Bus Stop Classic: General Motors Rapid Transit Series (RTS) II Coach – GM Deadly Sin #27 – A Sure Bet?

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(first posted 4/2/2016) You don’t have to be a professional gambler to know the phrase “a sure bet” – a clear winner, in no doubt, guaranteed.  As public transportation was evolving in the late 1960s to mid-70s, there was no more ”sure bet” than GM hitting another home run in the transit bus market.  Just look at the history; its “Old Look” coach had captured 84% of the market in the mid-50s, and the “New Look” coach was almost as dominate with close to 70% of the market in the 60s/70s.  Both those coaches were legendary for their class-leading, pioneering technology and robust, quality construction.  So when the first RTS II coach rolled off the GM Truck and Coach Division line at Pontiac Michigan in August 1977, expectations were high.  But those hopes quickly faded when the coach proved to have more in common with other products GM was turning out in the 1970’s – like the ones we’ve been reviewing this month… 

Let’s first look back on the somewhat twisted path that led to this third, and ultimately final, GM transit coach.  In the 1960s, GM was truly at its peak – its various automobile divisions were producing a series of innovative, ground-breaking vehicles; Corvair, Tempest, Stingray, Riviera, GTO, Toronado…..this same spirit of innovation was also hard at work over in its Truck and Bus division.  By the late 1960s, the company was already thinking of a follow-on coach to its still-popular New Look.

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And innovative it was – this is the Rapid Transit Experimental (RTX) – a demonstrator model developed by GM and introduced in 1968.  Three axles, plastic vs aluminum exterior panels, ultra-modern interior, but perhaps most shocking, it was powered by a GM GT 309 gas turbine engine.  This engine was part of GM’s automotive turbine development program similar to Chrysler’s more well-known effort – and was seen in the Turbo Titan III truck and other applications.

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Three years later, in 1971, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) launched its “Transbus” project — an initiative by the Federal Government to develop a new revolutionary advanced bus design built solely to rigid Federal specifications.  The three then-current U.S. bus manufacturers each submitted an entry – GM’s was a slightly modified RTX, re-named the “RTS-3T” (Rapid Transit Series, 3 axle, Turbine).

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However, by 1974, the Transbus effort was succumbing to government “red tape” and a realization that it was perhaps an over-reach; the buses were prohibitively expensive and some of the cutting-edge technologies (such as the turbine engine) were not ready for commercial, day-to-day use.  GM saw the writing on the wall and began developing an interim bus, less radical than the Transbus but still a major leap forward in comparison to the New Look – this bus was called the RTS II (II in this case denoting 2 axles).

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Besides modern, streamlined styling, RTS II’s incorporated several other innovations; they were the first coach to use modular construction – buses were built in 5 ft stainless steel modules that were then welded together.  They used impact resistant acrylic windows, came with automatic temperature control, and had a kneeling feature to assist access by the elderly and physically challenged.  And in a sign of the times, the seats were made of hard vandal-resistant fiberglass, and the exterior panels were impervious to graffiti.

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GM began limited production of the RTS II in August 1977 and in October, the first RTS II Series 01 coach was delivered to Long Beach Public Transportation Co.  These Series 01 coaches can be identified by their less protruding front bumper with no recess for a front license plate.

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In 1978, production would switch to the Series 03 with the larger front bumper.  Here is one of the first models coming down the line at the Pontiac Assembly Plant for the Southeastern Michigan Transit Authority (Detroit).

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Series 01/03 “Slant Back”                                       New Look exterior A/C unit

These early Series 01/03 models were unfortunately plagued with a series of problems – most related to the location of the air conditioning unit.  Note the “slant back” of these models – in an effort to give the bus a smoother, integrated look, GM reduced the size of the exterior A/C unit and placed it in the lower engine compartment, near the radiator, rather than the “hang-on” method above the rear window on the New Look.  This caused several problems; the smaller unit wasn’t sufficient to cool the bus and would routinely fail, and since it was over-stressed, it ran constantly causing engine overheating and electrical issues.

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Most 01/03 models were retrofitted with a GM designed cap that housed a larger A/C unit, and this addressed most the overheating problems.  But there were others; a poorly designed rear door that would routinely “hang up”, requiring drivers to leave the seat to close it.  The transmissions, Allison V730s, would only go 30K miles until requiring a re-build, in comparison to 200K miles for New Looks.  The RTS also lacked the New Look’s high-quality construction – in 1981, Washington Metro found 42 discrepancies in an early model they tested prior to delivery of their order.   As problems from operators flooded in, GM fixed some, and blamed poor maintenance practices and driver error for others.  The bus developed an extremely poor reputation.

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Starting with the Series 04 model in 1981, the larger unit was more effectively integrated and these were known as “Square Backs” – the 04 model was widely produced.

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The next major revision came with the Series 06 in 1986 which changed from independent to solid beam front axle.  In the early 2000’s, GM offered the 50 Series 4 cylinder diesel engine, resulting in a minor modification to the rear of the bus.  The 06 Series was produced by all three RTS manufacturers; GM, Transportation Manufacturing Corporation (TMC) and Novabus.

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30 ft                                                                          35 ft

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       40 ft                                                                  6V92TA

RTS coaches came in 30, 35 and 40 ft lengths; 96 or 102 inch wide.  Engines were 6/8V71 and 6V92, along with Cummins and Caterpillar options, with the GM 50 series in-line engine an option in later models.

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As mentioned above, the RTS had three different manufacturers – in 1987, during the “Roger Smith” era, GM decided to sell off its bus operations, and the RTS design and manufacturing rights were purchased by Transportation Manufacturing Corporation (TMC), a subsidiary of Motor Coach Industries (MCI).  TMC moved RTS production tooling from Michigan to an MCI factory in Roswell New Mexico.  They built a number of buses until 1994 when they sold the RTS to Novabus.  Novabus kept the factory going until 2002, when it sold the rights to Millennium Transit Services, which declared bankruptcy 2009, but re-emerged in 2011 and still operates the Roswell factory (primarily for parts) today.

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So now we get to the question – Deadly Sin or just a “General” failure?  This was a tough call for for me.   The RTS remained in large-scale production for over 25 years, through three different manufacturers.  But from a historical perspective, it did not dominate the market like its two predecessors (production totals:  38,000 Old Looks, 44,000 New Looks, approx 20,000 RTS), and its numerous problems contributed towards GM “throwing in the towel” and selling off its bus operations in 1987.

Just from the fact that it was a major contributor to one of the most storied bus manufacturers in US history exiting the motor coach market seems sufficient to me to deem it a Deadly Sin.  Though in all fairness, it was just one of many GM products produced in the 1970s by a corporation that became over-confident, prone to “cutting corners”, and failed to adhere to the high engineering standards it had built its reputation on…