Ford's Big Red from 1964 World's Fair found fully restored

Holman-Moody Gets a New Truck

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.

Ford

And if you’re curious as to why a machine like Big Red was even mothballed in the first place, why automakers’ dreams of turbine technology for regular road-going vehicles flamed out in the late 1960s, we have you covered there as well. But back to the story, which picks up in 1970.

“It was on display in The Omni in Atlanta, a big car show. And in order to be on display, they had to drain all the fuel and all of the oil from the vehicle. After the show was over, a driver flew down from Detroit, hopped in it, cranked it up, and did not fill it [back up with oil]. It melted the engine,” Holman said. “Ford got a big tractor-trailer truck—a wrecker—and was towing it back to Detroit… And it just so happens that the truck towing Big Red broke down on the interstate near Charlotte, and they asked if they could store the vehicle in our building while they arranged further transport.”

Part of this particular story was previously posted as a secondhand account to a forum online, though like many other parts of Big Red’s past, it was hearsay. To finally have it nailed down from someone who was there is relieving. And following that fateful tow, the circumstances of Holman-Moody actually taking ownership of Big Red are interesting, to say the least.

Big Red in the Holman-Moody hangar. Note the tow bar still connected to the front of the truck., bigmacktrucks.com | kscarpel

It was around that same time, Holman told us, that H&M’s racing contract was canceled abruptly by Henry Ford II as Ford and the rest of Detroit’s Big Three found themselves under pressure from the government to reduce emissions following the landmark expansion of the Clean Air Act in 1970. According to Holman, Ford pulled the plug instantly. The money stopped coming, Ford ordered trucks on the way to events in California to be turned around and sent back to North Carolina—via them being pulled over by the California Highway Patrol, Holman said—and it all left a bad taste in his father’s mouth. 

This was allegedly followed by a lot of bickering between the two parties until finally, Henry Ford II sent the company a letter—which Holman says he still has—saying “everything in your possession is yours to use as you see fit — Henry Ford II.” This letter arrived, of course, with Big Red still sitting in Holman-Moody’s Charlotte, North Carolina facility. Someone had forgotten about it—but soon enough, Ford came knocking again.

“When they called up to say ‘Ok, we’ve arranged a tow vehicle to pick up Big Red’ my father had gotten that letter,” Holman said. “And after Henry had been so rude and obnoxious, he told Ford ‘Piss off, Big Red is ours’—in those words.” 

Now that H&M had this massive, semi-famous truck, though, there was the lingering question of what to do with it. The answer, in a nutshell, was not much really could be done with it. Holman says that, due to its immense weight—the cab alone weighs 20,000 pounds according to original documentation we found—it faced serious hurdles in becoming road legal. Its powerplant was also thoroughly ruined after that failed start in Atlanta. As it turns out, an engine that runs up to 75,500 RPM and 1,750 degrees Fahrenheit really doesn’t like doing so without oil. 

Previous reports that the truck has endured multiple engine swaps over the years also all appear to be hearsay. Holman said a new engine was never installed when the truck was in the company’s possession. He also said it was never repainted, however that conflicts with the current owner’s own assessment that Big Red had been painted a different shade of red at least once prior to his full restoration.

And on the subject of paint: We want to be fully transparent here and remind you that a source for our first article told us the truck had been painted blue when he saw it in private hands in the early 1980s. This now appears to be untrue. That same source gave us other information that turned out to be completely accurate, however it’s impossible to square the alleged blue paint job with definitive statements from Holman and the current owner saying that never happened. The timeline of the restoration that followed its sale, which we’ll detail below, makes it possible that the truck had a blueish layer of primer on it when the source saw it, but that’s pure speculation.

Holman-Moody

Regardless of the paint situation, H&M had clearly had enough with Big Red by the late 1970s. It was falling into disrepair, it took up tremendous space, it needed to go. Holman spent years trying to find a buyer. Eventually, he did—the current owner, who told us he had been fascinated by the turbine truck since its dazzling World’s Fair debut nearly two decades prior, finally purchased Big Red from Holman-Moody in a private transaction in the early 1980s. And boy, did he have plans.

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The come down

Wild concepts from Detroit aren’t anything new but in 1964 Ford had already been pondering gas turbine drive systems for more than a decade and was keen to see the production of a vehicle with aviation-inspired drivetrains alongside its internal combustion V8 offerings. The classic ‘bent Henry’ V8 was the money maker in Ford sales which now gave curious Ford engineers financial leeway to research future propulsion possibilities.

