We’ve reviewed quite a few motor coach manufacturers that hoped to “cash in” on the post WW II sellers’ market where operators were rushing to recapitalize their fleets that had been worked hard during the war. Small, regional manufacturers and the larger national brands all had eager customers waiting in line ready to sign contracts for new buses. That prompted some interesting players to throw their “hat in the bus ring” – one being a company more well known for making taxis…
But we begin with Ford – since the mid-1930’s, Ford had been producing a small urban transit coach in cooperation with the Union City Body Co. of Union City Indiana – Ford produced the chassis which was then shipped to Union for final assembly. Ford marketed this model as the “Transit Bus”.
The Transit had a rear mounted 239 cu in “Flathead” V8 and a 3-speed manual transmission. It was 96 in wide and about 25 ft in length, and would typically seat 29 passengers. It sold well, with over 12,000 being built between 1939 and 1947. Customers included Detroit, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Ford marketed the buses through Transit Bus Inc., a joint venture established with Union City. But even though they sold well, the immediate post-war period was an extremely tumultuous one for Ford, and in 1947, the company decided to end its association with Transit Bus.
Both Union City and Transit Bus now needed a new chassis provider – and they found one in the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corp. (for more on Checker see Paul’s excellent post here). Checker was looking to expand and had some excess capacity at its Kalamazoo plant.
In 1948, Transit designed an updated 31-passenger model and selected Checker to produce the pusher chassis. It was similar to the earlier Ford bus with exception that the Flathead V8 was replaced by a rear transverse-mounted 226 cubic inch Continental six-cylinder inline “Red-Seal” gas engine – the same engine used by Kaiser-Frazier.
The buses were assembled at the Union City plant and sold through Transit’s Dearborn-based distribution network. Sales started off well, over 500 were built in 1948-49, 300 of which were purchased by the City of Detroit. However, Transit had hoped for much larger sales, and in 1950, both Transit and Union City approved a buy-out offer from Checker – Checker was now both a bus and taxi builder.
Checker then introduced their version of the bus, marketed as the “Series E”, in 33 and 40 passenger models. Bodies continued to be built by Union City and marketed by Transit Buses Inc., now subsidiaries of Checker. The City of Detroit quickly ordered 450 units.
But further sales failed to materialize – operators were looking for larger coaches like the GM Old Look, Twin Coach, and Mack. Only 50 Series E buses were sold over the next three years, with Checker finally pulling the plug in September 1953, going back to building just sedans, cabs and extended wheelbase station wagons.
An interesting small sidelight from a very interesting company…
Any word on the price of a Transit Bus compared to the competition? Operating costs?
Good question – not a lot of info out there but I did see where the Ford buses sold for around $7.5K, likely a median level price for a bus of this size. In terms of operating costs, they were likely cheap to operate and maintain, they just lacked the capacity of newer, larger coaches which most transit authorities were moving to post-war – which on a passenger-per-mile basis, were less expensive to operate.. Jim.
Wow, I never heard of this! Thirty five years since Checker built a vehicle and I’m still learning about this facinating company!
Jim, another fascinating piece of bus and Checker history. I was not aware of this expansion into bus making.
I have to assume that GM’s line of smaller, lighter-weight gas-powered coaches must have been a main factor in the failure of these, along with the trend towards larger cities using the bigger, heavy buses. During the 50s the transit private transit industry was in serious secular decline, so even cheaper buses were difficult to sell. Meanwhile, the large municipal systems wanted the size and durability of the big diesel buses.
Yep, I agree Paul – as you know from your bus driving days, in its time, you just couldn’t beat a GM Old Look for durability, maintainability, and cost to operate. Jim
A total of 450 Transit Bus model E buses were delivered between 1951 and 1953 to the City of Detroit, Department of Street Railways. Meanwhile Transit Buses Inc. produced another 50 or so buses for small market operators in 1953, but the need for small transit buses had all but disappeared. Since 1950, Detroit represented 90% of all Checker bus sales. 10% of bus sales came from 22 different fragmented agencies in seven states. Force to exit the small bus market, Checker would have to compete with no less the four other companies (GMC, Mack, White Motors and Twin Coach) in the big bus market for Detroit business alone. Bottom line they’re was no way that Checker could continue, it would have been impossible for Checker to expand in Detroit, their core customer.
Wow, like others here, I never knew Checker built buses, too.
That ad for the 1950 Checker features a car that looks like a 48 Dodge from the front and a Tucker from the side.
A side note as to the rear-engine Fords:
I once saw retired rear-engine Ford V-8 powered buses being cut for scrap. I’m guessing they were similar to the above Ford Transits?
Anyway, something unusual I noticed was that the buses had a “Rube Goldberg” drive and a series of connected long driveshafts, extending towards the front of the chassis. All that hardware was for the purpose of driving a radiator fan located “way” up front.
Of course when the buses were on the drawing board (’30s?) direct mechanical fan-drive was about the only practical option, but it seemed odd to locate the radiator a mile away. Maybe the system doubled as coach’s interior heating source?
Now, I don’t recall if the buses had an air-intake or grille up front, but I’m certain of the strange fan-drive arrangement.
I find that 1950 Checker to be surprisingly…pretty. Superb lines and proportions.
Agreed! Almost like a Lincoln (or similar) after a hotrodder stripped off all the tinsel.
It certainly is an interesting design – you can see its somewhat front heavy – that was due to it being engineered for front drive, but at the last minute Checker just didn’t have the money for the new tooling to produce it. So it used the older model’s front engine, rear drive chassis, but kept the newer body.
The great Ray Dietrich, employed by Checker at the time, was the primary stylist. Jim.
It has a sort of almost-1941-Cadillac look in front, a bit like those Soviet cars that look almost like Packards. The side profile gives me just a tiny suggestion of Tucker, somehow, even though the front to rear proportions are totally different.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Good looking car though.
For as dominant as GM was in busses, it is interesting how many busses that Detroit bought from the competition.
Yes, Detroit bought pretty much from every bus manufacturer out there. A good overview of Detroit’s transit history is here if you’re interested;
I think there were a couple of different purchasing philosophies at work. Some cities ended up with an assortment of vehicles to meet differing needs (some with high passenger capacity, some smaller vehicles for routes where maneuverability was key, some particularly good for hilly areas, and whoever was the low bidder at the time), whereas other cities replaced fleets en masse with a single vehicle type for ease of maintenance.
Fascinating. I knew about the Fords but not the Checker-owned operation. We had many Checker cabs in Israel but as far as i know no such buses.
Apart from the thirsty gasoline engines, these buses would blend in quite nicely in my country in the post-war years. Not too long and with a short wheelbase / long overhangs for good maneuverability in the cities and towns. Oh well, there were plenty of diesel engine manufacturers back then who would gladly supply a power unit.
Keep them coming!
Another great historical article ~ thank you .
Checker’s main issue was the the market for small buses all but evaporated by 1950. Checker did switch to a larger bus offerings, but with only one large customer (Detroit) and strong competition from GM, Mack, Flxble, Brill etc, they had no alternative but to exit the market.
How many checker taxi units and limosine unitss were built in:
I don’t have that information. The American Standard Encyclopedia of Cars only starts listing Checker production in 1960, when they started selling to the public and not just to taxi fleets.