Curbside Classic: 1957 Blue Bird All American Bus: The All American Dream Comes In Many Variations And Colors

(first posted 3/19/2011)     It’s no secret I’m a big fan of big old buses. The challenge is what direction to take with them. Given today’s weather, that would be South. You see; it’s already happened, in the third sentence. This 1957 Blue Bird is really quite a find, from a historical perspective. And what comes to mind? A deserted beach in Baja. The never-ending battle between following the call of one’s business or bliss-ness: going to school (on the bus), or playing perpetual hooky (on the bus).  And it would be called the All American, no less. So which will it be?

The trick is to try to mix it up a bit; no?  So let’s do a little historical business before we start up the Buick nail-head V8 in this old timer and hit the imaginary road.

School buses are pretty much a uniquely North American invention and institution, at least until quite recently, for obvious reasons. And just as this Model T truck was converted to the purpose, so have the majority of school buses over the decades. Slapping a box with seats on the back of a conventional truck has always been the expedient solution. And one that Blue Bird did from the very earliest days itself, beginning in 1927.

Needless to say, the wooden crates had their limitations, and Blue Bird claims to have pioneered the first all-steel school bus in 1937. And they were an active participant in the 1939 conference where school bus yellow was agreed upon to henceforth announce the coming of the dreaded bus.

In 1948, Blue Bird founder Albert Luce saw a flat-front bus at an exhibition in Paris, mounted on a GMC chassis, no less. He brought one back, and built his own (above), the first All American. Blue Bird became a pioneer in the flat front bus in the East and Midwest. The West Coast already was pioneering the same approach, but more ambitiously with the legendary Crown and Gillig buses, with their mid-engine underfloor engines (Gillig CC here, Crown still to come).

Prior to the sixties or so, there really was a continental divide with trucks and buses. The conditions in the West created unique and innovative solutions than in the more conservative East with its restrictive laws on size, weight and other factors. But the Blue Bird was an innovator, at least in relative terms, for the East, although with its engine still mounted in the front under a big cover next to the driver, it was still pretty conventional. And diesel engines were still a long way off, unlike the smoking, bellowing Cummins in the big California Crowns (above).

Getting details on the chronology of the All American is a bit sketchy, but in 1952, Blue Bird built its first chassis for the front engined All American (rear engine version chassis were usually built by IH). And this 1957 marks the approximate beginning of a new body design, substantially squarer than before. It also marks the beginning of the All-American’s long run of quad headlights, except of course they weren’t legal (mostly) in 1957. I actually guessed this to be a ’57 for that reason, because it has the large headlight bezel that would house quads in 1958. And a friend of the owner confirmed that to me.

Here’s a (small) photo of the quad lights in a 1963 Blue Bird Wanderlodge. In a way, that forces us to start meandering in a direction away from school, since the Wanderlodge had a sole purpose in life. It was a pioneer too, in the upscale, high-quality end of the then nascent RV market. It went into production in 1966, and soon had a loyal following among celebrities like Johnny Cash and King Hussein. On second thought, it took a lot of hard work to buy a Wanderlodge, which was typically priced about the same as a typical mid-sized house. That’s not exactly really getting away from it all.

The owners of this home-brew wanderlodge have taken a different route. I don’t really know their story, except that this bus has been here in a very nice location in front of their friend’s house, just a block away from Skinner Butte Park and the Willamette River. A power cord runs from the house out to the bus, and in neighborhoods like this, no one’s going to complain, as long as someone doesn’t park in front of your house; or is obnoxious.

A quick blind shot into the driver’s door gives a small glimpse of life on the bus. Toilet paper, that great staple of modern life, dominates the view. And where do they actually use that paper?

The house this bus sits in front of is owned by bus aficionados too. You can just see the stern end of the famous Sail Bus in the driveway.

It makes occasional appearances in the annual Eugene Celebration parade. I’m getting off track again, but that just reminded me that there was another bus parked here where the Blue Bird now sits.

I took this shot a year and a half earlier here, and talked with the Sail Bus’ owner, here checking out his friend’s colorful (and yet conventional!) Chevy bus. Yes; these are rightly known as hippie buses; there’s no way to finesse around that terminology. But here’s the thing: these guys are just hot rodders of a different stripe. They were bragging about how powerful the modded 454 Chevy big block they had dropped into this bus; in between drags on a cigarette. No sanctimonious blabber about it being converted to run on bio-diesel. Hot rodding hippies, with their long-wheelbase big-block rides, trying to have a good time.

When I walked through here more recently, I was a bit surprised to see some remodeling going on. The Blue Bird has transformed into the Green Bird. But where has all that wonderful stainless-steel front end trim gone? Presumably, it will be back when the painting is complete.

I have reason to believe that this particular bus wasn’t actually a school bus, but some sort of over-the-road transport. The main reason that makes me think that is the forward-slanted surrounds on the side windows, which was an imitation of the legendary 1953 GMC PD-4104 Greyhound bus, and not typically, or ever seen on school buses. It’s a bit crude here, as the windows themselves are perfectly rectangular behind that surround, but one that gives this bus a bit of distinction from a mere school bus. And if I’d taken a closer look at the rear side door to confirm it was original (I think so), that would have sealed the deal, as school buses don’t have rear side doors, for obvious reasons.

On a dreary gray winter’s day, this color manages to pop out quite well. There’s a reason us folks in the North West go in for strong colors (you should see our kitchen). The question of course is how long will it be here, before its occupants get the itch or?

From the big Mexican straw hats stored in the two back windows, it looks like they’re ready for sun, should they decide to head South. To roll, or not to roll, that is the question.

Full Buick “Nailhead” V8 story here