This Ultra Rare GM Futurliner Is Rotting Away in a Storage Lot. Here’s How It Got There
How does a multimillion-dollar artifact end up as scrap? The answer involves, among other things, famed televangelist Oral Roberts.
General Motors' post-war boom in the 1950s is one of the most celebrated periods in American automotive history. Instant classics poured from the company's factories in the Motor City, tailfins on Cadillac's chrome-laden land yachts grew to monstrous proportions, and transportation technology advanced at a speed never seen before. Seated at the top of the heap, GM figured it was time not only to celebrate its own success, but the triumph of all American technology. Refreshing an idea from the automaker's pre-war days, it assembled a fleet of a dozen futuristic vehicles to spread the news of exciting new technology around the country. This mechanized march from coast to coast, the "Parade of Progress," lasted until 1956, and the stars of the show were 12 crimson behemoths: the 11-foot tall, awe-inspiring Futurliners.
After the show ended, all of these incredible vehicles were sold off to meet a variety of fates. Decades passed with the Futurliners existing in relative obscurity, and it wasn't until relatively recently that people realized what they represented. In 2006, a restored Futurliner sold for a shocking $4.1 million at auction, and with only three known to exist at the time, the hunt was on to find the rest of the machines. Or at least, what was left of them.
A few months ago a reader spotted one of the Futurliners, restored in all of its glory, parked on the street in Ludlow, Massachusetts, and got in touch to share his incredible pictures. We got to the bottom of that situation, but since then, we've got in contact with the vehicles' owner, Peter Pan Bus Lines, and taken things one step further by getting behind the wheel. We drove the Futurliner, and you can read that story here. But just as piloting one is an incredibly rare opportunity, so too is getting up close with the ruins of another—that's right, Peter Pan has a second Futurliner rotting away in its back lot.
Bought for spare parts a while back, it's not drivable. It's probably not even salvageable; in fact, it's barely recognizable. A hulking mass of rust and tangled wires, its only purpose in life is to provide the unobtainable. Walking around it, it's impossible to avoid the sense that it's an unburied corpse, deserving of far more dignity than being strung up like a medieval cautionary tale. Given the Futurliner's rarity and value, it's remarkable to compare the fate of this one to its multimillion-dollar brethren. But, parts trucks are parts trucks.
Of the 12 Futurliners built, eight were rescued, restored, or otherwise preserved. Another three were destroyed or lost over the last 70 years, and the records are maddeningly thin. That leaves this one; we were fascinated by this battle-scarred survivor living alongside its pampered twin, and set about decoding as much of their histories as we could. And as far as the lives that cars live, this one—likely Futurliner number 11—has had one heck of a ride.
What's in a Number?
Before we go any further, it's worth noting that even though GM only made 12 of the damn things, it's surprisingly difficult to tell which one is which, because for the most part the number wasn't recorded anywhere on the vehicles themselves except for the original license plate. Peter Pan Bus Lines says its restored model is number 7, while its parts model is number 11. However, other Futurliner owners also claim theirs is 7 and 11. Does it matter? Not especially. They're all mechanically identical, the only difference being the little exhibit each held in its side-opening bay. Dig around on forums and niche sites and you'll see there's a fair amount of debate about which bus is which in the Futurliner community, which yes, really does exist.
As a result, most Futurliners are known more for their individual histories as physical objects after being sold by GM rather than GM's official numbering scheme. That doesn't make it easy to track them, of course. But surprisingly it's the story of Peter Pan's restored Futurliner that's hazy, while the path the parts bus took to ruin is a lot easier to follow.
According to Scott Macdonald, a former Peter Pan employee who was involved with the restoration, ol' rusty 11 was taken from a field in upstate New York near the small town of East Meredith back in 1997. Previously, he claims the Futurliner was owned by Oral Roberts, the famous preacher and televangelist. "Peter found it in New York," Macdonald said, referring to the bus company's late owner, Peter L. Picknelly. "[That's] the Oral Roberts one."
According to Futurliner.org, Roberts acquired it in the 1960s and used it to tour all over North and Central America, renaming it the "Cathedral Cruiser." It's unclear how long it toured for, but Futurliner.org confirms it went as far south as the Mexican region of Veracruz, and perhaps further. Following this long journey, it was reportedly sold to another member of the clergy named David Wilkerson, according to the 2007 book General Motors Parade of Progress & A Futurliner Returns via Hemmings.
Things get a bit hazy after this, however, what we do know is it almost certainly ended up in the northern suburbs of New York City by the early 1970s.
This is substantiated by a number of replies made by several people under another Hemmings article from 2013 about a different Futurliner getting restored. We were able to reach one of these users, Gary Kline, for comment. He said he saw a Futurliner parked across the street from his elementary school in Mount Vernon, New York, around 1969 or 1970 and was immediately fascinated. "I had taken notice of a peculiar-looking bus painted red with polished steel paneling. It was parked on the grass, about five to 10 feet from the sidewalk," he told us. "I noticed a 'CLERGY' badge affixed to the inside of the windshield just above the dashboard. I don't know if the bus was serviceable then. It seemed to be parked in the same spot for a long period of time."
Kline included a map of the vicinity of the elementary school he attended and using the location of a nearby church as a marker, he was able to remember where the Futurliner was reportedly parked. "The church that may have owned it at the time is a building that looks to still be there. [In] the image, you can see a building just north of the [marked bus location] with a curved front. That building looks like a giant pope-like hat." Below, you can see the hat-shaped building in question. Kline's map put the Futurliner in the front yard of the white house next to the church.
Amazingly, Kline says he took a picture of the vehicle when it was there, though he's since lost it. "I remember taking a photo of the bus then because I thought it looked so cool and futuristic," he told us. "Unfortunately, it appears that the photo has been lost to the ravages of time. I combed through a batch of photos I had from my childhood and couldn't find it."
