GM Parade of Progress

The man who sparked General Motor’s original 1936 Parade of Progress was none other than Charles F. Kettering, GM’s resident genius and the man behind such inventions as the first electric self-starter, leaded Ethyl gasoline, the diesel-electric locomotive, the electric cash register, the refrigerant Freon, quick drying Duco lacquer paint, the portable electric generator, the world’s first aerial missile, high compression engines, the automatic variable speed transmission, and much more.

Founder of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Corporation (DELCO), Kettering hit on the Parade idea one day as he strolled through GM’s science and technology exhibit at the 1933 Chicago world’s Fair. The thought suddenly struck him: Why not take all this out to the people – let those who can’t see it here, see GM’s exhibit in their own hometowns?

Kettering convinced GM boss Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. to take these educational exhibits on the road. The depression-weary public eagerly attended movies, shows, fairs, or any sort of entertainment that took their minds off the country's plight. Sloan reasoned that a well done, non-commercial, entertaining, educational, free road show would do wonders to help put General Motors’ message across in a good light. It would bring GM, in person, to every small city and rural community in the nation.

And so the Parade got its appropriation from General Motors. The caravan itself – vehicles, personnel, exhibits, props, tents, etc. – took most of 1934 and 1935 to prepare and assemble. It was organized in Detroit and started moving south in early 1936 to Florida in a close caravan. 

The plan was to get maximum publicity from the caravan itself by having it move slowly south along the highways, visiting GM assembly plants and some of the larger dealers along the way. The fleet of unusual trucks were displayed at each site for view by employees, the public, and, of course, the press. However, the tents and midway would not be set up until they reached Florida. 

GM wanted attention even as the show passed along the highway, so all movement was handled as a military convoy. At the time, the US had no Freeways, only two lane highways, so a Cadillac command car was put in the lead and communicated with the trucks back in the pack by short wave radio. An assortment of automobile models from all GM divisions were included in the convoy.

Drivers always wore uniforms on the road and when performing. Moves were always made in daytime for maximum publicity. Travel was slow, because GM wanted everyone the convoy passed to get a good look. In February 1936, the Parade of Progress made its debut in Lakeland, Florida. With the exception of the war years, the show ran until 1956.

Combining science and showmanship, imagination and idealism, the GM Parade of Progress was designed to promote better understanding of all American industry - its accomplishments and significance to people everywhere. This may have been the first time that microwave cooking was demonstrated - presenter Erie Foss cooked an egg on a handkerchief with no protection from the radiation. 

Along with the Parade's basically inspirational theme - Presenting a picture of America on the move toward better lives for all - the project naturally was expected to influence people favorably toward General Motors as a leading company devoted to making "better things for more people." Essentially, however, this was an industrial story. The Parade of Progress was thus a free, traveling educational exhibition, probably the largest show of its kind ever undertaken.

Focal point of the Parade was the fleet of eight huge, red-and-white, streamlined vans. These were custom built in Fisher body’s Fleetwood plant in Detroit. Six of the Streamliners formed walk-through exhibits when joined together, three by three, with canvas awnings. Another van opened up to form a stage, and the eighth carried equipment.

In addition to the eight Streamliners, the original 1936 Parade included nine GMC and Chevrolet tractor-trailers. These hauled gear, tents, power generators, lamps, booths, and additional exhibits including its own 1,250-seat Aer-O-Dome "big top" tent. 

The caravan used a stretched, air-conditioned 1936 Cadillac "command car" which served as a mobile office and general field headquarters. Finally, the caravan brought along representative models of all six GM lines – Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, LaSalle, and Cadillac. These cars were traded in every 2,000 miles at local dealerships along the way.

In 1940, the caravan was revamped and the first series of Streamliners were replaced with a new set, called Futurliners, with such modern amenities as power steering, articulated dual front wheels, Dual-Range Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, automatic headlights dimmers, bubble cockpit, and much more. The second set consisted of 12 units instead of the previous eight. 

The Parade’s exhibits were also updated, and the operation became bigger. Futurliners opened up to form stages and exhibits. Young college grads became show lecturers but also performed menial chores such as driving trucks, picking up rubbish, and setting up tents. Many went on to enjoy long and successful careers with GM.

After the Pearl Harbor attack the Parade went into storage. The caravan vehicles were driven to Ohio, where they were warehoused for the duration of the war. During the six years up to December, 1941, the caravan had played to audiences of more than 12 million people in 251 cities.

The Parade was eventually reactivated in April 1953, when the third caravan took to the road. It remained essentially the same as the 1940 version, numbering 44 vehicles and 57 men. The Aer-O-Dome tent, with its external aluminum arches and silverized vinyl-impregnated canvas skin, was made bigger. Science and technology played a bigger role. New exhibits included jet propulsion, the atmosphere, the atom, stereo, and metal-powder forming. Many of the older exhibits were held over, of course. Microwave presenter Erie Foss was a no-show.

In very large cities, GM considered potential attendance and decided to forego the big top, opting instead to present a more elaborate show held inside, in large buildings. This not only accommodated the larger weekend audiences, but also allowed a huge stage that the tent could not hold. These indoor productions were promoted as the General Motors Motorama rather than the Parade of Progress.

The postwar Parade, though, never drew the crowds of its prewar ancestors, mostly because America now had nightly free shows right in their own homes, where Americans could see new car models each night in TV ads. Television helped bring about the demise of the Parade, and in 1956 GM decided to disband the caravan for good.

Sources: Wikipedia, Futurliner.com