Sunday, July 24, 2011

GM Futurliner: Forward to the Future

Starting with the revolutionary Buick Y-Job of 1938, General Motors virtually created the concept car. A vehicle designed not for sale, but for trying revolutionary ideas and testing the public's reaction to them. These vehicles were fully operational, and GM Styling Chief Harley Earl actually tended to drive them as his personal transportation.

But one of the most ambitious programs involved GMC Truck and Coach- the legendary Futurliner. The Futurliner is special because it was created not just to dazzle the public, but to literally carry the superiority of General Motors from town to town.

Charles Kettering came up with an idea he called "Parade of Progress", which involved taking the impressive science and technology exhibits GM created for World's Fair displays and caravaning them through smaller towns across America. The transport vehicles themselves would be rolling advertisements for GM.

The Parade of Progress began in 1936 with a fleet of nine specially bodied trucks known as Streamliners. Their concept was to use specially designed trucks that would not only carry the display, bit could also house them. The success of the program convinced GM to reach for something grander and in 1940, the twelve Futurliners made their debut.

The Futurliners were made by the GMC Truck and Coach Division to a space age design by styling wunderkind Bill Mitchell. They were huge bright red coaches- thirty three feet long and almost twelve feet high- and featured a plastic domed driver's canopy, dual front and rear wheels with enormous whitewall tires, an entire lower body covered in ribbed aluminum and enormous gold GM letters on the front. They proudly carried the General Motors Parade of Progress lettering in cast aluminum on their flanks, and in addition to hauling the display, their sides opened up to house displays inside the vehicles. Mechanically they featured enormous four cylinder diesel engines and four speed transmissions. Quite a sight to see these twelve bright red spaceships coming down the highway- they very clearly carried the message that General Motors was carrying the future.

The Futurliners were utilized in the Parade of Progress until the war placed the effort on hiatus. They were stored until GM decided to resume the program in 1953. Several modifications were made to the behemoths- the plastic domes (which were very hot) were replaced with a more permanent roof and wraparound windshield, they were repainted in a two tone red and white combination, the powertrains were updated to six cylinder gas engines with Hydra-Matic transmissions, the net result of which made them much more pleasurable to drive. They carried the Parade of Progress to some thirteen million spectators before the program ended after the 1956 season. That newfangled television, which many people saw for the first time at the Parade of Progress, was seen as a better way to spread the word of General Motors.

The twelve coaches were sold or donated, and many had long second careers- Goebel Beer, The Michigan State Police, Peter Pan Coach Company, and even Oral Roberts made use of former Futurliners as promotional vehicles. Amazingly, nine of the twelve have survived in varying condition. One in Van Nuys has been converted into a Motor Home, a couple have undergone meticulous restorations - one sold for over $4 Million dollars at a Scottsdale Auction- and one is even being painstakingly restored in Sweden. GM's largest concept vehicles continue to fascinate and delight to this day.

Here's a GM Film from the 1940 launching the Parade of Progress (in three parts)

Part One:

Part Two:

And Part Three:

And watch the re-launch of the Parade of Progress in the spring of 1953:

And a great site about the restoration of Futurliner #10 is here.

(Cross posted on the Reynolds Buick GMC Blog)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Goodbye Mrs. Ford

I felt profound sadness this week at the passing of Betty Ford at age 93. Born Elizabeth Ann Bloomer, she and her husband Gerald inherited a spotlight they had not sought, and did their best to restore honor and dignity at a critical time in our country's history. I admire them both for that.

But Betty Ford went above and beyond her role as First Lady. Her fearless candor earned her the respect of a nation. Speaking openly about breast cancer, and later addiction, she brought secrets out into the open and helped people to find a road to treatment. In addition, she was one of the first political figures to embrace the cause of AIDS. She saved lives through her personal courage.

The Fords came to us in 1977 and have been a fixture in the Coachella Valley ever since, settling in Rancho Mirage where she opened the Betty Ford Center in 1982. The Valley was very emotional at saying goodbye to someone we have come to regard as "Our First Lady." I went to see the Motorcade on Wednesday as a small token of respect to someone who did more good than she will ever know. I chatted with strangers about a couple few of us had ever met, but who touched our lives.

Goodbye, Mrs. Ford. We will always have a very special place in our hearts for you.

News trucks await the motorcade.

CHP Motorcycle officers secure the intersections

BMW Motorcycles scream by ahead of the Motorcade

CHP Officers stand at attention for the Motorcade

The Motorcade turns onto Gene Autry Trail

Mrs. Ford rides in a top-of-the-line S and S Victoria Coach upon Cadillac chassis.

My last glimpse of her.

An Air Force 757-200, nicknamed "Air Force Two" awaits her on the Tarmac.

She will fly as Special Air Mission 90004, or SAM90004 on the trip to Grand Rapids.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

west coast meet-t plus 20

It's the largest Gay and Lesbian Car Show in the world, and this year was it's twenty-seventh anniversary. It's the annual meeting of the Freewheelers from San Francisco and the Great Autos Of Yesteryear, based in Southern California. For me personally, it was the 20th Anniversary. I first hopped a plane from Chicago to LA and hitchhiked North in a glamorous Lincoln back in 1991.

I haven't made it every year since then, but I've tried to, and this year was my sixteenth. The formula is simple- find a location halfway between LA and San Francisco, add in about four hundred people and a couple hundred amazing and rare classic cars, spend a day driving around the countryside and a day putting on a spectacular car show, and fill the rest of the time with cocktails and socializing with friends both new and longstanding. It's the annual meeting of the tribe, and my favorite weekend of the year.

This year did not disappoint. A cream yellow 1935 Packard that looked like it drove out of Chinatown. A Chrysler Town and Country that was built for a Western Movie Star, complete with a steer's head on the hood. 1961 Cadillac Triplets arranged like a showroom display. Near twin 1965 Wildcats in coupe and convertible. A stunning 1972 boattail Riviera that was my personal transport for the event. Every shade of pink imaginable, from Dusty Rose to Pepto Bismol. Lisa Douglas and Arnold, resting on the rear deck of a Lincoln Continental. A wonderful array of tailfins, colors, fabrics and style, all creating one unforgettable and irreplaceable show.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you West Coast Meet 2011: