A Brief History of Orion Bus Industries

Text by James Bow and Robert Lubinski

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Starting from the turn of the millennium, and continuing past 2014, Orion Bus Industries were the builder of the overwhelming majority of Toronto Transit Commission buses. Their models had been serving the system for over three decades, and could be found in other transit agencies across Ontario. On April 25, 2012, however, Orion’s parent company, Daimler Bus North America, announced the end of this institution. The Orion era of the TTC was drawing to an end.

Provincial Beginnings

The early history of Orion Bus Industries is a little convoluted. It is a popular misconception among transit fans that the company was founded by the Ontario government as a crown corporation. The Toronto Star even reported this in an article printed on April 25, 2012. However, the truth is that Ontario Bus Industries began life as a private company. It launched and flourished thanks the efforts of two men in succession: Arnold Wollschlaeger and Donald Sheardown.

arnold-wollschlaeger.jpg

Arnold Wollschlaeger poses in front of his demonstration bus.

By the mid 1970s, Arnold Wollschlaeger had been working on building and repairing buses and trucks for two decades under the guise of Ontario Truck and Bus Industries. He received an assembly contract from the provincial government’s Urban Transportation Development Corporation to assemble and retrofit a Rek-Vee fibreglass-bodied diesel-powered vehicle for use in the Ontario government’s experimental Dial-a-Bus service. According to his son, Tom Wollschlaeger, the vehicles had originally designed to be camper vans, and these proved unreliable in tough transit conditions. The experience inspired Arnold to build a heavy-duty medium-sized bus of his own, that could serve smaller scale public transportation operations, and be easy to maintain and service.

Arnold Wollschlaeger gathered a team of seasoned and loyal tradespeople, who set about hand-building the prototype of what would become the first Orion bus, in 1975. This bus was thirty feet long, and featured parts that were interchangeable with parts from an inventory of forty-foot buses. The Orion I, as it was eventually called, offered a single sealed swing door in the front, thermo windows, tubular construction, and a number of features that made maintenance and repair easier, including an outside electrical access panel, “satin steel panels” for easier repair, and large roof hatches. The vehicle was powered by a Detroit Diesel V6 engine, and boasted a sleek, modern look.

A Changing of the Guard

With his prototype, Arnold renamed his company Ontario Bus Industries, and took on the public transit marketplace, selling over 100 Orion Is within the first couple of years. OBI remained a small company, however, and without sufficient financial backing, Arnold sold the the American and World (outside Canada) manufacturing rights of his prototype to Greyhound Bus Lines (TMC manufacturing) in 1978. TMC renamed the Orion the “City Cruiser” for the American market.

Arnold Wollschlaeger passed away in 1979, leaving the ownership of Ontario Bus Industries up in the air. The man to take the company into the 1980s turned out to be Donald Sheardown.

1994_don_sheardown.jpg

Donald Sheardown

Sheardown and his family had also been in the transportation business for decades. Donald himself started working at Orenda Engines in 1952, as part of the Avro Arrow jet program, until the program was cancelled in 1956. Three years later, he bought Sheardown Transport from his father, and grew the company for the next twenty years. By the mid-1970s, he was the owner and operator of Atlantic Bus Lines, a school bus operation located in Markham, Ontario, which operated 200 vehicles, and was one of the first subcontractors to partner with the TTC’s Wheel Trans Service.

Buying out Ontario Bus Industries from the Wollschlaeger in 1979, Donald Sheardown brought in new financing and tremendous energy. He bought back the American and worldwide manufacturing rights for the Orion from Greyhound USA. He then set to work expanding OBI’s product line. Associate Debbe Crandall remembers, “Don Sheardown was a larger than life character. He was a generous big-hearted guy, rough as hell around the edges, a rascal, smart and hard-working… …but he sure engendered loyalty in people.”

The Right People at the Right Time

Wollschlaeger and Sheardown had picked a good time to invest in municipal public transportation. The Ontario government had already established the Urban Transportation Development Corporation to build the next generation of streetcars and rapid transit vehicles for North America. Premier Bill Davis had stopped Toronto’s Spadina Expressway and signalled provincial interest in helping public transit agencies across Ontario to maintain an inexpensive travel alternative to the private automobile. Transit agencies’ operating subsidies were covered in a 50-50 split between the province and the associated municipalities, and the provincial government committed to covering 75% of all Ontario transit agencies’ capital costs.

Whereas the provincial government had to intervene directly to build a local company that could manufacture light rail vehicles for the North American market, since the market was still in development, Donald Sheardown potentially had access to a marketplace of dozens of transit agencies across North America running thousands of buses. He ensured that a buy-Ontario option existed for Ontario municipalities to invest in, using their tax dollars to keep Ontario’s working.

As Ontario Bus Industries’ plant in Mississauga was producing new Orion Is, the company looked to expand its interests south of the border. While the American marketplace was substantial, years of recession and loss of manufacturing had sparked the development of a number of “Buy American” regulations from state and federal governments.

Sheardown soon realized that if he wanted to build American buses, he’d have to build them in the United States. To accomplish this, Sheardown established Bus Industries of America as a subsidiary to Ontario Bus Industries set up a plant in Oriskany, New York. The plant opened in May 1982, and was soon producing 30 foot and 35 foot Orion Is for the American marketplace. Over 200 buses were produced in the Oriskany plant in 1982, and 300 the following year.

