(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.
In 1957, Gillig purchased the Pacific Bus line from Kenworth Truck (above). Aspects of the Pacific Bus were obviously integrated into the Gillig line.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I would love to hear that bad boy at full bellow from the pipes. I’m sure it is an awe-inspring sound.
No doubt — I was thinking the same thing.
I learned to drive school buses on a 1962 Gillig. You didn’t mention the strangest part of the rear engined buses was the shift pattern. It was the standard 3H we’re all familiar with but the pattern (from top left) went R-1-5-4-3-2. Never figured out why Gillig did it that way.
Two of the Gilligs in our yard had Fuller 10 speed Roadranger transmissions. But the pattern was the same. It was strange learning a new shift pattern. In the Roadranger buses you’d start in 5th unloaded. 4th loaded, 3rd loaded with football players, 2nd loaded with football players on a hill, and 1st gear was reserved for climbing telephone poles. 😀
Don’t forget the transmissions were not synchro-meshed either. So double clutching was required. To downshift you had to bring the revs up with the clutch out in neutral. Good drivers (myself included) got so they could shift without using the clutch, just watching the revs.
I’ve also driven Crowns and Thomas Buses. Crowns were my favorite, with Gillig a close second.
“the pattern (from top left) went R-1-5-4-3-2. Never figured out why Gillig did it that way. ”
“In the Roadranger buses you’d start in 5th unloaded. 4th loaded, ”
I sense a connection here…
I currently own a 69 Gillig school bus with a Cat V-8 (3208) and a Spicer manual 5 speed transmission. The engine faces backwards, so the transmission also faces backwards, just aft of the rear axle. So, rather than re-do the transmission linkage (30 feet long!) they just used a reverse (upside down) shift pattern. So 1st is right and forward instead of left and to the rear. It has been a project learning to shift with an upside down shift pattern, but boy is it fun! It’s just a “toy” I always wanted. I drive it around the neighborhood every few days, and never grow tired of it. Too bad no one in my family will ride with me!! The CAT exhaust makes the sweetest wail, and the trail of diesel smoke and fumes behind it keeps the tailgaters wayyyy back! LOL In CA, they’re crushing the old Crowns and Gilligs, to help clean up the air. They’ll be rare soon. Get one while you can!!
I don’t suppose you remember how much headroom height there was in a 1960ish (30 foot) Gillig?
There were two roof heights on the Gillig coaches… The “standard”-shorter roof model with a rectangular back emergency exit window (like most of their conventional bus bodies), and the “deluxe” higher roof models. The higher roof models were much more than 6 feet interior. The sorter one I had to duck.
I drove a “standard” 79 pax Gillig coach with a C-180 and a backward pattern 5 speed Spicer, for a small district in NoCal at the time.
5’11 I own a 63 Gillig. Now a converted tiny home….would luv to get it running again. In Sequim WA.
The shift pattern is backwards because the back of the transmission is pointing forward on the pusher units.
Also could be due to overdrive.
I agree that bus drivers had stronger stuff back then..!
Gillig buses ALSO had all kinds weird shift patterns and also had six speeds and just plain five,too.
Shift patterns COULD be:
(Note I’m dealing with 5 speeds mostly.)
I drove quite a few Gillig Phantoms as I was learning, more or less, to be a bus driver. Kent State University (yep, THAT Kent) ran its own bus line that, when Federal mass-transit money became available, was expanded to serve all of Portage County, Ohio. As well as intercity runs to Akron and Cleveland.
The thing about Kent’s Campus Bus Service was, every ONE of their employees was a qualified full-time student. The drivers were. The mechanics were. The dispatchers were; even the General Manager, a dapper chap in his thirties, was an adult student carrying (barely) a full courseload. In addition to providing cheap help, it was an excellent opportunity to break into the world of public transportation. I remember hearing a few student-employees talking in the offices about bidding for new buses…one said Flxble needed to “sharpen their pencils a little more” to get the next CBS bid; as Gillig was still the lowest. That was in 1988; seven years before Flxble locked the doors forever.
