For the past several months, I’ve been searching for a particular transit bus. I already own a transit icon, the GM RTS, but there is a bus that’s arguably even cooler, and now, several decades after they went out of production, they’re now arguably rarer. I’m talking about the GM New Look bus. For two decades, when an American thought “city bus,” one of these coaches likely sprang up in their mind. The New Look, or Fishbowl bus, is such a great bus that it’s even a star in the movie Speed. I’ve finally found one of these buses in a condition that isn’t rough. This 1963 TDH-4519 is a stellar example of one of the greatest transit buses ever, and even better, it’s already been converted into an RV for you!
Finding a very old transit bus in decent condition is rare. A transit system that works its buses hard may use them for two decades before retiring them. Sometimes, those buses reach the end of service worn out, tired, and in need of thousands of dollars of refurbishment. Those buses often end up at the scrapper. The usable ones sometimes get sold into private hands. But even those may end up rotting away in fields or sidelined for years.
Between 1959 and 1986, factories in the United States and Canada produced 44,484 GM New Look buses. Now, 64 years after the first buses reached their original operators, this transit icon has faded into obscurity. So, let’s shine a light on an exceptional piece of history.
A Once Dominating Foothold On The Bus Industry
Decades ago, General Motors was a commercial vehicle powerhouse with a dominating grasp on buses. The buses built by General Motors were so good that cities all over America scooped them up, seating GM as America’s leading bus maker from the 1930s through the 1970s. Railfans in our audience will also be quick to point out that GM didn’t just run America’s buses, either. There was a time when the vast majority of locomotives built in America were assembled by then-GM’s Electro-Motive Division and second place wasn’t even close.
In 1970, you could have ridden a GM “Buffalo” bus to your neighboring city, hopped on GM New Look bus to get around that city, and then walked into a dealership where you purchased a Vega, which was shipped vertically in a railcar on a train very likely pulled by an EMD locomotive. If you returned to that dealership in 1980 to pick up a Chevette, you could have ridden in a GM RTS-II bus and there’s a non-zero chance that car got to the dealership on a trailer pulled by a GMC General semi. GM was in so many forms of transportation. [Editor’s Note: This tracks: if the car you bought before getting your Chevette was indeed a Vega, you very likely would have been taking a bus to the dealer. – JT]
Here’s how GM even got into the bus market, from my own retrospective on the subject:
Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company was opened in 1923 in Chicago by John D. Hertz. If that name sounds familiar, in 1923, Hertz bought out the Rent-A-Car rental company and changed its name to Hertz Drive-Ur-Self, which is today known simply as Hertz. That was hardly Hertz’s only business. In 1915, Hertz started the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago and also in 1923, Hertz started the Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company as a subsidiary of Yellow Cab. The coach arm of the business was responsible for the manufacture of buses. General Motors purchased a majority stake in the business just two years after its opening.
At the time, most buses were built with a body-on-frame design. One of Yellow Coach’s innovations back then was a monocoque structure. It started in 1936 with the Model 719 highway bus, which featured a transversely-mounted diesel engine in the rear and an aluminum monocoque construction. In 1940, the bus that would become the Old Look would get the same technology. When the GMC Truck and Coach Division absorbed the rest of Yellow Coach in 1943, this basic design layout would continue to see use in the rest of GM’s bus legends. For example, my RTS bus was built out of five-foot sections of stainless steel unibody.
Prior to the New Look bus, the GMC Truck & Coach Division had a large presence in American cities with the ‘Old Look’ series of buses. I should note that at the time, these buses were not given any sort of name. Instead, they were given such designations as Model TG-3201, which gave you some coded information about the coach’s specs. The retronym ‘Old Look‘ didn’t appear until after the New Look arrived and even then, the name isn’t official.
Anyway, the Old Look represented the design of the 1940s era that birthed it. Windows were small, bodies were functional, and much of the coach’s innovation was under the skin. When it came time to replace those old buses, the GMC Truck & Coach Division leaped forward in technology and styling.
The New Look Bus
Reportedly, some of the New Look’s design is inspired by the streamlined GM PD-4104 coach. Launched in 1959, the New Look transit coach featured an aluminum body reinforced with steel. The body and its supporting structures underneath form the aforementioned monocoque construction. Side panels are fluted aluminum riveted to a supporting steel structure. As a result of these construction techniques, GM managed to build a new bus that was lighter on its tires. However, for most people, the New Look’s name was literal. These new buses looked futuristic compared to the Old Look and boasted large parallelogram windows and a fantastic windshield for the driver. This window, which offers tons of visibility, is why these buses have the nickname of ‘Fishbowl.’
