Although articulated transit buses have become commonplace in urban areas around the globe, articulated long-distance highway coaches have been a flop, although not for lack of trying. There have been three attempts to implement them in North America covering a forty year time span, and each one failed. The Kässbohrer Setra Continental Trailways Super Golden Eagle was attempt number two; four of these impressive 60′ long coaches were built in 1958. This sad relic is one of two still existent, hiding from the crusher in a storage lot near Eugene.
The first attempt was this pioneering bus built by Kaiser Industries in 1946. This was apparently a speculative effort, to gauge possible interest from bus operators.
Kaiser had no previous experience in building buses, but Henry Kaiser relished new challenges. Only one was built, and after some demonstrations (short video here), the bus was used for a time between Los Angeles and San Francisco by Santa Fe Transportation Co., a member of the National Trailways association. I did a short post on it a couple of years ago, but failed to properly comprehend its historical significance.
In researching the history of articulated buses for this article, it appears that this Kaiser bus was quite the ground-breaking design, the first true articulated bus ever – even with rear-wheel steering – that I could find documentation on. I had assumed that there were articulated transit buses in Europe before the Kaiser, but I can’t find any evidence of that. Can anyone else?
In Europe, conventional trailers behind buses have been common since the 1920s or so, used both in transit and longer-haul operations.
And trailers are still in use, as this recently-implemented Swiss postbus-trailer combo from 2013 shows. It’s a relatively easy way to add additional capacity during peak hours. Post buses in Austria used trailers extensively to increase capacity during the busy summer tourist season, and riding in them was always a bit of extra fun.
But trailers have obvious limitations, especially in urban transit settings, due to their length and turning radius. There are also regulatory issues, and to the best of my knowledge, passenger trailers have never been permitted in the US on public roads, presumably out of safety concerns.
One of the obvious disadvantages of the trailer is the inability for passengers to move between the two coaches. In the late thirties, the German firm Gaubschat began offering bus-trailer combos with a passageway. The Italian bus maker Macchi may have used it even earlier.
In this ad by Gaubschat, which ended up in East Berlin after the war, a genuine articulated transit bus is shown along with a bus-trailer combo. This is clearly a post-war era ad, and there are references in various places to articulated transit buses being placed into transit service in the 1954-1955 period, by several German transit bus builders. Needless to say, articulated transit buses have become very commonplace, but are not the scope of this post.
But it appears that the firm Kässbohrer, one of the largest of the German bus manufacturers, was the first to build an articulated bus, after the Kaiser, as this image dated from 1952 shows, although still built on a traditional front-engine truck-type chassis. The German wikipedia page on articulated buses gives this 1952 Kässbohrer credit as the first articulated bus ever, with no mention of the 1946 Kaiser. The English wikipedia page on articulated buses is very poor, and makes no mention of either the Kaiser or the 1952 Kässbohrer. Time to set the record straight: Kaiser, then Kässbohrer.
In 1951, Kässbohrer revolutionized the European bus industry with its rear-engined Setra S8.
The name Setra is a contraction of the German Selbst tragend (self supporting), a light but strong framework of integrated members as this model of the S8’s skeleton shows. The Setra’s advantages were obvious, and it became a top seller as well as the model for all modern European buses. It is analogous to GM’s pioneering Model 719 coach.
Strictly speaking, our featured Super Golden Eagle (“SGE”) wasn’t the second, but the third articulated bus in the US. In 1957, presumably as a prelude to the SGE, Kässbohrer sent two of these very German-looking Setra articulated buses to Colorado at the request of Continental’s founder and expansion-minded President, M.E.Moore, to be used by Continental Trailways on their “Academy Express” route between Denver, Colorado Springs – home of the Air Force Academy – and Pueblo, .
Note the baggage rack on the roof; these low-floor buses had little internal baggage capacity, as the MAN “pancake” engine was under the floor of the front unit. They also had no air conditioning. These were obviously European-type sightseeing buses with little or no modification for US use. Apparently, the hulks of these buses are still rotting away somewhere.
One year earlier, in 1956, Continental Trailways had contracted with Kässbohrer to develop and build its first 40′ intercity coaches, obviously in response to Greyhound’s new 40′ Scenicruiser. The Golden Eagle was a pioneering bus, as it set the template for all coaches since, with its continuous high-floor configuration that yielded a very large under-floor baggage and parcel storage area. A total of 185 Golden and less-lavish Silver Eagles were built by Kässbohrer, before Trailways bought the rights and jigs for the Eagle and set up their own manufacturing facility in Belgium. Eventually the Eagle was built in the US for a couple of decades, until the jigs were finally sold to Mexico.
The Golden Eagles originally were powered by a German MAN V8 diesel and ZF transmission, but they were not up to the punishing use of American intercity coaches that racked up over 100,000 miles per year. A turbocharged diesel six (manufacturer unknown) was then used for a while, but all were re-powered with GM’s DD V8-71 diesels after they became available thanks to an anti-trust suit brought against them for restraint of trade.
Moore, a true pioneer in the field, was obviously smitten with the possibilities of articulated coaches, even if the trials with the first two units were somewhat less than successful, due to their lack of air conditioning and baggage storage. So he had Kässbohrer build four Super Golden Eagles for Continental Trailways, 60′ articulated intercity coaches. The power plant in these was a 275 hp supercharged Rolls-Royce diesel driving the middle axle through a six-speed ZF transmission, and was mounted underfloor in the front half of the bus. There was a small galley in the middle of the bus, and a nine-passenger lounge at the very rear with panoramic glass roof panels. Total capacity was 63 passengers, with seat pitch stretched for extra leg-room for this premium-level “Five Star” service.
