General Motors Parade of Progress

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The General Motors Parade of Progress came at a time in the US when GM absolutely owned the automobile market and the company was such a powerful force in the economy that it was said, “What’s good for GM is good for the US.” It was also at a time when media was far more localized so it was a great way for GM to show off some of the truly incredible advances they were making in engineering. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that GM vehicles from each of their divisions were on-hand to be seen by the public. 

The Parade of Progress consisted of a series of vehicles including the a dozen GM Futurliners that criss crossed the US, each with a unique display about new technology or lifestyle changes as seen from the eyes of GM engineers. 

After the Chicago World Fair of 1933, GM’s Charles “Boss” Kettering thought that they could take the displays on the and the idea hit with GM so a series of eight custom-built streamliner vans were built and a whole road show assembled. In 1936 original Parade of Progress debuted featuring eight huge, red-and-white, streamlined vans. These were custom built in Fisher body’s Fleetwood plant in Detroit.

In addition to the eight streamliners, the original 1936 Parade included nine GMC and Chevrolet tractor-trailers. These hauled gear, tents, power generators, lamps, booths, and additional exhibits. Too, the caravan used a stretched, air-conditioned 1936 Chevy "command car" on an 185-inch wheelbase. The command car served as a mobile office and general field headquarters. 

Finally, naturally there were representative models of all six GM lines – Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, LaSalle, and Cadillac. These cars were traded in every 2,000 miles at local dealerships along the way.

The first Parade of Progress hit the road on Feb. 11, 1936, opening in Lakeland, FL. By the time the operation was shut down following the attack on Pearl Harbor, it had covered well over a million miles, had visited 251 towns and small cities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba, and had played to some 12.5 million people. 

There would eventually be three sequences of the GM Parade of Progress, the last one taking its final curtain in mid-1956. But somewhat abbreviated form, the Parade still continued into the 1970s.  Called Previews of Progress, it consisted of a dozen GM station wagon shows that travelled to high schools across the country.

The Parade of Progress presentations themselves were totally live. One full show in the main tent lasted about 45 minutes. The first conventional tents, which used an opened-out streamliner as the stage, were replaced in 1940 by an external-girder type developed at GM by Fred Huddle. The early tents seated 1,200, the later ones up to 1,500.

The Parade primarily focused on the smaller cities in the US that might not be as well served by national media. While there was absolutely no "sell" involved in any of the shows or exhibits, GM cars and appliances were placed strategically, and young men were prepared to answer questions about them. In fact J.M. “Jack” Jerpe, leader of the Paraders, held regular quizzes on such items as car specifications, listings of auto accessories, capacities of Frigidaire refrigerators, etc., with prizes going to the "students" with the highest scores.

“The show’s crew consisted of 40-50 young men, all college graduates and taken from a cross section of the country," remembered Edward A. Bracken, Jr., one of the early Parade participants and a former manager of GM’s corporate projects. "There must have been at least 30 universities represented by these young men – everyone the same age bracket and, I might add, all bachelors. It was our job to drive the trucks and, on arrival at the site, change into coveralls and put up the show. We then dressed and became lecturers on the exhibits. At the conclusion of each 2-4-day visit, we’d pack up and drive to the next town.”

 Photo of the original Parade of Progress with the streamliners

Photo of the original Parade of Progress with the streamliners

Raymond E. Hayes, another native son of the 1936 Parade and a former GM director of public relations field operations, added, "The three guys I broke in with were from Harvard, Columbia, and Brown – all Eastern guys. We were all hired as lecturers, but there was an apprenticeship period. While you were apprenticing, they put you on the utility crew – we called it the futility crew – and that meant you didn’t lecture until you learned every other job and also until one of the regular lecturers dropped out. What you did – you reported from the hotel to the show at about six o’clock in the morning in coveralls, and you waxed floors, took a stick with a nail on the end of it, picked up papers – that sort of thing.”

Inspired and led by J. M. “Jack” Jerpe, they formed a close-knit, congenial group that worked hard, enjoyed the travel and adventure, liked to meet people, and felt they had a genuine mission – to put GM’s best face forward. Jerpe’s personality made him part father, part friend and part boss to his boys.

The Parade moved with the seasons – south in winter and north in the spring. The route was chosen a year in advance. A town would receive its first notification of a visit from Paul Garrett in New York. Garrett would send a letter to the local chamber of commerce, and a few days later, one of the three Parade advance men would drive into town. 

Photos by Jim Cherry of the American Crossroads display at the GM Heritage Center

Bob Emerick, retired public relations director for Pontiac, was interviewed about his days as a Parader. “There were three of us advance men alternating towns – hopscotching along the route. We’d work with the chamber of commerce and city officials – find an empty lot to pitch the tents, make hotel reservations, the work with the newspapers and radio stations; also the schools, civic clubs, and local GM dealers. We had a short movie that we brought along to give these groups a teaser of the actual shows.”

