General Motors Futurliner
General Motors Futurliner. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The theme of the 1940-1941 New York World’s Fair was “Building The World of Tomorrow.” It was a celebration of consumer products, an opportunity for industrial designers to demonstrate wonders of science and technology and the future they promised for regular folks. Its inspiration could be traced back to Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Constructed on a wetland area in Flushing Meadows in the Borough of Queens, New York City, the fair was a welcome change. It was a high point between the economic devastation of the Depression and the U.S. entry into the Second World War that was prompted by Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

An integral part of the future, of course, was transportation. Trains were in their heyday, and airplane travel was still expensive but gaining a following. By far the most popular and pervasive method of travel was the private automobile, and no one was better able to demonstrate its future than General Motors.

GM was the world’s largest carmaker. Although the Depression had severely reduced car sales and claimed many companies, GM had emerged on top. It was reaping the benefits of the foundation laid by its brilliant manager Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., who had become its president in 1923 and chairman in 1937. His championing of automobile styling, the annual model change, and a hierarchy of cars from the popular priced Chevrolet to the prestigious Cadillac was just what the market wanted.

For the New York fair, GM’s exhibits included jet and diesel engines and constantly changing animated dioramas of future cities and towns. It had popular industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes design a “Futurama” model of wide, gently curving super highways carrying futuristic cars. The exhibits were so popular in those pre-television days that when the fair closed GM decided to take it on the road in a fleet of specially built vehicles called “Futurliners.”

It wasn’t GM’s first foray into roving displays. Following the 1933-1934 Chicago World’s Fair, its fleet of eight bus-like haulers called “Streamliners” had carried its “Parade of Progress” exhibition around the country.

The Streamliners generated such good publicity that GM expanded and renewed the program for its New York World’s Fair exhibits. It replaced the Streamliners with a newly designed Futurliner, and in 1940 commissioned a fleet of 12 from the Yellow Truck and Coach Company of Pontiac, Michigan.

The Futurliner was an impressive vehicle, measuring 10 m (33 ft) long, 2,438 mm. (8 ft.) wide, 3,531 mm (11 ft 7 in.) high, and riding on a 6,299 mm (248 in.) wheelbase. The driver sat high in a central cab surrounded by a fully curved windshield that provided panoramic visibility. The cab was reached through a door and a set of stairs. With such a high perch it must have made approaching the first few underpasses a frightening experience for the driver.

The Futurliner weighed a hefty 13,608 kg (30,000 lb) empty, and was powered by a small four cylinder diesel engine, which gave it limited performance.

The Futurliner’s styling was pure art deco. The predominant colour was red, with a white top and a wide, shiny, fluted metal band running almost totally around the body. It was nicely set off with whitewall tires, and the big GM dominating the front end gave it almost a locomotive look. An unusual feature was the use of dual wheels at both the back and the front. These front duals caused the overworked power steering unit to be a constant source of problems.

Top-hinged, gullwing-type, 6,096 mm (16 ft) long side doors rose up to reveal the displays, and a spar-like lighted tower could be raised 2,133 mm (7 ft) from the roof to illuminate the Futurliner and surrounding area.

The Futurliners hit the road following the fair but their tour of duty was cut short in December, 1941 by Pearl Harbor. GM stored them and soon turned its attention to military production.

A few years after the war, GM decided to revive its Futurliner program. It modernized them with less glass to reduce the temperature for the driver in the non-air-conditioned cab. The diesel engine was replaced with a six cylinder, 5.0-litre (302 cu. in.) GMC gasoline truck engine. Power went to the rear wheels through a four-speed Hydra-Matic transmission and a two-speed gearbox, giving a total of eight gear ratios. Top speed was about 64 km/h (40 mph).

The fleet of 12 Futurliners again took to the highways in 1953, but it was a new era. The advent of television and other attractions caused interest in the travelling road show to fade after just three years; in 1956 GM retired the Futurliners and disposed of them.

Of the 12 originals, nine have been located, with seven restored or under restoration. The other two were beyond restoration and are being used as donor vehicles for the restorations.

The sight of those 12 Futurliners cruising the highways and rolling into towns large and small must have been a magnificent sight in those simpler times. It is one we shall surely never see the likes of again in this electronic and somewhat jaded age. For more information see FuturLiner.com.

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