By on February 6, 2010

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?

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classic: GMC TDH-4523 Transit Bus...”

  • avatar

    Ah, I have a warm spot for those buses. For years twice a day I would ride from NJ to Port of Authority in Manhattan, and back, with comfort and reliability beyond average expectation. Not once in all those years did I ever experience a breakdown or even as much as a flat tire. Never arrived to work late either, even in the snow.
    All the buses merging into the port had their signature colors differentiating them from the other companies so as not to confuse the rider of the wrong bus. Also in the evening while waiting on the ramps in the port, hundreds of buses would parade by making one an expert on spotting every company by its signature colors. Even the diesel fumes became pleasant if you can believe that.
    Not many will ever know just how successful that form of transportation was.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Great item. Thanks!

    Don’t want to nitpick, but the Scenicruiser, GM RTS Bus and American Eagle photo links don’t work.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    Paul-here’s a guy who is definitely a kindred spirit on the bus issue.

    • 0 avatar

      That would be me! I found the link to this story about the 4523 and was surprised to find the link back to my own bus. I have loved these buses since I was a teenager and this lead me into a career in transit.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Thanks; Yes, the 30 footers were rare, and were built to a lighter standard, and used a different drive train (4 cycle V6 and four speed transmission)

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      aka the GMC Toro-Flow, basically a dieselized version of the gas V6. Not as bad as GM’s later attempts at dieselizing gas engines, but they had a habit of blowing head gaskets and not standing up to the pummeling that the DDs could take.

  • avatar

    Ah the GM Fishbowl, the best transit bus ever built- and not just for North America but the world – and what a great idea for a Curbside classic.
    Here in Western Canada you can still see these classics toiling away in Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer,Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Regina,and Toronto, etc and most of them 30 years old or older. Sadly their days are numbered and they’re dwindling to fewer and fewer each year,usually coming out only during peak periods.
    Canadian transit authorities loved these buses right from 1960 to today, the Detroit diesel and Allison Automatic were bulletproof, they were pretty good in the snow, good fuel consumption, and a panoramic view up front.
    But most importantly was the excellent heating and ventilation system, which is crucial in the Great White North, and the drivers loved them.
    They were such an innovative design that GM Diesel Division made them until 1986 basically unchanged from the original.After that MCI took the design of the Fishbowl and came up with the “Classic”. While not as nice as its predecessor it got the job done and they’re still around.
    Personally I remember riding in these buses to school in the 1980’s and can still remember the warm interior and the distinctive note of the engine when sitting in the back. One of my favourite memories was in 1982 riding in Calgary Transit unit 397, a 1961 TDH4519 mere months before it was retired and scrapped. It was a step back to the early 60’s with it’s old style lighting, chrome accents by the clearance lights and the red on white seating. It sounds kinda lame but I considered it a privilege to ride on what to me was a very old bus. They should have kept it.
    Today my spouse works at transit and says the drivers still fight over the Fishbowls to drive rather then the New Flyers.
    Apparently when a New Flyer breaks down the driver almost always requests a Fishbowl as a replacement, not sure if this is true but I’d like to believe it is.
    In the 90’s Calgary transit did a major refurbishment on many of their New looks – new paint, bulkheads, Recarro seats and best of all power steering which means they’ll be on the road for a few years yet.
    These guys have an extensive collection of photos of these warhorses for anyone whose interested.

  • avatar

    Greyhound owned MCI for a long time.

    You know a company’s problems are serious when the division’s biggest customer decides they’d rather build their own!

  • avatar

    When I was at Indiana University from 78 to 82, these buses were still plying the Bloomington campus. They were retired city buses from around the country repainted with the IU livery. One of the oldest was written up in the campus newspaper, when it hit 1 million miles. They were solid comfortable, and – most importantly – warm and dry, in bad weather.

  • avatar

    I think it’s time to rename the site to The Truth About Buses!

    As a guy who lives and breathes transit every day, and loves big noisy things that run on diesel, these stories are right up my alley. That guy did a great job on that conversion. It’s sad to see these buses scrapped. There is an ex-TTC New Look in a local scrap yard here in St. Thomas, ON that can be seen from Hwy. 3. It’s a shame to see these great vehicles rot away.

  • avatar

    Fine article, Paul, and thanks for discussing an area where GM excelled in its glory days. But you stepped in quicksand by saying “their involvement in dismembering LA’s superb light rail system after WWII in order to sell more buses is not a very pretty story.”

    The idea that streetcars were doing fine until GM, Standard Oil and Firestone conspired to kill mass transit is much loved in certain circles. The theme was dramatized in the Roger Rabbit cartoon. But there’s a difference between seeing an opportunity to sell an ever-more-popular form of transit, and a plan to deprive the public of streetcars. What GM did wasn’t much different than the electric utilities selling kitchen ranges to people happy to ditch their wood-burning stoves. See the paper by Martha Bianco, “Kennedy, 60 Minutes and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit”. It can be read at:

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I understand your point, and don’t for a minute give GM any more credit than they deserve. But buying into the rail lines before closing them is a bit different than your example.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    Back around the time that I was turning 40 I reflected on the vehicle that I’d traveled the most miles in.