In January 1938, the Parade went into Mexico. Ed Bracken remembered training Mexican lecturers in Texas before heading south. "We became official guest of the Mexican government," said Bracken, "and, in fact, we opened the Pan American Highway from Laredo to Mexico City. We stayed in Mexico City for two weeks, played to huge crowds, and had a marvelous time. After that we went back north, toured the Midwest, and ended up in New York a year before the 1939-40 World’s Fair opened there. We had Christmas vacation in Miami and Key West – I remember we spent the enormous sum of $10 a day for a 3-bedroom cottage on the ocean. I spent New Year’s eve in a Key West saloon discussing baseball with Ernest Hemingway. In January 1939 we took the Parade to Havana, and this, too, was very enjoyable. It was then transferred to New York to work on the GM exhibit at the World’s Fair.”

In 1940, the caravan was revamped and its original eight streamlined vans were replaced with a new set of 12, called Futurliners. The Parade’s exhibits were also updated, and the operation became bigger.

Each Futurliner had its own exhibit along with a deployable light tower. The exhibits covered things like jet engine technology, agriculture, traffic engineer, stereo sound, microwave ovens and other innovations of the time. In 1955 a miniature auto assembly display named A Car is Born was constructed for one of the Futurliners. Another one held a display titled Our American Crossroads which featured an extremely intricate folding array that would change a small town based on the narration by Parker Fennelly showing the progress of that town from 1902 to 1953. 

World War II broke out while the Parade was again in Texas. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, during its visit to San Antonio, the Parade disbanded and most of the staff traded its GM uniforms for khaki or blue. The caravan vehicles were driven to Ohio, where they were warehoused for the war.

The Parade wasn’t reactivated until April 1953, when the third caravan took to the road. It remained essentially the same as the 1940 version, numbering 44 vehicles and 57 men. Fred Huddle’s Aer-O-Dome tent, with its external aluminum arches and silverized vinyl-impregnated canvas skin, was made bigger. New exhibits included jet propulsion, the atmosphere, the atom, stereo, and metal-powder forming. Many of the older exhibits were held over, of course.

The postwar Parade, though, never drew the crowds of its prewar ancestors, mostly because Americans now had nightly free shows right in their own homes. Television caused the demise of the Parade, and in 1956 GM decided to disband the caravan for good.

Futurliner Whereabouts

  1. Displayed the “Miracles of Heat and Cold” exhibit, featuring Frigidaire products. Current whereabouts unknown.

  2. Displayed the “Our American Crossroads” exhibit. GM retained the exhibit at the end of the Parade of Progress and currently keeps it in the GM Heritage Center. Current whereabouts are unknown.

  3. Displayed the “Power for the Air Age” exhibit, featuring a cutaway Allison J-35 jet engine and passed through the Joe Bortz collection in the 1980s. It later sat in storage in a warehouse in Dana, Indiana, before Phoenix, Arizona, resident William Pozzi bought it and in turn sold it sometime in the late 1990s to Brad Boyajian of American Movie Trucks in Chatsworth, California. Boyajian in 2011 sold it to an anonymous owner, who employed Kindig-It to restore it. The restoration of Futurliner #3 was the subject of two episodes of the Velocity Channel show Bitchin' Rides. It underwent a 19-month restoration in 2013–2014, intended to be the most complete and period-correct restoration of all that have been attempted so far.

  4. Displayed the “Diesel Power Parade” exhibit; also displayed the “Power for the Nation’s Lifelines” exhibit, which also focused on diesels. Current whereabouts unknown.

  5. Displayed the “World of Science” exhibit; also displayed the “Versatile Metal Powder” exhibit. Purchased by Brad Boyajian in 2002, Boyajian said he believes that the Futurliner that he converted into a car hauler is No. 5. That Futurliner’s rear axle and body section went with Futurliner No. 8 to Sweden, and its front axle went to the NATMUS Futurliner No. 10 restoration project.

  6. Displayed the “Energy & Man” exhibit; also displayed the “High Compression Power & Energy” exhibit. This bus is believed to be owned by Peter Pan Bus Lines.

