Ford's Incredible Turbine-Powered Semi-Truck
The 40-year search for an unbelievable piece of history is over.
Date: 3/28/2021 4:51:35 PM ( 42 d ) ... viewed 45 times
We Found Ford's Incredible Turbine-Powered Semi-Truck 'Big Red' That's Been Lost for Decades
The 40-year search for an unbelievable piece of history is over. Do you have questions? We have answers.
By Peter Holderith March 24, 2021
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Peter Holderith View Peter Holderith's Articles
Several months ago, we set out to catch a ghost. First seen at the 1964 World's Fair alongside a fun new car called the Mustang, Ford's "Big Red" was the automaker's experimental gas turbine semi-truck, a moonshot experiment built to lift American motoring into the jet age. Thirteen feet tall, nearly 100 feet long with its tandem trailers, packed with truly futuristic features and powered by a monster 600-horsepower turbine engine, the fully-functional prototype was a wonder to behold. It wowed fair attendees and captured the imaginations of thousands on a cross-country promotional tour that followed. Then, it was mothballed when turbine technology didn't add up. It changed hands by chance, people lost interest, and years after the 10-ton fire-breather barreled down America's highways, it vanished.
Though it seems like it'd be pretty tough to hide, Big Red's been missing since the early 1980s. It's perhaps one of the most significant pieces of automotive history to drop off the face of the earth. Ford itself had no idea what happened to it. But now, we do—after months of searching, after our initial investigation last fall got us closer than anyone had been in decades, the hunt is finally over. We've found Big Red. And we can confirm not only that the truck still exists, but that it's been painstakingly restored—working turbine and all—to its former glory by its exceedingly private and equally dedicated owner.
Big Red is pictured sometime in the mid-1980s after its paint restoration was completed.
Do you have questions?
We've got answers. But first, we need to layout some caveats. After we tracked him down and made contact through an attorney, Big Red's owner—a man who insisted on remaining anonymous for the sake of privacy—finally agreed to share the story of his prized possession with the world under a few strict conditions. We won’t reveal his identity or the truck's current location, which we have confirmed. We can, however, tell you just about everything else: why he bought it, how it was restored, and why it's been kept a secret for 40 years.
In the course of tracking down Big Red, we've also come in contact with several key figures who were involved with the truck at one point or another throughout its history, and we're now able to fill in a lot of gaps in the publicly-known timeline of how it went from being feted at the World's Fair to a discarded curiosity ripe for the picking. We've also found a trove of original Ford documents with technical diagrams, mechanical specs, and marketing plans for the mammoth truck, some of which are published here with more coming in a future story soon.
There are still a few grey areas—we don't yet have every moment of Big Red's past documented—but The Drive's effort here represents the first time anyone has nailed down its segmented, mixed-up story in one place. Let's start right where the trail went cold, about 40 years ago.
Holman-Moody Gets a New Truck
As we wrote in our initial investigation, the last public record of the truck showed it was owned by Holman-Moody, Ford's former factory-sponsored race team, and parked in a Charlotte, North Carolina storage hangar through at least the late 1970s. This is backed up by photographs and numerous eyewitness accounts, plus a brochure where it was actually listed for sale as a surplus item, but what's never been clear is how Big Red ended up in Holman-Moody's hands in the first place. Thankfully, Lee Holman is a chatty guy.
Holman is the current owner of H&M and the son of the company's co-founder John Holman. He took over the business in 1978, so he's obviously a person of interest in the Big Red timeline. We tried contacting him last fall but never heard back; through another source, we finally managed to get him on the phone to confirm some key details that have never before been published as fact.
This part of the truck's history is key to how it survived the crusher—the fate of most concept cars—and it's incredible it happened at all. Completely by chance, Big Red escaped Ford's grasp for just long enough to get in the right place at the right time to make it into private hands. We initially found this part of the saga hard to believe, but now it's been confirmed as the truth by Holman.
