By on February 6, 2010

It was the mother of all drifts. Forty feet behind me, the back of the passenger bus was coming around fast, threatening to wipe out a block’s worth of cars parked across the street. By the time I caught the first slide, I had overcompensated. My arms were a whirling dervish on the giant steering wheel, flying back and forth, until the bus straightened out. No need to stop for coffee THAT day; I was wide awake on a triple-shot of adrenalin.

I was always on the lookout for creative ways to entertain myself on pre-dawn (empty) bus runs, but this one caught me off-guard. It was a chilly December morning. Midway through that particular corner, the pavement changed from asphalt to smooth old brick cobblestones. As always, I floored it. An imperceptibly-thin sheen of frost on the bricks provided no resistance to the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel out back. All my wintertime Corvair-hooning experience finally paid off.

I had always wanted to be a bus driver, and I started preparing early. Aged five, my favorite toy was a highly-detailed toy bus. I would lie on the floor for hours, gazing through the windows, imagining all my (future) passengers and the adventures (drifts?) I would take them on.

In Austria in the fifties, the yellow and black Post-buses were the vital transport link between the villages clinging to the Alpine mountainsides. They looked like a 1940’s school bus: rounded, with a graceful hood out front. There was lots of glass, curving right up into the roof, which had a giant fabric sunroof. On sunny days, the driver rolled it back like sardine can lid, revealing the Alpine scenery in its full splendor.

It’s one of my most joyful childhood memories: sitting on a tan leather seat behind the driver, watching him shift gears and navigate the throbbing Steyr or Saurer diesel through the blind hair-pin curves, announcing his presence with the four-tone melodic horn: ta-taa, ta-taa.

One day in 1975, I woke up and decided to fulfill my childhood dream– even if there were no alpine hairpin curves in Iowa City. I got the job though my usual technique: pestering. I showed up at the transit company’s office every other day. Within three weeks, I was behind the wheel.

I’d driven big trucks, but piloting my first bus felt a bit strange the first time. I sat right up against the giant bulging front window of a GMC “new look” bus. It was like staring out a living-room picture window of a mobile home. The only major surprise: the steering was un-assisted and, therefore, profoundly slow, as I learned that hair-raising morning.

I took my schedule very seriously. I treated bus-driving as a time-trial rally and drove…briskly.

As a bus driver in a university town, I got few complaints. Some of my youthful passengers actually egged me on. There’s nothing like a little group-hooning to evoke a little winter-morning cheer before classes.

During a particularly heavy snow-storm, I drove like a fiend to stay on schedule. My passengers were not going to get home late. I eventually caught up with the bus that was supposed to be twenty minutes ahead of me. As we passed my less committed colleague, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the back of the bus.

Tooling around town in the bus was generally a relaxed affair, with a few notable exceptions.

I was relief-driving one day, and momentarily forgot my route. Rather than finding a suitably enormous space in which to turn the big bus around, I took a shortcut through a several-block-long weedy lot. It turned out to be much rougher than I’d expected.

The old ladies heading to the mall were flabbergasted (and jostled) by our mutual off-road adventure. Worse, the bus almost got stuck  in the uneven surface. If I had, I would have been on the news that evening. And out of a job.

Another time, the bus’ 40’ long throttle linkage suddenly stuck wide open– a block away from the high school parking lot on the day of the school’s annual carnival fund-raiser. It was a scene straight out of a cheap thriller. (Update: highly relevant experience in light of current stuck pedals situation; I quickly turned off the engine power switch). I also remember sliding down a hill and across an intersection, wheels locked, surfing on a mat of wet, greasy leaves.

Spring arrived and wanderlust struck again. One morning, heading out to an office park by I-80, I announced to my passengers that the bus had been hijacked to California. Some chuckled. One or two cheered me on, shouting “do it.”

But there were plenty of icy stares. Sensing a collective failure of enthusiasm, I reluctantly abandoned my plan, and drove them to their cubicles.

