Back in March, or that’s when the article appeared, and as you’d expect it’s one hell of a story.
We Found Ford’s Incredible Turbine-Powered Semi-Truck ‘Big Red’ That’s Been Lost for Decades
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.
You have questions? We’ve got answers. But first, we need to lay out 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.
Like I said, it’s one hell of a good story if you’re into this sort of thing, and ferchrissake who on earth wouldn’t be? There’s an astonishing local angle too, which I didn’t know about but somehow didn’t. There’s a reason I say I shoulda known, which I shall reveal anon.
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.
The part I bolded above is the key bit. See, back in my air-freight delivery days, Holman Moody was a regular stop; I must’ve been in that very storage hangar mentioned above about a gazillion times. There was always some danged neat stuff cached here and there in that cavernous, dilapidated space. Holman Moody used to build engines for NASCAR race teams back in the day, there was this big testing stand out back which they’d bolt a new engine into and ru it in. I was out there a few times when such was going on, and man, you talk about LOUD. Always got my heart racing and the gearhead adrenaline flowing, that did.
Anyways, the article is a must-read for anyone with even a drop of honest-Injun, true-blue American motor oil coursing through their veins. Yes, there are pitchers, including this one of Big Red in her heyday:
Glorious, no? The real surprise for me was seeing just how small the turbine engine powering Big Red was/is; the thing is much, much more compact than the 4- or 6-banger diesels motorvating big trucks down the highways and byways today.
Like I said, don’t fail to read this one. It’s as Americana as Americana gets, a saga that could only ever happen in America That Was. Big Red was lost, but then found and made new again by determined men who cared enough to take on a difficult job and by-God get it done. One can only pray that, someplace on down the line, the same might be said about America itself.