General Motors is known as one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world. During its 105-year history, GM has built more than just cars and trucks. The company has also engaged in some projects which are, for lack of a better term, kind of weird.
Now, everyone already knows that car companies build concept cars which never make it to production. The purpose of this article is not to re-hash the same old stories everyone already knows about like the Buick Y-Job, the mid-engine Corvette, or the EV-1 electric car debacle. I want to talk about some General Motors side projects that you may not have heard about before.
10) GM Rotary Wankel Engine
The rotary engine was popularized by Mazda, who liked its compact size and high-revving design. Looking to compete with the Japanese, GM began developing their own rotary engine in the 1970s. They experimented with the idea of putting it in a Vega, but ultimately scrapped the project.
9) GM Aerotrain
Having risen to the top of the automotive market in the post-World War II economic boom, GM looked to expand to other modes of transportation in the mid-1950s. This resulted in the Aerotrain, a futuristic passenger train that was actually built and operated for 10 years. Two complete trainsets were built, but the trains were eventually retired due to high maintenance costs and the underpowered locomotives, which needed assistance to climb steep grades along some of the routes they served.
8) GM Futurliner
A dozen of these gigantic, deco-style buses were built to travel the country as part of a “Parade of Progress” in the prewar days. These rolling exhibitions showcased new and upcoming technologies to the public, as well as the latest automobile offerings from GM. The buses were retired not long after World War II, and have now become immensely valuable among collectors due to their rarity. Only 9 are known to exist today, with one selling for over $4 million at Barrett-Jackson 2006.
7) DUKW “Duck Boats”
During World War II, General Motors was tasked with building an amphibious troop transport vehicle for the military. They took a 2.5 ton 6×6 chassis and fashioned a sheet metal hull, added waterproofing, and props to push it through the water – all in just 45 days! This DUKW vehicle became known as the “Duck Boat.” About 500 of these go-anywhere vehicles were built for the war, with many of them still in use today by tour operators in several US cities.
6) Design for Dreaming (1956) Sponsored Film
Since the advent of television, car companies have always been known for their powerful television commercials. General Motors took it a step further in 1956 when they produced a 10-minute film called “Design for Dreaming.” This film is unique for its completely sung musical dialogue and its typical gender roles of the era. Today, it is remembered as a campy reminder of a different era. Perhaps GM figured out after this project that they were better at making cars than they were at making movies.
5) NUMMI – Partnership with Toyota
Sticking to the old adage of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” GM did the unthinkable in 1984 and set up a partnership with their #1 rival: Toyota. They built a factory together in California with the goal of learning from each other’s strengths. The plant was known as NUMMI (short for New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc). They built several cooperative models of cars together, but ultimately this tree did not bear any significant fruits and was closed in 2010. The plant was sold and is currently the home of Tesla Motors!
4) Frigidaire Home Appliances
Perhaps you’ve heard of Fridigaire brand appliances? General Motors bought an unknown company called Guardian Refrigerator in 1919 for $100,000 and turned it into a $15 million dollar company by 1927. It became an iconic American brand name, making everything from refrigerators to washing machines, electric ranges, water heaters, and even microwave ovens.
Frigidaire gave their refrigerators futuristic names such as Unimatic, Multimatic, and Rollermatic (probably named by the same guys who came up with the Hydramatic transmission!). GM finally sold Frigidaire in 1979 after 60 years of ownership.
3) World’s Largest Truck
GM is known for their line of large passenger trucks like the Silverado, Tahoe, and Suburban. What you may not know is that the company had a heavy equipment division called Terex, which in the 1970s built the World’s Largest Truck (by dimensions) – a record that stood for 25 years. Known as the Terex 33-19 Titan, it was used at a mine in Canada and was the only truck in the world with a 360-ton haul capacity. Only one was ever built – today it is on display in Sparwood, British Columbia near the mine where it was used. This 1975 photo shows the Terex Titan with a Chevy Luv pickup in its bed for scale.
2) 1966 Electrovan: World’s First Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle
Long before the Volt and the EV1, General Motors was working on alternative fuel vehicles. In 1966, GM produced the “Electrovan,” the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. It took a team of 250 people two years to convert the modified GM Handivan into a working prototype. The van never made it to production due to a lack of infrastructure to support for Hydrogen vehicles.
1) GM Streetcar Conspiracy
Before World War II, many large American cities had built a system of streetcars to help with the mass transit needs of their citizens. According to conspiracy theory, General Motors (along with Firestone Tires, Philips Petroleum, and Standard Oil Company) secretly bought streetcar operations in over 45 cities over a period of fourteen years. The systems were shut down and converted to bus routes, which caused the public to become more reliant on owning an automobile – a vested interest of each of the involved companies. The companies were found guilty in a 1949 trial and again in a 1951 appeal, but the damage had already been done. America was to become a nation of automobile owners and drivers.
Who knows what projects GM will come up with over the next century? Only time will tell!