Magic bus: GM's Futurliner
GM's Futurliner bus tours introduced small town America to the scientific dreams of tomorrow's world in the 1930's '40s and '50s
This restored bus is being displayed and another one will be offered for sale at an auction in Auburn, Ind. (May 13, 2011)
It was a "show me" period, when movie newsreels were an essential visual experience and before television brought the world into every American living room.
General Motors' research Vice President Charles Kettering (Boss Ket) decided to take GM's show on the road. Between 1936 and 1956, the company's "Parade of Progress" toured the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Cuba, visiting hundreds of towns and showing millions how working examples of modern technology would transform their everyday lives.
Eight 30-foot, streamlined buses led the parade, six with walk-through exhibits, one with a stage and one carrying equipment, while nine tractor-trailers carried the remaining gear, and new models of GM cars followed. The red-and-white buses would pull into a small town, circle the wagons at the football field, and the buses would open like clams while electric floodlights rose on poles. A crew accompanied the parade and erected a tent that could accommodate up to 1,500 people for a free technology show.
The show was such a success that GM built 12 Futurliner buses in 1940, after the New York World's Fair. The parade continued to tour until Pearl Harbor, after which it was disbanded and the buses stored in Ohio. They wouldn't see the light of day for 12 years, until the "Parade of Progress" was revived in 1953, with 12 buses. But the world had changed. TV had stolen the parade's thunder, and even though the show included new exhibits — Highways of Tomorrow, How a Jet Engine Works, Wonders of Stereo, Kitchen of Tomorrow and What is the Atom? — it was over by 1956.
The buses drifted into storage, or in some cases were merely parked outside. Chicago-area restaurateur and car collector Joe Bortz owned five of them at one time. The affable Bortz disposed of all of his buses by about 1988, donating one to the National Automotive Truck Museum of the United States, in Auburn, Ind., which restored it.
That restored bus is being displayed this weekend at RM's Auctions America Auburn Spring sale in Auburn, along with another for sale.
There are 11 surviving buses, said Bortz. Five are roadworthy. One is a motor home in California; the others are original. Two others are being restored, which means "there are four unaccounted for. They're out there for somebody to find," Bortz said.
The bus is estimated to sell for between $450,000 to $600,000, though the last bus sold, to collector Ron Pratte at Barrett-Jackson's auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2006, went for $4.3 million. That's a respectable Ferrari price, but unheard of for a bus.
The Futurliner was restored by Canadian Daniel Noiseux and two friends who bought it from Bortz.
"The original plan was to buy three, but we settled on this one for $10,000 because it was the best," said Noiseux. "We had no idea what we were getting into."
The bus was badly rusted, and much of the trim was damaged or missing and had to be recreated. The restoration cost $300,000.
The wiring was an incredible mess, recalled Noiseux, but making a new windshield that wraps around the cockpit was the hardest task. "We made 12 to get three good ones," he said.
It could have been worse. The buses were remodeled in 1953. Before that, the cabs were non-opening plexiglass bubbles with no air conditioning. There is no access from the cab to the body of the bus, just a steep flight of 10 steps to the right front door. The left door leads to the submarine-like engine compartment.
Mario Petit was the sole driver of the Noiseux bus from its restoration to its sale. He likened the 24-ton bus to driving a Boeing 747 on the street, and said that with his 10-foot-6-inch-high vantage point he worried most about not seeing people crossing directly in front of the bus.
The bus being auctioned has a new windshield, new tires and its original 6-cylinder drivetrain, which limits it to about 35 mph. The condition of its trim and lettering is so good that it was used as a model for reproduction parts for the other Futurliners.
"This bus is the cherry on the cake for a collector," Bortz said. "You could be at a show with 20 Duesenbergs, and if you pull in on the other side of the room with a Futurliner the people will all come over to look at it."
WHAT: RM Auctions America "Spring Auburn" auction
WHEN: May 12-15: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Auburn Auction Park, 5536 County Rd. 11A, Auburn, Ind.
ADMISSION: $10/day pass; $25/weekend pass; kids 12 and under free; $100 bidder registration (includes panel discussion with Joe Bortz, Reggie Jackson and Wayne Carini at VIP breakfast).