The Truth About Cars » gmc bus http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 21 Aug 2014 17:31:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » gmc bus http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Curbside Classic: GMC TDH-4523 Transit Bus http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/curbside-classic-gmc-tdh-4523-transit-bus/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/curbside-classic-gmc-tdh-4523-transit-bus/#comments Sat, 06 Feb 2010 19:44:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=344429 GM has built some great vehicles in its day, but nothing can top their buses. They literally owned the bus market from the forties through the seventies, but they earned that spot with superior technology and quality construction. One of the most brilliant and enduring examples of that is the “New Look” transit bus that […]

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GM has built some great vehicles in its day, but nothing can top their buses. They literally owned the bus market from the forties through the seventies, but they earned that spot with superior technology and quality construction. One of the most brilliant and enduring examples of that is the “New Look” transit bus that came out in 1959, and revolutionized the field with advanced stress-skin aluminum construction and absolutely indestructible build quality. These buses are still on the road in transit duty fifty years after they first saw the light of day. A variation of this bus (the Classic) was still being produced by MCI until 1997. Given that this pictured bus was built about the same time as the 1978 Cadillac Eldorado in our last Curbside Classic, we have here a study in GM contrasts. Of course, even GM’s bus business eventually ended badly in its inimitable way.

I’ve been a lover of buses since way back, and I have a slew of bus books in the closet. We can’t do a proper survey of the genre here, but the GM buses tell a disproportionate share of the whole story. Let’s just say that transit (and over the road) buses were a pretty big business back in the day when there weren’t more cars than driver in the US. GM’s involvement in the industry dates back to the pre-war era, when they bought Yellow Coach company. And their involvement in dismembering LA’s superb light rail system after WWII in order to sell more buses is not a very pretty story.

But their buses were unimpeachable. The sort-of modern story begins in 1943 when Yellow was fully absorbed into GMC Truck & Coach. These post war buses were durable brutes, powered by GM’s legendary Detroit Diesel 6-71 2-stroke diesel engines. And GM Division Allison’s V-Series automatic was a revolution in itself. Try to imagine shifting a transit bus, double clutching every shift of the four speed un-synchronized transmission with a 40′ mechanical linkage! Shifts were extremely slow and arduous. The Allison was the greatest thing that ever happened to bus drivers.

The breakthrough modern bus was GM’s over-the-road coach PD 4104 from 1953. (This one was still hard at work in 2005 in Brazil). The construction of the 4104 completely broke with the traditional truck-type ladder frame, and was built more like an airplane with aluminum stressed-skin construction. It dramatically reduced weight, and made for an extremely rigid and solid structure. Buses have never been the same since. And 4104s are still desirable RV coach conversions.

The 4104 powered by the DD 6-71 and the manual transmission (not so painful for over-the road use) could get up to 12 mpg. And of course, it spawned the legendary 4105 Scenicruiser. That was specifically designed and produced for Greyhound, and curiously, unlike most of GM’s other buses, suffered from some structural problems. The complicated twin-engine (two 4-71 four cylinders) setup was also problematic, and were later rebuilt with a single 8-71V engine. But they were impressive sights in their day, and I remember some memorable trips in them.

GM’s New Look transit buses used the construction techniques that the 4104 pioneered. The benefits were manifold, but none more so than for the driver. Visibility was beyond superb; it was like sitting in a green house compared to the “submarine” predecessors. And the steering was substantially lighter because of the lower weight. Note that power steering on these was highly optional; the power came from well developed arm muscles and the leverage of a large wheel and a high (numerical) steering ratio.

The Allison VH transmission was a god-send, but a curious affair. It had all of…one speed. It was really just a torque converter with a massive amount of hydraulic effective gear range. On take-off, which was (in my case) always with full throttle, the engine spun up to full speed, and the bus would lumber away. Depending on vague factors beyond anyone’s apparent knowledge, at some speed of around 30 or 35 or so, the torque converter would be mechanically locked (with a substantial jolt), and now the engine was in direct drive. Depending on rear axle ratio, the transit buses could muster about 55 mph or so; the lower (numerical geared) Suburban versions maybe 65 on a good day.

I drove for Iowa City Transit in 1975-1976. There were 12 of the smaller 35′ long and 96″ wide buses like this one, and two of the TDH-5304 big boys: 40′ long and 102″ wide, and with the bigger 8V-71 engine. The 35 footers were pretty nimble compared to the forties, and one could whip them about pretty quickly in some of the older narrower streets of town. But the slightly newer 40 footers had one other nice feature in addition to the bigger engine: the throttle pedal was air actuated, instead of the mechanical linkage of the older buses. Not only did the mechanical linkage engender knee-ache (to go along with the back ache from the mechanical steering), but one jammed up on me one memorable day. E-pedals were still an engineer’s dream.

The bus in the upper photos has been converted by an enthusiastic Oregon Ducks football fan for game day parties in the parking lot. It also has a smaller non-stock steering wheel, which makes me suspect it has power steering. The other bus, an old left-over from Eugene’s fleet of these 4523s is the victim of a botched conversion attempt, not an uncommon thing. How compelling it is to buy an a tired old transit bus with millions of miles under its belt to convert to the ultimate get-away vehicle. Some have the resources; others don’t, as these two variations of the theme illustrate graphically.

I’ve been tempted to go down this road myself, especially with a handsome PD 4104 conversion. But it’s probably a good thing I’ve resisted, since I like to take my little Chinook in places a 35′ bus would never get out again. But whenever I see one, it does tug on my heart.

I got distracted on RV conversions, and forgot to talk about how GM’s bus hegemony fell apart.  It fell victim to the same factors (and others) that undid its car (and big truck) market share: sinking reliability caused in part due to government influence. Since the feds fund the overwhelming share of all transit capital expense (but not operating costs), they started meddling early on with the bus designs themselves. The biggest one was the Transbus project to develop a new generation of buses in the seventies. GM’s proposal for that ill-fated boondoggle evolved into the GM RTS bus.

I’m not exactly an expert on this, but it arrived with complications and issues, unlike the New Look buses. The Canadians (wisely) wanted no part in this new generation of buses, and kept the New Look in production for decades. The RTS had a very checkered career, and eventually GM got out of the transit business, selling the RTS design to MCI, which eventually passed it along again. It was an unloved child that ended up in four foster homes before it was finally surpassed by newer and more desirable designs.

Greyhound never got over its problems with the GM Scenicruiser, and got into bed with with MCI, which has built almost all Greyhound buses until recently. And Trailways had a long love affair with the legendary German designed Kassbohrer that became the American Eagle. GM’s near-monopoly scared the two big bus companies into alternatives, and GM’s coaches eventually fell victim to a shrinking market and lack of development and conviction on GM’s part. Sound familiar?

More new Curbside Classics here

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The Best Of TTAC: Auto-Biography Part 7 – Bus We Must http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/the-best-of-ttac-auto-biography-part-7-bus-we-must/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/the-best-of-ttac-auto-biography-part-7-bus-we-must/#comments Sat, 06 Feb 2010 07:22:37 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=344403 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 […]

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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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