oncoming traffic – a full 75 years before Audi had a similar bright idea.
Beneath the Eye is the manual choke for the carburettor, both anachronisms. As is the cigarette lighter. The throwback spell is broken by the contemporary instruments in the dashboard that do not quite jibe with the antique toggle switches.
The Futurliner features dual 20in front wheels on each side, as well as more common dual rear wheels to help the period-correct Coker whitewall tires bear the vehicle’s spectacular weight. The steering for those four front wheels is “very heavy”, even with the Futurliner’s early hydraulic power steering assist, reports pilot Al Scholten, a retired truck driver who wired the Futurliner’s lights during its restoration. “When I was younger, I drove a Mack truck,” he says. “It is like that.”
Passengers can ride along in a pair of upright jump seats that flank the driver’s captain chair. The engine, a 302-cubic-inch overhead valve in-line six-cylinder that runs on gasoline, is loud, and No 10’s transmission is prone to lurching shifts (adjustments are planned). The powerful air brakes are tough to actuate gently, and they currently pull to the left a bit, cautions Scholten.
These mechanical systems, mind, were refits that came after the conclusion of World War II. In fact, the engine and four-speed automatic transmission (plus a low-range gear reduction for eight possible gears) were lifted directly from GM’s US Army trucks of the day.
The dozen Futurliners, 32 support vehicles and 60 mostly post-collegiate and Army veteran staffers set off across the country in 1953, starting in Dayton, Ohio, to present what GM literature called “a picture of America on the move toward better lives for all of us.”
The trucks were too large to store indoors practically, so they deteriorated following their retirement in 1956. Of the original dozen, nine survive today, three of which are roadworthy. Futurliner No 10’s restoration consumed 23,000 hours of work by a volunteer team numbering about 100 members, in addition to $100,000 in cash and $330,000 worth of in-kind donations from corporate sponsors.
In January, it travelled to Washington DC for display at the Washington auto show, and for the Futurliner’s induction into the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Register, the first truck to make that list:
After its display in the US capital, the Futurliner went into winter hibernation, to emerge in spring for this photoshoot and ride-a-long. Though no longer the future-forward vehicle it was built to be, it still cut a time machine’s figure, 75 years since its maiden voyage towards a new tomorrow.
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