'Big Red' Ford turbine truck discovered after being lost for decades

Bibliography

Wagner, James K. “Ford Trucks Since 1905.” Crestline Publishing, 1978.

Kscarbel. “Ford’s Futuristic Gas-Turbine – “Big Red.” BigMackTrucks.com. July 24, 2013.

Frumkin, Mitch. “Big Red.” Old Cars Weekly. December 21, 2007.

Video

The Restoration: Still Big, Still Red, Still Turbine-Powered

Big Red’s original 705 turbine engine—Ford’s developmental turbine engines were numbered from 701 to 707—was gone by the time the current owner took possession; he claims it was sent back to Ford, which likely destroyed it, seeing as it was just a ruined version of an experimental motor. Having sat around for more than a decade at that point, Big Red was a roller in desperate need of a restoration. It had been repainted a new shade of red and its five-speed transmission had also been removed, though it was still present with the vehicle.

From Holman-Moody’s old hangar facility at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the owner says “[Big Red] was pulled backward using a tandem road tractor with a tow plate from the fifth wheel of the tow truck” all the way back to a shop where it was to be repainted and restored. That must’ve been an interesting sight for anybody else on the highway. 

Ford

A later iteration of the 705 turbine—called the 707, pictured above—was obtained by the owner during the restoration process. As we mentioned in a previous article we wrote about the Ford versus GM showdown to perfect the turbine truck, Ford continued its work on the turbine-powered dream into the early 1970s, going as far as to put the advanced engines in regular W-1000 tractors and using them for supply runs between Dearborn and Toledo for a few years. This continued development is what gave birth to the 707. The new 707 version 3 engine had less power than the 705, just 525 horsepower as compared to the original’s 600, but it was more efficient, more plentiful—it’s unlikely any 705s still exist—and more reliable. 

Intending to do as original a restoration as possible and keep Big Red turbine-powered, in 1983 the owner traveled to Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan to gather information from a few company sources including a man named John Stopa—Big Red’s caretaker at Ford back in the ’60s. As the owner put it, “Big Red was his baby. If you wanted to know anything about the truck while it was at Ford, you asked John.”

From there, he approached Ivan Swatman of an outfit called Engine Technologies Corporation in Chula Vista, California. It turned out Swatman, an engineer by trade, had bought the gas turbine technology from Ford after it had ended the project. From him, the owner got a shiny new 707 in the spring of 1984. Seeing as local Ford turbine engine specialists were in short supply, Stopa came down and visited the shop during the installation to ensure it was done properly. (It was.)

So yes, Big Red is still turbine-powered. The photos of the two-year restoration process published below have never been seen anywhere else.

Seeing as the old Allison transmission was meant for the 705, different flexplates were obtained from Allison to mate the new engine with the original transmission. Both are pictured above.

And below is John Stopa, standing in front of the 707 turbine that now powers Big Red during his visit to the shop to check on its progress. With him standing there, one can get an idea of how truly massive it is. The flat floor of the truck’s cab is well above his head.

John Stopa inspecting the newly-installed 707 turbine during Big Red’s restoration., Anonymous

The owner painstakingly replicated all of the colors on the truck and stripped off the old paint. Over the course of six months, the truck’s jet-age lines were restored with the help of “top-notch body men.” 

“I spent a lot of time and money getting the right color and paint process to match the original Ford color,” he told us. “The color is a dark red candied metallic. The silver is candied metallic, also.”

In our first article, we spoke to one of the workers involved in this long restoration. He claims that much of the truck was clearly not designed to be disassembled which made the process considerably slower. He also stated that the bodywork was extremely heavy, made of several layers of fiberglass and covered in thick coats of paint. You’ll notice in the image below that at least one of the truck’s Jetsons-style badges also put up a fight, and had to be masked off instead of removed during painting.

Anonymous

Before the paintwork, another “original” defect was repaired—a scrape along the roof of the cab with an interesting origin story relayed to the owner by Stopa. During the cross-country promotional drive in 1964, Big Red ran with a 1965 Mercury station wagon as an escort vehicle, whose occupants would relay directions to the truck’s driver via a two-way radio. As they drove through an unspecified city, a communication mix-up sent Big Red down a narrow road leading under a low bridge that was literally too low for the massive vehicle.

“The driver stopped the truck before the bridge, which backed up traffic. There was no backing up Big Red. All six men got out, deflated the suspension airbags to lower the truck about 4 inches so they could pass beneath the bridge,” the owner said. “The truss rods beneath the bridge had large metal nuts on the underside of the bridge that the driver needed to avoid, so he had to wiggle the truck carefully beneath the bridge between the metal nuts without damaging the vehicle. The driver managed to avoid damage to Big Red except for one small scrape on the top of the cab. The body men repaired that scrape prior to painting.”

The restoration involved a lot of research—the owner says he “made some great contacts with Ford Motor Company” to gather information—repairs to wiring, and other small fixes to ensure it was as original and functional as possible. The work took two years to complete. But at the end of it, Big Red was back—running, driving, fully restored to World’s Fair condition. It was moved to a purpose-built garage constructed with the assistance of the owner’s father, where it’s remained since.

“The Big Red project was undertaken over 35 years ago. I enjoyed bringing an old truck back to life,” the owner told us. “I enjoyed the challenge of finding the parts I needed. It was just one of many projects I have done across the years.”

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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