COAL – Large Chauffeured Vehicles

I mentioned last week we might make a stop on the way to the next car, proper, and here we are—before I get too old in this rough chronicle to ride the school bus.

We moved to Denver when I was four, and it wasn’t long before I was enrolled at a preschool poshly called The Willows Child Learning Center. There was classwork in arithmetic and reading-readiness, there were swimming lessons and a playground, and there was what seemed like a vast network of giant-scale (i.e., sized for kids rather than hamsters) Habitrail tubes and chambers.

Snacks and Quiet Time, too. Y’know, preschool stuff. Most memorable to me, and of greatest relevance to the main stream of this morning’s symposium, were the field trips. We went to the Red Seal potato chip factory and to the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and other places like that (pandemic aside, are trips like this still a thing?), in 15-passenger vans. They were all Dodges—I remember because of the language their starter motors spoke. They had CBs for the staffers to keep in touch with one another, and top-hinged side windows with these kinda frog-shaped latches down at the bottom. By design, they were intended to be held closed by the potmetal body going overcentre, and held open once lifted and pushed by the potmetal’s weight. A fine theory during most of the warranty period, perhaps, but they grew loose and sloppy and tended to self-open or self-close with road bumps.

The adults always made sure we used our seatbelts, but sometimes there weren’t enough seatbelts for everyone to have their own, then two or occasionally three of us little ones would be told to share a belt. In 2021 that idea will make any safety expert or in-house counsel (or, um, parent?) throw up, but in 1980 it was considered better than nothing. Street View informs me the The Willows is still a going concern, now with two additional locations, and there are still 15-passenger vans in the car park. One of them’s even a Dodge; the other two are Chevs or GMCs. I’m sure every kid gets their own belt now, and that’s about enough about that (does any of those trees look like a willow…?).

Not long after that, school buses came into the picture. Actual, real, yellow big school buses. My school district owned and operated its own bus fleets, which was pretty standard at that time, and they always only ever bought 65- or 66-passenger buses built by Blue Bird. The first one I rode was a 1974 or ’75 International Loadstar 1800 with a manual transmission. The driver’s name was Ed Simmock, and—especially with a cigar in his mouth—he looked like this happy character, only with white hair:

Never mind all the novel experiences involved with going to school, the school bus was packed with new sights, sounds, smells, and textures. It was almost like discovering cars again, as I’d first done just a few years earlier; much like a Slant-6 Dart, nothing else sounds like an IH Loadstar with a gasoline engine. I don’t know whether it was a 345 or a 392 (or something else?) but the combination of the engine itself, its cooling fan, and its air compressor made for a unique, characteristic sound up and down through the gears—which Ed shifted via a dogleg-shaped shift stick that rose like a charmed snake near the driver’s seat.

The only decent rendition I could find of Loadstar engine sounds is this one with an automatic transmission, but we do get to hear the spitting exhaust manifold leaks these IH V8s are said to be known for:

And the characteristic sounds didn’t come only from the front; the exhaust had a distinct snap to it, sort of a 50/50 mix of ripping cloth and biting into a very good sausage, perfectly cooked. I guess it was a product of the camshaft, its timing, and the long pipes.

For day one of first grade the next year, I got to the bus stop early. As one does. I can’t quite make out what that car is in the background; some kind of Pontiac, as it seems. Anyone?

By and by the bus arrived: a 1976 Ford B700 that year, driven by Bob Short. He mostly didn’t smoke his Winstons on the bus—mostly. That’s my sister right in front of me as we board:

I don’t know what specific gasoline V8 the B700 had, but it was quite a bit quieter and more boring-sounding than the Loadstar. I do know exactly what transmission it had: an Allison AT-540 four-speed automatic. The automatic part was immediately apparent; there was a shifter box slung under the dashboard at about a 45-degree upward angle, with an interesting upside-down quadrant: top to bottom 1-2-3-D-N-R. The lever was long and hefty enough that Bob could whack it from above just so to knock it into N during pickup and dropoff stops, then whack it from below to pick up D. It engaged immediately with enough of a Crunk! to broadcast the news to everyone in and around the bus.