We trained on late-1960s GMCs; but we had four Gillig Phantoms – two 40-footers and two 30-foot shorties. The shorties were a handful; the very short wheelbase and the long, long rear overhang to allow the transverse engine and transaxle.
Good buses; but by that time, the description “tank” didn’t apply. They weren’t of the same stuff the old Gillig school buses were made of.
Thanks Paul you’ve answered a longstanding question of mine, why are the school buses in LA different than everywhere else. They all look so old and out of date, and none of them appear to be based on typical commercial chassis from the big auto or truck manufacturers.
I figured LAUSD had them special made (like UPS trucks) and they were paying a fortune for them….which wouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as it is such a poorly run district (example: it recently came to light here that at least $5 billion was wasted just trying to make the local community colleges “greener”. Five. Billion. Dollars.)
So all of these buses are at least a quarter century old then? They must be slapping a fresh coat of pain on them every 20 years or so and calling them good.
UPS trucks are a strange bird, they are only made for UPS and they are crushed whenever UPS can’t figure out a way to make it run another year. They are never sold off.
There’s more to it than that.
Gillig and Crown continued to use the archaic “streamlined” design, long after the Midwest bus manufacturers, led by Wayne, dropped it in favor of the modern cubist style in the mid-1960s.
For whatever reason, Gillig wasn’t willing (or able) to design a new school bus outer body. The Phantom transit coach is based on a Japanese design Gillig licensed; and once they had the transit bus out, they immediately cobbled together a school-bus version of it.
It didn’t sell well and Gillig is out of that market. Crown, too…Crown was purchased by Carpenter Coach of Indiana which itself went bust shortly thereafter. The school bus market has really shaken down, with International, formerly AmTran, before that Ward, having the lead. BlueBird and Thomas are the only other major players.
I thought most rear engined buses with V8’s used the Cummins VT903 rather tha the Cat V8, as the Cummins is physically much smaller.
Gillig was fortunate to be big in maybe the only market in the country where a school system could keep a steel bus on the road for 30 years.
There were a lot of those in western Washington too. The Federal Way district where I went to school was already using them before I graduated in 1957, and it wasn’t many years after that that you just didn’t see any school buses that weren’t flat-nosed Gilligs.
We had them in the Northshore District (Bothell/Woodinville) when I was a kid in the late 70’s and early 80’s and the ones I rode on were pretty old at the time.
+1, Lots of Crowns and Carpenters. The Carpenters had gas V8’s converted to Propane in the early 70’s
This is fascinating. Out here in corn country all we ever see on the roads are Blue Birds and Thomases. I was doing some poking around on teh Internets just now and am shocked to learn how many of the bus makers of my 1970s-80s kidhood are now defunct – Wayne, Carpenter, Ward, Superior.
Ward is still around, after two reorganizations – it’s the coach division of International/Navistar. Ward went bankrupt (as did Carpenter and Wayne) and was reorganized as AmTran; and about ten years or so, International purchased it.
Since International is no longer just a chassis maker and has its own captive bus-body company…and since Ford and General Motors no longer make chasses for school buses…it’s been a hard thing for BlueBird and Thomas. Both of them, I see, are now using Freightliner mediums as platforms.
Thomas is a subsidiary of Freightliner which is why there is no more Ford B series. When Ford sold it’s Louisville HD truck line to Freightliner part of the agreement was a 10 year no compete agreement that somehow got the B series and F850 involved ending their production.
Blue Bird was pretty much forced to develop their own chassis for their conventional line since Ford couldn’t build them one, GM wanted out, Navistar only supplied IC and I’m not sure if Freightliner cut them off or they just didn’t want to buy from the competition.
The Blue Bird’s nose does look a lot like a Freightliner but it is unique. However while they each may make their own frame rails a lot of the running gear bolted to them is sourced from the same suppliers, ie Cummins engines and Allison transmissions so they are a lot alike.
I shot a Jailbar Ford house bus yesterday front yard classic rather than curbside but unusual all the same, saw it and thought of Paul I’ll load it soon
Thanks Paul; keep the bus stories coming!
