Bus Stop Classics (Twofer): Burmese Chevrolet Buses – Relics Don’t Retire, They Get Rebuilt

Funny how the world works: even back in the ‘40s, the Brits trusted American machines more than their home-grown designs when it came to serious work in tough conditions. To wit: the British Army used Chevrolet trucks – not Austin, Dennis, Daimler or whatever – in Burma. And somehow, these old beasts just won’t die, so they’re still in use.

It’s been very quiet in this part of the world for the past couple of weeks, as this is the Buddhist New Year (Thingyan, in the local vernacular). The whole country more or less shuts down for a good ten days while most folks throw water at each other, spend time with their families and/or get blind drunk. Shops, offices and public transport are non-existent. Plus, it’s the height of the hot season right now: temperatures hover around 35-40°C (95-105°F) under a blistering sun, accompanied by frequent power and water outages. So foreign folks such as yours truly usually get the hell out of the city, if not the country, for the sake of health and sanity.

This year, we elected to spend a few days within Myanmar, but at a resort on the coast in Rakhine State called Ngapali. The Bay of Bengal is as hot as Yangon, but more breezy and pretty. We had to endure the water throwing when getting out of the resort, but things like that don’t matter as much when you’re on holiday. I did keep my eyes to the ground and my nose peeled for interesting automotive encounters. And lo and behold, the above picture was snapped. I had seen the likes of this bus before. They are still around in touristic places, of which Ngapali certainly was one.

These Chevrolet buses used to be the standard Burmese city bus back in the day. And those days are not too far away. The above photo (found on the interwebs) was taken in 2007, when one of these venerable vehicles was still doing its daily chores as a city bus. Sometime between 2007 and 2012, all these pre-war Chevrolet buses were retired as public buses, replaced by 20-or-30-something-year-old Mitsubishi, Hino or Hyundai vehicles generously donated by Japan and Korea, which are self-destructing on Burmese city roads as we speak. Oh, and there are a few new buses too – all Chinese-made and usually running on CNG.

There isn’t a whole lot to elaborate on about these Chevy buses. The bodywork seems to largely consist of wood, which is abundant here. The underpinnings are allegedly Canadian-built Chevrolet C-15 trucks that the British Army used extensively from about 1939 to the independence of Burma in 1948. There were a lot of these trucks left over from the Brits, so the Burmese converted many to become  “Big Belly” buses, which is how this vehicle was affectionately known here for decades.

Most of these buses lost their original Perkins engines long ago, usually replaced with Nissan units. And since even the best teak in the world can become dry and warped after years of tough use, many were rebodied at least once, and repainted as often as possible.

The ones I saw in Ngapali had been freshly re-done, no doubt about it. The interior and especially the driver’s cabin are clearly 21st Century.

But this does not detract from the vehicle’s overall charm. The blunt, squarish face doesn’t really meld with the streamlined body, complete with fender skirts and comically-shaped last-row windows. These buses have character. Good job I found one sitting at the airport, just as I was about to fly back home: I had only managed to capture one of the three buses I kept seeing in that area (the 3rd photo of this piece, the blue bus) on the go. Now, at least, I could get a few nice shots…

I would have had some CC material in any case, as I had encountered another Chevrolet “blast from the past” a couple days prior – this one must have been imported after the Second World War though, and perhaps was always a civilian.

This is (probably, I’m no expert!) a 1945-46 truck chassis with a locally-built rear body – pretty recently refurbished it was, too, with rattan and a strange stain-glass window effect to cap it all off.

I say I’m no expert because 1. That’s the truth and 2. Chevy made so many variations of these trucks that it’s impossible for me to tell which one this was originally. But if I’m not mistaken, this is a 1941-1947 civilian Chevrolet truck — doubtful any would have made it to Burma before 1945.

This is one of two identical buses used by one of the resorts in Ngapali. If you ever get there by plane, after a bumpy ride in an ageing ATR, you could get a bumpy ride in this ancient Chevy to your hotel. (No such luck with the resort we booked at, unfortunately – just a boring Toyota Grande HiAce).

At least this Chevy kept its original dash. I particularly like the placement of the fuel filler cap, at the driver’s feet. Ford Pinto, eat your heart out.

It is unlikely that this truck still has its original engine, as Chevrolet parts must’ve dried up in Burma about 40-odd years ago when the country went into semi-autarky for a few decades. But even if it’s got a Hino or FAW heart, this old thing is still on the road, and that’s got to count for something.