It happened again last night. I was perusing eBay for car parts for the '47 Chevy. Not much seemed to jump out at me, plus we have no money right now going into the holiday season. So, next I decided to type one of my strange searches into the keyword search box. I chose "General Motors Bus" this time. Immediately, the auction for this old thing popped up...
Its a 1959 GM "New Look" Transit bus, the first year that GM came out with this model. It served as one of Oklahoma City's first air-conditioned buses. After plans to restore it and put it in local transit museum fell through, the collector decided to put it up for sale. So here it is, one of 1,799 models made that year and probably one of a handful that have survived. A single repaint at some point in its life has now faded, but its all there and the paint seemed to protect its skin from becoming too weathered.
The "Buy it Now" price? A modest $2,250. It even has the original interior and looks like its fairly untouched. Its also got the Detroit Diesel 6v71 and an Allison 2 speed automatic transmission so it wouldn't be too taxing to drive.
Look at this beast! All the glass appears to be in good shape. Those iconic green-tinted forward-facing side windows, the smiling face. It looks like a giant Matchbox toy!
"That's great and all, but why the heck are you looking at eBay auctions for 53 year-old buses?"
The sad part is that I don't really have a good answer for that. But what I can tell you is that I think these machines are something special, and something worth preserving at the same time. You see, like many car enthusiasts, I appreciate machines that do a job every day. I know our daily drivers technically perform a task every day but I'm mostly talking about machinery that gets used and abused. Something that's flogged for months before being serviced. The kind of rolling iron that is treated poorly and still expected to perform under any condition and any season. Buses definately fall under this category in my opinion. When's the last time you saw or rode on a city bus and thought "Wow, this is in great shape. Someone really takes care of this thing.".
patented uniform stressed skin construction method similar to airplanes that allowed the sheet aluminum skin to hold the bus together. This made for a lighter bus with a different look than its predecessors, which were a glorified streetcar body with an engine and wheels. GM also powered their new bus with another one of their inventions...the Detroit Diesel 6v71 or 8v71 two-stroke engine.
Many of you will remember seeing these things running around the streets of the city nearest you through the late 1980's and maybe early 1990's. Even though my brothers and I grew up an hour from Chicago, as a family we did go to the Windy City quite often. The large GM fishbowl buses made up the majority of the Chicago Transit Authority fleet for roughly three decades, and provided great service to millions of passengers during that time. Sure, they were slow in traffic. They also belched mushroom clouds of black soot from their exhaust stacks and made the urban air quality terrible. And yes, they didn't offer much in the way of creature comforts besides a metal framed chair and maybe working heat or AC.
But here's what they did have: Durability.
The brute toughness of the Detroit Diesel powerplant made a fantastic noise too at idle and at speed. The sound was a proud whirring noise while getting up to speed from a dead stop. Once the little V6 propelled the behemoth up to cruising speed, the Allison transmission would 'plunk' itself into second gear and lurch along melodically until the bell rang for the next stop. Brakes squeeled, doors opened with a quick hiss of an air-powered actuator, and the cycle repeated several times a day. Let's take a little spin on one for old time's sake.
What a great sound, eh? I'm sure you remember seeing, smelling, hearing or even riding these at some point in your life, even if you're not a total OCD gearhead like me. You also got to see the fishbowl have top-billing as a co-star of the 1994 Keanu Reeves film. (Check it out, its the one on the movie poster that's jumping through a wall of fire.) The bus clearly made an impression as a tough old mutt that could not only drive above 50 miles per hour all day, but could also do it occasionally while driving on three wheels and take a 100 foot jump off of a freeway bridge without totally turning into a pancake. For the record, they really did that jump.
The fishbowl had a long design run from 1959 all the way to 1977 here in the U.S. and even longer in Canada before being replaced by the GM RTS bus model which, incidently, Peoria's City Link service just retired last year. The GM fishbowl bus, another vehicle that I love, and would love to own someday if I have the space and the bread to make it happen. What about that one on eBay right now? I could make a retro party bus out of it! Think of a Mad Men-inspired night of debauchery complete with a swanky, mid-century bus to take you from place to place? Or I could make a vintage 40-foot motorhome
Okay, fine. These are all dumb ideas. Surely, it wouldn't be practical and I have no idea what I would do with such a machine, but damnit I still want one! Sadly, most of these old buses will die a death similar to the white one in the video below at a scrapyard in Indiana. I only hope that some of these elegantly simple machines are still around for us to remember what an effective tool they were as we moved to and from work each day in the big cities in post World War II America .
44,000 of these Fish Bowl buses were made. Who's going to click the "Buy it Now" price on the one on eBay right now? Maybe I will.
Go to https://www.facebook.com/stuffabuspeoria to learn how a retired fishbowl bus is still making a difference this holiday season in Peoria.