Legendary General Motors design chief Harley Earl started his career designing showy, custom-bodied cars for Hollywood’s elite. He never left showbiz far behind as during the fifties, Earl produced elaborate traveling shows called Motoramas to feature GM products and his wildly futuristic concept cars. Less widely known was his previous effort to spread the good word about the future, a self-contained traveling show called the Parade of Progress.
The Parade of Progress was a touring show that provided drop down displays on the sides of specially designed busses that drove from town to town showing educational displays of new technologies and things to come from General Motors.
Of course, being design king that he was, Harley Earl couldn’t let the opportunity to style the busses pass by without streamlining them so beautifully that they were part of the show themselves. Gorgeous in red and white with gleaming stainless steel side cladding, twelve of the busses were built with GM six-cylinder gasoline engines hooked up to automatic transmissions.
Drivers sat high up, centered atop the busses in cockpits with room for one to sleep while the other drove. They worked in shifts in order to make it to their next stop on time. The busses were eleven feet tall, eight feet wide, thirty-three feet long, and weighed twelve tons.
When they reached their destination, Futurliner drivers would stop in a lot and “circle their wagons” like western pioneers, with a tent in the center. Each bus display featured its own theme such as “World of Science,” Power For The Air Age,” and “Our American Crossroads.”
Originally built in 1939-40, Futurliners were on the road during 1940-41 and 1953-56. GM’s fabulous 1950s Motorama Shows and promotional opportunities offered by television made the Futurliners’ role obsolete and the magnificent busses were retired.
Of the twelve Futurliners built, nine survive today, though a few are so far gone, they’re just used for parts. A beautifully restored example sold at auction for $4 million.
The sole working Futurliner flip-down display (“Our American Crossroads” theme) can be found at the GM Heritage Center outside Detroit where it’s seen by appointment. The fascinating display depicts the changes in street layouts and architecture through the 20th Century via displays that flip over to show the successive eras.
Written by Jim Cherry
You can see the Futurliner in person at the National Auto and Truck Museum.