Okeh, so it was automatic, but how do I know it was an AT-540? The Slant-6 Dart Effect again: nothing else sounds like an AT-540. First gear sounds like a siren, and second gear I can’t compare to anything; nothing else really sounds like this. Third was silent, probably 1:1, and fourth gear had a peculiar whirr about it, too. Here’s the closest I could come to isolated audio of an AT-540 from a standing start:

I’d call the shifts (Clack! except 1-2 is this complicated-sounding multi-stage business) no-nonsense, but that’s not true; games of What Gear Is It, Anyway? were common. You can hear them despite this ’86 GMC’s obnoxiously loud engine fan:

You put your first gear in, you take your first gear out, you put your first gear in, and you shift it all about…y’do the herky-jerky and you shift yourself around; that’s what it’s all about! Call me names, but while I could do without the herky-jerky, those first and second gear whines are musical to me; I could listen to them all day long and not get tired of it (speaking of similarity to Chrysler starters).

Propulsion sounds weren’t the only ones of note in those buses. The amber and red wig-wag lights at the top front and rear of the bus body, to let other drivers know to slow and stop when the bus is loading or unloading passengers, made noise inside the bus, too. They were choreographed and powered by a rotary switch, gear-driven by a motor. Bob would set his left thumb on the face of a plastic black round knob on the control panel, with his first and second fingers behind it. At just the right moment, he’d push the knob. That knob was on the end of the shaft of a magnetic-latching solenoid. It’s much like a starter solenoid, but manually operated.

Activating that sent power to the switch motor, which set the amber wig-wags going—along with a rhythmic “WIZZwizzWIZZwizzWIZZwizz” noise from the gears. Opening the passenger door would trip a relay on the motorised switch so it would shift from the amber to the red wig-wags. Then closing the door would cut power to the solenoid’s magnetic latch; the spring-loaded knob would pop out and the wig-wags would shut off.

The bus was equipped with an ELMO, short for Exterior Light MOnitor. It was a box above the driver’s side of the windshield, with little bulbs behind red, amber, and white lenses. These were live-action telltales for the various exterior lights. Let there be a burnt-out bulb or a wiring fault, and the telltale(s) for that circuit would stay dark. One thing it was possible to see on the ELMO that couldn’t easily be seen by looking at the actual lights: when the front lights wigged, the rear lights wagged. That is, the left front and right rear would be on simultaneously, then the right front and left rear. I don’t know why they did it that way.

And speaking of the lights (how did that happen?), those wig-wag lights look like another set of brake and turn signal lights, but behind each red or amber lens was a 75-watt 7-inch round sealed beam, hence the need for such a heavy-duty control setup. I don’t recall which school year it was—third or fourth grade—but during one or another of them I noticed the folding stop arm on the left side of the bus had faded from red to light pink, making the STOP legend hard to read. I wrote a letter about it, in shaky elementary-schoolkid longhand print, and gave it to the bus driver with a request that he give it to the bus people. I guess he did, because about a week later the bus had a new stop arm. That was my first foray into what is now my career in the world of vehicle lighting and conspicuity and driver vision.

The Ford B700s were something of an anomaly, I guess, because the district went back to Internationals for their next batch of buses: S-1800s, ’81-’83 models. Some of these were 5-speed handshifts, and those had their own interesting set of sounds. When the driver would kick the clutch at the top of a gear to shift up to the next one, you could hear the turbo’s blowoff valve: BEEYOOooo! And the shift linkage spoke of its state of maintenance. It would holler “Clake!…Clake!” as the driver shifted, gradually louder and louder as the weeks went on until, once freshly adjusted and lubricated, it would be back to quietly muttering “chat…chat”.

The automatic ones had the same AT-540 transmission as the Fords, but its musical gears were completely drowned out by the DT-466 fully-mechanical turbodiesel engine, which was really loud. This video does a fair job of illustrating, with a couple of bus nerds into the bargain:

These later-model Blue Birds had plenty of other differences to the older models. The ’70s buses had a fixed, gasketted-in rearmost side window. First a rhombus-shaped one with a rounded upper rear roof panel:

…then in ’75 or so they changed to a rounded sort of half-trapezoid with a newly squared-off upper roof corner. I first saw this kind of bus when I was very smol (as the hep young teen-agers say), lined up outside my three-years-older sister’s Quaker school. So I was two and three years old, not possibly more than barely four—still in my psychedelically synæsthetic early childhood. Which is why the shape of this rear sideglass is called a baboing, said “baa-boing”:

…and on the ’81 models the rearmost was the same as all the other side windows, an openable sash type. Most all the bus body companies seemed to make a similar evolution, from gasketted-in fixed rearmost side windows to openable ones, around the same time. I’ve never been able to find out how come; I wrote to Blue Bird, but they never replied. Maybe some structural reason, I guess.

