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Here's to 50 years in TTC's Fishbowl

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BORIS SPREMO, CM/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

In this 1970 photo, an “old-look” TTC bus can be seen at upper left, across the street and behind the “new-look” bus picking up passengers near the Eglinton subway.

The TTC ordered the first wide- windshield ‘new-look’ buses in 1959. They’ve served us well

Feb 16, 2008 04:30 AM
Bill Taylor
Feature Writer

It was, and remains, a bus to turn heads.

When General Motors introduced its New Look Transit Coach in 1959, it was a radical departure from existing city buses, their low-browed windshields suggesting the sort of squint into the sunset that comes at the end of a bad western movie.

This striking replacement was nicknamed the Fishbowl for its six-piece wraparound windshield, three times the size of older buses and lending it the air of a wide-eyed ingénue. Half a century later, the TTC’s rebuilt versions continue to have people staring, though they’re thinking now: “Are those old things still running?”

Yes and no. They are still running but they aren’t quite as old as they seem. Most are not only classic by nature but also Classic by name - a Canadian-built iteration of the Fishbowl introduced in 1983. They were designed for a lifespan of about 15 years, but the TTC came up with a maintenance program to carry them into the 21st century.

The New Look has become a timeless look. An icon should wear its years gracefully. This, the first major redesign since 1939, became the iconic North American city bus, almost as recognizable - but not as clichéd - as London’s Routemaster double-deckers.

As Mass Transportation magazine reported in 1959, the American Transportation Authority had called for “`better-looking buses … with more eye appeal.’ No face-lifting here. No warmed-over model. But a totally new design, breaking completely with the past … new ideas, new materials that were non-existent a few short years ago… Attractive melamine paneling dresses up the ceiling area.”

The Oakland, Calif.-based Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District introduced them with a parade - “a Travelcade of Progress” - through the district’s 11 cities.

The New Look was lighter than most transit buses, with a stressed-skin aluminum body. Engine, transmission and radiator could be quickly removed as one unit for maintenance. A replacement unit could be slotted in just as readily to put the bus back into service. Modular engineering before anyone had even dreamed up the term.

Though they won’t be disappearing immediately, as the TTC promises improved service with more buses on the streets, our Fishbowls are slowly being replaced by environmentally friendly diesel-electric hybrids, boxes on wheels with more glass than a greenhouse but nowhere near the style of the old New Look. A return to function over form, substance over style.

North American bus design has always had less of an aesthetic imperative than in Europe, Britain especially. Buses here have tended to be utilitarian and strictly functional, with stark lines and often puritanical standards of comfort.

Within those parameters, it was possible to maintain corporate identity. No one would mistake a Greyhound Scenicruiser for a Continental Trailways Silver Eagle. And a Flxible Clipper was something else again, with the look of a motorized Airstream house-trailer, no rear window, and a comma-shaped air-intake on the roof.

But they weren’t city transit vehicles. GMC’s “old-look” bus, which preceded the Fishbowl, winked in the general direction of streamlining, but the most apt comparison you could make about its shape was with a loaf of bread.

The New Look was far more in your face. The body still had the unpainted, corrugated aluminum sides that were almost a given in bus construction. But behind the open, slightly drooping gaze of its windshield and those space-age quad headlights, the “speedline picture windows” were slanted forward, and there was an … eagerness to the vehicle, as if it wanted to spring into action. The rear window was big, too. Some nameless design team had put real thought into their creation and in the process achieved a quantum jump.

Canada can take credit for the design’s longevity. General Motors planned to kill off the New Look in the late 1970s, but Canadian transit operators weren’t crazy about the proposed replacement. GM Canada kept building the bus until 1982 and then unveiled the Classic, which looked the same but with upgraded specifications. Several American operations decided they still liked the look and imported them. The last Classic rolled off the production line in 1997, though GM had gotten out of buses 10 years earlier and other companies had kept the Classic going.

Toronto, which had hundreds of Fishbowls, realized it was on to a winner. In the late ’90s, according to the transit.toronto.on.ca website, TTC ridership was increasing, but no new buses had been bought to handle the traffic.

The commission “embarked on an ambitious rebuilding program of a number of GM Fishbowls,” the site says, including several bought from Montreal and saved from a Quebec scrap heap.

The TTC had ordered its first 50 New Looks in 1959 and its final ones in 1981. Their longevity has been remarkable.

Is this the world’s greatest bus? Not even close. It wasn’t the world’s greatest bus in 1959, either. It’s noisy, has unacceptable halitosis, and rides, by today’s standards, like a buckboard. It never aspired to be anything but a humble workhorse. But humility has its virtues. It may have no place in our pollution-fearing modern world, but it got the job done for far longer than its designers intended. And it always looked good in the process.

The Fishbowl may be going but the icon abides. This is what most people still will picture when they think of a TTC bus. Not a newfangled - and, yes, altogether admirable - hybrid with bland breath and a personality to match, but a wide-eyed ingénue, its gaze set on a future that has come and gone.




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