Driving a Legendary 1939 GM Futurliner Is Like Nothing Else
Few people have ever gotten the opportunity to drive one of GM's Art Deco behemoths.
It wasn't that long ago that one of our readers made an unusual sighting on his quiet street in Ludlow, Massachusetts. Out walking one night, a behemoth appeared in front of him, illuminated by the soft orange glow of a streetlight. It was, unbelievably, one of General Motors' ultra-rare 1939 Futurliners, one of just a dozen built and worth at least a million dollars. We got to the bottom of why it was parked on the street a few weeks ago, and in the process made contact with the vehicle's owner, a regional bus company called Peter Pan Bus Lines, to see about checking it out in person. Phone calls were exchanged, a date was set, and before I knew it, I was on my way to kick the tires on a Futurliner. I was expecting to be impressed. I did not anticipate ending up behind the wheel.
On a foggy Wednesday morning a few weeks ago, I drove out to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Peter Pan is based. I knew the same Futurliner that was parked on the street would be there, but I was still surprised when the massive bus, photographed weeks earlier under that streetlamp, was parked in plain sight along with one of its less fortunate, decaying siblings. Yes, Peter Pan has not one, but two Futurliners, one of which is nearing the point of no return. We have detailed the fascinating history of both vehicles in a separate post, which you should absolutely read to complete the picture.
But then someone tossed me the keys, so this story is all about what it was like to drive a slice of an imagined future.
1939 General Motors Futurliner: By the Numbers
- Powertrain: Supercharged 4-71 Detroit Diesel four-cylinder | 4-speed automatic transmission | rear-wheel-drive
- Price (asking): $1,000,000
- Dimensions: 11 feet 6 inches tall | 7 feet 10 inches wide | 32 feet 10 inches long
- Seating capacity: 3
- Quick take: It's a bit nerve-wracking in the driver's seat, but nothing I've ever driven has been a bigger hit with the public than the Futurliner.
For those who don't know, GM's Futurliners were, essentially, massive Art Deco-styled buses that look like nothing else on the road. They were built to cross the nation in the Parade of Progress, a tour originating in the pre-war era that was meant to show off emerging American technology. The final iteration of the tour, for which the final versions of the Futurliners were built, lasted until 1956. After that, the nationwide parade ended, the Futurliners were sold off to the public, and they've all met a variety of fates.
When I arrived, all I wanted was to get pictures and try to clear up some history. But as it turned out, John Cieplik, General Manager of Peter Pan Bus Lines and the vehicle's caretaker, had a few plans of his own.
Riding in the Futurliner
When I arrived, Cieplik was in his office, cigar smoldering on an ashtray, watching William Shatner return from low earth orbit on his Blue Origin flight. Cieplik was simultaneously on a conference call but made sure I understood that Captain Kirk had been to space, for real this time. After a brief exchange, I headed outside, and following a few moments snooping around both the restored and ruined Futurliners, Cieplik emerged, offering to take the crimson beast out for a spin. Although it was unexpected, I accepted, of course. There was really no reason why not to do it, after all. Peter Pan, as I found out, normally rents it for events all around the Springfield area.
With the keys retrieved and our pre-drive checklist set—Cieplik unwrapped and fixed a fresh cigar into his mouth—our drive began. The hatch above the cab was popped, the 4-71 Detroit Diesel was cranked over, and with the parking brake released, we pulled out of the gravel drive where Peter Pan's massive warehouse is located. From there, the massive Futurliner lumbered closer to the downtown area, with passengers in nearby cars looking up, both confused and enthralled.
The vehicle, originally and in its current state, is equipped with two small seats located behind the driver for extra passengers, and that's where I sat, attempting to document our ride until we arrived at the Hall of Fame. Cieplik, for the record, seemed to enjoy the entire ordeal thoroughly. Unlit cigar hanging firmly out the side of his mouth and arms stretched around the steering wheel, he returned the waves of every pedestrian we passed.
Technically very similar to a bus, the Futurliner indeed only has three seats because the massive rear cargo area in the back was typically filled with a demonstration or exhibit for the Parade of Progress. There is no room for any extra passengers back there, and as such, the two extra jump seats were installed just in case a few more people needed a ride. They were comfortable enough, but I wouldn't recommend a long trip in one of them.
Driving the Futurliner
When we entered the parking lot of the impressive Basketball Hall of Fame facility in Springfield, it at first wasn't clear to me that Cieplik was willing to let me drive, but when he made it more obvious that he was offering me an opportunity to do so, I obviously did not decline. I handed over my phone for Cieplik to record, took a seat in the bus' central driving position, and followed the keeper of this Futurliner's brief instructions.
"Put your foot on the brake just like driving a car, push the yellow parking brake down all the way, and flick that [shifter] up just one click," he told me. With that, we were ready to drive. "There you go," he said. "It's all you, kid."
Instructions followed, the diesel engine roared to life and we began to move forward. Immediately, I understood that crashing this would be very bad. As such, I tried my best to very gently explore what the brakes, steering, and gas pedal all felt like.