Having lived my entire life on the East Coast except for a few years in Chicago, these buses are completely foreign to me. “School bus” was synonymous with a square Bluebird or Thomas on a Ford or GMC chassis during that period of time. Thank you for the glimpse into an unglamorous but fundamental part of the West Coast automotive world!
The old “DC Transit” bus company ran these buses into the ’70’s. Not sure what make the ones I rode to school in were, but they were always full!
The second photo in this series is NOT of a Gillig. It is a Kenworth-Pacific. Probably mid 50’s. In fact, it appears to belong to my home town school district, of Camas, Washington! I may have ridden that very bus!
As I am thinking of acquiring a 68 Gillig with the mid engine Cummins, this site has been fascinating to me! I remember the Gilligs from school days in Camas, Wa, (class of 64).
Any suggestions on this starting problem. I have the Gillig motor home chassis Country Coach Concept with a MH/6V92TA.I backed it up a hill and must have still had the transmission in “R” when I stopped the engine. Now the engine won’t start because it’s in Reverse. And it won’t shift without the engine running.
As a former school bus rider (7-12th grade) and a school bus driver in Los Angeles all I knew were Crowns and Gilligs. As a driver Crowns were my favorite but Gilligs were just as good. The best thing about the Gillig was the speaker over the drivers compartment
I saw an old restored Crown last summer in Toronto – it had been converted into a promotional vehicle for some drink company, if I remember correctly. I never saw any of these on school duty here in Ontario – it was all Blue Bird, Thomas and the occasional Wayne built mainly on a Ford or International chassis.
I had the opportunity of purchasing an extremely rare 1954 International R-190 Superior school bus about 25 years ago for $500.00. It had its original big displacement Red Diamond six which was running great. The bus still wore its original paint and had all the safety lights intact, and it was never butchered by some vagabond hippies. I passed on the deal because I didn’t have the room for a 50 foot school bus:( I really wish I had that bus today.
Drove many early model Crowns, oldest was a 52 and my favorite was a 58 Crown repowered with a 671 Detroit Diesel and six speed transmission. Love the sound of a Two Stroke Diesel !! Drove for Taylor Bus Service San Diego Division, 1978 to 1988. Hall Scotts had a distinctive sound. Guzzled gas. Drove a 1960 Crown Coach with a Hall Scott. Engine did not last very long. Nobody knew how to drive it properly. (Over-reved the poor thing). Will never forget that big gasoline six sound! Drove many Gilligs too. Great busses. Love that Cat 3208 V8 sound with the reverse shift 5 speed. (1160 Cat was weak). Drove a reverse 10 speed too. My favorite Gillig was Bus #180. 1977 Gillig tandem axle, 91 passenger with a 290 Cummings mid ship engine with a Fuller RT910 10 speed transmission with a Blue Ox engine brake. (Not a Jake Brake, but driven Crowns with them.) POWERFUL!!! Loved the way it sounds going downhill with the engine brake on. Only used the clutch to start and stop. Smooth shifting! I liked both Crowns and Gilligs. Both had their unique traits. They don’t build school busses like that anymore!
Hi Simonize, I hope this reaches you after 6 years! My friend Bruce has a 1958 Crown that came from Taylor, repowered with a Detroit Diesel. This bus was one of 25 originally delivered to Charter Bus Transportation and leased to Yellowstone National Park in the summers. It became part of the L.A. Unified fleet in 1963, and Taylor bought at least this one. On the Crown factory fleet list, this is the onel that mentioned that it was sold to Taylor and repowered with a Detroit! I’d like more info and fleet number of the bus you remember. Thanks!
I have a 1937 Patchetts body on a Studebaker chassis. Patchetts and Carstensen was eventually purchased by Gillig and still in business today.
I’m always digging for more info on Patchetts if anyone has?
Wow; what a splendid old bus. Never heard of it either, so I can’t help you. I can see how Gillig was influenced by this design.
