Home » Here’s The Innovative Bus Ford Built To Dominate American Cities In The 1940s

Here’s The Innovative Bus Ford Built To Dominate American Cities In The 1940s

Ford Bus Forgotten Ts
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The humble transit bus is an incredibly important vehicle most do not think about. Most Americans do not know a Gillig from a New Flyer, just when the bus is late. For decades, General Motors ruled city streets and highways, but for a brief moment in time, Ford was also a major player. Ford was a dominant player in the transit bus industry for 14 years with beautiful coaches, but then it all fell apart. Here’s how America once got around inside buses backed by the Blue Oval.

America’s largest train museum, the Illinois Railway Museum, is finally open for the 2024 season. My wife and I have yet to visit, but I’m getting myself amped up to go by flipping through the pages of pictures I took in the past. One of my favorite events at IRM is Bus Day, which takes you on a transit trip over a century in time. One of the buses I took a picture of at Bus Day 2022 was this 1944 Ford Transit Bus. I planned on writing something about it, then it slipped my mind. The folks of Curbside Classic then reminded me about the old beauty.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

The pages of bus history are filled with the efforts of the likes of General Motors and Flxible. If you’re old enough, your memories of America’s largest cities are likely filled with the images of GMC RTS-IIs, GMC New Looks, and Flxible Metros buzzing around. You may not consciously think about those buses, but for many, they’re as iconic as the Checker cab.

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Ford

Ford doesn’t really have the same associations. Then again, it punched the clock on the transit bus game back in 1950. Before that, a Ford transit Bus was a big deal.

Ford Shows How It’s Done

The transit bus industry was a bit of a “Wild West” in the 1930s. There were a number of different companies building buses and each tried to bring something different to the table. The Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company was opened in 1923 in Chicago by John D. Hertz. In 1936, Yellow Coach innovated with the Model 719 highway bus, which featured a transversely-mounted diesel engine in the rear and an aluminum monocoque construction.

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GM purchased a majority stake in Yellow Coach only two years after its founding. This would become a historic move as it would allow GM to rule the bus market in later decades. While Ford never achieved the success of General Motors, it did make an impact worth noting.

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eBay via Bring a Trailer

A 1937 issue of Fleet Owner explained how Ford made its play. Back then, the automaker was happy to note that its previous conventional buses (those are buses with front engines under long hoods) had racked up over 17 million miles of successful service. Now, the Blue Oval was ready to capitalize on this success by building a new kind of transit bus. This new bus would prove itself in Detroit before finding itself in fleets around America. Its name wasn’t even that creative either: Transit Bus.

Ford built its Transit Bus with help from the Union City Body Co. in Union City, Indiana. Ford shipped over truck chassis and Union City gave the Transit Bus a body. As Fleet Owner explains, the buses were given a forward control design and were built for ease of loading and unloading.

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Ford

To facilitate this, the Ford Transit bus was equipped with wide doors and low steps. Passengers of limited mobility were given poles to grab onto to pull themselves in or to help lower themselves out. Once inside, passengers sat in seats made of tube frames, covered in real leather, and featuring two-stage springs for comfort.

The bus was heated for those cold winter runs and Fleet Owner explained that the heater worked. Air passed through a hot air and hot water heater located under the driver seat. That heated air then passed through an air filter before being dumped into the interior.

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Troxel’s Auto Literature

Air then left the bus using pressure and ventilators located near the bus destination sign. In the summer, ventilation worked the same way, only the heater was turned off. Ford and Union City fought against temperature swings, noise, and fumes from the front-mounted engine through insulation throughout the bus.

Fleet Owner continues that the good news didn’t stop there. The driver got to sit in an adjustable seat with a heating vent, an outside air vent, and an opening window. They would be commanding a bus built with a welded steel skeleton. Aluminum was used in areas where a strong structure wasn’t necessary. The roof frame was made of wood, but was braced and covered with metal and insulated with cotton. Also wood were the entry and exit doors and they were operated by air.

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Mercedes Streeter

Despite the age of the coach, there was also some technology involved. For example, the operator couldn’t start the bus unless the doors were closed. There was also a red light to inform the driver if they forgot to close a door. Ford supplied Union City with a 157-inch Ford model 70 chassis and running gear, including a Ford 221 cubic inch flathead V8 mounted up front and making 85 HP. These first buses were small and included seating room for 25 people and standing room for an additional 24 people.

Production kicked off strong, with 500 sold to the Detroit Street Railway in 1936 and nationwide sales began soon after. It’s believed that about 1,000 of the original Ford Transit Bus was built between 1936 and 1939, with Detroit Street Railway scooping up about 750 of them. Some other transit buses were made with Ford’s chassis, but they weren’t branded as a Ford Transit Bus as they were not built by Union City.

In 1939, Ford changed the layout of the Transit Bus.

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Mercedes Streeter

The engine was now placed in the rear for better performance and better weight distribution. Now, the engine grew to 239 cubic inches and output bumped up to 95 HP. Other improvements included a wheelbase stretch to 148.5 inches and seating room for 27 passengers. The rear-engine model was a lot closer to the modern transit buses of today and it turned out to be far more successful for Ford and Union City, too.

The Illinois Railway Museum has a restored 1944 Ford Transit Bus on hand. The bus originally operated for the Montebello Bus Lines near Los Angeles and found itself in the Orange Empire Railway Museum after its retirement. The bus was then transferred to IRM in 1989. Today, the bus now wears a Chicago & West Towns Railway livery with a fictional fleet code of C&WT 343 to illustrate the kind of transit buses used by the Chicago-based railway.

