A History of the GM/MCI/Nova Buses

Text by James Bow

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General Motors buses are among the most recognizable buses in public transportation. For decades, the manufacturing company dominated the urban bus market, in a similar way as it dominated the private automobile market and even the diesel locomotive market. And while the GM name isn’t found on public transit buses today, its successor company, Nova Bus, continues to supply thousands of vehicles to transit agencies across the world.

This article follows the history of General Motors’ bus division, and its impact on public transportation in Toronto.

Early Days

General Motors was founded on September 16, 1908, by a wealthy businessman named William C. Durant. It was used as a holding company for Buick Motors, a car manufacturer Durant had purchased earlier that decade. In the years to come, he added other companies and consolidated operations, rapidly increasing production of cars and trucks. As the market grew, so too did GM’s wealth. In 1925, GM purchased a stake in Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company, which had been founded two years earlier to build motor coaches for the American market. Yellow Coach became the basis of the GM Truck and Coach Division (renamed in 1943).

Yellow Coach produced a number of bus for the American market from 1926 to 1940, taking advantage of advances in technology and manufacturing with each generation. In 1940, the company produced the T series, which became a runaway success. The T series, which had many variants, offered a streamlined look (taking its cue from the newly released PCC streetcar), a powerful engine (many were powered with a Detroit Diesel 6-71 inline six-cylinder diesel engine), and efficient interior design that proved popular with transit companies and patrons. Sizes ranged from 25 feet to 41 feet, 6 inches, though 35 feet and 40 feet buses were most common. Between 1940 and 1959, over 38,000 of these buses were produced, with a number purchased by the Toronto Transportation Commission.

These buses were not initially called “Old Looks”. They acquired this nickname after 1959, when General Motors introduced a revolutionary new bus design, offering a standardized design for easy maintenance, large windows, and a modern appearance. The two buses were so different that the new models were marketed as “New Looks”, and the older models obtained the “Old Look” monicker as a retronym.

The release of the GM’s “New Looks” was well timed, as it coincided with the reduction and elimination of a number of streetcar networks across North America, and a significant rise in transit bus use. The New Look became even more popular than the “Old Looks” before them, such that they were nearly the standard bus for North American transit agencies through the 1960s and the 1970s.

Something New, Something Classic

However, in the mid 1970s, changes were afoot, as GM began working on a new model to, it hoped, replace the New Look. The first prototypes for the RTS (Rapid Transit Series) bus were launched in 1977, and were soon picked up by agencies across the United States. Canadian transit companies like the TTC were not happy to see the New Look go, and asked GM to continue providing the model. In 1981, GM responded to this demand by producing an updated New Look, with a flat front-end and larger windows, which it dubbed the “Classic”.

But General Motors was facing increasing competition for the public transit market. With its finances shaky following the economic jolts of the seventies and the early 1980s, General Motors looked to divest itself of some of its divisions, in order to focus on its automobile production. In 1987, GM sold its bus division to MCI (Motor Coach Industries), a well-established highway coach maker. MCI took over production of both the Classic and the RTS model buses. In Canada, MCI Classic buses were produced in the former GM plant in St. Eustache, Quebec, while the RTS buses were produced in the MCI’s factory at Roswell, New Mexico.

MCI Divests to Nova

MCI continued to produce urban transit buses into the early 1990s, but felt that the product distracted from its highway coach business. In 1993, the company created Nova Bus to take over production of both the Classic and RTS models. Nova was given control over the Saint-Eustache and Roswell factories, and it began to look at building the next generation.

By the mid 1990s, transit agencies were looking to make their buses wheelchair accessible, to conform with the Americans with Disabilities Act (and Canadian equivalents). In 1995, Nova introduced a prototype of its Nova LFS, a low-floor city bus. The last Classic rolled off the production line in 1997, but the LFS did not initially find a good market. In 2002, Nova Bus closed its Roswell plant, as well as a plant in Niskayuna, New York, to concentrate on the Canadian market.

Canadian sales of Nova’s RTS and LFS buses were enough to keep the company afloat and, on February 2, 2008, Nova announced plans to build a new assembly plant in Plattsburg, New York, allowing the company to re-enter the American bus market. The New York City Transit Authority bought the first LFS articulated buses from this plant, and followed it up with orders for 500 more LFS buses.

While the company had difficulty getting into Ontario markets (particularly the TTC) from the 1990s on due to the Ontario government’s favouritism of Ontario Bus Industries (later Orion), it was able to interest the TTC enough with its RTS model to sell 52 to the commission (numbered 7200-7251). In 2012, the TTC turned to Nova to supply 153 low floor articulated buses. These started plying Toronto’s streets late in 2013.

With the collapse of Orion Bus Industries in April 2012, Nova Bus finds itself well placed to re-enter the Ontario market. The successor of General Motors may once again build the backbone of the TTC’s bus fleet.


References

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