The SGEs were operated on the same Denver-Colorado-Springs-Pueblo route (presumably because of length restrictions elsewhere), but eventually were sent to California, where they plied the same Trailways LA-SF route that the Kaiser Bus once had.
One of the four was later sold to AC Transit in the Bay Area in about 1966, and was configured into their “Freeway Train”, seating 77 passengers for suburban transit use. By this time, a 262 hp Cummins diesel was at work under the front floor. AC Transit’s write-up on it is here.
This very bus was later bought by Wilson Bus in the Bay Area, and completely re-built. The complex articulation gear that steers the rear axles was worn out, but Kässbohrer had one new unit still in their warehouse, a critical aspect of this bus being fully roadworthy today.
The Wilson SGE still gets used occasionally, for exhibitions as well as some charters. I’d prefer it to have been restored stylistically to its original looks, but it’s a very impressive bus and well done.
The other three SGE’s were sold to Nashville’s Loch Raven Coach, a converter and leasing firm of performing artist’s coaches. One of them was destroyed early on, by attempting to convert it into a single 35′ long coach. The other two were used for some time as touring coaches, one of them with a shortened rear section.
Wilson Bus eventually acquired all of the remaining three buses, but sold them off except for the ruined one. One of these was presumably converted into a motorhome, but there is no current knowledge of its whereabouts. And the other went to Eugene, OR., to Green Tortoise, an “alternative” tour operator that maintained a “Research & Development” facility in Lowell, outside of Eugene.
That facility was once quite lively, and there was prodigious collection of old buses kept there for parts and/or for future conversion to one of Green Tortoise’s unique buses, which feature casual seating on long lounges which convert to beds. Green Tortoise operated a regular service between Seattle and San Francisco, but that was discontinued in 2001, and the R&D facility has been converted to other use. A couple of buses are still moldering away in the back, including the SGE. I figured it was high time to go in and shoot it before it inevitably disappears.
Time to step inside and take a look.
As best as I can tell, Green Tortoise likely started converting the interior of the SGE, but never finished it or made it roadworthy, as the license plate is still from Tennessee and dated 1984. Plus, there’s no visual Green Tortoise identification on the outside. These plywood platforms look like the “lounges” Green Tortoise typical uses, but it’s all very crude and unfinished. My guess is that some very basic work on the interior was started, but the mechanical issues of this bus soon made themselves obvious.
It looks like the work never made it to the rear coach section, although those transverse “sleepers” look like that might have been the first step to creating a higher new floor, although I don’t know why. Maybe a giant wall-to-wall sleeping section/rumpus room?
Here’s the view forward. Needless to say, this bus is in bad shape.
How would you like to tackle the wiring in this big boy? That’s quite the driver’s compartment.
The long shift lever could use a knob. It probably connects to a Spicer four-speed, a box that became the de-facto standard for coaches until automatics took over.
Here’s where the engine sits in these, in the middle of the front section. A spare turbo is along for the (non) ride.
Not surprisingly, it’s a DD 8V-71, the choice of transit and highway buses for decades. This appears to be the typical 318 hp version; the “Big Bus” would be just adequately powered, at best. But the noise of that “Screaming Jimmy” inches under the floor was probably hard to muffle properly. There’s a good reason why rear engines mostly replaced underfloor units. Access for maintenance was difficult too.
Back there where the engine normally sat in Eagles, there’s now a very large luggage compartment. Wiring issues, perhaps?
The Super Golden Eagle didn’t last long in front line service, and the articulated highway coach again went into remission for a few more decades. In 1985, Canadian busmaker Prevost decided to give it another go, with their H5-60. Well, they struck out too, although with some 50 units built, that was an improvement on the Super Golden Eagle. Since articulated buses have become so common for transit buses, how come not for highway coaches?
It’s safe to assume that it was the emergence of the 45′ non-articulated bus, thanks to changed length regulations. The huge additional expense of an articulated 60′ bus to gain just 15′, and not all of that in passenger space due to the vestibule, undoubtedly makes it uneconomical in comparison. And economics are key in bus operations.
In Europe, the articulated long-distance coach didn’t fare much better. Neoplan’s double-decker Jumbocruiser, the world’s largest bus with a maximum possible capacity of 144 passengers, arrived with considerable fanfare in 1975. But only eleven of them were ever built through 1992, as a result of some countries like France having substantial barriers to them.
And after Europe also increased its maximum length from 12 meters to a whopping 15 meters (49’3″), articulated buses also became uneconomical, and Nepoplan’s Megaliner essentially replaced it. Will we see 50′ buses in the US? Why not? Semi trailers are already 53′ long. I’m rather surprised that Europe has taken the lead on this, given our relatively more wide-open spaces.
Meanwhile, articulated transit buses just keep getting longer and longer, like this 30 meter (98.5 feet) bus introduced recently in Dresden, Germany. It’s sophisticated computer-controlled multi-axle steering system allows it to have a turning radius the same as a 12 meter bus.
Meanwhile, this poor neglected Super Golden Eagle is moldering away here in the Eugene area, a memorial to the time when the articulated highway coach was seen as the next new big thing. It’s hard predicting the future.