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On the block: GM’s amazing Futurliner

The Futurliner first appeared in 1940 as part of a promotional road show that GM called the "Parade of Progress."The Futurliner first appeared in 1940 as part of a promotional road show that GM called the "Parade of Progress."
The Futurliner first appeared in 1940 as part of a promotional road show that GM called the "Parade of Progress."Photograph by Winston Goodfellow

Every January, Barrett-Jackson CEO Craig Jackson brings together just about every type of mind-blowing collectible car for his annual Barrett-Jackson auctions in Scottsdale, AZ. This year, however, there is one vehicle that easily trumps all the Ferraris, Shelbys, Packards and others that will cross the block: Lot #2501, the General Motors 1950 Futurliner.

Built at a time when GM was on top of the world and making more money than many countries’ GDP, the Futurliner is a piece of rolling—and towering—Art Deco sculpture unlike anything you are likely to see. Driving it, you look down on anything else on four wheels. That’s just the beginning though, for this machine is so out there, so far from the norm of everyday life, that the flatbed transporter carrying it to Scottsdale last week had the type of police escort normally reserved for foreign dignitaries. And on behalf of Time Inc., I got an exclusive ride.

Not long after the Futurliner was offloaded outside the massive Barrett-Jackson tent (it’s nearly a mile long between its farthest points), I followed auction impresario Craig Jackson upstairs (how many vehicles can you say that about?) into the cockpit. The view out the windscreen was something to see, but what really caught my attention was the seating arrangement.

Everyone marvels at the ingenuity of 1992’s McLaren F1 and its central driving seat, but true collector-car geeks know the road-going 365 P that Ferrari and Pininfarina built nearly three decades earlier had the same thing. Well, the Futurliner has even that wild Ferrari beaten by more than ten years, for near the center point of that curvaceous windscreen is the single driver’s seat. Flanked on each side behind it are the passenger seats.

 

Impresario Craig Jackson takes a test drivePhotograph by Winston Goodfellow
Photograph by Winston Goodfellow

Once Jackson took the helm and got situated, he fired up the 400 cubic-inch truck engine, which sounded like, well, a 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 laps around the sprawling grounds. It was like an episode of the old “Outer Limits” television show, one where earthlings who had visual contact with the ‘Liner were immediately frozen in place. People stopped mid-step, their faces radiating child-like glee and awe, captivated by the unique shape barreling towards and then by them.

Such wonderment makes complete sense, given the period in which the Futurliner was made. According to an essay by historian Michael Lamm in the book “The Art and Colour of General Motors,” the ‘Liner first appeared in 1940 when GM retired the Caravan of Progress (a traveling public relations roadshow that also used large, bus-like promotional vehicles), and “…replaced it with a modernized road show called the Parade of Progress. For the Parade, GM built 12 entirely new, more modern-looking display vehicles called Futurliners.”

There’s more than a hint of Art Deco in the Futurliner’s design. The most obvious flourishes are the steel ribs that flow along the sides of the body; there’s similar, curved fluting on the upper body, just behind the windscreen. A distinctive, sharp crease runs down the center of the imposing front cabin, bisecting the screaming gold-colored “G” and “M”—as if there was any doubt back then about the company responsible for such audacious glory.

This is the vehicle’s first public appearance since collector Ron Pratte bought it at Barrett-Jackson in 2006 for $4.3 million; now, the collector-car market is an entirely different animal, with price records being set at nearly every other auction.

 

The star of the auction poses with the police escort that accompanied her to Scottsdale.Photograph by Winston Goodfellow
Photograph by Winston Goodfellow

While the Futurliner may not be a well-known, headline-inducing, adrenalin-pumping barnburner like a Ferrari 250 GTO, let alone a Ram Air IV Pontiac GTO, it trumps them (and everything else) with its sheer presence.

And unlike those “mere” cars, it bridges two disparate worlds of collectibles. Over the past few years a bright spotlight has been placed on the upward-spiraling prices at the pointy end of the collector-car market, with the aforementioned Ferrari garnering the most attention. One sold at auction for $38.5 million last August, while another brought $50 million in a private transaction a few months earlier.

The Art Deco market is also on fire. According to the Art Deco Society of New York, the best furniture has been bringing seven-figure price tags since at least 2006, and a Dragon armchair by Eileen Gray that was formerly owned by Yves Saint Laurent brought $28 million at auction in 2009. How many of those collectors know about the Futurliner remains to be seen.

The Futurliner will be auctioned off by Barrett-Jackson on Saturday, January 17th. No reserve has been set, but rest assured, bids will rocket sky-high into the seven digits. Seller Ron Pratte is donating the proceeds of the sale to the Armed Forces Foundation.