Ford's Giant Turbine Semi-Truck 'Big Red' Is Lost Somewhere in the American Southeast

96 feet long, 13 feet tall and 40 years missing—but we set out to find it. And we're very, very close.

big red turbine truck lead
Ford

Back in the 1960s, automakers promised to propel us all into the future with turbine-powered automobiles. The Big Three prepared prototype cars and trucks with optimistic jet-driven powertrains, and some actually entered the hands of the public for testing. Chrysler's famous Turbine Car gets all the attention; less known are Ford and GM's competing efforts to build a turbine semi-truck. Both companies proudly showed off concepts in 1964, but both quickly faded from view once the technology proved not viable in the real world.

Like many expired concepts, GM's machines were probably destroyed, from what we've learned in trying to chase this story. But Ford's futuristic truck—known as Big Red—escaped the crusher by sheer chance and vanished into thin air. It's been lost for decades, or so the story goes. No one knows who grabbed it, where it ended up or whether it survives today. 

But I've got news for you: Big Red still exists. And I think I know where it is. 

Coming to that conclusion took months of digging, finding one obscure internet rabbit hole after another, and plenty of dead ends. Here's how I got there. 

Big Red's Story

Ford's long-missing behemoth was designed under the watchful eye of automotive engineer Roy Lunn—he of the Ford GT40, the mid-engine Mustang I concept, the XJ Jeep Cherokee and more. The name Big Red was fitting for a 96-foot-long, 13-foot-high crimson semi-truck. Its turbine engine, called the 705, was developed in house by Ford and produced 600 horsepower and 855 pound-feet of torque.

The interior was a midcentury dream with a full kitchen, a bathroom with a waste incinerator, a television for co-pilots, and a panoramic view of the road. It was Ford's bet on the future of trucking and America's gleaming interstate highways. And even though the turbine didn't end up working out, Big Red was ahead of the game in predicting several features truckers today take for granted, such as flat cab floors, air suspension, suspended cabs, and redundant braking systems.

Ford and General Motors both made turbine-powered semi-trucks, both were functional, and both were tested extensively. If you're more interested in the technical details of these machines—or GM's efforts—you can read our main writeup on the trucks here.

Big Red's grand reveal took place alongside the Ford Mustang at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, after which Ford schlepped it on a cross-country promo blitz with stops in major cities to show people the truck of tomorrow. However, because of technological issues—primarily turbines' massive thirst and poor emissions performance—commercial turbine trucks never made it past the prototype stage, and Big Red was no different. This left the concept rig a dead man driving by the time its national tour was wrapping up in 1965.

Ford

Then fate intervened, as Big Red found a savior in Holman Moody, Ford's factory-sponsored race team. The details of its escape from the crusher are murky—at least one alleged eyewitness account holds it was parked at a Ford facility in Michigan for a few years in the late 1960s before Holman Moody purchased the tractor. (We'll get to the fate of the trailers in a bit).

Sources I spoke with—who we will hear more from later in the story—also repeated a story reportedly relayed by John Holman's son Lee Holman that Big Red was being hauled through the southeast when the transport rig broke down and Holman Moody helped out by towing it back to its Charlotte headquarters. Ford just never came to get it.

Whatever the real path, Big Red landed in Holman Moody's storage hangar next to the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, where it remained until 1978. It's also not debated that Ford kept the original turbine engine, which was replaced with a V8, though which block exactly is unclear. You can see it parked in the hangar in a photo here, which was taken sometime in the early 1970s (note the '69 Mustang fascia visible just behind Big Red).

Though Big Red's decade-plus at Holman Moody is only documented in a few pictures—seems it didn't move much—there's at least some hard evidence about what happened next. In 1978, John Holman's son Lee took over the company, which had struggled through the 1970s after its partnership with Ford ended.  

Holman Moody

One of his first acts was to clear out the hangar with a giant inventory sale, promoted as the "Holman & Moody House Cleaning Everything Must Go Yard Sale of the Century." A magazine advertisement for the sale shown here featured Big Red parked behind a pile of racing V8s and other parts, and Holman Moody also put out a full catalog to market the proceedings that further spotlighted the truck.

So like a surplus engine, Big Red was sold to an anonymous buyer. After that, it's dust in the wind. The trail simply ends. Two things, and generally only two things, happen to famous concept cars—they get tragically destroyed, or they get saved to be feted at places like Pebble Beach and Goodwood decades down the line. Fully-functional prototypes don't just disappear. But Big Red did.