Longevity has a lot to do with its nearly 40-year production run. When the RTS-II was released in 1977, those buses had some teething issues. Some operators, especially in Canada, had a lukewarm response to the RTS, and New Look production continued well past its original expiration date. Production finally ceased in Canada in 1986, but even that wasn’t the end of the New Look. Back in 1982, Canada’s General Motors Diesel developed the New Look into the Classic. In 1987, the Classic was passed on to Motor Coach Industries, which passed it to Nova Bus in 1993. Nova stopped producing the Classic in 1997, capping off 38 years of New Look buses and derivatives.
Some quirks with the New Look include the fact that power steering was optional. Thus, a large steering wheel was necessary to maneuver the coach in tight areas. Early New Looks also featured a mechanical accelerator pedal. Yep, that means a throttle linkage going some 35 or so feet back to the engine. Some New Looks also had four-speed non-synchronized manual transmissions. Again, that meant a very long linkage to the transmission out back and double-clutching. Later New Looks gained an air-actuated throttle, which almost certainly saved some drivers from some pain.
Originally, if you chose your New Look with an automatic transmission, you got an Allison VH unit. This transmission is weird for the fact that it’s a single-speed unit delivering power from a torque converter. Indeed, there was no shifting, though at around 35 mph or so the torque converter locks up with a sort of jolt that feels like a gear shift. As with many transit buses, rear-end gearing is very important. A transit series New Look often topped out at 55 mph while a suburban unit got around 65 mph. When some of these buses get converted into motorhomes, rear-end gearing sometimes gets swapped out for more highway-friendly chops.
This New Look Bus
The seller of this 1963 New Look doesn’t tell us exactly what model it is. See, General Motors made a bunch of different variations of the New Look over four generations. Each of them comes with a model code. For example, a TDH-3301 looks like a jumble of numbers and letters, but it does mean something. “T” tells us the bus is a transit model. “D” means it’s powered by a diesel engine. “H” indicates it has a hydraulic automatic transmission. Next, “33” is the bus seating capacity and the final two digits indicate series.
It is possible to figure out this code without seeing a manufacturing plate. The pictures provided with this bus show that it does not have a raised floor and does not have under-floor baggage areas. That means it’s a Transit model and not a Suburban model. The seller says it’s a 1963, which would make it a second-generation model. Second-gen New Looks can be identified with roof signals in bullet-shaped pods and taillights that aren’t housed in afterburner-style pods. In 1968, the third generation came out, which removed the bullet light pods, added mandatory clearance lights, added a GMC badge, and added mandatory side lights. This bus has the marks of a second-gen, so the year is likely accurate.
The bus takes up about three and a half parking spaces. Assuming these are standard 10-foot-wide spaces, the bus is about 35 feet long. Finally, we have to determine the width of the bus. Thankfully, there is a way to do that using the grille-like strip between the headlights. 102-inch wide buses have a bigger strip while 96-inch wide buses have a smaller strip. This one has a smaller strip.
Based on these observations, I’m confident that this bus is a TDH-4519, a 35-foot long, 96-inch wide transit model with a diesel engine, automatic transmission, and capacity for 45 passengers. From the factory, this bus would have had a Detroit 6V-71N engine. This is a 7-liter V6 diesel rated for around 238 HP depending on tune. The seller says this bus really has an 8V-71 in it, a 9.3 V8 diesel rated at around 318 HP depending on tune. Pictures confirm this bus has the larger engine. The 8V-71 was used in the New Look but in newer and larger 40-foot models. The seller doesn’t say, but the bus should have an Allison automatic, and depending on the exact version it can have a few speeds.
The seller doesn’t say what system this bus operated on in the past, but it does appear to be in decent shape. It appears the bus has a functional air suspension and the body looks pretty good considering its age!
Inside, the transit interior has been ripped out and replaced with a camper conversion. The seller says everything works, including the kitchen appliances and the flushing toilet. That kitchen itself is a sight to behold.
The listing states this kitchen is made out of custom stainless steel and about $20,000 was spent on it. Everything is present from a stove, oven, kitchen sink, and refrigerator. Also included are what are described to be large tanks for fresh, grey, and black water plus propane.
In addition to all of that, the seller says the bus comes with a custom sound system and hookups to bring the propane outside for that bus-based cookout. Sadly, we don’t get any information about top speeds, but the seller says the bus drives “nice” and it’s dependable.
The conversion doesn’t look perfect. It looks almost as if most of the money was spent on the kitchen. For example, look behind the kitchen and you’ll find exposed plywood and fabrics that don’t seem to fit so well. But, none of that is a big deal. All of the hard stuff was done, so you just make it look pretty, or just use it as-is.
If you’re interested, the bus is going for $14,500. I’ve seen these buses sell for way more money, so the price doesn’t seem bad. I would buy it today if I had the money. Sadly, I do not. If you are as enamored as I am, picking up this bus would make you a caretaker of a real piece of history. As time soldiers on, more of these buses will disappear from the road. You could be one of a handful of people keeping these icons alive.
(Images: Facebook Seller, unless otherwise noted.)
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