Very nice Page. I have a Rear engined 1948 Transit style School coach that was converted to a Motorhome in the early 60`s.
As another commenter pointed out, the second photo is definitely NOT a Gillig; it’s a Kenworth-Pacific, made in Washington, not California. If you enlarge the picture, you can even make out that the nameplate on the front says “Pacific,” not “Gillig,” and there are “Kenworth” letters right above the license plate.
Old Bus number 3 (top picture) was a backup bus when I started kindergarten in 1981. If you look closely it reads Camas School District in Camas, WA. I also recognize the building to the right. The screaming Detroit was deafening in these. Memories!
I liked those mid engine Gilligs from the mid 60s so much, they were my high school transportation on the San Francisco Peninsula, I built a 1:50th scale model of one by doing major modifications and surgery to a Corgi GM “old look” transit bus. Other photos on request.
One more photo.
would u ever sell one?
Sorry, no this is a one off for my collection. I later did a Gillig Phanton transit coach, Totally scratch built in 43rd scale.
These buses always remind me of CHiPs. Any time one of these rolled on the screen you knew something was gonna go down. The driver would have a heart attack, the brakes would fail, a skateboard would roll under the brake pedal, or some kid would have some bizarre illness. Luckily Ponch and John would be there. I never knew anything about these buses.
Having grown up, and having started my passenger transportation career in Western Washington, I rode and drove the Pacific-Kenworth buses and the Gilligs and a few Crowns. Our transportation director in Arlington, Washington, who was also the lead mechanic and lead bus driver, called the Waynes and Wards and Carpenters the the district had begun purchasing, due to their lower price, “Throw-Away” buses because of their lower quality. When I moved to Missouri in 1968, the first bus I drove was a Ford powered Wayne conventional with a 4-speed transmission. What a let down, after having driven Kenworths & Gilligs & Crowns.
Anyone know a good mechanic that would still work on this engine here on the bay area
The red Gillig belongs to me and my partner! How wild to be reading this article and see our bus!
Hi Trisha. I talked to your partner when I took those pictures, and did seperate post on your bus here: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/cc-outtake/curbside-classic-capsule-1973-gillig-40-bus-big-red/
I live just a few blocks away and walk by it often. In fact, i just did about 15 minutes ago and saw your partner working on it! 🙂
How neat that you’re in the neighborhood! Feel free to stop and ask questions and/or make more photos.
Thanks also for the link! Sorry to disappoint, but yes, we are converting it. We have made a lot of progress in the last few months and are head over heels in love with it!
Love the old driver’s stories .
We had 5 Gillig Phantoms in the fleet, the last one was sold off not to long ago. I signed for it new in 1989. De nutted 6V92s with a 640 series Allison automatic. Ours had the Bennet-Stone air shifter that required an overhaul every few years. Not terrible to drive like the front engine Blue Bird All American but really sluggish to get moving and not really geared for our hilly/ mountain driving. Electrics were a bit problematic in the fuse holders, replaced plenty of those. Rear air suspension wasn’t the best either, the track rod would either try to pull the bolts through the frame or break the weldment off of the rear axle. Bodies sucked as they leaked rainwater in like a sieve. This lead to body rot. Not bad to drive once you are out on the freeway in dry weather. The Phantoms don’t hold a candle to the Crowns as far as reliability.
As a young midwesterner I was stumped after seeing so many of these in service while on vacation in LA during the mid 90’s. Starting my schooling in the late 70’s I had only ever seen these on TV or the movies. Build quality explains it.
Really have to admire Gillig’s management for transitioning to the urban transit market from the school one in the 80’s. Too bad Crown couldn’t make that shift.
Just like everyone else, they now have a Battery-Electric model in their lineup – using Cummins electric drive-train.
And Cummins/Allison hybrid diesel/electric drivetrain that doesn’t put a strain on the power grid 😁
Check out this 1963 Gillig conversion to a car hauler: https://bringatrailer.com/listing/1963-gillig-bus-porsche-hauler/
The auction price is at $325,000 this morning.