And if you’re curious as to why a machine like Big Red was even mothballed in the first place, why automakers' dreams of turbine technology for regular road-going vehicles flamed out in the late 1960s, we have you covered there as well. But back to the story, which picks up in 1970.
"It was on display in The Omni in Atlanta, a big car show. And in order to be on display, they had to drain all the fuel and all of the oil from the vehicle. After the show was over, a driver flew down from Detroit, hopped in it, cranked it up, and did not fill it [back up with oil]. It melted the engine," Holman said. "Ford got a big tractor-trailer truck—a wrecker—and was towing it back to Detroit... And it just so happens that the truck towing Big Red broke down on the interstate near Charlotte, and they asked if they could store the vehicle in our building while they arranged further transport."
Part of this particular story was previously posted as a secondhand account to a forum online, though, like many other parts of Big Red's past, it was hearsay. To finally have it nailed down from someone who was there is relieving. And following that fateful tow, the circumstances of Holman-Moody actually taking ownership of Big Red are interesting, to say the least.
bigmacktrucks.com | kscarpel
Big Red in the Holman-Moody hangar. Note the tow bar still connected to the front of the truck.
It was around that same time, Holman told us, that H&M's racing contract was canceled abruptly by Henry Ford II as Ford and the rest of Detroit's Big Three found themselves under pressure from the government to reduce emissions following the landmark expansion of the Clean Air Act in 1970. According to Holman, Ford pulled the plug instantly. The money stopped coming, Ford ordered trucks on the way to events in California to be turned around and sent back to North Carolina—via them being pulled over by the California Highway Patrol, Holman said—and it all left a bad taste in his father's mouth.
This was allegedly followed by a lot of bickering between the two parties until finally, Henry Ford II sent the company a letter—which Holman says he still has—saying "everything in your possession is yours to use as you see fit -- Henry Ford II." This letter arrived, of course, with Big Red still sitting in Holman-Moody's Charlotte, North Carolina facility. Someone had forgotten about it—but soon enough, Ford came knocking again.
"When they called up to say 'Ok, we've arranged a tow vehicle to pick up Big Red' my father had gotten that letter," Holman said. "And after Henry had been so rude and obnoxious, he told Ford 'Piss off, Big Red is ours'—in those words."
Now that H&M had this massive, semi-famous truck, though, there was the lingering question of what to do with it. The answer, in a nutshell, was not much really could be done with it. Holman says that due to its immense weight—the cab alone weighs 20,000 pounds according to original documentation we found—it faced serious hurdles in becoming road legal. Its powerplant was also thoroughly ruined after that failed start in Atlanta. As it turns out, an engine that runs up to 75,500 RPM and 1,750 degrees Fahrenheit really doesn’t like doing so without oil.
Previous reports that the truck has endured multiple engine swaps over the years also all appear to be hearsay. Holman said a new engine was never installed when the truck was in the company's possession. He also said it was never repainted, however, that conflicts with the current owner's own assessment that Big Red had been painted a different shade of red at least once prior to his full restoration.
And on the subject of painting: We want to be fully transparent here and remind you that a source for our first article told us the truck had been painted blue when he saw it in private hands in the early 1980s. This now appears to be untrue. That same source gave us other information that turned out to be completely accurate, however, it's impossible to square the alleged blue paint job with definitive statements from Holman and the current owner saying that never happened. The timeline of the restoration that followed its sale, which we'll detail below, makes it possible that the truck had a blueish layer of primer on it when the source saw it, but that's pure speculation.
Regardless of the paint situation, H&M had clearly had enough with Big Red by the late 1970s. It was falling into disrepair, it took up tremendous space, it needed to go. Holman spent years trying to find a buyer. Eventually, he did—the current owner, who told us he had been fascinated by the turbine truck since its dazzling World's Fair debut nearly two decades prior, finally purchased Big Red from Holman-Moody in a private transaction in the early 1980s. And boy, did he have plans.
