B y 1964, approximately half the 41,000-mile Interstate Highway System in the United States was open for use, and when completed decades later, it linked nearly all American cities boasting a population of 100,000 or more.
In response, the U.S. Department of Commerce recommended the easing of length and load restrictions for commercial transporters, which motivated truck manufacturers to envision the perfect vehicle for the coming 1970s and beyond.
Created for North America’s expanding interstate system, the Ford Gas Turbine experimental transporter debuted in 1964, and was nicked-named “Big Red.” The towering fiberglass cab dwarfed anything on the highways, and the corrugated panels with skirted trailers helped to cut down air turbulence.
Ford Motor Co.’s answer was the eye-popping Gas Turbine prototype, a giant long-distance, non-stop vehicle unveiled in 1964. The truck was affectionately dubbed “Big Red,” owing to its monstrous size and color that accented the tractor and duo Fruehauf trailers.
Among Ford engineers and designers, Big Red was more than just a wild daydream; they deemed it a “working prediction” of things to come.
From the leading edge of the tractor to the rear tip of the trailers, the combined length of this dream hauler measured 96 feet, and caused a sensation wherever it traveled.
Some states even required special permits before Big Red could drive through, due to possible low ceiling clearance problems, requiring Ford to build the fiberglass cab in two sections over a steel substructure.
A 600-hp turbine engine propelled Big Red and offered a 600-mile cruising range from its 280-gallon fuel capacity. At full capacity, the power plant could pull 170,000 pounds, which was a combined weight of tractor, trailers and cargo.
With virtually two engines in one, Big Red was able to operate with only half the power plant running, and when needed, direct 45 horses for refrigeration or other requirements. At the push of a reset button, the full 600 hp would be available.
Test drivers reported that the turbine engine was completely noiseless and produced an odorless, non-smoky exhaust. Drivers also commented upon the smooth ride, even at 70 mph, stemming from the air bag front suspension and telescopic shocks at the front wheels.
Guaranteeing that the brake system needed to reign in this behemoth would be fail safe, the brakes would lock automatically if the air pressure dropped to danger levels.
To get up in to the two-man cabin some 13-feet above the asphalt, the driver triggered a switch on the cab at ground level that simultaneously opened the air cylinder-operated doors and lowered the electric motor-driven retractable ladder, thus enabling the occupants to reach the colossal cockpit. Once inside, the ladder would then stow away automatically beneath the floor, the doors would close and the interior would be lightly pressurized.
Pictured within the 6-foot, 6-inch high ceiling Ford Gas Turbine cabin, the driver in this press release photo is positioned in front of the pedestal instrument panel, while the co-driver prepares refreshments from the small refrigerator and hot/cold liquid dispensers.
With its 6.5-foot-high ceiling, the co-pilot could walk around the cabin and make use of the built-in refrigerator, electric oven, washstand, three spigots and a disappearing toilet with electric incinerator.
Placed in front of the driver was a single pedestal-based dashboard with a steering wheel, as well as eight instrument gauges. Housed above the pilot’s panoramic tinted windshield were six small tachometers to monitor the turbine. Large foot-control pedals were mounted flush with the floor, and the driver had the option to shift manually with a dash switch or let the Allison five-speed gearbox work automatically. Ford management assured that Big Red’s controls were similar enough to a conventional truck and could be mastered by any semi-tractor driver.
Positioned over the co-driver’s immense front window was a television set and separate air-conditioning controls. Designed not to distract attention, the small television had vertical slats blocking the driver’s view of the screen.
It was envisioned 43 years ago that giants like Big Red would travel day and night, rarely leaving the intercontinental expressways, except for driver changes, dropping off/picking up trailers and fueling at terminals posted near the highway exit and entrance ramps. The trailers would then be connected to smaller tractors that could better negotiate local streets, and the Gas Turbine would be back on the superhighways, heading non-stop to the next destination hundreds of miles down the road.
After its debut in 1964, Big Red made several cross-country runs and proved that it had costs comparable to diesel operation. Though nothing like the Gas Turbine has been mass-produced, the “truck of tomorrow” gave Ford Motor Co. the opportunity to demonstrate the spirit of progress it felt it built into every mid-1960s product, from Mustang and Falcon to Mercury and Continental.