When unveiled at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, Ford’s monolithic turbine-powered truck – affectionately known as ‘Big Red’ – was hailed as the future of motoring.
With a height of 4 meters, it was two and a half times the height of an average car. The tandem trailers, which were 100 feet long, were twice as long as a Tyrannosaurus rex.
And its futuristic 600 hp gas turbine engine convinced the car-loving public and Ford engine drivers that Big Red would usher in a new era of American motoring.
Big Red’s cabin could contain a kitchen complete with drink vending machines, a refrigerator, and an oven. There was also an incineration toilet and a television that was visible from the passenger seat.
Top executives at Ford were eager to capitalize on its fame and mass produce the prototype, but the gas-guzzling turbine engines soon led to its demise.
New environmental regulations, massive production costs, and the whims of state laws nearly sent Big Red to the crusher.
But sheer luck saw it not only survive but also be lovingly restored to its former glory by a mysterious truck enthusiast who has agreed to tell Big Red’s story for the first time.
At 30 meters in length and with a gas turbine engine, Big Red caused a stir when it was presented to the public at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City
With its dark red metallic paint and silver candied metal wings, Big Red drew attention everywhere
There was plenty of space in the truck cabin for a kitchen – complete with refrigerator, oven and toilet – and a television that was only visible to the person in the passenger seat
Big Red’s whereabouts have been the source of feverish speculation on Internet bulletin boards and car shows for decades.
But now Lee Holman, owner of Ford’s former factory-sponsored race car team Holman-Moody, has told The ride the bizarre story of how he got Big Red’s cab in the 1970s.
After the 1964 World’s Fair, Big Red had crisscrossed the country at auto fairs and promotional events for Ford.
Holman told The Drive that at one of those events, the 1970 Omni Auto Show in Atlanta, the Big Red’s oil and fuel had been drained before being put on display.
Then a Ford employee who had flown in from Detroit to return the truck tried to start the engine before adding the oil.
The engine ‘melted’ when starting. Ford then hired a truck-trailer to haul the super-sized truck’s cab back to Detroit.
However, the tow truck broke down near Charlotte, North Carolina, and they asked if it could be stored in a Holman-Moody team hangar at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
Holman explained to The Drive that his father John Holman got into a falling out with Henry Ford II after the auto giant abruptly canceled its racing contract as it tried to reduce emissions after the 1970 Clean Air Act expanded.
And when Ford Motor Company arranged for another tow truck to pick up Big Red, his father reportedly told the car giant, ‘P *** off, Big Red is ours’.
In the late 1970s, as Big Red fell into disrepair, the Holmans decided to sell.
Big Red was hailed as the future of turbine haulage when it was unveiled in the 1960s. It attracted thousands of visitors to Ford’s headquarters and car shows around the country
Big Red was able to place an entire kitchen in the forward cabin, including a refrigerator, oven, television, and combustion toilet
Its sleek design and massive dimensions – 30 meters long and 3 meters high – made Big Red stand out on its journey through North America in the 1960s.
The Big Red’s cab, seen here, was lovingly restored in the 1980s by a mysterious owner for two years, but the twin trailers seem to have been lost forever.
The new buyer, who bought it for an undisclosed amount and still owns Big Red to this day, has been transfixed since seeing the truck’s unveiling at the World’s Fair.
The Drive tracked down the new owner and spoke to the new owner, who agreed to share his story of restoring it to its former glory provided identifying details such as its location, name and occupation are kept secret.
The dream of the new owner was to make the Big Red roadworthy again, while meeting the original specifications of the engine as closely as possible.
This presented several obstacles, not least the fact that the engine had been left completely incapacitated by the Ford Co employee’s attempts to start it without oil.
So, in 1983, the owner traveled to Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, to gather precious insights from the mechanics and engineers who brought Big Red to life.
He then turned to a California company, Engine Technologies Corporation, which purchased Ford’s gas turbine technology after it was considered obsolete.
He was able to buy a new 707 engine and called on Big Red’s janitor at Ford, a man named John Stopa, to make sure it was installed correctly.
For several months, the mysterious owner stripped the truck’s cab of its original paint and carefully replicated the dark red and silver metallic color scheme.
Meticulous repairs to the body and wiring were completed over two years, until the owner was finally convinced it had been restored to the glory of the World’s Fair.
“I enjoyed bringing an old truck back to life,” said the owner The ride
But while Big Red’s cabin has been rescued, the fate of his two trailers remains a mystery.
Lee Holman recalled that one of the trailers had been sold to Bardahl’s racing team and used to transport his vehicles to events around the country.
A photo of the trailer, repainted in Bardahl colors, was located at The Drive. But attempts to track it down have proved futile.
The second trailer disappeared after it was sold to Bill Stroppe, a well-known figure in American racing circles from California, who died in 1995.