Curbside Classic: Gillig School Bus – Built Like A Tank

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(first posted 1/27/2013)    California has long been recognized as a pioneer and trend-setter in so many ways, even in a field so seemingly mundane as school buses. If one lived in California during its golden decades, one couldn’t help but admire the superb yellow buses plying the freeways and streets, with their transit-style configuration and bellowing diesel engines. They were made by two companies, Gillig and Crown, and constructed so well out of such high quality materials, that their longevity eventually contributed to their demise. There are still some left ferrying children, even though twenty or thirty years old. Most have found productive lives in their retirement years, often south of the border, or in the case of this Gillig from the sixties, re-purposed as a home on wheels.

The Gillig brothers set up shop in Hayward, across the bay from San Francisco, and were intrigued by some early designs they had seen for transit-style school buses. By 1940, their first version was in production, but things didn’t really get underway until after the war.  Gillig Bros. also built a wide range of conventional school buses.

Gillig Pacific bus f

 In 1957, Gillig purchased the Pacific Bus line from Kenworth Truck (above). Aspects of the Pacific Bus were obviously integrated into the Gillig line.

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Gillig experimented and built both mid-engined (underfloor) buses as well as rear-engine ones. Their main competitor from the LA area, Crown, built only under-floor buses. In the forties and fifties, Gillig buses were mostly powered by the legendary Hall-Scott 590 gasoline six,  mostly in underfloor designs.

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In 1965, Gillig introduced the C-180 series bus, which our featured bus is almost certainly an example of. It was a turning point, because it used the new Cummins C-series diesel engine, and now mounted in the back (Gillig also still offered mid-engine buses with the lay-down Cummins diesel too). As you can see from this underfloor shots (looking forward), the drive-shaft on these buses is very short, as the engine and transmission are in a longitudinal orientation.

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Here we see the underside of the engine, and its non-stock exhaust system. Gillig did use some other diesel engines other than the Cummins, especially the Caterpillar 1160 V8. Given the twin exhausts on each side, I’d say this one most likely has that engine.

Gillig DT-16

During the fifties and sixties, California had an explosion of school-age kids, and Gillig was doing a nice business transporting them. In Northern California, they enjoyed a 70% market share, while Crown had the lion’s share of the Southern California school bus business.  To meet the explosive demand, in 1967 Gillig built the first tandem-axle 40′ school bus, the DT-16 series (above). This shot from the front doesn’t exactly do it justice, but at the time, these were monsters. And their seating capacity was 97! Bus drivers were made of sterner stuff back then. That and they knew how to shift the ten-speed Spicer gearboxes with a thirty-some foot long linkage.

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These tandem axle buses were unusual in that both axles were driven, like on a big semi truck. Typically, if a bus is heavy enough to require a second rear axle to meet maximum axle weight regs, it’s done with a tag axle, or un-driven, with just a single wheel on each side. Maybe it’s because these Gillig buses were built like tanks, almost literally. Unlike the GMC, other transit and highway coaches, and even the Crowns that were built mostly or partly out of aluminum alloys, these Gillig buses are built all out of steel, and the extra-heavy duty kind.

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Gilligs were also used in Oregon and Washington, but from the barely visible lettering, this one appears to have spent its working days in the very picturesque Victorian town of Ferndale, on the mouth of the Eel River in Humboldt County, CA. Great place to walk around for a couple of hours.

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This bus, which looks to be a 35 footer, has obviously been drafted into a new line of work, ferrying its owner as well as the VW Pickup behind it; or so I assume. How the little trailer plays into it, I don’t know. It sports some decidedly non-stock exhaust pipes, and since there’s no sign of any mufflers, it undoubtedly makes some soulful tunes at full chat.

Here’s a more recent find, a very clean 40′ 1973 model, powered by a Cat diesel and an Allison automatic.

A look at the front of this fine bus.

The driver’s seat and the shifter for the Allison 6-speed automatic.

A look back. The rear-most seats have been removed.

The end of the baby-boom era also spelled the end of the Gillig-Crown duopoly of California’s school bus market. Convention schoolbuses are typically assumed to have a ten year life; the Gilligs and Crowns lasted two to three times as long. But as school-age population declined, and budgets were easier to justify on the cheap conventional buses, both California bus makers bit the bullet; Gillig in 1982, Crown in 1992.

Gillig Phantom School_Bus_LAUSD

Gillig had diversified into city buses before then, with their popular Phantom series. A school-bus version was built from 1986 – 1993, but after that, Gillig focused on transit buses, and now has the highest market share for them in the US. But the old tanks will undoubtedly be around for decades to come, unless steel prices really go through the roof.

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