  7. Displayed the “Out of the City Muddle” exhibit, focusing on urban and highway congestion. It was purchased by Square D however the company only owned it until 1960, when an unnamed New Hampshire-based motorsports team bought it to use the Futurliner as a service vehicle.That motorsports team then ran No. 7 until 1964 when the Futurliner ran out of gas and the team members pushed it under a tree at a nearby scrap yard and left it there. It remained in that scrapyard for 20 years until New Hampshire-based restaurant operator Kendrick Robbins bought No. 7 intending to transform the Futurliner into a salad bar. Robbins partially dismantled No. 7 – then powered by a GMC V-6 gas engine rather than by the GMC 302-cu.in. inline-six cylinder gas engine – but for the most part let it sit for another 20 years until he sold it to Maine-based heavy equipment operator Tom Learned. As of 2017 Learned has sold No. 7 to Chrome Cars in Germany, the same owner of No. 9.

  8. Displayed the “Around the Farm House Clock” exhibit, focusing on the use of modern appliances on the farm. This bus was rear-ended while on the Parade of Progress, and removed from use. One of two (#11) given to the Michigan State Police, then later sold to Jack and Bill Braun of Spring Lake, Michigan, to promote their junkyard. In the mid-1980s sold to Brent Knight of Roselle, Illinois; in the late 1990s, found in a junkyard in Yuma, Arizona. Sold to William Pozzi; later sold to Brad Boyajian with No. 3. Boyajian sold it to Nicklas Jonsson of Sweden. Currently under restoration.

  9. Hosted the reception center. Was restored and modified by Bob Valdez of Sherman Oaks, California. Valdez’s Futurliner was reportedly once used as a Makita Tool display van and possibly used as an executive motor home before Valdez bought it in 1984. In 2016 Valdez sold No. 9 to Chrome Cars in Germany

  10. 10.Displayed the “Opportunity for Youth” exhibit, which included winning model cars from the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contest; also displayed the Three Dimensional Sound exhibit. Initially sold to musician Vic Hyde, then later toured the Midwest promoting Goebel beer and also promoting Dreisbach and Sons Cadillac-Chevrolet-Oldsmobile in Detroit. Passed through the Joe Bortz collection in the 1980s, donated to the National Automotive and Truck Museum in 1993. Restored by Don Mayton and his team. Currently travels to car shows in and around Michigan.

  11. Displayed the “March of Tools” exhibit; also displayed the “A Car is Born” exhibit. According to Berghoff and Ferris, GM sold it to evangelist Oral Roberts, who in turn sold it to preacher David Wilkerson. Later ended up in a field in East Meredith, New York. Futurliner Bus #11 sold for a record US $4,000,000 (plus premium) to Arizona-based real estate developer Ron Pratte on January 21, 2006 at a Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona and was driven to its new home in Chandler.[8] Mr. Pratte sold the same bus on January 17, 2015 at Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona. The selling price was again US$4,000,000 (plus premium), the proceeds from the sale benefiting the Armed Forces Foundation, a charity that assists military members and their families.[9]

  12. Displayed the “Precision and Durability” exhibit. Current whereabouts unknown

Thanks to Wikipedia for this information

Futurliner Trivia

The pre-1953 Futurliners were powered by four-cylinder diesel engines and 4x4 mechanical transmissions. The 1953 version, however, is powered by a 302 inline 6 cylinder OHV GMC engine. The engine is coupled to a Korean War vintage four speed Hydramatic automatic transmission that is bolted to the backside of another two speed gearbox. This gives the driver the option of selecting from 8 forward speeds. Complicating this a bit more is another 3-speed PTO gearbox. To shift this gearbox, the driver must leave the cockpit (presumably with the vehicle stopped) and travel to the rear quarter of the vehicle and manually select one of the three gears. With this combination, the driver now has 24 selections to choose from. 

In spite of the gearing ratios, some of the original Paraders recall attainable speeds of not much more than 40 mph! 

The Futurliners packed two 45-gallon gasoline tanks! 

The original Futurliners, prior to their 1953 refurbishing, had bubble canopies over the cockpit (driver’s compartment), similar to a fighter plane of the era. This arrangement was brutally hot for the drivers and the vehicles were not air-conditioned! The cockpit is reached by climbing a stairway to the top of the 11’-7" vehicle. This positions the driver’s head at about the 11’ level and makes for a terrifying first time experience when going under an overpass!
The vehicle has an incredible 19 access and display doors on it. Two massive 16x5’ doors open to expose the display housed within the vehicle. A 16’ lighting panel is attached to the top of the overhead doors and a large light bar rises from the roof another 7’ up above the Futurliner for additional illumination. To provide electricity for all this lighting, a massive twin 6-71 200KW Detroit Diesel generator was used.
Because the brakes were so poor, one Futurliner rear-ended another and consequently they were instructed to stay 300 feet apart. 

They all had radio receivers but only the lead and tail vehicle had transmitters. 

The Futurliners were nicknamed the "Red Elephants.”

The name Futurliner was spelled without the "e" in “future" so GM could copyright or trademark the name.

If you’d like to learn more about these incredible vehicles, you can visit Futurliner.org