It wasn’t long after that I quit and bought my own bus, a 1968 Dodge van. I paneled the inside with birch plywood, built a bed in back and cut in windows. Only one passenger signed-on for the one-way trip to California, but she had plenty of enthusiasm. Good enough for me.

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20 Comments on “The Best Of TTAC: Auto-Biography Part 7 – Bus We Must...”


  • avatar
    Joel

    I have a neighbor that drives for the local public transportation authority, he has absolutely no shortage of stories about driving, weather, and passengers.

    Keep ‘em coming Paul, I never get tired of hearing about driving escapades.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Great story Paul, most entertaining, and a pleasure to see you embracing your inner Ralph Kramden, Thanks!

    p.s. Here in Switzerland, one often sees the old Saurer (a Swiss company taken over by M-B, and now dead) busses crusing the streets on balmy summer weekends (they are owned by enthusiasts.)

  • avatar
    TCragg

    I work for the transit commission in London, Ontario. While our fleet now consists mainly of modern New Flyers, we have one preserved T6H-5307N 6V71 New Look in storage, the 5000th example off the line at GM Diesel in London. Those were the classic buses of my childhood. The TTC (Toronto) still runs some New Looks out of a couple of divisions, a result of an extensive rebuild program in the late ’90s. London Transit runs about 50 (and dropping) of the New Look’s successor, the Classic (TC40-102N), mainly on trippers and specials. These buses are mostly 6V92s with turbos. I love the sound of the Detroit Diesels. Much more distinctive than the 4-stoke drone of the Cummins ISLs in the newer buses.

    Keep the bus stories coming, Paul!

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Of the 14 buses at IC Transit then, 12 were the 35 footers with the 6V71as pictured above, and two were the 102″ wide 40 foot version with the 8V71. In the winter months, they would also lease a half dozen of the prior generation buses (I’m too lazy to look up the number right now); we called them submarines, because their visibility was so poor compared to the New Look buses. They were 40 footers and had the 6-71 inline engines. That’s what I was driving when the 40′ linkage jammed open. They were beasts, so rugged. LA Transit was still using these Old Look GMC buses in the late seventies; twenty years of daily use. I should add that the New Look buses weren’t any less rugged either. GM knew how to build them back then.

  • avatar
    shaker

    I rode in those GM buses a lot as a teenager in the ’70s (and streetcars as well), but PAT Transit didn’t encourage “adventurous” driving, so no stories here.

    Something tells me they’ll be running a bit late today with 20″ of snow around Pittsburgh.

  • avatar
    obbop

  • avatar
    zerofoo

    Great article Paul, keep them coming!

    -ted

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Great story— That long throttle cable reminded me of the time my buddy bought an old bus to convert to an RV. On the 400 mile trip home that long cable broke. They were somehow able to snake part of the cable to the back seat where his friend ran the throttle with the driver shouting the commands.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The heck with bus drifting, I want to see multi-track drifting.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      psar, that was a favorite activity with the Maerklin HO trains; but never had the chance to enact it in 1:1 scale. One of my unfulfilled desires was to be a train engineer (for a while; I tend to get professionally restless soon.)

  • avatar
    sortahwitte

    I lived in West Germany for 3 years in the early 60′s. We were there when the wall was built. As junior and high school aged kids, we traveled a lot on the Bundespost buses. They were similar in appearence to the yellow bus pictured, although I think most were Mercedes Benz with big, loud, thumping diesel engines. They traveled mostly from small town to villages to wide spots in the road. However the purpose seemed to be hauling mail. When the mail sacks were on board, the bus took off like a V-1. Usually leaving us Amerikanische sheiskopf kinde in the dust. Paul, I really appreciate your stories. I seem to get a charge from just about anything with wheels.

  • avatar
    Cody

    Haha, I love it! I drove a school bus for a couple of years while attending college. It was a small rural town, so most of my route was down gravel roads. One day, a kiddo told me he liked me much better than his old bus driver. I asked why, and he replied, “cause you drive fast!” That may have been true, but I was also precise ;)

  • avatar
    twotone

    I drove a school bus in the mountains west of Boulder during the late 1970′s in order to get Colorado residency before starting grad school. I fondly remember “drifting” the bus around mountain switchbacks, in slick snow, with chains on. It was a great adrenalin rush and a quick way to quiet down a bus full of noisy kids. The four-speed manual transmissions and dual-speed rear axles made it even more interesting. It made me a much better driver.