I'll be upfront and admit that practically zero hard information seems to exist regarding the truck's current whereabouts. But circumstantial evidence? The Drive has collected a mountain of that from obscure forums, social media posts and seemingly-random YouTube and Flickr comments—and it all points to Big Red surviving to this day in North Carolina, never having left the state at all, hidden away in a secretive collector's garage.

I reached out to Holman Moody and Ford for any sort of confirmation or further details on my findings, but neither company got back to me with anything. You'll have to bear with me a bit here because the timeline isn't the cleanest thing in the world. But I believe it's the most definitive account of Big Red's current whereabouts, an automotive mystery that's gone unsolved for decades.

On the Hunt for Big Red

First, I had to figure out who bought the truck from Holman Moody. Where to actually start with that was a big question mark. 

The only information I had, gleaned from an unverified forum post, was that the buyer was also a Thunderbird collector. I also knew the Fruehauf trailers were sold off to a pro hydroplane team called Bardahl Autolite Racing, having come across this picture of one repainted in their livery dated to 1968. Note the aluminum ribbing on the side, lower valence skirts and distinctly-spaced rear axles. 

kscarbel2 on bigmacktrucks.com

One of Big Red's trailers repainted in its new livery.

Bardahl Autolite Racing was owned by Seattle millionaire Ole Bardahl, whose eponymous oil and gas additive company still exists today. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to reach anyone there who could speak to what happened to the trailer after the team ceased operations at the end of the 1968 season. Maybe they're out there rusting away in a scrapyard somewhere, but it's more likely they were sold again and worked until their useful lives ended, at which point they were recycled.

Considering how the trailers look pretty much like regular units when they're divorced from the Big Red cab, it's not at all surprising that these are lost to history.

As I started looking for the tractor, it was clear that surface-level searching would only lead me to the same image galleries, historical stories, and curious forum posts that make up the current universe of Big Red information online. So I dug deeper, and despite its reputation as one of the worst places on the internet, the comment section of YouTube of all places turned up something incredible: A man who claimed not only to know Big Red's owner—a mysterious "Mr. Richardson"—but to have both seen and driven the truck himself since it supposedly vanished.

YouTube

The Driver

"When Holman Moody was closed Big Red was sold at auction. Mr. Richardson in Greensboro bought Big Red along with several other items... Big Red has been restored and remains in the private collection that his son keeps today. Mr. Richardson once allowed me to drive Big Red around the neighborhood. With him in the passenger seat, of course."

I immediately reached out to this mystery commenter, who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. His name has been blurred out of the screenshot above; I'll call him "Dan" from here.

Dan is a longtime truck driver and mechanic whose late parents were friends with Mr. Richardson, and it was thanks to this familial connection that he was able to get up close and personal with Big Red in the early 1980s. He said he was delivering a load of materials to the owner's property to build a new garage when he learned the structure would house the famous vehicle—which had ironically been painted blue and white at some point during its stay at Holman Moody.

Apparently feeling generous and appreciating Dan's trucking experience, Mr. Richardson let him look it over, climb aboard and go for a short drive down the road.

"I drove the tractor only—they never had the trailers—for a couple of miles around the neighborhood. At the time it was powered by a VT-903 Cummings [V8]," Dan told me. "It was residential streets and there were no tags on the tractor. I drove very conservatively as he and I discussed what the gas turbine must have been like."

"The truck was very much like the cabover Fords manufactured just before Ford discontinued production of Class 8 trucks except that the floorboard was flat, the cab was 102 inches wide and I think 13 feet tall with lots of whistles and bells that I never played with."

However, Dan declined to give me more information on Mr. Richardson's identity, the location of the garage he helped build over three decades ago, or any further details on its current ownership, saying he knows the family wants to remain anonymous to avoid attracting undue attention. "I've not seen the owners in years but I do know they are extremely paranoid about people finding out about the location of Big Red." Still, he offered to reach out to them and see if they'd be interested in talking.

Ford

Could it really be this easy? Of course not. After a few days, Dan let me know he'd learned the Richardsons had moved from their previous location in the last decade or so and he was having trouble getting in touch with them. "My friend and I are trying to locate them but as the youngest is 64, it's hard to say where they might be or what shape they might be in," he said.

Another disappointment was that he realized his claim in the YouTube comment about Mr. Richardson getting the original turbine engine back from Ford was incorrect. However, in asking around for information he turned up another sighting from a friend who'd seen the truck in the late 1990s and confirmed it was still in good shape, at that point equipped with "some sort of multi-fuel engine."

A promising lead fizzled out. Given Dan's reluctance to provide any verifying evidence, you'd be forgiven for having a little skepticism here. 

