General Motors Futurliner #10 Posted 2010/07/09 @ 11:00 AM By Myles Kornblatt
Buses rarely get this much attention without carrying a rock band. But in the case of General Motors’ Futurliner, these behemoths were already off the road before the Rolling Stones even picked up a guitar.
Back in the 40s American auto companies had money to burn, and none were larger than GM. So, when it came time to update their traveling road show, GM built 12 ultra modern transport buses called “Futurliners.” These custom machines were specifically built for GM’s Parade of Progress and were sent across the country promoting new technology that went well beyond transportation.
Part public relations and part education, the Parade of Progress would caravan into cities across America using these unique buses as its calling card. Each Futurliner featured massive 16x5’ doors on both sides of the vehicle that opened to reveal unique exhibits. These mobile showcases featured everything from a soap box derby to microwave ovens during its run in 1940-41 and then redesigned for 1953-56.
By the mid-50s television meant that families didn't have to leave home for entertainment, and GM's promotional budget shifted to TV ads. The circus left town forever, and the Futurliners went into private hands.
Futurliner #10 would spend the next few decades slowly deteriorating as it became a sideshow used to promote everything from beer to housing developments. Then in the late 80s, classic car collector Joe Bortz rescued five of the buses, including #10. Now #10 belongs to the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States. A volunteer crew has restored it to its former glory, and #10 is considered to be the most accurate example of the nine known remaining buses. The museum occasionally lets the Futurliner out on tour to share memories and educate the public. We were able to get an up-close look at Futurliner #10, as it spends this weekend featured at the Iola Old Car Show in Iola, WI. During the Iola show, they took the car out of temporary storage and offered us a ride:
The Futurliner looks like it was lifted from a comic book. Its extra tall 11’7” stance and super-slick lines are suitable transportation for a super hero. The bright gold, chrome, and red canvassing the exterior shows the Futurliner is proud to be extravagant. It is a reminder of a time when the automotive companies were kings, and they were benevolent to their subjects.
Inside, the cab is a sea of green cloth and naugahyde. Fashionable in its day, it now just fits with the original retro look. The interior’s style is secondary however because the large glass greenhouse covers most of the inside. GM included air conditioning when the Futurliners were redesigned in the 50s -- a welcomed addition to the sun exposed passenger area.
The seating puts the driver in the middle of the cab, with two passengers sitting directly behind on either side. It is almost like a slightly roomier version of a McLaren F1, and this is the only way the Futurliner will ever be compared to a supercar.
Powering this futuristic form of transportation was 50s era technology. Directly under the driver is a 5.0-liter 145 hp six-cylinder gasoline engine. This displacement is revered in sports cars, like the Boss 302 Mustang, but it makes moving an industrial vehicle like the Futurliner a little difficult. The industry now knows that the massive torque offered in a diesel engine better serves a vehicle of this size.
Still, Howard Sullivan, a volunteer with this Futurliner’s tour was proud to announce: “Number 10 holds the record for the fastest Futurliner lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway.” He then confessed it also holds the record for the slowest lap, as #10 is the only one to ever take to the track.
The Futurliner never had to be fast to impress. It is almost as long as two Sherman tanks, and everyone who rides has a better view than a second story window. Even as modern motor homes can hold everything from movie theaters to sports cars, this big bus still draws a crowd wherever it goes. Not bad for a machine whose claim to fame is teaching others about the microwave oven.
The Futurliner is featured at the Iola Old Car Show now through Sunday (July 11). For more information on Futurliner #10, or to donate funds/materials to keep this classic on the road, visit Futurliner.org.