16 May 2011

Get on the bus: The costly promise of the GM Futurliner

Of all the vehicles consigned at Auburn to the Auctions America by RM Spring Collector Car Auction, none seemed quite as popular with attendees as the 1940 GM Futurliner. It drew crowds all weekend, though when its turn came on the block, it failed to sell at $340k. That's a far cry from the last time one of these behemoths came to market at Barrett-Jackson in 2006 — the high sale of the weekend at $4.3 million.

There was a big difference between that Futurliner and this one. The former was restored and ran under its own power; this one is not and does not. And of course there's also a big difference in the spending climate then to now, which is less easy to quantify. Also, perhaps most importantly, those who just had to have one then now do.

Failing to sell at $340k is interesting; while that is still a lot of money to most folks, what kind of scale are we talking about here? What is the market for something like this?

The seller wanted $450k-$600k, which doesn't seem so out of line for a rough version of a $4 million bus from the 1936-56 General Motors Parade of Progress. (Different times, eh?)

And the bidders valued it at the high bid and not a penny more, which may be a bit closer to reality. Hagerty Price Guide publisher Dave Kinney estimates a value of $200k-$400k, though he too maintains this is a tough call against that lone comparable sale of 2006.

The truth is it takes a very special person to want to own one of these things. It's not exactly a '65 Ford Mustang or a '79 Porsche 911SC. Heck, as a collection centerpiece it occupies an even different realm from your garden-variety million-dollar cars — the pre-war Duesenbergs and post-war Ferraris of the world. You don't just buy a Futurliner at auction on a whim.

So the value of this bus is directly related to your own needs, which is even more difficult to quantify.

If you need to unite the eleven remaining buses and recreate the Parade of Progress, and you will stop at nothing to do so, well then we'd say this bus is priceless. But that buyer was not at Auburn.

If you need only to have one because you've got the perfect comfortable spot to park it, and you can just keep it there for 10 or 30 or 97 years until your grandchildren "remodel the old barn," then you can afford to wait for a fire sale. But that seller wasn't at Auburn, either.

That's what we know. And we also know this: Everywhere these Futurliners go, they are smile-inducing, awe-inspiring vehicles, no matter their condition, and people are just happy to see one. It makes you smile to see one of these if you've never seen one before, because you're not really sure what you're seeing, because there is nothing else like it, save perhaps a diesel electric locomotive of the same era, but surely they haven't dragged a train into this place …

Other than the bidders who drove it to $340k — and likely even including them — most of the folks at Auburn were happy just to see this bus. That's what they needed from it — to just walk over and stare up at it for a while.

Which is not unlike the reception it would have received 70 years ago in towns and cities all over America. And not unlike its sister's reception at Barrett-Jackson five years ago.

The Futurliner is a vehicle of promise. Originally, that meant the promise of a revolutionary future. Today, in its current state, it's a simpler promise, to be reconciled against its contemporaries that have benefitted already from restoration — the promise of what this Futurliner could be again. It's a costly promise, to be sure, and anyone serious about owning this machine must have an idea of those costs going in, no matter how general or specific he wants to get in the preservation/restoration efforts.

Paying $400k right now to own it then spending another $600k to bring it up to snuff will yield a spectacular vehicle, but as noted above, the spending climate of today isn't exactly the Motorama market of a few years ago, so a return on investment certainly isn't guaranteed.

We are likely in for a wait before this GM Futurliner becomes the next spectacular million-dollar vehicle. In the meantime, it's fun to think that it could just disappear for a while to be preserved as-is in a nice comfortable spot, until the grandchildren decide to remodel the barn.

Oh, and that $4.3 million bus of 2006? The one the sellers bought for ten grand and restored for $300k? Talk about savvy investing. Lots of hard work, too, but savvy automotive investing, which is another story.

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