But it turns out there are others with similar stories of close encounters. Like "Tim," a man who claims to have briefly assisted in the mid-1980s restoration of Big Red that Dan mentioned—and Tim has a lot of specific knowledge to back that up.

The Painter

I found Tim (again, not his real name) through a random post on a Mack Truck forum dated January 19, where he dropped a few key details about Big Red that I'd never seen before. He's basically invisible online apart from that, though, so it took a while to track him down. But when I finally found him, what he had to say convinced me even more that Big Red is still out there, as he independently corroborated details from Dan's account that hadn't been shared publicly before.

The Drive

Basically, in or around 1985 the truck was brought to a shop where two of Tim's friends worked to be stripped down completely and repainted in its original colors—a blue and white color scheme for a truck called Big Red just wouldn't do for Mr. Richardson. Layers of paint were taken off, some of the body was removed, but its hand-built nature meant the process wasn't easy. Tim had a lot to say about the restoration, which was mainly handled by his friends.

"They disassembled and did bodywork, [getting] it back to original colors based on sanding through the paint a layer at a time. It had been painted several times since Ford used it. Because of the way it was put together some big parts couldn't be taken off—the big fluted side pieces were one, they couldn't find fasteners and weren't about to mess them up," he said. "The fiberglass was very, very thick, one inch in places. Everything was heavy. It was very time-consuming sanding around and not damaging non-painted stuff."

"My two friends and the owner did all the work, I was just a grunt a couple times. My one friend always says how you could reach up and turn the end of the turbine shaft with no effort. Most all of the inside was there and complete. The ladders worked, the doors opened and it ran and moved."

Ford

Moreover, Tim independently confirmed key details from Dan's story: that Big Red no longer had the original turbine, that the truck had been painted blue and white, that the owner recently moved, and that he really, really does not anyone to know where it is. Tim didn't want to identify him or confirm that Mr. Richardson was the right name, and his friend who actually supervised Big Red's restoration declined to speak with me entirely. But I was getting closer.

"We have tried to get the owner to bring it to the [American Truck Historical Society] show quite a few times, though not in a long while. He's moved, but I'm told he still has it," Tim said. "I hope one day we can see it again. Back then, we didn't have cell phones except for those monster bag phones, and he would have shot us anyway if we did take a picture. I assume when he's passed it will come out from hiding. It'll be like the Bullitt Mustang coming back."

"The owner really stressed to them back then he didn't want anyone to know anything," he added. "I'm told he's a lot worse now, but has to be getting up there in age. He has family but doesn't even want them around it."

This was starting to become a refrain, and it made sense. If a massive thing like Big Red is to stay hidden, then someone wanted it to be so. It takes a supremely paranoid guardian to keep it that way. Surely there's no identifiable trace of Mr. Richardson on the internet, right?

Ford

The Owner

You'd think not—which is why it was very surprising to then stumble on a forum post by someone claiming to be the owner himself.

"I am always surprised by the interest in Big Red and the turbine program. Yes, Big Red still exists. It was purchased from Holman-Moody years ago but not by Ford. The truck had been repainted in a shade of red that was not flattering," a man wrote on bigmacktrucks.com in 2013 under the screen name John Eugene Richards. "A great deal of time and money was spent putting the original colors back on the truck. The two 40-foot Fruehauf trailers have not been located, although I do have the bogie that went between the trailers that was also made by Fruehauf."

bigmacktrucks.com

"The pictures you see with the smooth front are early photos," he added. "Engineers learned early about the heat buildup under the cab while idling for long periods of time. The additional grille opening resolved the issue."

Evocatively signed "Big Red Owner," the comment was posted on another thread on the same Mack Truck forum where I found Tim. But that name! John Eugene Richards. Richards? Richardson? Did my source Dan just misremember the name after so many years? Did the "-on" get lopped accidentally, or was it a half-hearted attempt at disguising his identity? The latter seemed unlikely since, you know, he put a first and middle name. And what were the chances that this would line up with the last name Dan mentioned at the outset if it were all a fabrication? Was this really my guy?

"Richards" posted two more short responses that day, saying that a later Ford 707 gas turbine engine had been swapped in at some point—could this be the "multi-fuel engine" Dan's friend and others previously mentioned?—and that Big Red remains in excellent condition.

It felt like I was reading something written by a ghost. After stumbling around in the dark for so long with only dim points of light in the distance, here, at last, was a strong, steady lead that might guide me right to Big Red. All I had to do was follow it.

Ford

And so I did, all the way to yet another dead end. John Eugene Richards never posted on that site again despite dozens of replies from other users asking for more info over the last seven years. A check of his account shows he last logged in on February 13, 2019, meaning he saw those desperate pleas and never deigned to answer them. 

