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Big Red found!

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:

The truck of tomorrow, today!

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.


19 thoughts on “Big Red found!

  1. Hell of a story.
    I do not recall the truck but remember the picture. My generation, if you were a car guy, you were either a Chevy guy or a Ford guy. There were a small percentage of weirdo’s that were Chrysler guys 🙂 I recall Ford and Chevy warring over turbines, but not this truck.

    I was a Chevy guy and hated Ford’s, with one exception. The GT-40, Le Mans, and beating the crap out of the your-a-pee-uns. Ford beat them so badly it looked easy after the fact.

    Anyway, neat truck, great story, only in America.

    1. Lifelong Ford guy me, as you already know. But go have a looky at my Gab page and see if the header photo looks at all familiar to ya, Bar’. 😉

      1. Oh snap, looks like a “weirdo guy” car to me 🙂

        It seems it’s gotta look like a Jetsons vehicle if it has a turbine.

        Look up GM Bison Turbine for a peek at a real futuristic Big truck…

    2. There were the Olds and Pontiac fans rebels as well. Some misguided Mercury afficinados.

      Then there were the AMC oddballs…

      (I do admit to a fondness for the AMC Javelin’s looks. Ok it’s not like I said I liked You Light Up My Life or anything. Right?)

      1. Well yea, but one fan doesn’t count 🙂

        If you were a Chevy guy, the rest of the GM lineup came in second, well ahead of Ford and Chrysler. I have a fondness for the early GTO’s and the Toronado is one of my all time favorites, right up there with the ’49 Cadillac Sedanette.

        What’s an AMC? 🙂 American Movie Channel…

        1. Well most of the time they were bizarre cars like the AMC Gremlin and the Pacer. After all, it was the company Mittens Romney’s Dad cobbled together.

          Remember though, they did make the Jeep.

          Like I said, I liked the Javelin styling and the AMX package was known to be competitive.

          I am absolutely a Chevy fan. Bill ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins is my Main Man.

          1. Semi-Correction:
            They bought Jeep and then built lesser versions of the original 🙂

            The Javelin was decent. My real memory comes from the legendary Mark Donahue with Penske and their Trans Am operation. That was the heyday of Club racing and Trans Am & Can Am. I would start racing in 1973 with all that as my backdrop.

            Very few people realize how much money the Sports Car Club of America made off the Trans Am name. Every Pontiac Firebird Trans Am paid our club. In fact, back then our national championship races (“The Runoffs”) had a near zero entry fee. All courtesy of the Trans Am money.

            I still find it hard to believe that both Pontiac and Oldsmobile are gone. What’s left? Chevy, Buick, and Cadillac plus the GMC trucks that are essentially the same as Chevy trucks.

            I don’t know what I would buy if I were going to purchase something new. It’s not going to be a problem though 🙂

              1. Yes the red, white and blue paint was common on those.

                Remember the Hornet? Also a favorite to be turned into a Pro Stock drag racer in the day.

                  1. I don’t see it as being much of a SCCA racer though. 😁 In my mind’s eye it was too squat and suspension not well done.

                    That can work going straight or Just Turn Left. On road courses, not so much.

                    1. Left and right, up and down, has a way of getting every mechanical parts attention. The Javelin suffered engine oiling failures under high G’s. It took a while for Penske to get that straightened out.

                      The Hornet doesn’t have the look of a road racer, but the hatchback looked better. I seem to recall the hornet wagon had a 4 wheel drive option, or maybe it was something someone did for fun.

            1. Willys made Jeep and got bought by Kaiser. Then Kaiser-Jeep got bought by AMC in 1970. So you are correct.

  2. Mike (and others interested),
    Ran across this awhile back, seems back c.1970-71, Holman Moody had the garage sale from hell at their shop on the edge of the Charlotte (NC) airport. The link embedded in your story details the incredible saga of how HM ended up with Big Red. Here’s the link to the posting on The Roaring Season that covers the HM sale and also has pictures. When you view the pix, in addition to other vintage priceless American performance treasures (racks of new Boss 429 semi-hemi engines, Torino bodies-in-white, Ford GT chassis, etc.), you’ll see some shots of Big Red. Enjoy!!!


    1. COOOOL!!! Thanks, T. The story that led me to the Ford TurboTruck article was a good one itself, all about the GM Futurliner from 1939. The Drive is actually a great site, lots of good stuff to be found over there. I should probably get it into Ye Olde Blogrolle…

    2. Thanks!
      Enjoy I did. I was a young teen when Ford was putting the GT40 program together. In ’67, I was 14. My “heroes”, Foyt and Gurney, both Americans, drove an all American car to victory at Le Mans. 9 to 10 years later I would be racing with one of Gurney’s friends.

  3. Now all you guys know, of course, GM was not to be left out of the futuristic turbine-powered truck experimentation either. Their variant was the Chevrolet Turbo Titan III: and
    Speaking of turbine powered wheels, as opposed to wings, here’s the ultimate site on Chrysler’s Turbine Car: Of course, out of the remaining nine cars left, Jay Leno scored one, go figure. Mike, you being a fellow gearhead, here are three must-add sites, all worth many hours of enjoyment (don’t even get me started on aviation stuff)…

    1. OK, I see what’s going on here. You all hired TN… to keep me occupied through the holiday…

      Oh yea, whatever you do don’t throw out any aviation links. there’s only so much time in a day. 🙂

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