Back to the Future with the Futurliner!

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 26, 2015

WASHINGTON—It’s great when history suddenly smacks you in the face. That happened to me in Our Nation’s Capitol during a visit to the Washington Auto Show. Among all the shiny new cars was a shiny really old one, a 1940 GM Futurliner bus, one of 12 made that traveled the country promoting progress between 1940 and 1956.

Hard to park, but you can't deny the curb appeal. The Futurliner in DC, restored to a pristine state. (Jim Motavalli photo)What a vehicle! The bus is the ultimate streamliner, reflecting the incredible optimism of GM’s Parade of Progress, launched in 1936 under the baton of the legendary Charles Kettering (he also invented the self-starter for gas cars and gave us lead in gasoline).

Two hundred small cities got a look at the future, with exhibits extolling such wonders as nuclear power, stereophonic sound, microwave ovens and jet engines. "It was an early STEM project," said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association. The Futurliners, which opened up so that large crowds could see the displays, were accompanied by fleets of GM convertibles, including the new Corvette, and the occasional spectacular concept car such as the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Motorama special (with clear gullwing doors).

We had hoped that was a death ray gun on the roof but it turns out it's just lighting for the display. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Futurliner extravaganza was interrupted by World War II, after which the big tour came back stronger than ever, with the buses updated. See the video here:

What you’re looking at is #10, which like the other buses was sold off after the program ended in the mid-1950s. According to Dean G. Tryon, one of the approximately 30 to 40 volunteers who worked on the restoration, it went to the Goebel Brewing Company and promoted beer for a living, ending up in at a Michigan Cadillac dealer. The noted showcar collector Joe Bortz bought it and in 1992 donated it to the National Auto & Truck Museum in Indiana, which owns it today.

Oral Roberts got in on the action, and used a Futurliner as a Cathedral-on-wheels. (Oral Roberts Ministries)The seven-year restoration, led by Don Mayton at his barn in Zeeland, Michigan, was a labor of love, because the Futurliner was in really rough shape. According to Tryon, there are a surprising number of survivors of the original 12 Futurliners. The Peter Pan bus company has one (with a modern drivetrain), and others are under restoration in Sweden and Maine. One was recently sold at auction for $4 million, so that should bring any other stragglers out of the woodwork. Only three are thought to be totally AWOL.

The Historic Vehicle Association panel fit neatly into the Futurliner. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Futurliner was in DC for the auto show, and also to be inducted into the Historic Vehicle Association’s classic car register. A panel of Futurliner experts actually held forth from inside the vehicle, much as the early science educators had. HVA plans to house important documentation about key automobiles in America's history. "Our aim with the register is to educate much as the Futurliner did on science and progress," said Richard O’Connor, who heads the Heritage Documentation Programs at the National Park Service. Oddly enough, Gessler said, the Futurliner visited 200 cities but never Washington until now.

Inducted right along with it were two other incredible cars, the unique Buick Wildcat II and Cadillac Le Mans (one of four). Both were part of the GM Motorama exhibit in 1954.

The 1954 Wildcat is a sister car of the Bonneville, representing a Corvette for GM’s other divisions. There’s a 332-cubic inch mill with four carbs under that hood.

The Cadillac Le Mans, one of four, was a symphony in new-fangled fiberglass. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Le Mans (inspired by Cadillac’s surprise win on that track in 1950) features a fiberglass rear body turning a family car into a huge two-seater. There were a “wide assortment of jet-age cues.” Floyd Akers of Capitol Cadillac in Washington ended up with this example, and his daughter—who must have been very popular—got to drive it to school until 1958. The car in DC is the only one that still retains its Le Mans plumage.

The Buick Wildcat II was a 1954 Motorama variation on the new Corvette. (Jim Motavalli photo)Here's video of the Futurliner in Washington. One note: I was under the impression that the Futurliners actually transported the show cars, but in fact they just carried the exhibits:


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