Kline's claim is backed up by another user named Frederick Mutz who says he saw the same vehicle in the same area. "I grew up in Mount Vernon and remember seeing this vehicle (that I now understand to be a Futurliner) and just being awestruck," he said. "My dad worked for the railroad and I just remember it being like a rubber-wheeled locomotive."
Another comment made after this one by user "Steve from NY" has much the same to say. "I [saw] this vehicle in a [scrapyard] in Mount Vernon around 1970 or 1971, which had to be a Futurliner," he said. "I remember that it looked like a streamlined locomotive, but on rubber tires." Steve's comment also includes a vital detail: The owner of the scrapyard near Mount Vernon reiterated the fact that it was owned by a preacher.
This makes it very likely that all of these people witnessed the same vehicle, just at slightly different times. "I wondered for years what it was until I saw a picture of a Futurliner a few years ago," Steve noted. "I'm very curious where it went from there."
Peter Pan Gets Its Futurliners
Sometime after this spotting, it must've made its way 150 miles north from Mount Vernon to a field in East Meredith, a hamlet tucked in the western Catskills. That's where Peter Pan found it. We don't know how it got there, when it got there, or how long it was sitting there before the bus line bought it around 1997. We did, however, manage to find a few pictures of the vehicle sitting in the field that it was eventually dragged out of, which are shared below. A few post-GM additions to this Futurliner like a small spotlight mounted to the cab, windows cut in its sides, and some body-mounted electrical hardware confirm its identity as the same bus, waiting for a savior then as now.
As for Peter Pan's restored Futurliner—again, probably number 7—its timeline between being built by GM and sold to the bus line is not so straightforward. What we do know about it, speaking to Macdonald, is that it was purchased by Peter Pan from an individual who originally planned to restore it. Realizing how much that would actually cost, however, the man decided to sell it. Peter L. Picknelly, the bus company's former CEO, bought it from that person in 1998. Macdonald says it came out of the Chicago area.
How this individual originally came to own the now-restored bus is unclear. Several Futurliners near Chicago were purchased in the 1980s by car collector Joe Bortz from a man who thankfully abandoned plans to turn them into a fleet of food trucks, and Bortz eventually resold them all to new owners in the following years. It seems likely that one of Bortz's buses was the one we drove, but there's a problem with that: Bortz denies having ever sold one of his five Futurliners directly to Peter Pan. "The Peter Pan one I don't think I've ever had any association with," he told us when we got in touch. Still, it's likely this is it.
Of the five Futurliners Bortz sold, he's confident of where four of them eventually ended up, and the details he provided are easy to corroborate. One was restored in Canada by brothers Richard and Mario Petit and, strangely, used to promote cell phones before eventually being polished into the aforementioned Futurliner that sold in 2006 for $4.1 million. Another was donated to the National Automotive & Truck Museum in Auburn, Indiana, where it was restored and still remains today. Of the remaining two, one was redone on television by Kindig-It Designs in Utah, and another is still being restored in Sweden by a company called Jonsson Power. The fifth? He doesn't remember what happened to it. The evidence is entirely circumstantial, but it all points to Bortz's fifth bus being the one Peter L. Picknelly eventually bought and had restored.
There's one other bit of misinfo we ran into—we see it as our duty to clean up this story, y'know, for history's sake—and that's the previously cited copy of National Bus Trader from 2001, which states that the Futurliner taken from the farm field in East Meredith is the one that got fixed up. That'd be a good narrative, but it's pretty clear that's not true. Historical photos show the Oral Roberts Futurliner had windows cut into its sides, and the remnants of these windows are visible on the ruined one in Peter Pan's possession.
Knowing how it got there doesn't make seeing Peter Pan's unrestored Futurliner in such a poor state any less sobering. Sure we may have recorded some of its history, but we have to wonder what will still survive as the decades pass to tie all of those people, places, and memories together. Looking around the bus, it's unknown what has and hasn't been replaced, although many of the interior finishes appear to still be original. Items of note include the art deco-styled light fixtures, perforated upholstery on the headliner, and the large square skylight. Some pretty serious Fallout vibes, if you ask me.
On the working Futurliner, many of these items had been replaced, although the skylight was still functional.
John Cieplik, general manager at Peter Pan Coach Builders, couldn't clarify either bus' history, but he explained that so far they haven't had to take many parts off of the hulk to keep their restored bus running. It's just in an awkward limbo between being an interesting piece of automotive history and a nearly unrestorable chunk of metal. He reiterated this fact by noting Peter Pan's functional Futurliner is for sale—if you have $1,000,000 laying around, it can be yours—and that when it goes, this carcass will also need to be taken.
"When that goes bye-bye, this one's going with it," he told me. Without the other Futurliner's longevity to support, there's realistically little use to keeping it around.
The Final Stop—For Now
If this vehicle is indeed number 11, it began its life by displaying the "March of Tools" exhibit to a technology-curious public all over the country. From there, it was modified for use by the church and taken on a long journey across the continent once again. It seemed like it might've ended its years-long American tour in a scrap yard Mount Vernon, New York, but then it was hauled up to a field in East Meredith where it continued to decay. Finally, plucked from its agrarian backdrop and brought to Springfield, Massachusetts, it arrived at its current resting place. A very long journey for a piece of automotive history, and quite clearly a weary one.
Can it be restored? Well, anything can be restored—it's more a question of what original would really be left if it was. As it sits, it's a curious ruin. Cyclists whiz by and stare, passing pedestrians scratch their heads and snap photos—but at the very least, what it still does is make people think. It definitely made me wonder about what it—the parade, its journey, and its eventual decay—all meant.
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