Bus Stop Classics: 1934-38 Yellow Coach Model 720/735 “Double Decker” – the Queen of Fifth Avenue

(first posted 11/18/2017)        I would imagine most readers would assume this “double decker” bus must be from the UK….or perhaps one of the “colonies” – Hong Kong? Actually, this is a 1936 Model 720 Series bus built by the Yellow Coach Corporation of Chicago Illinois. At the time this bus was built, Yellow Coach was majority owned by General Motors (GM would purchase the company outright in 1943). Given its exquisitely patinaed livery, this looks to be one of the famous double decker coaches operated by the Fifth Avenue Coach Corporation of New York City from 1934 to 1953.

Fifth Avenue Coach has a storied history in the Big Apple. It provided transit service starting in 1896 until 1954, using both regular coaches and specialized double decker models. It was considered a “premium” service – where five cents bought a ticket on other bus company lines, it cost a “dime” to ride on Fifth Avenue.

While the company had its own coachworks that assembled double deckers, in the 1920’s they began transitioning to buses from the Yellow Coach Corporation – like this 1930 model.

The last double deckers in service with the company were these Yellow Coach Corp. 720/735 models; 96 inches wide, 35 feet long, and almost 13 feet tall. Passenger capacity (seated) was 72. These were some of Yellow’s first transverse rear-engined models using Dwight Austin’s innovative angle drive. Austin had joined Yellow in 1934 after leaving Pickwick – and brought the patents for his angle drive with him. The engine was a big 707 cu in GM OHV gas inline six cylinder.  This engine family was first introduced in 1933 and came in four sizes (cubic inches): 468, 525, 616 and the big 707, and was used in various GM truck, bus and industrial applications. The 707 made 174 hp @2100rpm, and a mighty 505 lb.ft. of torque at 1000rpm.

Similar to San Francisco’s cable cars, these double deckers were an iconic symbol of the city. But by the early Fifties, they were getting tired, and the last models were taken out of service in 1953.

In 1954, Fifth Ave Coach was sold to the New York City Ominbus Corp. The new company elected to replace the double deckers with diesel-engined GM Old Looks, certainly more cost effective to operate, but not quite as distinctive.

Interestingly, in the mid-1970’s, NY City Transit Authority (CTA) purchased eight Leyland A-N-68A-2L Atlantean double decker buses as a pilot program to see if it could bring back some of the old magic. It didn’t – the Leyland’s proved less than reliable and were retired several years later.

Fortunately NY MTA retained a 735 for its historical fleet and No. 2124, fully restored, is brought out on special occasions offering passengers a nostalgic ride down Fifth Avenue.