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Mercedes Streeter

It’s incredible how much this 25′ 9″ bus feels like a modern coach, but so much older. The seats felt and looked like normal bus seats and the driver drove the vehicle from a command center that didn’t have much to note. I wonder how this flathead V8 and three-speed manual people hauler must have felt behind the wheel.

Ford marketed these buses as both cheap and more durable than anything else. For less than $4,000 ($88,604 today), Ford said, you’d get a bus that dashed through snow, sleet, and slush more reliably than other buses of the era. Ford said you’d get your passengers to their destination on time and safely thanks to the Ford Transit Bus and its swift acceleration and good braking.

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eBay via Bring a Trailer

Things went well for Ford and Union City, too. While many bus builders were lucky to sell a few thousand units, Ford sold roughly 13,700 units between 1939 and 1947. That’s nothing like GM’s grasp in later decades, but was enough to have buses in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Louisiana, Arizona, Wisconsin, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, Toronto, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, California, North Dakota, and so many more. Reportedly, New Jersey had 593 units alone. Chances are, if you visited a large enough city in America in the mid-1940s, you may have ridden on one of these buses.

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Ford’s bus business grew so large that it opened training schools to teach mechanics how to work on them and a company called Transit Buses Inc. was formed in a joint venture with Union City in 1941 to sell the rear-engine buses.

Trouble Brewing

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Mercedes Streeter

Things were going well until after World War II. If you haven’t noticed yet, a 25 to 27-passenger bus isn’t that large. That wasn’t a problem before and during World War II as the buses met demand. However, as soldiers returned home and America hit a boom, suddenly there was a demand for larger transit buses.

As The Complete Encyclopedia Of Commercial Vehicles writes, Ford and Transit Buses Inc. had a disagreement about the best path forward to create the perfect post-war transit bus. In 1947, this caused the companies to break off their relationship. Union City and Transit Buses Inc. then buddied up with Checker. Ford wasn’t done with the bus market, and it partnered up with school bus maker Wayne Corporation.

Now with the Wayne Corporation supplying bodies, Ford updated the Transit Bus into the 8MB. This bus would drop the Transit Bus moniker and in marketing, Ford called the 8MB the Universal Bus.

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Ford

There was but one problem. The 8MB Universal Bus was a gorgeous unit, perfect for optimistic post-war America. The Ford also caused some competition as its former partners, Transit Buses Inc. and Union City, introduced the Transit Bus Model 81 as a competitor to the 8MB.

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The 8MB featured an all-new body as well as new power. Located in the rear of a Ford-Wayne 8MB Universal Bus was a 254 cubic inch L-head 6 cylinder from Ford. This should have been good for 115 HP, an improvement over the old V8s. The driver shifted gears through a Brown-Lipp three-speed manual and utilized an angle drive unit that turned a drive shaft forward into the rear axle. This time around, the Universal Bus carried 27 to 32 people in seats and over a dozen more in standing room.

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Daniel Games DG

Unfortunately for Ford and Wayne, a strike at the latter company meant production delays. Detroit ordered 10 Ford 8MBs and 31 Transit Bus Model 81s for testing. However, due to the Wayne strike, Transit Buses Inc., Union City, and Checker ended up winning the contract to build Detroit Street Railways 300 buses. Ford suddenly lost its lead to the companies that used to be its partners.

Reportedly, Ford never recovered from its rocky start. The strike wasn’t the only factor, but the fact that GM’s bus prowess had begun taking the nation and also the problem that America had demand for larger buses than what Ford and Wayne were making. In 1950, Ford threw in the towel and sold off its transit bus business to Marmon-Herrington. Production of the 8MB continued under its new owner until 1954, when even it was discontinued.

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Marmon-Herrington 8MB for sale via Pinterest

The incredible thing about all of this is that Ford’s transit bus business was short, but it was great while it lasted. Then, when it all fell apart, Ford gave up on transit buses entirely. Sure, school bus builders, RV builders, and the like would use Ford chassis for their bodies, but Americans didn’t get to ride in buses with that familiar logo on the front. It was a different story for Europe, but that’s a story for a different day.

Today, all of Ford’s transit bus efforts are super rare. There aren’t known survivor counts, but chances are you won’t find many in operation. If you do want to see a running classic Ford Transit Bus, be sure to visit the Illinois Railway Museum this year, especially on days it has the bus barns open.

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Musicman27
Musicman27
1 month ago

Ford before they realized destroying the public transportation market, would lead to massive car sales.

James Carson
James Carson
1 month ago

Not her great read! Thanks Mercedes!

Marantzer
Marantzer
1 month ago

Gilligs were good buses, but Crown made the best school busses on the planet.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

New insult for the lexicon: “You, sir, wouldn’t know a Gillig from a New Flyer!”
I’m like MATTinMKE: no previous interest in buses, but thoroughly enjoy these articles

Aaron
Aaron
1 month ago

I wonder how many people have/will visit IRM because of Mercedes’ articles?

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago

Wow, $86k (inflation adjusted) for a new transit bus, the Grumann-Flxible Metros cost $150,000 a piece in early 1980s money and were hot garbage

Speedway Sammy
Speedway Sammy
1 month ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

That was a story all in itself. Transit bus designed by west coast aerospace folks then dumped off to Ohio to manufacture. The Californians did not have a good grasp of what roadway surface conditions were prevalent in the northeast and big problems with the suspension ensued, especially in NYC which bought a big fleet.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago
Reply to  Speedway Sammy

Most of the UMTA’s new vehicle projects in the ’70s produced unsatisfactory results – Transbus, SOAC, and SLRV all didn’t work out quite as hoped.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
1 month ago

I don’t understand why I find these articles so interesting. It’s a bus! Yet here I am, reading the whole thing and hoping for more.

Thanks Mercedes!

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