Searching elsewhere for his full name and variations of it proved futile. Believe it or not, there are a lot of John Richardsons in North Carolina, even a number of John Eugene Richardsons, and I couldn't find any publicly-available information online that pointed at any one of them in particular.

This of course would be simpler if I could spend weeks traipsing around the state checking paper records and knocking on the doors of elderly people, but unfortunately, that's not the world we live in right now.

Something else nagged at me, too. Dan and Tim had made a point to tell about the owner's extreme insistence on secrecy. Maybe it was fitting that even a name wouldn't be enough to track him down. Perhaps he had his reasons for that. But still, why would he hop on to a random big rig forum in 2013 after all those years—when he'd likely in his 80s or 90s, at least—to randomly announce his prize to the world? 

The Brother

Given the ever-lengthening timeline and that sudden burst of publicity, I began to consider that John Eugene Richards/Richardson was not in fact the same Mr. Richardson who bought Big Red from Holman Moody back in the '70s. Maybe the older man had become incapacitated or passed away at some point in the last decade and left Big Red to another family member. After all, Dan said at the outset of the hunt that Big Red currently lives in the original buyer's son's collection. Maybe our mystery forum poster was that lucky son.

It felt like pure speculation until I chased down another promising lead from that Mack Truck forum: a random comment on a 2014 Flickr post from someone claiming his brother owned Big Red and it was "doin [sic] fine."

Flickr

"i know where it is.....and it's alive and doin [sic] fine in my dads garage....my brother owns it....it is now fully restored with the original gas turbine engine." 

That Flickr username belongs to a profile with a real name attached to it—one Thomas Richardson. The username also matches a dormant Twitter account whose display name is Thomas Richardson, and whose extremely limited activity (I'm talking five tweets, four likes total) includes liking one Carolina-related tweet. 

Enough sleuthing, though. His email was right freaking there in the comment.

Unfortunately—predictably—I've sent multiple messages to that email address and have since heard nothing. Thomas B. Richardson is just a tough to narrow down in online public records searches, and I've yet to find any solid links connecting him with John, like an elder Richardson obituary with the two men listed as surviving family members.

Despite my inability to contact him or verify his alleged relationship with the owner, Thomas Richardson's claims feel legit. It's just too much of a coincidence that both his and John Eugene Richards' comments were posted around the same time in 2013 or 2014 after decades of silence on the matter. 

Also, despite his seemingly erroneous claim that the original turbine was back in the truck, it still tracks with John's statement that it's once again got a turbine in it.

Big Red's Location

So where is Big Red? I've got one more surprise for you—late in my reporting process, a source finally passed along the name of a town in North Carolina where they believed the Richardsons had moved. I was able to confirm that with a second source, and sure enough, I found recent property records that point to a possible location where Big Red might be housed. 

But there's no definitive proof yet, as I'm still in the process of searching public record archives and databases to try and get in touch with the right Richardsons. It's a long process that might be shortened by publishing this story—assuming it jogs the right memory out there. If it does, I'll be the first to give you confirmation that Big Red still exists.

Still, it's all informed speculation based on hearsay—and even if I were sure, it would still be wrong to reveal its hiding spot without getting permission from the owner. So officially, Big Red is still missing. Even though all the evidence I dug up indicates it survives today.

The last update I found concerning the truck's condition was, fittingly, another YouTube comment. A user named MsBode123 claimed to have been in the truck just a few years ago and spent a few hours looking around it. The person behind the username clearly lives in North Carolina based on their YouTube activity, which would not hold up in court as evidence. But it's something, right?

Ford

Frustrating as a futile hunt might be, that's not what tugs at my mind. No, what bothers me the most is that the owner has been sitting around with Big Red in his garage, yards away from him for years, and barely anybody has seen it. Frankly, I'm not even interested in the guy's full name, or where he lives, or why he's kept it hidden for so long. 

All that I, the now-grown kids who saw it at the World's Fair and countless people online want to know is: How is it doing? What condition is it in? It's a priceless piece of American history. It's a vision into our automotive past. We all just want to know more about it, to look it over in the metal one more time.

Perhaps it's corny to quote Indiana Jones and say that it belongs in a museum, but it does. Why not let the world see this thing? I just don't get it. 

So, this is where the story ends—for now. All we can do is hope the owner changes his mind about keeping this priceless machine locked away. It would be nice to see it before everyone forgets about what it was, the people who built it, and why it's so significant. 

One day, people will stop asking about it.

Ford

Got a tip or any information on Big Red's whereabouts? Send us a note at tips@thedrive.com, or contact the author directly: peter@thedrive.com