Over 68 years ago, the bus plastered across your screen hit the road, providing tourists a scenic ride through Mount Rainier National Park. It was one of just a few buses to get the job. And after years of dutiful service, it now enjoys an easier life as an RV. The Flxible Visicoach is a neat piece of bus history, and this one has a story to tell.
Every day, I get wonderful emails from you, our lovely readers. The contents vary wildly from tips and bus finds to stories of how our little day-to-day automotive, aviation, and motorcycle musings have brightened your day. Thank you very much and we’re happy to have made an impact. This bus was sent to me by Josh, and I’ve been sitting on it for a couple of months just trying to find out more about it. Amazingly, it’s actually been for sale for over three years. Yet, as the owner told me, it still hasn’t sold.
The history of the Flxible Company dates back to 1912. Back then, as our friends at RideApart write, Hugo H. Young ran a Harley-Davidson dealership in Mansfield, Ohio. He came up with an idea that would actually be pretty neat today, and sought to solve the problem of motorcycle handling with a sidecar.
Normally, you ride a motorcycle by countersteering and leaning into turns. The addition of a typical sidecar messes that up. When you turn away from the sidecar, the whole machine stays upright, and the riding experience can feel awkward for someone used to leaning. If you turn into the sidecar, you can end up lifting the sidecar itself off of the pavement, another awkward experience.
Young’s idea to improve sidecar design was two-fold. His sidecar wouldn’t be hard-mounted to the motorcycle. Instead, it would have a flexible connection. Then, the sidecar’s wheel would be able to lean with the motorcycle. The result was that the motorcycle still leaned like it normally would, and the sidecar could travel up and down independently without forcing the motorcycle into a lean.
As RideApart notes, a traveling salesman loved the idea so much that Young decided to patent his idea and start a company to build it. In 1913, Young organized the Flexible Side Car Company. In 1914, Young and business partner Carl F. Dudte incorporated the company for $25,000 in Loudonville, Ohio.
This caught the attention of none other than Charles F. Kettering, the founder of Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco), one of the engineers behind the Kettering Bug, inventor of an electric car starter, and the father of leaded gasoline. Kettering would serve as Flxible’s president of its board of directors from 1915 to 1940 and as chairman from 1940 until his death in 1958. Flush with cash from selling Delco to General Motors, Kettering was also Flxible’s largest shareholder.
In 1919, with the company growing, Flexible changed its name. As Flxible Owners International notes, the company couldn’t trademark “Flexible.” Thus, the directors dropped the first E from Flexible and gave the business a new name: The Flxible Company.
The company continued to make sidecars into the 1920s. However, as RideApart notes, inexpensive vehicles like the Model T started eating into the more expensive Flxible sidecar sales. Eventually, the company decided to jump ship on sidecars and began building different kinds of vehicles. Flxible’s first bus was a 12-passenger Studebaker sedan built in 1924.
In 1937, Flxible introduced the predecessor to the bus you see here today. The Clipper was 28 feet-long, seated 25 passengers, and was driven by an engine mounted up front.
Passenger baggage rode on the roof and the body was supported by a wooden frame. This design lasted for just one year and in 1938, the Clipper saw major upgrades. Now it used a full-steel unitized construction and the engine was moved to the rear.
Flxible Owners International explains that in the early 1940s, these buses saw gradual changes throughout their production. Baggage was moved off of the roof and into a compartment. Windshields became curved for more visibility. Rectangular side windows were ditched for stylish parallelogram windows. The owners site also notes that these early buses also had sightseeing versions with glass roof panels. These buses found homes at resorts and National Parks.
Oh, and remember the old bus from the Robin Williams movie RV? Yep, that’s an old Flxible Clipper!
In 1950, Flxible further refined the Clipper design into the Visicoach. This bus is similar to a Clipper, but features three additional inches of interior headroom and an engine bay a foot longer. Curbside Classic notes that these buses had a wide variety of engines that came mounted on a siding drawer for ease of repair. They came with everything from a Buick Straight-8 engine to engines from Fageol Twin Coach, Hall-Scott, White, and Cummins.
Flxible Owners International says that 925 Visicoaches were built between 1950 and 1956. Flxible owners have maintained an incredible list of every Visicoach built, and six of them are known to have gone into service at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. Of those six, two were put into service in 1951, two in 1953, and two in 1954. This Visicoach that you see here is 30733, and entered into service in May 1954.
Amazingly, unlike many vehicles this old, this bus comes with documentation to back up its claimed history. A period brochure shows an illustrated Visicoach and photos taken around the National Park shows sightseeing buses covered in vast glass roof windows. Documentation includes registration, manuals, and driver logs dating back from its service serving the Mount Rainier National Park. The destination scroll shows stops all around the area.
In 1972, the bus was no longer carrying tourists and was converted into an RV. Originally, this bus should have had eight glass windows for sightseers to look through.
Josh, the reader who emailed me the bus, also sent me a picture of a vintage Flxible that they almost picked up. They believe it may have been a National Park bus, but I was never able to confirm that. Here’s what a Flxible looks like with those windows all in place:
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how much you like outside light), all but two of the windows were lost in the RV conversion. But the remaining two windows do make for an airy seating area near the front of the bus.
The conversion was thorough, and includes a full, working kitchen, a bathroom with working plumbing, air-conditioning, a generator, and beds. Despite the age of the conversion, it looks pretty cozy there. I’d love to see what it’s like to sit under those roof windows while the bus is going down the highway. And yes, those windows do have shades for when things get too toasty.
Unfortunately, not everything is great on the bus. The owner, Rich, notes that the clearance lights are disconnected, the toilet sticks, some outlets don’t work, and they have no idea if the shower functions. So, it may need some work if you enjoy taking showers in your camper. Thankfully, it does come with some spare parts including, incredibly, the shades for the windows that were removed and spare glass.
Mounted in the rear of the bus is a Caterpillar 1150 573 cubic-inch V8 diesel engine. It’s good for 200 horsepower and 435 lb-ft torque depending on application. This isn’t the original engine, which was a Fageol Twin Coach FTC 180 404 cubic-inch straight-six gas engine that made 180 HP and 379 lb-ft torque.
That Caterpillar is driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual. The seller says that over $10,000 of work was put into the powertrain, so hopefully it’s rock-solid.
Rich told me that this engine configuration is good for 10 mpg fuel economy. This sounds horrific, but it’s actually better than what my newer Nova Bus RTS gets with its 7.5 mpg. He says that the reason for selling it is due to his growing family.
He’s asking $64,995 for the bus.
That’s certainly a lot for an old bus, and perhaps is part of why it has been on the market for over three years. Then again, it’s also being sold on the seller’s site rather than other marketplaces. That said, it’s one of those rare opportunities where a used vehicle comes with a pile of all kinds of records and documentation. If the drivetrain is as sorted as it sounds, this just needs some minor repairs before you could easily camp in it today.
Buses remained one of the main focuses of Flxible for the rest of the company’s run. In 1959, it would make the New Look, a rival to General Motors’ bus of the same name that looked similar. It also made the Flxible Metro, a rival to GM’s famous RTS.
Sadly, Flxible never made it to the 21st Century. It built buses until it eventually closed its doors in 1995. Flxible buses might not have the cult-like following of GM designs, but these are still great pieces of transit history.