Bus Stop Classic: Grumman 870/Flxible Metro – “ I’ve Been Framed……”

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Previously we’ve looked at several products produced by the innovative transportation company based in Loudonville Ohio – the Flxible Corporation (Clipper here, New Look here).  Now let’s review one of the company’s final buses – the 870/Metro.

First a little history – while government regulation and oversight had long been part of public transportation operations in the US, that role increased in the mid-1960s with passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1964.  With that Act, the federal government significantly increased funding, through grants, to public transportation operators to purchase new equipment.  Broadening their role in the early ‘70s, the Department of Transportation launched an initiative to incorporate updated safety and accessibility requirements in a new, revolutionary bus – thus was born the “Transbus Program”.

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               GM                                             Rohr/Flxible                             AM General

All three major US bus manufacturers submitted proposals for this new coach.  The Transbus effort really requires a separate post, but suffice it to say that these new buses were prohibitively expensive, and some of the technology was less than mature.  By 1976, the government decided to “dial back” and take a more evolutionary step in bus modernization – with the “Advanced Design Bus”.

More proposals were solicited and two manufacturers entered submissions (GM and Rohr/Flxible, with AM General deciding to exit the bus market).  As most know, “Buy US” restrictions prohibited overseas manufacturers from participating.

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GM fielded the RTS……

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………and Rohr/Flxible the 870……

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The 870 incorporated several significant upgrades over the older “New Look” coach.  It was lower, and had a wheel chair lift, one of the accessibility goals of the Transbus Program.  It was also easier to manufacture and was lighter in weight, increasing fuel mileage.

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Cummins L10                                                              30 ft Coach

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35 ft                                                                   40 ft

Sizes were typical; 30, 35 or 40 ft in length, 96 or 102 in wide.  Powertrains were GM 6/8V 71 and 6/8V 92 in later models, and Cummins L10 and C8.3 engines, with Voith, ZF and Allison transmissions.

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In Jan 1978, Rohr sold Flxible to Grumman, the defense contractor, and the bus was now known as the Grumman 870.  The New York City Transit Authority placed a large order (851) and in 1980, 870s began running on New York streets – and shortly thereafter problems started occurring….. here’s a short timeline;

– June 1980: Buses start arriving.

– November 1980: Structural flaws (cracks) are found in undercarriage assemblies.

– Dec. 1, 1980: The engine and transmission of a bus drops out while in passenger service.

– Dec. 13, 1980: All Flxibles are taken out of service.

– January 1981: Grumman agrees to correct defects by reinforcing A-frames and engine cradles.

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In an effort to save weight (one of the design goals), the “A-Frame” that carried the rear axle assembly wasn’t as strong as in older buses, and under the constant pounding of New York’s pot-holed streets, cracks started to develop.

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Grumman initially argued that improper maintenance by NY Metro caused the cracks to develop.  But then buses in LA, Atlanta, Chicago and Houston started exhibiting similar problems.  The issue received widespread media coverage and as with most of these types of situations, many lawyers and courtrooms were involved – but ultimately by 1983, Grumman was forced to take all 870s in-use nation-wide out of service and substantially reinforce the frames.  A total 2656 buses were repaired at a final cost of over $7 million.

There are two common misconceptions associated with this A-frame problem.  First, it is assumed that the resulting “bad press” ruined the bus’ reputation and sales plunged.  While that was true initially, Grumman beefed up the A-frame and tested it thoroughly.  They then renamed the 870 the “Flxible Metro” and re-marketed it.  It won many large orders and remained in production until the company folded in 1996 (New York even re-ordered some in 1995).  There were 4,532 early 870 models produced, but 9,814 improved Metro versions – so it’s clear the bus continued to sell well even after the A-frame debacle.  Second misconception – costs associated with fixing the frames and from various lawsuits forced the company into bankruptcy.  Again not accurate – though Grumman decided to sell Flxible to the General Automotive Corporation in 1983 (for a 25% loss), as mentioned above, the Metro continued to find buyers and the company continued to successfully operate for another 13 years.  According to one Flxible executive, General Auto was poorly managed and the various divisions other than Flxible routinely lost money.  Flxible’s profits were siphoned off to these other units until the whole company collapsed in 1995.

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So while it started out with a bad stumble, the 870/Metro went on to be fairly successful.  How successful?  If you rode a bus anywhere in the US in the 80s and 90s (and in some locations even today), you likely rode in an 870/Metro.

But unfortunately the end result of this story is another US bus manufacturer, one with a long, storied history, being forced out of business, not necessarily due to a bad product, but bad management.  In the late 70s-early 80s a similar situation was occurring over at GM – we’ll look at that in our next post focusing on the Rapid Transit Series (RTS) coach………