What is really staggering about the whole concept however is the speed of progress Ford made with its turbine technology. It puts into stark contrast the lack of equally ground-breaking technological innovations made in the near 60 years since Big Red first turned a wheel. Think about it. Big Red came along with technology only 20 years old at the time of its creation (though the concept of turbines goes back centuries) with the turbine engine first seeing mass production for World War II planes.

Despite not being able to adapt a gas turbine engi

Despite not being able to adapt a gas turbine engine to the slog of pushing what is, aerodynamically at least, the equivalent of a giant brick through the air it was a massively impressive feat that the Ford engineers pulled off at the time.

Looking back on Big Red really poses the question that with all the modern smarts and engineering progress made since 1964, how has trucking evolved since the lumbering oil burners of the time when the Model T was rolling off Henry Ford’s snazzy invention called the production line? The answer is it hasn’t evolved. Progress has been made in some areas for sure, but game-changing propulsion units? Nothing, zero, zip.

But say Ford had chosen a turbine engine over a conventional reciprocating piston diesel engine; would that have been a better option? Probably not as turbine engines have emissions issues (mostly large amounts of NOx) of their own to contend with, though have gotten comparatively cleaner over the last few decades.

What the Big Red experiment highlights is that inn

What the Big Red experiment highlights is that innovation, mechanical evolution, progress, whatever you want to call it, seems to go in fits and starts as can be evidenced today as all the major truck companies around the world pour billions of dollars into research and development of alternative powertrains that will hopefully pave the way to a cleaner future.

We are now on the cusp of a revolution in trucking that will see electric and hydrogen fuel-cell trucks, take to the streets to deliver a clean transport solution much like Ford spruiked in its advertising materials on Big Red but with a bit more credibility. Ford said of the gas turbine engine advantages in Big Red that it “can travel with the speed of a passenger car on superhighways, is scarcely audible to the motorist, and releases clean, odorless (sic) exhaust 13 feet above traffic.”

All this goes to show Ford knew back in the 1960s that innovation was the way forward, mechanical evolution if you will. Of course, there will be some people who think that diesel is the only answer and sure, if you want to go back to a black and white TV be my guest, but just know that engineers love to solve a problem, and there is no bigger problem currently facing every sector of manufacturing than global warming.

And while electric and hydrogen are the two future

And while electric and hydrogen are the two future favourites, you can’t rule out hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines as a possibility, especially as German engine manufacturer Deutz currently offers a six-cylinder hydrogen munching variant that will still make all the ‘vroom vroom’ noises which ICE enthusiasts crave.

The Truck Today

Today, the truck is still in near-perfect condition and sits in its custom-built garage, being visited occasionally by the owner and his family. The owner says that while it may be a little dusty, it hasn’t deteriorated at all during its time in storage. The phrase “ran when parked” would apply here—it will definitely still roll, and while booting up a decades-old turbine engine would be a delicate operation, the owner says the truck is in good enough shape to fire right back up with a little TLC. The last time it was driven was around the year 2000.

There’s one major thing still left to address, though: new pictures. While the owner has been gracious enough to speak with us and share a ton of information as well as the shots from the restoration we’ve published here, he’s so far declined to provide more current photos. Based on the response to our first story, Big Red is still an object of fascination for tens of thousands of people out there, even 60 years later. We know you want to see it as it stands today. We do, too.

What we can say is the owner’s indicated he might be willing to take new photos of the truck later in the spring, and we’re crossing our fingers. He said no new photos of the truck have been taken for nearly two decades, so a little more time spent waiting isn’t going to hurt anyone.

That leaves the final question: Why is it so hidden away, and why has it been kept a secret all this time? It’s a question best answered by putting yourself in the owner’s shoes. As Lee Holman mentioned, the truck is immensely heavy and certainly limited in terms of the roads it can even travel on. It’s also powered by an ultra-rare, near unobtanium turbine engine that pretty much nobody knows anything about anymore. If there were an issue with this motor and the truck broke down while underway—or damaged itself attempting to start—what do you do exactly?

And if you don’t want to move the truck, coming forward with it means you’re essentially turning your home into a museum. Possessing a vehicle like this is a complicated responsibility if you also want to live a normal, private life. The owner doesn’t want people finding the truck, or the attention that would come with having such a famous artifact in his possession. However, despite this desire for anonymity and the numerous roadblocks related to showing Big Red to the world, he insists that the truck will not be in hiding forever. 

“I was invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the gas turbine in Dearborn [in 1983]. I talked to several people who had worked on the project and Big Red. Many of them thought the truck should be displayed in the Henry Ford Museum,” the owner told us.

“Who knows, maybe someday it will be. I have always thought Big Red was one of Ford’s greatest achievements.”

Ford

Know anything else about Big Red’s past, or tips on other long-lost concept cars? Contact the author directly: peter@thedrive.com

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