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1953 GM Futurliner (Auctions America by RM)
1953 GM Futurliner (Auctions America by RM)

Classic Cars

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Looking for an automotive restoration project you can wile away a few idle hours on bringing back to its former glory?

How about this 10-metre-long, 3.3-metre-high Futurliner bus, one of a dozen created to take part in General Motors' Parade of Progress tours, which revealed the wonders of jet engines and microwave cookery - and the latest GM automotive offerings, of course - to small-town North America in the 1950s.

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The art-deco-ish-styled and Brobdingnagian-proportioned bus pictured failed to meet its reserve at an Auctions America by RM sale a couple of months ago and its California owner is still looking for a buyer prepared to pay something north of the $340,000 failed high bid for the privilege of owning what has to be one of the largest pieces of 1950s-era automotive Americana extant.

And who knows, it might prove a good investment of your money and time. It did for the last Canadians to acquire one, who made out like bandits with their restoration of a Futurliner, which first appeared in Fido cellphone livery and then, brought back to Parade of Progress originality, sold for an eye-opening $4-million at a Barrett-Jackson action in 2006. They'd paid $1,800 for it.

That princely sum was what American car enthusiast and automotive historian Joe Bortz - described as "the man who saved a generation's dream cars" for his unique collection of concept vehicles - received for one of five Futurliners he'd Quixotically rescued in the 1980s from a fate worse than rusting away in a wrecking yard.

He relates that their owner acquired the five buses with the whimsical idea of torching off their front ends and arranging them in wheel-spoke fashion to create a restaurant. A notion so horrific to Bortz, a former biochemist, but by then in the theme nightclub and restaurant business himself, that he says it gave him "goose bumps."

Bortz's devotion to the preservation of the concept and other important elements of the American auto industry in the '50s and '60s, meant he had to step up to save the big unrestored and rusty buses, which presented him with the problem of what to do with five vehicles that would require a football field to park end to end. With simply storing them proving daunting, he soon realized there weren't enough resources in his deck and restoring them just wasn't in the cards.

The next best thing was to pass them on to others who would preserve these unusual and outsized pieces of American automotive history, which he did.

One was given to the National Automobile and Truck Museum of the United States, which restored it and tours with it each summer and the others sold "for peanuts" to private owners, including the one pictured. Their preservation for posterity is - "a point of pride" - for this passionate car guy.

What Bortz had saved was about half of the fleet of vehicles GM used as a rolling road-show promotion of its wares that had its start in the mid-1930s. Charles E. (Boss Ket) Kettering, a legendary GM vice-president of research, while eyeing the corporate technology display at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, apparently had the idea of taking the exhibit on the road to promote the company and its technology and products.

By 1936, nine Silver Topped Streamliners - large van-like vehicles dubbed the World's Largest Highway Leviathans - had been designed and built under the direction of GM styling guru Harley Earl (credited as the creator of the concept or dream car) and headlined the popular GM Parade of Progress tours of the U.S.

They were replaced in 1940 by a dozen Futurliners, each 33 feet long, 11.7 feet high to the top of their bubble canopies over the driver's compartment, and powered by four-cylinder diesel engines. They were equipped with dual-wheels front and back with individual brake drums in each. Sixteen- by five-foot doors opened display bays in their sides.

By the end of 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War, they had played to audiences estimated at 12.5 million in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Futurliners spent the war years in mothballs. A couple were dusted off in the late 1940s to take part in a Detroit parade but the fleet remained silent until they were completely rebuilt in second generation form in 1953. These - minus the bubble top which had cooked drivers with solar power - were equipped with six-cylinder GMC engines and fitted with a unique transmission system that offered drivers no less than 24 ratios. Despite this complex drive system, top speed remained at just 40 mph.

The convoy of a dozen "Red Elephants" as they were nicknamed and 30-plus other vehicles staffed by about 60, trundled across the continent for the next three years presenting shows, but the tour's popularity was waning and TV was fast usurping its promotional role.

When it ended in 1956, these unusual vehicles drove off into a variety of sunsets, one serving as the "Safetyliner" for Michigan State Police, another as a mobile stage for evangelist Oral Roberts in the 1960s, before most were simply abandoned to rot.

But thanks to enthusiasts like Bortz, a handful of these extravagant vehicles still exist to remind us of a time when the American industry still built the dream cars of a generation. "The buses ultimately represent the American auto industry at its peak. A time when it could pound on its chest," says Bortz.

(And oh yes, if you know where a '50s or '60s concept car might be lurking, Bortz would like to know: bortzcars@aol.com.)

globedrive@globeandmail.com



Back in 1953

Author Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, is published in Britain and later launches a motion picture franchise that still shows no signs of fading away.

The CIA-sponsored Robertson Committee, created to study Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), meets for the first time - prompted by a rash of "sitings" the military feared would cause mass hysteria and confusion.

Speaking of mass hysteria, a few days after the Robertson Committee meets, 71 per cent of American TV owners tune in to watch Lucy, of the I Love Lucy comedy, give birth.

Russian man of steel Joseph Stalin suffers a stroke from which he never recovers.

The U.S. launches a series of nuclear tests, dubbed Operation Upshot-Knothole, in which the first nuclear artillery rounds are fired from an "atomic cannon" while 21,000 troops watch from as close as three kilometres.

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