Ford has produced many cool concepts over the course of its illustrious history, and while some have survived the test of time, others have disappeared altogether. One of the more notable missing Ford concepts is the 1964 Big Red gas turbine truck, a semi concept built at a time when automakers thought that the turbine engine was the future. And now, roughly a week after The Drive reported that it had located Big Red and filled us in on where it’s been, Ford has released some cool vintage footage of its long-lost semi concept.
Ford’s Big Red gas turbine truck debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, where it appeared right alongside the Ford Mustang. What made it extra special was its turbine engine, which produced 600 horsepower and 955 pound-feet of torque. At the time, turbine engines were commonly used in military tanks, helicopters, and jet airliners, but very few production automobiles.
Starting in the 1950s, Ford spent two decades researching how to make turbine engines work in production vehicles. Big Red was a big part of that effort, both literally and figuratively. The 13-foot-tall, 96-foot-long (with its trailer) big rig was built as a result of a pact with the U.S. Department of Defense. A subsequent version intended specifically for commercial applications was created in 1966.
The Ford-built turbine engines and vehicles offered the advantages of making less noise. In fact, Big Red was described as “scarcely audible to the motorist” in a promotional brochure. It also produced less vibration, fewer emissions, used less oil, and made more torque at lower speeds. At this point, Ford’s researchers had narrowed their focus to turbine use in large trucks.
After its appearance at the World’s Fair, the Big Red gas turbine truck appeared at a few more auto shows and made several cross-country trips to demonstrate the comparable cost of operation to a traditional diesel engine. However, it wasn’t long before Ford realized that the gas turbine engine didn’t have as rosy a future as it originally thought.
The turbines’ high operating speed and temperature would ultimately make the engines unfeasible for automotive use. So after nearly 20 years of research, Ford began producing turbine-powered engines for heavy truck, bus, industrial, and marine use in 1970, but supplier and technical issues ultimately killed the automaker’s hopes for a turbine-producing venture in 1973. The company’s research on materials such as ceramics and high-temperature coatings did, however, prove useful in controlling emissions in the decades since.
Big Red was reportedly gifted to Ford’s factory-sponsored racing team – Holman Moody – after the turbine engine melted down when it was mistakenly started after all the oil was drained. H&M kept it until the early 1980s, at which time it was sold to the current owner. He set about restoring the giant rig and started by replacing the original 705 turbine engine with a newer 707 since an original replacement proved impossible to find.
The new owner went so far as to travel to Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn to collect information on Big Red to ensure that it was restored as close to its original spec as possible. After six months of body and paintwork, the semi was looking brand new again, but it’s been sitting in a custom-built garage since 2000.
The owner is the secretive type and did not provide any new photos of the truck, but said he might do so sometime this spring. He also admitted to The Drive that Big Red should probably be on display at the Henry Ford, even though its two trailers have never been found. Either way, we hope to see more of this cool piece of Blue Oval history soon.
We’ll have more on Big Red when it’s available, so be sure and subscribe to Ford Authority for 24/7 Ford news coverage.
I have a 1/8 scale motorized scale model of that Ford turbine engine by Entex. It is still available at eBay and some hobby stores online. And this is not an April Fool joke!
Entex is long out of buisness. But I know some of their molds are still around with other kit manufacturers. Thanks fir the heads up will look for it.
I’m sure it was a typo but Ford’s factory NASCAR team was Holman and Moody, not Moony.
Must have had inlet silencer and a noise enclosure to be claimed to be so quiet. Gas turbine drivers of compressors need both and they are a safety and maintenance headache.
Gas turbine engines were not used in military tanks until the XM1 Abrams Tank debuted in 1980.
I was reading that too and was like…what a minute 🤨
What the article missed was that locomotives (train engines) were using them. Union Pacific in particular had heavily experimented with them for their long distance through freight trains. But they were using bunker “d” for fuel, as it was cheaper than diesel. Turbines are very efficient at max sustained power, and can run a long time at that power because they have very few moving parts. But eventually bunker d’s price went up, and the turbines became a victim of economics. IIRC, 10,000 HP turbine powered locomotives were developed and used before they died.
It’s always fun to see how the Golden Age of Transportation as it was envisioned back in the ’60’s, and how it actually turned out! Guess the lesson is…don’t try and predict. Fun to see though as I was 7 or 8 when this debuted.
Gas turbines were used for a while (experimentally) by Union Pacific as engine motive power. Their exhaust temperature was so high that it made some metal bridges sag which the gas turbine engine moved under or was parked under (while operating) to clear lines ahead.
Exhaust temperatures were probably the main reason they were discarded as train motive power. Exhaust that hot and at that amount at ground level was dangerous to property and operators.
One reason that the turbine is not economical is because of fuel consumption. Turbines are volume air pumps. From experience, the M1 tank turbine engine (developed in the late 70s, fielded in the early 80s) uses almost as much fuel at idle as it does when moving the tank. Accelerating the engine is done as much by adding more air as it is adding more fuel to the combustion chamber. Range for the tank (admittedly with more mass to move than a long haul truck) is measured in gallons per mile, rather than miles per gallon.
Chrysler also produced a turbine-powered automobile in the same time frame which they tested by giving it to a couple of hundred users across the US. Complicated starting procedure (simplified in the M1 to be automatic), expensive to produce, range/mileage problems compared to relative simplicity of operation and low maintenance (except when something broke) contributed to the cancellation. However, Chrysler’s experience with the turbine contributed to it developing and fielding the M1. The Army appreciated the lower weight of the engine compared to a diesel, the horsepower, noise reduction, and the horsepower to weight ratio, which gave the M1 a “sprint” capability to accelerate and move to avoid enemy fire.
Actually, the M1’s fuel usage at idle is 40% of fuel usage at max power. But a similar reciprocating diesel would use 10% at idle. Fuel usage is about 2 gallons per mile. But WWII’s Sherman burned about 1.3 gallons per mile, had a top speed between 50%-66% of the M1’s, while weighing 1/2 as much. Not bad.
The problem is that in combat, the crews won’t shut the turbine off when the Army wants them to. With the turbine off, the hydraulics are off, and the software can’t move the turret and gun. I don’t blame the crews for that. The turbine takes about 10 seconds to start under normal circumstances, and who wants to be unable to shoot at an enemy that suddenly appears while the engine is off?
OMG it’s the Mammoth Car from the old Speed Racer Cartoon!