Bus Stop Classics: 1928 – 1933 Pickwick Nite Coach – What’s Old is New Again

(first posted 9/9/2017)      Some of you may have seen a recent article of a startup intercity bus company that plans to offer “capsule hotel” type overnight bus service between LA and San Francisco – it’s called “Cabin.” According to the article, “The company wants to change people’s travel experience by giving them the chance to reclaim their time by merging transportation and accommodation into one experience. ” A statement that could have been just as easily been made in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s. We’ll review Cabin in a moment, but let’s first take a look at the original overnight sleeping bus – the Pickwick Nite Coach.

The Pickwick Nite Coach was produced by Pickwick Corporation, a major transport operator in Southern California in the teens and twenties. The company used the Pickwick Theater, and later the Pickwick Hotel, both in San Diego, as their informal terminal and departure point, hence the name. It ran routes to and from LA south to San Diego and north to San Francisco. It was successful and expanded rapidly – and by the mid ‘20’s had extended north to Portland and east to El Paso, St Louis, and Chicago. In 1923, it established an in-house manufacturing division to build its own coaches; the Pickwick Motor Coach Works, Ltd., and selected Dwight E. Austin as its Manager.  Austin, as many know, would go on to become a major influential figure in the transportation industry.

Austin had previously designed the innovative “Intercity Parlor Buffet Coach” for Pickwick in 1925, built off a Packard truck chassis. It had a small galley area where food could be prepared and served by an on-board steward. Note the added elevated “Pilot House” above the normal driver’s area – keeping with the nautical theme and giving the operator an expanded view of the road.

In 1928, Austin designed, and Pickwick produced, the first Nite Coach. This bus was 34 and a half feet long, 96 inches wide, and 10 feet tall – larger than any existing bus at the time. It came with a lavatory, a galley, and a steward.  The engine, mounted in front in an Austin-designed “roll-in, roll-off” cradle, was a Sterling Petrel, a 779 cu in, 110 hp inline gas “flathead” six cylinder. Sterlings were mostly used in marine applications but I’ll hazard a guess and say it was likely the most powerful gas engine available at the time.

Rather than normal seating, the Nite Coach had 13 individual compartments that could hold 2 persons each. The compartments had seats that faced each other and were hinged. One would swing upward, the other downward, making an upper and lower sleeping berth.

In 1930, Pickwick introduced its Duplex Day Coach, a modification of the Nite Coach. It could carry 53 passengers, with power supplied by updated versions of the Sterling Petrel or Hall Scott gasoline engines; both in the 150 hp range.  I like those snazzy Woodlite headlamps.

Austin used a clean sheet to design the final Nite Coach model, brought out in 1933. This was the first coach to use his innovative angle drive with a transverse engine mounted in the rear, and the drive shaft offset at an angle to the engine and rear axle. Austin would patent this method, and take it with him when he left Pickwick for Yellow Coach, and subsequently GM – where it would be used in almost every GM bus for the next forty years.

The new design again allowed for 13 sleeper compartments, but added an additional restroom (2) and a larger galley. Eighteen were made before production ceased in 1935.

Most were ultimately scrapped but it looks like one was modified and given an extended life in Mexico…

Cabin’s coach is a tad more modern and bigger – it’s a Van Hool 925TD – 45 feet in length, 102 inches wide, and 12 feet in height – this is definitely a big bus.  Configured for passengers it can seat 81. Power in North America is a 6 cylinder Cummins ISX12 diesel, 11.9 Litres, 450 hp and 1650 ft lbs of torque. European models have DAF or MAN engines.

Each Cabin model has 24 “pods” that are similar to those found in capsule hotels in Japan – with TV, Wifi, and several USB outlets.  A bus attendant can serve drinks and snacks and a small Lounge area is at the front of the bus if you can’t sleep and desire company. One way overnight service from LA to SF is currently $115.

The company says ridership is at forecasted levels and they are considering a NY to Boston route. I hope they consider changing the exterior livery though – it’s a little too dark for me.

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