The Restoration: Still Big, Still Red, Still Turbine-Powered
Big Red's original 705 turbine engine—Ford's developmental turbine engines were numbered from 701 to 707—was gone by the time the current owner took possession; he claims it was sent back to Ford, which likely destroyed it, seeing as it was just a ruined version of an experimental motor. Having sat around for more than a decade at that point, Big Red was a roller in desperate need of restoration. It had been repainted a new shade of red and its five-speed transmission had also been removed, though it was still present with the vehicle.
From Holman-Moody's old hangar facility at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the owner says "[Big Red] was pulled backward using a tandem road tractor with a tow plate from the fifth wheel of the tow truck" all the way back to a shop where it was to be repainted and restored. That must've been an interesting sight for anybody else on the highway.
A later iteration of the 705 turbine—called the 707, pictured above—was obtained by the owner during the restoration process. As we mentioned in a previous article we wrote about the Ford versus GM showdown to perfect the turbine truck, Ford continued its work on the turbine-powered dream into the early 1970s, going as far as to put the advanced engines in regular W-1000 tractors and using them for supply runs between Dearborn and Toledo for a few years. This continued development is what gave birth to the 707. The new 707 version 3 engine had less power than the 705, just 525 horsepower as compared to the original's 600, but it was more efficient, more plentiful—it's unlikely any 705s still exist—and more reliable.
Intending to do as original a restoration as possible and keep Big Red turbine-powered, in 1983 the owner traveled to Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan to gather information from a few company sources including a man named John Stopa—Big Red's caretaker at Ford back in the '60s. As the owner put it, “Big Red was his baby. If you wanted to know anything about the truck while it was at Ford, you asked John.”
From there, he approached Ivan Swatman of an outfit called Engine Technologies Corporation in Chula Vista, California. It turned out Swatman, an engineer by trade, had bought the gas turbine technology from Ford after it had ended the project. From him, the owner got a shiny new 707 in the spring of 1984. Seeing as local Ford turbine engine specialists were in short supply, Stopa came down and visited the shop during the installation to ensure it was done properly. (It was.)
So yes, Big Red is still turbine-powered. The photos of the two-year restoration process published below have never been seen anywhere else.
Seeing as the old Allison transmission was meant for the 705, different flexplates were obtained from Allison to mate the new engine with the original transmission. Both are pictured above.
And below is John Stopa, standing in front of the 707 turbine that now powers Big Red during his visit to the shop to check on its progress. With him standing there, one can get an idea of how truly massive it is. The flat floor of the truck's cab is well above his head.
John Stopa inspecting the newly-installed 707 turbines during Big Red's restoration.
The owner painstakingly replicated all of the colors on the truck and stripped off the old paint. Over the course of six months, the truck's jet-age lines were restored with the help of "top-notch body men."
"I spent a lot of time and money getting the right color and paint process to match the original Ford color," he told us. "The color is a dark red candied metallic. The silver is candied metallic, also."
In our first article, we spoke to one of the workers involved in this long restoration. He claims that much of the truck was clearly not designed to be disassembled which made the process considerably slower. He also stated that the bodywork was extremely heavy, made of several layers of fiberglass and covered in thick coats of paint. You'll notice in the image below that at least one of the truck's Jetsons-style badges also put up a fight, and had to be masked off instead of removed during painting.
Before the paintwork, another "original" defect was repaired—a scrape along the roof of the cab with an interesting origin story relayed to the owner by Stopa. During the cross-country promotional drive in 1964, Big Red ran with a 1965 Mercury station wagon as an escort vehicle, whose occupants would relay directions to the truck's driver via a two-way radio. As they drove through an unspecified city, a communication mix-up sent Big Red down a narrow road leading under a low bridge that was literally too low for the massive vehicle.
