The consignor of Futurliner Number 3 that is available at our auction in Auburn purchased the vehicle out of an Indiana warehouse in 1999. It is believed to be one of the Futurliners that passed through Joe Bortz’s hands. It is clearly the most accurate and original unrestored Futurliner in existence, having been used by all of the previous restorations as the template for many parts that needed to be fabricated.

All of the exterior letters are original, have never been off the bus and they have been used to create molds for all of the restored examples. It still has the original inline 6-cylinder gasoline engine with the original block and transmission. It was a rolling display for the cutaway jet engine portion of the Parade of Progress, with appropriate display labels still intact in the rear electrical room. It carries $15,000 of custom-made Futurliner tires that were sourced from Coker Tire. All-new exterior aluminum and rubber parts come with the bus, as well as what is left of the original set of tires and all documentation available.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1939 GM Futurliner
Years Produced:12
Number Produced:n/a
Original List Price:n/a
SCM Valuation:$250k to $3m
Tune Up Cost:$200
Chassis Number Location:Pop-riveted plate in the engine bay
Engine Number Location:Pad on the block near the head on the opposite side of the induction
Club Info:American Truck Historical Society

This vehicle, Lot 37, was sold for $247,500, including buyer’s premium, at Worldwide’s auction in Auburn, IN, on September 3, 2011.
Since we last discussed Futurliners in these pages (April 2006, p. 54), a lot has changed and a lot has also stayed the same.

Until early 2006, the average person didn’t have a clue what a Futurliner was; today these giant custom coaches are well-known to most car collectors — thanks to a high-profile sale of a restored one at Barrett-Jackson’s 2006 Scottsdale auction.

At the time, anyone who offered a guess on what the B-J bus would bring at auction went out on a slender limb if they suggested it would cross the million-dollar threshold. After all, it was Number 11 of the twelve made, having recently been leased by the Canadian owner to a cell phone company as a PR vehicle. Number 10 had just been restored by a group associated with the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States, which is in Auburn, IN.

There were also a few survivors that prototype enthusiast Joe Bortz had saved. Another was restored by The Peter Pan Bus Co. of Springfield, MA, and one was turned into a motor home in California — so it’s not like Number 11 was a one-off unit at Barrett-Jackson’s 2006 Scottsdale auction. Yet, lo and behold, it got hammered sold to the jaw-dropping tune of $4.32 million.

Since then, Futurliner Fever took hold. Demand for the NATMUS unit to appear at shows is still great, and people started looking for the remaining units.
Our subject Futurliner — the third of the twelve — has always been on the proverbial radar. It is believed to be one of five that Bortz had saved and stored outside in suburban Chicago. In fact, SCM’s own Dan Grunwald recalls seeing them once when snowmobiling in the 1970s — looking rather disheveled and all parked in a row.

Futurliner Number 3

After Bortz sold our subject Futurliner Number 3, there was some light cosmetic patch-up work done on it but no attempt to restore it. However, access was provided to the Futurliner Group at NATMUS, and Number 3 was used extensively to “stare and compare” in helping to restore their coach. The group that restored the now-famous, $4.32m Number 11 also used Number 3 as a historical reference.

Eventually, Number 3 ended up in the hands of a California collector, who recently advertised it in a few enthusiast publications before consigning it at Auctions America’s Spring Auburn auction, and when it failed to sell there, at the Worldwide event.

In between, Number 3 made an appearance with the NATMUS unit at the American Truck Historical Society’s national meet in South Bend, IN, during late May of 2011.

It is rare to see more than one Futurliner at the same place, as the owner of Number 11 seems to keep his within his private collection.

The owner of Number 3 also owned the Futurliner that was damaged in an accident with another Futurliner while in convoy in 1956. Several parts were salvaged from it to restore the NATMUS unit, and in 2007 what was left was exported to Sweden, where the new owner is in the process of building it into a car hauler.

Why sell for less?

It was a surprise to see this vehicle sell at $247,500 in September after the owner rejected a much bigger bid in May (to the tune of $340,000). Perhaps it was the harsh choice between the costs of taking Number 3 to the next step, continuing to market it or just keeping on keeping on.

In any case, Number 3’s reserve was dropped at Worldwide, and it hammered sold to a new owner.

The other possibility is that back in May, there may have been parties interested in it for what it sold for in September — likely one and the same — but the reserve was higher than the $340k bid. The consignor is based in California and was probably looking at the costs to truck it back home, which may have made him decide to take what he could get rather than spend more to bring it home. Big toys need boys with big toy boxes, big toy movers and big bank accounts. If you think hauling a collector car from Monterey to Chicago is expensive, try hauling a 33-foot-long, eleven-foot-high retired commercial vehicle
Due to the Futurliner’s long wheelbase, the NATMUS unit travels on a modified lowboy trailer. As it is slightly longer than a standard unit, it needs an over-length permit. So, if you want the NATMUS unit to make an appearance, you must supply the semi tractor to pull the unit on its trailer, the semi driver, pay expenses for the volunteer caretaker crew, and “a substantial donation is expected to be sent to NATMUS for the future maintenance of this vehicle.”
None of this comes cheap. Add in that Number 2 diesel is now $4 per gallon or more.

Buying one is the cheapest part

Of the original dozen Futurliners, nine are known to still exist in some form. Four have been either restored or refurbished to be operable, one is a work in progress, one is a parts donor, and one is rotting away outdoors on its way to becoming a parts donor. Another one is being modified from what little remains of it, and there is this one — Number 3.

What to do with it? It may be easiest to essentially leave it as-is, but it does have some needs that must be met. For example, it doesn’t run.
Whether getting the original 302-ci GMC inline six running or repowering Number 3 with anything else, no choice will be cheap — or easy. Even dropping in the lowest-common-denominator drivetrain — a small-block Chevy V8 with a Turbo HydraMatic of some sort — would be a challenge.

Then again, with two that are cosmetically correctly restored and the one in Massachusetts now painted to look the part, is there room in the market for another Futurliner restored to the 1953–56 configuration?

None of the surviving Futurliners have been redone to replicate their first-generation, pre-war configuration. This is an option if Number 3 goes the restoration route, and they find there’s a bigger can of rusty worms than they originally figured.

I doubt that the new owner will try to flip Number 3 anytime soon. Never say never, but it was actively marketed at two 2011 auctions, and anybody who really, deeply wanted it would’ve taken a shot at it by now.

Was this coach well bought? It is true that $247,500 is a bargain in comparison with $4.32m. That said, cheap is really not a valid term here. In the case of a Futurliner, as with a Formula One race car — or a vintage steam traction engine — the cheapest thing you can do is buy it. If someone bought Number 3 thinking it was a steal that can be flipped in short order for a profit, that person may be in for a surprise.

That said, watch it turn up at Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale in January 2012 or be on the Mecum auction circuit to make me a liar. Futurliners have a way of defying logic at times

(Introductory description courtesy of Worldwide.)

Comments are closed.