When the “General” Was King

Here’s one of the coolest details I’ve seen on any car—a hubcap that represents the atomic age. It makes for a great “Name the Car” image; anyone care to take a guess on what the vehicle is? A clue regarding the manufacturer will be given tomorrow.

Custom coachwork comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Last week we looked at Siata’s lovely 208/S, a fantastic little nimble jewel from Italy. The southern European country was the center of the custom coachwork universe from the late 1940s through the 1970s, but the Italians were far from alone in creating such wonders.

Looking Back

In the 1950s General Motors was King of the World, becoming the first ever firm to earn $1 billion in a year (1955). “It was not only an institution apart,” David Halberstam noted in “The Fifties,” his marvelous treatise on the decade, “(GM) was so big, rich and powerful that it was regarded in the collective psyche of the nation as something more than a mere corporation. It was like a nation unto itself, a separate entity, with laws and a culture all its own,” and from that mindset came four-wheeled art deco deliciousness in the form of the radical Futurliner.

While the term “custom coachwork” usually connotes some sensuous shape on a sinuous car from Italy, here is another stupendous detail on a most unusual example of custom coachwork. The imposing “GM” on the front of the vehicle projects a solidity and strength that conveys the company was indeed King of the World in the 1950s. To get this particular image, a forklift was required!

Starting in the mid-1930s, General Motors had a traveling roadshow called the “Caravan of Progress.” Unlike anything else, the Caravan was a multi-vehicle convoy that crisscrossed America, showcasing the latest, sportiest models from each GM division (Buick, Cadillac/LaSalle, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac). But the exhibit’s true center of attention was the eight futuristic Streamliners built on GMC truck chassis.

In 1940 the Parade was retired and replaced by the “Caravan of Progress.” According to author Michael Lamm in the book “The Art and Colour of General Motors,” GM scrapped the Streamliners and built 12 new Futurliners that were more modern in appearance. World War II put a halt to the Caravan, but it reappeared in 1952 to great acclaim. Once again the Futurliners were the centerpiece, still retaining their art deco styling elements but modified to look (and drive) even more modern. They also incorporated small design touches such as the ultra-cool hubcaps that represented the dawning atomic age.

 The Futurliner in the Modern World

One of the more unusual panning shots I’ve taken is this week’s example of custom coachwork, American style. General Motors had 12 Futurliners wowing crowds throughout the U.S. in the 1950s during its Parade of Progress, and interestingly, GM would send out advance personnel to the towns the Parade of Progress would visit. They would then place ads in the local papers, and people would line the streets to see the Futurliners roll into townWhat a spectacle that must have been!


GM’s Futurliner from the 1950s is loaded with beautiful details—from the contrasting colors to the “Parade of Progress” script, the strong “GENERAL MOTORS” on the sides, and more. This was another shot where a forklift was needed to get the right angle—a comment you normally don’t use when photographing details on a motor vehicle…

Special thanks to Craig Jackson at Barrett-Jackson for making this possible.

Nine of the 12 Futurliners still exist, and thanks to auction impresario Craig Jackson of Barrett-Jackson, I was able to spend the better part of a day with one of the three that’s restored to the original configuration before it was auctioned off in 2015 for $4.4 million. A hallmark of great automotive design is having difficulty in telling a vehicle’s actual size, and in photos the Futurliner looks as imposing as the Queen Mary…or at least as large as a moving van. Park a C6 Corvette ZO6 next to it, and suddenly it’s not so gargantuan.

Still, the Futurliner is mesmerizing, thanks to its otherworldly shape and incredibly effective details. The bold red and white paint scheme accentuates everything, and the detailing is so abundant and rich that the crew at Barrett-Jackson kindly brought out a forklift so I could properly photograph it. The gold “GM” on the creased nose epitomizes strength, and is beautifully surrounded and offset by the vehicle’s motif of red, white and polished trim. The wraparound windscreen is very “War of the Worlds,” the central steering and three abreast seating behind the curved glass beating both Ferrari’s 365 P and McLaren’s F1 to the configuration by a good number of years. The shiny fluting by the windscreen is perhaps the most art deco touch of all, and the sweptback “Parade of Progress” script makes it appear the Futurliner is in a definite hurry to get somewhere—including the future.

Its Only Downside

An element of successful automotive design is when you can’t tell the size of what you are viewing in a photograph. Alfa Romeo’s TZ2 is one such vehicle, and GM’s Futurliner is another. In photos, the Futurliner looks large and imposing, but next to a C6 Corvette Z06, it’s a good bit smaller than one anticipates.

But if there is one thing the Futurliner doesn’t do, is get somewhere in a hurry. Not long after it was offloaded outside the massive Barrett-Jackson tent (it’s nearly a mile long between its furthest points), I followed Craig Jackson up the stairway into the driver’s compartment (how often can you say ‘stairway’ about entering a vehicle?). The expansive view out the windscreen was a vista to behold, and once Jackson slipped into the captain’s chair and got situated, he fired up the 400 cubic inch truck engine. He put the long throw shifter into first, gave it some gas, waited for the clutch to grab, and off we went for several lumbering laps around the auction’s sprawling grounds, Jackson grinning ear-to-ear.

It was like an episode on the old “Outer Limits” TV show, one where earthlings have visual contact with the ‘Liner and are immediately frozen in place. People stopped mid-step, their faces radiating a sense of childhood glee and awe, completely captivated by the unique shape barreling towards and then by them.

Just as any great custom coachwork machine was designed to do, regardless of where it’s from.


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