"The driver stopped the truck before the bridge, which backed up traffic. There was no backing up Big Red. All six men got out, deflated the suspension airbags to lower the truck about 4 inches so they could pass beneath the bridge," the owner said. "The truss rods beneath the bridge had large metal nuts on the underside of the bridge that the driver needed to avoid, so he had to wiggle the truck carefully beneath the bridge between the metal nuts without damaging the vehicle. The driver managed to avoid damage to Big Red except for one small scrape on the top of the cab. The body men repaired that scrape prior to painting."
The restoration involved a lot of research—the owner says he “made some great contacts with Ford Motor Company” to gather information—repairs to wiring, and other small fixes to ensure it was as original and functional as possible. The work took two years to complete. But at the end of it, Big Red was back—running, driving, fully restored to World's Fair condition. It was moved to a purpose-built garage constructed with the assistance of the owner's father, where it's remained since.
"The Big Red project was undertaken over 35 years ago. I enjoyed bringing an old truck back to life," the owner told us. "I enjoyed the challenge of finding the parts I needed. It was just one of many projects I have done across the years."
Still Missing: The Trailers
Though we've managed to locate the tractor, Big Red's tandem trailers have never been found. We're still not sure of their fate after an intense amount of searching—it's entirely possible they've long since been destroyed. At the time of its sale, Lee Holman told the owner that "one went to the Bardahl race team.... [and] the second trailer... went to Bill Stroppe Racing in Long Beach, California."
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One of the truck's now-missing trailers in its Bardahl livery
We know the first part of that story is true because there's a single picture of this trailer in Bardahl's livery, seen above. The second part of the story is less clear. Bill Stroppe was a legendary figure in American motorsports, known especially for his Baja 1000-crushing Ford Broncos. However, the Stroppe story has been mentioned by other sources without much evidence supporting it. The current owner is skeptical as well.
"Willie Thompson, a supercharger pioneer and employee for Bill Stroppe and later an employee for Holman and Moody in Charlotte, put me in touch with a gentleman who worked for Bill Stroppe. According to this gentleman, a trailer like that was never there," he said. So its ultimate fate remains a mystery—so far.
The bogie connecting the two trailers, however, was included with the sale, and the owner still has it. If they do ever resurface, the trailers will be able to be reattached to the truck. But their return isn't likely. Once they were separated from the famous truck, it would be hard to distinguish them from any other trailer. In the end, they're just functional implements, and it's likely they were worked until their useful service lives ended, and then scrapped or left to rot somewhere.
Big Red's Gray Areas
"I can’t remember where we went with the rig," Charlie Henry told us, "The one thing I vividly remember is tying that big-ass rope to the pickup and Big Red on the shoulder of the Interstate."
Henry, who lived near Detroit in the late 1960s, contacted us after the initial story was published to help fill in a blank spot in Big Red's timeline—the gap between its cross country tour and its roadside rescue by Holman-Moody. During this period, Big Red’s useful life was clearly nearing—if not already at—its end. The party was over. Ford was too busy trying to overcome hurdles with its new 707 turbine program to go back and care for this singular concept vehicle. The automaker clearly didn’t know what to do with it anymore, and even just a few years after its conception, the very idea of a revolutionary, futuristic truck-like Big Red was starting to seem a little ridiculous. As a result, it was left to collect dust while conventional-looking Ford tractors took over the duties of road-testing turbines.
One day, an acquaintance of Henry named Andy Hotton said he needed his help to move Big Red, along with Bill Stroppe. Henry doesn't remember exactly why he was recruited for the job, but it boiled down to getting the truck from Hotton's shop in Belleville, Michigan to Dearborn, where he speculates it was to be shipped somewhere—exactly where he doesn’t know.
"The truck made it out to I-94 under its own power,” he said. “At any rate, it got about 5 miles from the shop and broke down on I-94. Andy came back to the shop in Bill’s rental car, grabbed me and a big rope, and we drove back out to Red in the shop pickup truck. We tied the pickup truck to Big Red and towed it to Dearborn on I-94. I think [Stroppe] steered Big Red, Andy drove the pickup and I drove the rental car."
