When it was unveiled at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, Ford’s monolithic turbine-powered truck – affectionately dubbed ‘Big Red’ – was hailed as the future of motoring.
At 13 feet tall, it stood two and a half times the height of an average car. Its tandem trailers, stretching out 100 feet, were twice the length of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
And its futuristic 600-horsepower gas turbine engine convinced both the car-loving public and Ford motor executives that Big Red would usher in a new era of American motoring.
Big Red’s cab could hold a kitchen complete with beverage dispensers, a refrigerator, and an oven. There was also an incinerator toilet and a television that was visible from the passenger’s seat.
Top executives at Ford were keen to capitalize on its fame and mass-manufacture the prototype, but the gas-guzzling turbine-powered engines swiftly led to its downfall.
New environmental regulations, huge production costs and the vagaries of states’ laws very nearly saw Big Red consigned to the crusher.
But sheer good fortune saw it not only survive, but be lovingly restored to its former glory, by a secretive truck enthusiast who has agreed to tell Big Red’s story for the first time.
At 100 feet long, and with a gas turbine engine, Big Red caused a stir when it was introduced to the public at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City
With its dark red metallic paint job, and silver-candied metallic wings, Big Red turned heads wherever it went
There was plenty of space in the truck cab for a kitchen – complete with fridge, oven and toilet – and a television visible only to the person in the passenger seat
Big Red’s whereabouts have been the source of feverish speculation on internet message boards and at auto shows for decades.
But now Lee Holman, owner of Ford’s former factory-sponsored racecar team Holman-Moody, has told The Drive the bizarre tale of how he came to own Big Red’s cab for a period in the 1970s.
After the 1964 World’s Fair, Big Red had criss-crossed the country attending car fairs and promotional events for Ford.
Holman told The Drive that at one such event, The Omni car show in Atlanta in 1970, Big Red had been drained of its oil and fuel before being placed on display.
Afterwards a Ford employee who had flown in from Detroit to return the truck, tried to start the engine before refilling the oil.
The engine ‘melted’ on ignition. Ford then hired a truck-trailer to tow the supersize truck’s cab back to Detroit.
However, the tow-truck broke down near Charlotte, North Carolina, and they asked if it could be stored at a hangar owned by the Holman-Moody team at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
Holman explained to The Drive that his father John Holman fell out with Henry Ford II after the motoring giant abruptly canceled their racing contract, as it tried to reduce emissions following the expansion of the Clean Air Act in 1970.
And when Ford Motor Company arranged for another tow truck to collect Big Red, his father reportedly told the car giant: ‘P*** off, Big Red is ours’.
By the late 1970s, with Big Red falling into disrepair, the Holmans decided to sell.
Big Red was hailed as the future of turbine transport when it was unveiled in the 1960s. It attracted thousands of visitors at Ford’s HQ and at car fairs across the country
Big Red was able to fit an entire kitchen in its front cab, including a refrigerator, oven, television and incinerator toilet
The sleek design and vast size – 100 foot long and 13 foot tall – made Big Red stand out as it traveled across North America in the 1960s
Big Red’s cab, seen here, was lovingly restored by a mystery owner over two years in the 1980s, but its twin trailers appear to have been lost for good
The new buyer, who purchased it for an undisclosed sum and still owns Big Red to this day, had been transfixed ever since he saw the truck’s unveiling at the World’s Fair.
The Drive tracked down and spoke to the new owner, who only agreed to share his story of restoring it to its former glory on the condition that any identifying details such as his location, name and occupation, be kept secret.
The new owner’s dream was to make Big Red roadworthy again, while sticking as closely as possible to the engine’s original, turbine-powered specifications.
This presented several obstacles: not least the fact the motor had been left completely incapacitated by the Ford Co employee’s attempts to start it without oil.
So the owner traveled to Ford HQ in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1983, to glean precious insights from the mechanics and engineers who had brought Big Red to life.
He then turned to a California company Engine Technologies Corporation who had purchased Ford’s gas turbine technology after it was deemed obsolete.
He was able to purchase a new 707 engine, and called upon Big Red’s caretaker at Ford, a man named John Stopa, to see that it was installed properly.
Over several months, the mystery owner stripped the truck cab of its original paint job and carefully replicated the dark red and silver-candied metallic color scheme.
Painstaking repairs to the body and wiring were completed over two years, until the owner was finally satisfied it had been restored to its World’s Fair glory.
‘I enjoyed bringing an old truck back to life,’ the owner told The Drive.
But while Big Red’s cab has been saved, the fate of its two trailers remains a mystery.
Lee Holman recalled that one of the trailers was sold to Bardahl racing team, and used to transport its vehicles to events across the country.
A photo of the trailer repainted in Bardahl colors was located by The Drive. But attempts to track it down have proven futile.
The second trailer disappeared after it was sold to Bill Stroppe, a well-known figure in US racing circles from California, who passed away in 1995.