Back 40 Classic: 1935/6 Ford 1.5 ton School Bus

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One of the best decisions I have ever made was to marry a country girl.  Although we now live “in town,” she can change tires and isn’t afraid to drive in the snow.  An additional benefit to marrying a country girl is that said spouse usually has “relations” who still live out in the unspoiled wilderness, and said wilderness often hides some silently decaying pieces of American industrial art, like this old Ford bus that my Grandfather-in-law drove into the woods one day and just parked.

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At one point in time, the bus that is the crux of this story probably looked much like the one pictured above.  I’ve always been fascinated by school buses, and this one is the best of the lot that has been my school bus loving life.  Considering that my formative years were spent riding in green vinyl style atop the chassis of 70s and 80s International and Chevy-based kid haulers, that should come as no surprise.

The first thing that strikes me about the Ford bus is that it couldn’t have held nearly as many children as modern ones do, which is probably by design, considering that a basically stock 221-inch flathead pulled this 1-1/2 ton people mover down the road.

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Unfortunately, there is precious little information floating around the automotive universe regarding school buses, but I will take an educated guess that this particular one has a Wayne bus body.  I’m not even 100% certain of the exact year of this bus, as the title proclaims it to be a 1936, but the hood sides are from a 1935 model.  The hood sides are interchangeable, however, so that could have happened any time in the bus’s history.

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But I digress.  My wife’s Grandpa, Carl, bought this bus to use on family camping trips.  Like many men in mid-20th century America, Carl had a large family that included a wife and six children.  This old school bus would have been the perfect vehicle for transporting people and supplies, and I’m certain Carl used it for hunting trips and who knows what else.  I’m sure it’s filled with stories that can no longer be told.

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In contrast to my in-laws, my wife and I live on a 100×48 lot with a big garage, a big house, and a bunch of old cars.  There’s little room to park anything that doesn’t run or pull its weight.  Therefore, I’ve always been jealous of those who live in open rural spaces, because at some point (about 1970, according to my wife’s late Grandmother, Peg), Carl just drove the behemoth a few hundred yards behind his house and shut off the engine for the last time.  And there it sat.  The forest grew up around it and boxed it in.

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For the next 40 odd years, the bus became a coop for small animals like rabbits, and a playhouse for the family’s kids and grandkids, including my wife.  Another benefit to living in a country family is that nobody is all that afraid of dirt and tetanus; just get yourself outside and burn off some of that energy!  Who needs video games when you have a ’30s school bus to play in?  Sadly enough for the old bus, some of that playing must have included some glass smashing, because this old thing is as open to the elements as a dugout.

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But what a place to play!  Modern society may not completely understand what they’ve lost as they’ve allowed art for art’s sake to fade from their everyday lives.  In the 1930s, a school bus dashboard was a work of art that someone toiling away in a design department drafted with one goal: beautiful functionality.  Modern gauge clusters are soulless video games compared to the elegant simplicity of a 1930s dashboard.  Perhaps they must be that way; the quest for safety has rightly or wrongly stolen the soul from the machine.

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In 2008, there was talk around the family that one of the neighbors wanted to scrap the old bus, since scrap prices were really high at the time, so I was compelled to go wander around the battered machine.  I’m fairly itinerant after a few sedentary hours, so a walk around the woods is a pleasure anyway.  I kept thinking of ways I could save this majestic old beast from the torch, from the crusher.  I tried to make a case for dragging it out of the woods and slowly fixing it, but as you can see from the pictures, it was sunk to its axles on the driver’s side, and that thick sheetmetal was ravaged by time, as all things are.

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The engine had sat without a carburetor for years, draining that old devil moisture into the long opened intake valves, permanently welding piston rings to cylinder walls in a slow dance of death.  The transmission was locked in gear.  The glass was all gone.  I am a public employee, and even if there would have been a certain poetic justice to a school teacher driving around in a classic school bus, the assets and liabilities columns just didn’t add up, family sentiment or no.

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So my wife and I just stood out there taking pictures.  My wife thought of her late Grandpa.  I thought of Henry Ford and his enigmatic personality, and how cool running flatheads sound through twice pipes.  The breeze fluttered through the trees, birds chirped, and somehow the bus didn’t seem out of place.  Rusting sheet metal commingled with green earth in a perfectly natural way.  The bus was at home.  The thought of it going to the scrappers was blasphemous to me, but I always try to understand that many people don’t share my attachment to machinery.  Some see just a bucket of rusty bolts.

I convinced Peg to let me try to sell it, and she agreed.  Although there was interest, nothing worked out.  It was probably for the best.  I can’t imagine trying to pull this stuck block of metal from the forest, through the trees, up a hill.

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All, however, is not lost.  The scrapping never happened, for whatever reason.  Peg passed away over a year ago, and a family member bought the house.  Who knows what time will bring for the bus, but for now, it’s safe in its forest haven, returning to the dirt from whence it came, many years ago.  This is good news for me, as there’s a personal museum a few hundred yards back into the forest that I can visit when the fancy strikes me.  Although this bus may never again see the road, sometimes art possesses as high a purpose as pragmatism, and I’m happy that this particular example is rusting away in peace.