Big Red's current owner wasn't aware of this bit of its history when we passed along the story, but he did not doubt it's true. According to him, just steering Big Red with a non-functional engine would be difficult, to put it lightly.
"Trying to steer Big Red without power steering would be a beast,” the owner said. “The truck has a twenty-gallon reserve air tank. Without at least 80-85 pounds of air pressure, the air brakes would lock up. You can use your air supply up in a short period of time."
The owner also says that it makes sense the truck wouldn't stay running for Stroppe due to a previous mechanical failure that occurred while the truck was still in Ford's hands. According to John Stopa, the original caretaker at Ford in the ‘60s, the turbine engine's heat exchanger split due to fatigue sometime after the initial cross-country publicity blitz. Exhaust from the turbine was flowing directly into its intake, which means it would either have a lot of trouble running or wouldn't run at all. In fact, the vehicle was to be hauled out and driven in Detroit's Christmas parade sometime in the late 1960s—but due to the faulty recuperator, it missed the event. ("John said he tried everything he could think of, but the turbine would not fire," the owner told us.)
This hazy period of half a decade will likely never be completely filled in for several reasons. We asked Ford if the company's kept any record of the truck at this time, and it hasn't—not surprising considering automakers pretty quickly lose interest in concept cars and trucks once the bright lights fade away. Unfortunately, many of the primary sources who would've been familiar with this period of the truck's life have now passed away as well. There are aspects of Big Red’s past that are likely lost to time forever—but as with our first installment, we hope this follow-up sparks more memories and brings us closer to unlocking the full story.
The Truck Today
Today, the truck is still in near-perfect condition and sits in its custom-built garage, being visited occasionally by the owner and his family. The owner says that while it may be a little dusty, it hasn't deteriorated at all during its time in storage. The phrase "ran when parked" would apply here—it will definitely still roll, and while booting up a decades-old turbine engine would be a delicate operation, the owner says the truck is in good enough shape to fire right back up with a little TLC. The last time it was driven was around the year 2000.
There's one major thing still left to address, though: new pictures. While the owner has been gracious enough to speak with us and share a ton of information as well as the shots from the restoration we've published here, he's so far declined to provide more current photos. Based on the response to our first story, Big Red is still an object of fascination for tens of thousands of people out there, even 60 years later. We know you want to see it as it stands today. We do, too.
What we can say is the owner's indicated he might be willing to take new photos of the truck later in the spring, and we're crossing our fingers. He said no new photos of the truck have been taken for nearly two decades, so a little more time spent waiting isn't going to hurt anyone.
That leaves the final question: Why is it so hidden away, and why has it been kept a secret all this time? It's a question best answered by putting yourself in the owner's shoes. As Lee Holman mentioned, the truck is immensely heavy and certainly limited in terms of the roads it can even travel on. It's also powered by an ultra-rare, near unobtanium turbine engine that pretty much nobody knows anything about anymore. If there were an issue with this motor and the truck broke down while underway—or damaged itself attempting to start—what do you do exactly?
And if you don't want to move the truck, coming forward with it means you're essentially turning your home into a museum. Possessing a vehicle like this is a complicated responsibility if you also want to live a normal, private life. The owner doesn't want people finding the truck, or the attention that would come with having such a famous artifact in his possession. However, despite this desire for anonymity and the numerous roadblocks related to showing Big Red to the world, he insists that the truck will not be in hiding forever.
"I was invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the gas turbine in Dearborn [in 1983]. I talked to several people who had worked on the project and Big Red. Many of them thought the truck should be displayed in the Henry Ford Museum," the owner told us.
"Who knows, maybe someday it will be. I have always thought Big Red was one of Ford’s greatest achievements."
Know anything else about Big Red's past, or tips on other long-lost concept cars? Contact the author directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
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