    To my surprise I came to realize that it was the GM New Look Bus!

    Warm they always were in winter, and I can never remember one getting stuck in the snow for very long. The last ones in my city were 1982 models, but they have all been retired. The city next to mine still has a 1983 model on an inter-urban route.

    My transit company still has a 1962 model that was completely restored. They use it for parades and the like. Once, about eight years ago I got a ride in it, as it was pressed into service to replace a broken down bus that was probably 40 years younger.

    Given todays disposable culture, kids will never know an experience like this.

  • avatar

    I have seen that big UO bus around autzen many times. It is one of the more unique and rare tailgate rigs out there.

  • avatar

    It’s interesting to note that even old buses (such as green bus in this story) had amber turning lights at the back, unlike trucks or cars (even now).

  • avatar

    Gimme Jeepneys

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    “Kennedy, 60 Minutes and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit”

    Does it make me a nerd, geek, or loser that I read and enjoyed that paper?

    Great CC!

    • 0 avatar

      Great read. How hard is it to figure out. Nobody rides PT because it sucks. For a variety of reasons. Of course, you can force people to ride it, which is one of the agendas of my good friend Mr. LaHood.

  • avatar

    Once in a while I tell people, “Were I was born, I only rode in a Mercedes”. After a brief pause, “The Bus, not the Car”.

    Being born in the Megapolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil, busses remind me of poverty, pollution and body odor. The busses in Brazil were mostly Mercedes and one other make which was much lighter but I can’t remember its name.

    It is interesting that while some people find bus rides “whimsical” I find it repulsive. The exhaust bellowing at your face as you stand waiting at the bus stop until your “chariot” arrived, mixed with the diesel fuel fumes and B.O. inside the bus, made a vomitous mixture that I as a child could not stand. But with the hard work of my parents we left Sao Paulo for Detroit (my grandfather used to paint the rims of the Model T’s), were we became Automotive Engineers, Supervisors, and Scientists working for the Big 3 – never to have to ride a bus again!

    I have ridden the bus less than a single hand full in the last 33 years and hope to repeat it for the next 33. By the way, there was nothing wrong with the bus system in Brazil, they have some of the most advanced transportation system in the world, but when you are too poor to even afford a VW Bug, these things tend to stick to your mind. The subway system had just opened when we left Sao Palo in 1976.

  • avatar

    Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. I couldn’t stand these new look buses which replaced the electric trolley in the late sixties here in Halifax, NS.

    If you were unfortunate enough to live on a street that was also a bus route, the whir of electric motors was replaced by a roaring, wheezing, ball bearing hammering around in a cement mixer sound of a GM bus labouring against the industrial version of the Buick Dynaflow transmission. In the middle of the night when you were trying to sleep, this noise was enough to wake the dead and it took a long time to go away, the echo ricocheting away around the buildings. Not civilized.

    As a rider, I preferred the old look buses I sampled in Ottawa as a summer student. They had a six in line engine that didn’t sound like three high school brass bands simultaneously trying to outdo each other.

    Then I went to England in 1969 and discovered the London bus, old style RT and Routemaster. These things actually had acceleration. The Routemaster was monocoque construction dating from the fifties, and felt structurally rigid. Both buses had engines that did not roar, but were relatively quiet and civilized.

    So that’s my perspective. I’m glad we have buses in Halifax now that have quiet 4 stroke diesels. You can actually get some shuteye.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny … I lived in Halifax too during the changeover in the late 60s. Not living on a bus route street, I was all in favour of the modern-looking New Looks. But that was mainly because I was 4 or 5 years old and used to get frightened by the sparks from the trolley wires!

      All these decades later I realize how short-sighted it was for Halifax to tear up (or pave over) all the tracks and put all their eggs into the diesel bus basket … and I’m pleased that Toronto is expanding the use of streetcars and LRT systems.

    • 0 avatar

      Routemasters really were well-built – many served on London’s streets for 40 years or more, getting an upgraded engine to meet tighter emissions regulations every 10 years or so.

      They were withdrawn from general service around 2002, although a few survive on special tourist routes.

      Londoners haven’t taken to the replacement ‘bendy bus’ (Mercedes single decker articulated buses) which are too long for London’s Victorian-planned streets, and a new generation of Routemasters is planned for this decade.

      The UK still has great numbers of modern double decker buses, they are very popular here.

  • avatar

    Great article and thank you for making me feel a little less weird with my long ago grade school fascination (had a friend with an even stranger obsession) with transit buses, the “new look” GM’s in particular (then the coach of choice for our local AC Transit).