The ’81 Blue Birds also had much taller, more thickly padded seats (still upholstered in the same dark green Naugahyde), a wider centre aisle and emergency exit door, as well as less-visible changes to comply with more stringent safety regulations that took effect on 1 April 1977. Those changes and that date are worth a moment or three’s thought: the Carollton Bus Catastrophe bus was built nine days before that date. Those new safety standards certainly would have prevented or at least greatly reduced the grievous carnage and terrible suffering. Ford and Superior Coach knew the regulations were set to come into effect; they’d participated in the regulatory negotiations and had tooled up and begun production of compliant vehicles and parts. Legally, their obligation was to comply with whatever safety standards were in effect on any given vehicle’s build date, and that’s it. Moral and ethical obligations might be a different question; I bet there was a great deal of wishing for time machines to go back and build that bus to the new standards, even if for no other reason than it’d’ve been vastly less costly than the fallout from the Kentucky disaster.

Image courtesy txstreetman on YouTube

Anyhow: ’81 Blue Birds. The ELMO was now flush-mounted rather than lashed onto the surface, and it had LEDs rather than light bulbs (except for the reversing lamp pilot lights; white LEDs were still years in the future). The magnetic-latching solenoid had been replaced by a boring ol’ chrome momentary-contact pushbutton switch, and the rotary motor-driven switch had given way to some horrid silent electronic box.

My third grade year, the driver was a blonde-haired lady named Janet. She looked very much like Diane on Cheers, and she let me and one other front-seat-dweller kid shift the bus into Neutral and pull the square knob in the middle of the dashboard to apply the parking brake (PSSSHHH!) when she’d stop to drop off passengers. Oh-ho-ho, was that ever so cool! That was another thing about the IH buses: the push-to-release/pull-to-apply park brake control; the Fords had a little toggle lever.

If the benefit of sitting in the frontmost passenger seat was getting to watch the driver shift the gears and operate the controls, there were other benefits to sitting at the other end of the bus. For one thing, there was a great big heater back there on the left side, and on cold days the second-from-rearmost left seat was the one to get; that’s where was the footrest/footroast.

Those DT-466 engines put out very dirty exhaust, and lots of it. I mean black, thick, big clouds of soot every time the bus was accelerated from a stop. I was not a popular kid (and it’s a tad chilly atop Mt. Everest, and water is somewhat damp) but one of the kids did share his pastime with me: he liked to sit in the rearmost seat and watch out the back windows, because as he imagined it there was a pipe leading not to the engine, you see, but to the driver’s seat. The driver that year was Kathy, who had high holy ’80s hair and a portable radio-cassette player perched on the dashboard that always only ever seemed to play “Maneater” by Hall and Oates. The soot clouds were tallied up: one Kathy-fart…two Kathy-farts; ooh, that was a big one…three Kathy-farts. This same kid explained to me why the back of the bus was so much bouncier over road bumps than the front: it was because, he said, of the “shock igzorbers”.

Those ’81-’83 buses held up well; they were still in daily service past the end of the ’80s. Quite a difference to the ’76-’77 Fords which were completely gone from the district fleet by 1989. Though now I think on it, maybe the district got spooked by the Kentucky event and decided to have only buses meeting the newer safety standards and with diesel power. One of the last few times I rode the school bus, it was a brand-new brown-interior 1991ish model powered by a diesel V8, which I think was related to those Navistar sold Ford for many years. Much cleaner exhaust, but to me that engine’s throbbing noise—whether from a school bus or a Ford pickup truck—is grating and obnoxious in a way even a very loud inline-6 is not.

After that, it was mostly passenger car transport for me, and we’ll start in on the lengthy story of a very significant car next week.

(I’ve maintained an appreciation for crusty old school buses, and I photograph them where and when the muse strikes.)

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