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).

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