GM’s 1956 Vision of the Future Was, Um, Off


Remember the good old days, when we just couldn’t wait for the future to get here? And what a future it was! At least, according to the short musical film Key to the Future, which was produced by General Motors for the 1956 Motorama and imagines the magical world of, uhh, 1976.

Let’s set the scene …

1956 GM Key to the Future movie

There they are, a darling family of four, Dad and Junior up front, Mom and Sis sweating in the back, their convertible stuck in traffic on a summer day. In unison, they all shrug their shoulders, look at each other, and then break into song:

We gotta slow down. Slooow down.
So much traffic cuts the flow down.

Take it away, Dad: Til they bring the highways up to date,
you can bet your high compression we’re gonna be late.

While we’re waiting around singing the blues
Turn on the radio for highway news.

Junior, riding shotgun, obliges, only to learn that it’s traffic, non-stop, everywhere!

“I wonder what we’d hear if I turned on the switch,” says Junior, “and we’re driving along in nineteen hundred and seventy-six.”

1956 GM Key to the Future movie

Dutifully, he turns the dial. Boy howdy! Just like that, it’s 1976. But not the 1976 you might recall, all groovy and shaggily carpeted and sick to death of Vietnam. In this imagined future, our family is suddenly whisking right along through the desert in the cartoonish Firebird II, arguably the most ridiculous of all the Motorama show cars.

The boy radios “the tower” for a traffic update, then asks for a route to Chicago, a mere couple thousand miles away. The friendly officer on the other end gives him two choices—the scenic route or the direct route. These folks are on vacation! Scenic route it is.

Tower man instructs them to check their fuel and engine. A central display shows that they’ve got a range of 662 miles and that the Whirlfire GT-304 gas turbine is spinning right along a cool 31,000 rpm. It’s all systems go in 1976.

1956 GM Key to the Future movie

We’re all set for auto control!” says Dad. Tower man instructs them to move to the “electronic control strip in the center lane,” then to synchronize the engine. Dad tunes the speed. Dad tunes the direction.

“We’re coming in on the beam, Dad,” says the boy, as a nebulous glowing dot on the center screen gets closer to a wavering glowing line. Great futuristic high-pitch radio-tuning sounds ensue: Wee-yuuu-aaaahhh-ooo-uuu-wee. After just 30 seconds of twisting some knobs and not looking at the road, Dad has that autopilot set.

“Well done, Firebird II,” says our man in the tower. “You’re now under automatic control. Hands off steering.” Now he’s only got to give that sort of individualized attention to the other million motorists passing his way that day. Who needs automation in 1976 when there’s so much time for individual productivity!

1956 GM Key to the Future movie

Past the control tower they go, not another car in sight, for some reason. “Here we go in the high-speed safety lane,” Dad says, except they’re only going about 30 mph and have been this whole time. But once into that fast lane, bubble-top windows sealed tight, it’s time for a stogie. Puff away, Dad! Not for Junior; he’ll have some ice cream. Mom and Sis’ll have some delicious orange juice, thanks—all of it neatly dispensed into futuristic metal cups from the glovebox Orange Juice & Ice Cream Machine, patent pending. Curiously, no one has coughed or grimaced or vomited or said “Really, Dad?” at the prospect of being trapped in the Firebird’s fishbowl cabin with that damn cigar.

Soon they pass a single-seater Firebird I, “the original gas-turbine car,” says Junior. The whole family gawks at this relic of the past. “Runs pretty smooth for an old-timer,” Junior says.

1956 GM Key to the Future movie

Time marches on as they cross what is turning out to be an endless desert, only now they’re on an elevated roadway. Fancy!

Eventually the highway before them curves to the left, as highways sometimes do. They’ve hit the “east-north interchange,” according to Junior. Dad scans the road ahead. “The safe, easy way to make a turn,” he says, knowing his car will do it for him, because by 1976, as you’ll recall, turning the steering wheel 30 degrees in order to follow the road had become quite treacherous. Still, Mom and Sis give each other that knowing nod, because Dad’s right. It is both safe and easy.

They won’t make Chicago today, obviously, and from the way they all yawn simultaneously, it’s clear our family of the future is beat. Cue the refrain …

We’ve got to slow down. Slooow down.
Mr. Sun is just about to gooo down.

Once again they call on “Mr. Tower Man” to find them a place to lay their weary heads. This time, he sings too. The Sunset Inn’s a honey, he suggests, and the hostess is a dream.

And do you know why the Sunset Inn’s a honey, reader? Because their predigested food is cooked by infrared, that’s why.

Hindsight being what it is, it’s hard not to want to just pet this short promotional film on its adorable little head. In 1956, what we wanted—nay, expected—from 1976 were self-driving cars, elevated roads, glovebox ice cream, and to not have to chew our food at the end of a long day. What we got instead was the Dodge Aspen, the ink-jet printer, the Big Gulp, VHS, Ebola, a bicentennial, and no more American convertibles—ever!

What a rip-off.




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    They all had wild dreams aplenty back then. GM has the Turbine. Then Ford bounced the Nuclear Car around. Finally Chrysler after GM gave on the Turbine a fleet of Turbine cars.

    Things back then may have sounded far out but so did landing on the moon but that was only 15 years later.

    Chrysler’s turbine program featured road-going (not just barely-operational dream cars) vehicles as far back as 1956 (some sources say 1954) and ended in 1980. Chrysler didn’t take over when GM “gave”.

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