    Twotone

  • avatar
    Deaks2

    Fantastic article! Some one my fondest childhood memories are from riding a New Look with my mother in the 1980′s in Montreal. They were eventually all replaced with MCI Classics and later Novabus LFS’s. I know this may get me in trouble on a car enthusiast web0site, however, I take the bus in to work every day (I figure 12 mins on a bus beats 40 mins in my car and having to hunt for parking…) Our local transit agency in Gatineau, QC, has one or two New Looks still in service, and if I can I’ll always wait to get onto one of them. They have character!

    • 0 avatar
      Lemmy-powered

      Deaks2,

      Many of those old Montreal “New Looks” came here, to Toronto, as part of the TTC’s plan to beef up the fleet without having to buy expensive low-floor buses. Happy to report that lots of them are still banging around Toronto.

  • avatar
    Littlecarrot

    I used to teach in a town (Imbler, Oregon) that had deep snow from November to April. The school buses had some kind of automatic chains. They appeared to drop down from the wheel wells. Looking back, I wonder how those worked?

  • avatar
    fincar1

    My brother drove a school bus for a rural district near Pullman while he was going to WSU. One of his jobs was to sweep out the bus each day; he discovered that if he drove it over 45 or so with the door open a big wind would come up and sweep all the debris down the aisle and out the door.

    The first school bus I ever rode on, in 1946, was an ancient White that was called “the cheesebox.” It had a hydraulic door-opening mechanism that took forever to open and close. The district’s reserve bus was a shorty 1937 Ford; when the regular bus broke down we would wait for the old Ford to show up, and then everyone would squeeze on. Those were the days….

    Don’t forget at some point to write about double-decker buses. I rode them several times at Harold LeMay’s Museum open house; riding on the top deck magnifies any sideways movements caused by irregular road surfaces; one wonders how stable they actually are in spite of what must be a low center of gravity from all that slow, heavy machinery down below.

  • avatar
    ButterflyJack

    In July of 1975 I was laid off from the FDNY with about 5 or 600 other guys, during the fiscal crisis of that era.
    The brother of our union boss was a big wheel in the MABSTOA (Manhattan, Bronx Surface Operating Authority). Many of the guys took the offer to drive bus
    es for them while we awaiting rehiring.
    At that time the company was still run mostly by old Irish guys from the other side…They were a wonderful bunch of guys and taught us how to drive and treated us like gold…
    What I recall most about the old GM buses was the huge smooth ivory colored steering wheel..It felt wonderful in the hands and enabled you to turn this massive non power steering bus.
    As I recall they were V-6 Detroit diesels…they had a two speed automatic transmission that upshifted to “road” gear at about 35 MPH…Top speed was about 50…These had to be the toughest vehicles ever made…wide open throttle , then stop every 2 blocks..I drove the run from lower Manhattan to the east side of Harlem, crosstown on 125th street…then up the Amsterdam Avenue hill to 180th St. I never had a breakdown…You couldn’t kill these buses…and they were old at the time…They were being replaced by FlXible buses…which proved to be crap…even though they had power steering, they just didn’t drive, or handle as well as the old GMs, and their chassis developed cracks…
    I was rehired by the FDNY in ’76…That might have been one of the best jobs I ever had…I was driving back and forth to the garage on 100th street in a ’61 AMC Rambler running on 5 cylinders…smoking like a bastard…but it always made it…I finally replaced a broken ring, and it purred like a kitten..
    Ah..the good old days…Dragonfly

  • avatar
    educatordan

    I’d rather hear more about the enthusiastic van passenger. :P But I did have one great substitute bus driver in elementary school who drove like she was hauling a load of Coors for “The Bandit.”

  • avatar
    Kman

    Very enjoyable read. Great write-up!


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