1936-'40 Parade of Progress
GM Futurliner Restoration Project

National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States

'33 World's Fair

1936 Parade
  Page 2
More History
  Page 2
Power Plant
  Plant Crew
News Clip
C.S. Mott
On Tour

1938 Previews
1941 Parade
1953 Parade
1954 Parade

Appreciation Letters


In-Line Six
Other Futurliners
Oral Roberts Cathedral Cruiser

The following article was written by Fred Fairbrother and Bill Rhodes, Louisville, Kentucky. Fred W. Fairbrother was truck driver for the 1936 Parade of Progress: he supplied the photographs for that year. Bill Rhodes is a member of ATHS and has previously contributed to Wheels of Time. This article was published in the VOL. 22, No. 1 January/February 2001 American Truck Historical Society Wheels of Time.
    General Motors’ interest in using the circus as a means of advertising its products has a long history. Sometimes they displayed their vehicles in the menageries, or arranged for circus parades to arrive at their various dealerships. In 1938, the Hagenbeck Wallace Circus had a fleet of five Chevrolet conversion trucks that were the principal means of towing wagons from the train to the show-grounds.
    In addition to these paid promotions, GM produced a complete tent show of their own on two occasions, the first being in 1936, which was organized in Detroit and moved south to Florida in a close caravan. Giving the caravan a send-off were none other than Alfred P. Sloan and Charles "Boss Ket" Kettering. No performances were given in Detroit or any of the cities en route to Florida. The plan was to get maximum publicity from the caravan itself by having it move south, visiting GM assembly plants and some of the larger dealers along the way. The fleet of unusual trucks were displayed at each site for view by employees, the public, and, of course, the press. However, the tents and midway would not be set until they reached Florida.

GM wanted attention even when the show passed on the highway, so all movement was handled as a military convoy. A Cadillac command car was in the lead and communicated with some of the trucks back in the pack by short wave radio. An assortment of automobile models from all GM divisions were included in the convoy. Drivers always wore uniforms on the road, when visiting GM plants or when performing, although white coveralls were provided for workdays when the exhibit was being erected.

Travel was slow, partly because GM wanted everyone the convoy passed to get a good look and partly because the streamlined trucks were seriously underpowered by today’s standards. GM’s small truck engines were based on the flat head Oldsmobile block and offered displacements of only 230-257 cid. The trucks had a 4-speed transmission with a very low first gear that the drivers called "creeper." This was needed on many hills. Because the vacuum power brakes were not as effective as might have been desired, downshifting was the rule on most hills. In addition to the eight streamliners, the fleet included conventional GM trucks, including semis, that carried the big top, chairs, an electric light plant and mechanics’ supplies.

Moves were always made in daytime for publicity, so personnel were boarded in hotels and ate in restaurants. Life in this "circus" was easier than in most traveling shows. Drivers were paid $100 a month; uniforms, coveralls, and hotel rooms were provided; and the food allowance was $18.50 a week, which, in 1936, allowed them to dine well. Like the traditional circus, the Parade of Progress had an advance agent who traveled ahead booking lots, parking space, hotels, and other needs.

After the caravan arrived in Lakeland, FL, the tents and midway were set up for the first time and the full performance was rehearsed. The big top was a two-pole tent with the stage in the middle of one long side. Seats were opposite the state and in both ends. One of the streamliners unfolded to form the stage, and another was behind the center section of seats, containing an enclosed movie projection booth for films that were part of the program. Performances consisted of juggling, magic, and scientific demonstrations tied in with product displays. This may have been the first time that microwave cooking was demonstrated – emcee Erie Foss cooked an egg on a handkerchief with no protection from the radiation.

While the canvas boss and his workmen set up the tent and seats, the drivers set up the exhibits. The truck fleet included eight streamliners, three of which were used for a walk-through midway display. They were parked in a parallel arrangement several feed apart. The sides split apart horizontally so that the upper halves joined to form a roof and the lower halves formed a floor. Side panels carried in the truck enclosed the space, and the tree trucks thus connected formed a continuous hall filled with exhibits. Patrons entered the front truck and exited the rear truck. The show opened in St. Petersburg, FL, followed by Tampa, Miami, and then went up the East Coast, hitting most of the major cities along the way.

After the tour ended the equipment was stored and eventually sold, including the streamliners. Several of these easily recognized trucks have turned up in other service. The streamliner that formed the stage is shown being used for a USO Motor Camp Show performance in 1941 in the book, U.S. Military Wheeled Vehicles, where author F. W. Crismon lists it in the 5-ton category.

The 1954 Parade of Progress was organized on the same patter as the 1936 show, but was different in several ways. An entirely new fleet of GM trucks were used, consisting of current conventional models for the heavy loads and a new concept in streamliners for exhibits. These were evidently influenced by popular military aircraft designs and featured bubble glass cockpits for the drivers in place of conventional two-man cabs. Also, the big top was an innovative design using an exterior aluminum frame to support the canvas, and since there were no poles the interior was unobstructed.
    In the large cities, GM considered potential attendance and decided to forego the big top, opting instead to present a more elaborate show in large buildings. The 1954 Parade of Progress opened in Miami, FL, in a building formerly used to service big Pan-AM seaplanes. This not only accommodated the larger weekend audiences, but also allowed a huge stage that the tent could not hold. On stage was the "Motel of the Future" where the GM "Car of the Future" would roll up during performances and discharge the tourists of the future wearing apparel of the future. Unfortunately, many of there predictions did not come to pass, but the sports clothes predicted for the future were right on the money, so at least they got one part right. Most of the program was very similar to the 1936 performances, but on some dates, the indoor production was promoted as the General Motors Motorama rather than the Parade of Progress.
    The bubble cab trucks were all used for exhibits so the public would see them and be duly impressed by the advanced thinking at GM. Most were used for exhibits on the midway. Like some of the 1936 trucks, the upper part of the side would raise to form a canopy and the other part would drop to form a deck, with the display inside the truck. Periodically a lecturer would mount the deck and explain the display to the crowd. This type of continuous display could reach far more patrons than performances to seated audiences in the big top.
    All of the 1954 ultra modern trucks have not disappeared. One Futurliner is owned by the National Automotive Truck Museum of the U.S. (NATMUS) in Auburn, IN, and is being rebuilt under the direction of Don Mayton in Zeeland, MI. It is one of the survivors of a very small group of unique trucks that were never in production and will never be duplicated. Also, it may well be the last evidence of GM’s once impressive Parade of Progress.

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