  • avatar

    I do remember–vaguely–when that “new look” came in, being impressed with how much better they looked. I was about 6. The last time I rode one of those things–which is very rare for me–was probably about 4 years ago in Manhattan, where, if you are going from the upper 70s to the 30s and 40s, it really doesn’t pay to drive because you are not going to find a parking space, unlike the village. Actually, I would have preferred to walk, but my then girlfriend didn’t.

  • avatar

    I’ll take my bus in orange and black. My question is “what happened to Detroit Diesel?” If they’re still around, how come GM doesn’t use them in their pickups?

  • avatar

    Nice article Paul. I forwarded a copy to a friend in the industry so hopefully it will make its rounds in Bus World.

    The largest factor affecting the bus guys success or failure IMHO is the low bid environment they are all forced to survive in. The same government meddling you point out that has a deleterious effect on bus design also destroys bus builder profit. It is not uncommon for a manufacturer to bid a run of buses below cost to a Transit Authority, win the bid and then try to make up the lost revenue by selling captive-item repair parts to that Transit Authority over the life of the bus.

    Prospective suppliers outside the small bus community are always amazed (and dismayed) at the remarkably low profit margins there are in selling replacement parts to Transit Authoritys.

  • avatar

    My parents ran a bookstore in Canada – and we bought an old Kitchener, Ontario, city bus and removed the seats, outfitted it with shelves and used it at various events such as woodworking shows, steam engine shows, etc.

    I think the nomenclature on the engine was # of cylinders then V71. The engine was based on GM’s modular engine block design of 2 cylinders in a V shape, total displacement 71 cubic inches. So 4 cylinder was 4V71, an eight was 8V71. For marine applications or large generators I think they went to 12V71 or 16V71.

    We had the version with manual instead of power steering, basically when backing up or doing other maneuvers you would hold on to one of the spokes and pull, often times getting out of the seat a bit and just hanging on in order to move the wheels as soon as you started to move.

    We did have the bus up to 65 mph or so, once! It was really vibrating at that point. It was quite an experience for me to drive the bus at the age of 16 or 17, the visibility was of course, excellent as you mention.

    • 0 avatar

      “,…total displacement 71 cubic inches. ”

      Total displacement per cylinder. So total engine displacement of a 6V71 would be 426 cubic inches. Detroit later made a 92 in/2 version also. An 8V92 at wide open throttle has a very unique sound, every stroke being a power stroke. The engine sounds quite busy…

  • avatar

    I rode the city bus to school for many years…initially the Fishbowl was the only bus in our local fleet (I lived 30 minutes outside of Toronto). Then a new bus started to appear…this was maybe 1980…it was called an Orion. I asked a driver what he thought of the new buses and he just growled. Until reading this article I never understood why!

    • 0 avatar

      Operators here (LTC) disliked the Orion 1 because on the non-AC models, only small vent windows above the main windows were available for ventilation. The New Looks had sliders that allowed more of a cross breeze.

  • avatar

    Cool article, as the all are! However, there never was a 102″ wide Transit model TDH-5304 bus.

    The 40′ 102″ wide Transit models were the:
    5301 5303 5305 5307 (odd numbered)
    The 40′ 96″ wide Transit models were the:
    5302 5304 5306 5308 (even numbered)

    The 35′ 102″ wide Transit models were the:
    4516 4318 4520 4522 (even numbered) (4520 and 4522 were never built because GM would not put a V8 engine in their 35′ transit buses)
    The 35′ 96″ wide Transit models were the:
    4517 4519 4521 4523 (odd numbered)

    All Suburban models were all 96″ wide.
    The 35′ 96″ wide models were the:
    3501 3502 3503 3504 For example: SDH-3501
    The 40′ 96″ models were the:
    5301 5302 5303 5304 For example: SDH-5301

    Above information from:
    Welcome Aboard the GM New Look Bus (An Enthusiast’s Reference)
    John Mckane (Author)

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, your info on the 35 foot suburbans isn’t quite correct. They were 4501 through 4504, not 35xx. The first two letters of the model designation was nominal seating capacity.

    My company’s 1969 SDH-4503A is still used in charter service and is a lovely bus to drive, despite the “Armstrong” steering.

  • avatar worked on these buses back in the 70’s and 80’s loved rebuilding the vh-vh-1 and vh-9 tyrannies, did most of the a/c work on these buses. these buses used about 80 lbs of r-22 freon the newer rts uses about 10 lbs. by the way every time I would work on a newer bus suspension I would always curse and say this would never happen to a fish bowl .

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, your info on the 35 foot suburbans isn’t quite correct. They were 4501 through 4504, not 35xx. The first two letters of the model designation was nominal seating capacity.

    You’re right, I never noticed that I typed the wrong information. That mistake was mine, not John Mckane’s.

  • avatar

    Unfortunately, your info on the 35 foot suburbans isn’t quite correct. They were 4501 through 4504, not 35xx. The first two letters of the model designation was nominal seating capacity.

    You’re right, I never noticed that I typed the wrong information. That mistake was mine, not John Mckane’s.

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