The steering was, as I had suspected, full of play and about a million turns lock to lock. This Futurliner had a power assist setup, but not a full-blown power steering system, as Cieplik explained. Despite this, the vehicle's massive double front wheels—two tires per side—didn't take much effort to turn, even at low speeds. The surprisingly low effort was welcome, however absolutely zero feedback was sent up to the steering wheel from the front tires. To be fair, the steering shaft probably looks like something suitable for pole vaulting, so this made sense.
The gas and brake pedals weren't exactly dripping with feedback, either. I depressed the gas and the supercharged four-cylinder Detroit Diesel engine below got louder and we moved forward a bit quicker. To be clear, this Futurliner was biblically slow, not that I was expecting any neck-breaking performance. Maximum acceleration was dictated not by what I would've wanted or was expecting, but what the machine was willing to provide, which wasn't much. It's worth noting that the original Futurliners had even less power. The engine in this one is actually an upgrade.
The suspension, as it is on many heavier vehicles, was a little bouncy. After a rather precarious turn that involved maneuvering around a stationary white pickup truck, we wiggled down the back end of the parking lot, slowly building speed as we went. Feeling more relaxed, I told Cieplik that I hope he had good insurance. He just responded by laughing, which did not put me at ease.
By far the most unusual part of the whole experience was the sky-high central driving position. The Futurliner's cab is located up a steep and narrow flight of stairs, and my view of the road from what felt like ten feet in the air was both commanding and unnerving. These vehicles originally must've been pretty sketchy to drive near highway speeds. Frankly, any obstacle in front of this thing would've been difficult to avoid.
Despite this lingering anxiety, I managed to keep the massive machine off the curbs. One thing that did make me calm down a bit was how people reacted when they saw it. The Futurliner is over 11 feet tall. Everyone in its vicinity when we drove around the parking lot reacted by staring, taking a photo, or waving. It's hard to miss. Nobody on a sidewalk was going to miss it barreling past them.
With this thought in mind and my arms extended around the massive wheel, I kept the Futurliner straight and even managed to coax a shift out of the machine's lazy automatic transmission. The diesel engine's revs dropped and we cruised along—as much as we could in the relatively empty parking lot. I was beginning to get a little more comfortable.
And just as soon as I did, my drive was over, and despite my growing confidence, I was relieved to give the controls back to Cieplik. "You are a Futurliner driver!" he exclaimed, handing my phone back to me. Indeed, for those few moments, I was.
After returning to Peter Pan's facility, I said my goodbyes and departed. Driving home, I realized there is probably quite a short list of people who can say they've driven these things, a list that grew by one more name that day. That felt pretty special, but what's more relevant is the fact that even more people may be driving Peter Pan's Futurliner soon.
No, Cieplik isn't considering opening a Futurliner driving school, as much as I'm sure he would enjoy that. You may have noticed at the beginning of this article that the spec box states a price. Yes, this Futurliner is for sale. Peter Pan is asking a cool $1 million for it. It's not cheap, but then again, other Futurliners have gone for a lot more. They have been known, in fact, for selling at auction for over $4 million.
That could make this one something of a steal. Along with it, you also get what's left of the other Futurliner the company owns. It's in a sorry state, but it still has a few useful parts bolted onto it at the very least. It could be worth the trouble of pulling it out of Peter Pan's lot and bringing home—General Motors isn't exactly churning out spares anymore.
The vehicles also represent two of just a dozen produced. There are never going to be any more of these beautiful pieces of automotive history made, and each has its own unique past. My time driving this Futurliner was just a tiny piece of that story. Now, its current owners think it's time for that tale to continue somewhere else. If you're seriously interested in purchasing this Futurliner—or perhaps you just want to have it at an event in the broad vicinity of Springfield—you can contact Peter Pan directly.
More Profound Than Profit
For me, though, driving the Futurliner left a lasting impression, even though my time at the wheel was brief. Would I want to drive it again? I think once might be enough—I would want a lot more time in that parking lot before driving it anywhere near a public road—but I would definitely be open to another ride-along. I'm certain that driving it through a big city like New York would turn it into an online sensation and perhaps reignite some interest in special concepts like these.
It's important that these vehicles and other cars like them get more recognition. Automakers don't build stuff like this anymore and they haven't in some time. Seeing something this wild out of a rigid corporation like Ford or General Motors would take everybody by surprise. And before I continue, I know: Impressive one-offs or low production vehicles doubtlessly lose a company money. They just don't make profitable sense on paper. But let me tell you something: After diving deep to find Ford's long-lost Big Red turbine truck and after driving this Futurliner and digging up the history of its ruined stablemate, I really can't wrap my head around that nickel and dime mentality. There's more purpose to these vehicles than profits.
Forget the cost, the most poignant thing I have taken away from everything I've written about vehicles like these is the curiosity, interest, and inspiration people get from seeing them. Whether it's spotting one under a street light, seeing one decay in a farm field, or witnessing one wow spectators in its prime, it's a stirring experience that people remember for the rest of their lives. For God's sake, put away the spreadsheet for two seconds, these vehicles matter!
The Futurliners may have been built over 80 years ago, well before most people reading this were likely born. But even today they keep us looking forward. If we could build them then, why not now? These powerful, impressive, awesome machines mean something. We can't let them, or what they represent, slip away.
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