While the bulk of city bus sales across North America had been in the 40 foot range, with the GM New Look and Classics competing with the Flyer D700 and D800 series, Sheardown saw opportunities in the market for smaller buses. The Orion II, debuting in 1983, was designed as a bus catering to the wheelchair accessible, community bus market. Available in 21 foot and 25 foot models, the Orion II was low-floor, allowing it to kneel to within four inches of the curb, eliminating the need of a heavy hydraulic lift.

But Ontario Bus Industries could not ignore the larger bus market forever. Its experiment with the shorter 30-foot bus model did not produce the dividends that transit agencies like the TTC were looking for. Especially as OPEC-inspired high fuel prices gave way to an oil glut in the early 1980s, the most expensive component of an operating bus was its driver, and transit agencies favoured longer buses to pack in more passengers per bus. Also, by going with a 40 foot standard design, transit agencies achieved cost savings by simplifying the maintenance process over fewer models. As a result, the first 40-foot Orion I bus was designed and delivered in 1984.

Going Larger and Going to Europe

The new reality of improving passenger-to-driver ratios over pure fuel economy led the Ontario Bus Industries to enter the articulated bus market in 1986. The Orion III, as it would be called, was a joint project between Ontario Bus Industries and Ikarus Body and Coach Building Works of Budapest, Hungary. Ikarus supplied the body shells via ship to Montreal and then by truck to OBI’s Mississauga Plant. OBI finished the job with doors, windows, seats and engine parts before testing and delivery. The Toronto Transit Commission gave the Orion III a considerable boost by placing an order for 90 of these vehicles. OC Transpo of Ottawa also placed a large order. Ontario Bus Industries continued to develop its relationship with Europe. In 1987, an order for its Orion II vehicles was placed by a city in Sweden.

Unfortunately, the early models of Ontario Bus Industries started to develop problems resulting in a flaw on their design. The use of carbon steel tubes for the structure proved susceptible to corrosion, and this started to lead to the early retirement of the Orion Is, and complaints about the performance of the Ikarus articulated. Ontario Bus Industries worked on these and other problems, and in 1989 came up with the Orion V. This heavy-duty bus attempted to resolve the corrosion issues and was wider, 8 feet, 6 inches, instead of the previous models 8 feet. These buses were also equipped with wheelchair lifts to meet transit agencies’ new accessibility requirements.

Ontario Bus Industries also began experimenting with alternate fuel designs. The Orion IV — a special order for a rubber-tired people mover by the Niagara Parks Commission — used liquified petroleum gas. In 1988, Orion Bus Industries debuted a prototype designed to operate on compressed natural gas. The fuel was particularly cheap at the time, and the hope was that CNG buses could replace electric trolley buses in such cities as Toronto and Hamilton. This, they did, but CNG never caught on; transit agencies complained about the complexities of refuelling, and a number of CNG buses were converted to operate on standard diesel. This didn’t stop Ontario Bus Industries from experimenting with gas-electric hybrid power, however, debuting a hybrid Orion II in 1993.

Government Intervention and Going Low Floor

However, the early 1990s were proving challenging for Sheardown’s companies. The recession, government cutbacks to public transportation funding and continued competition with other bus manufacturers meant declining revenues. And even though OBI had over $200 million in contracts, and was supplying 750 buses to 38 transit agencies across the United States, the company was relying on loans from the Ontario government to make ends meet. It defaulted on $66 million of those loans in 1994.

At the time, the provincial government was run by the New Democratic Party under premier Bob Rae, who was very interested in saving jobs at OBI’s Mississauga plant, and not losing Ontario’s only bus manufacturer. At the same time, the provincial deficit limited the government’s capacity to intervene, as well as maintain its other transit manufacturing company, UTDC. In April 1995, as the Ontario Bus Industries looked for a buyer, the Ontario government announced a bailout package, forgiving the $66 million in defaulted loans, buying $15 million in preferred company shares, and investing an additional $5 million in the company.

Western Star Trucks, a company operating out of British Columbia, came forward as a buyer, and purchased both Ontario Bus Industries and Bus Industries of America, merging the two operations together into Orion Bus Industries. With this investment the company continued to develop and innovate. In 1993, OBI had unveiled its prototype for the Orion VI, a 40 foot long, 8.5 foot wide low floor bus. It also pursued development of hybrid technology. Two years later, the first hybrid electric Orion VI rolled off the line.

The new owners of Orion Bus Industries poured money into the company, allowing it to move into its new corporate headquarters and factory in Mississauga, Ontario in 1997. The investments in hybrid technology appeared to be paying off, with New York City purchasing the hybrid Orion VI in 1998. But things would not be stable for long. In the year 2000, DaimlerChrysler arrived, buying out Orion and bringing it in to anchor the new DaimlerChrysler Commercial Buses North America unit. But it was about this time that the company delivered its most successful model yet.

The Orion VII

Orion’s latest model, the Orion VII, debuted in 2001. Addressing what the company had learned through its six previous models, the VII promised to offer transit agencies the most reliable, efficient and versatile low-floor bus yet. When the design debuted, Orion already had a sales backlog of over 1,000 buses. New York City purchased 325 hybrid Orion VIIs, while the TTC ordered 150 of its own. By 2006, over 2,000 of the vehicles had been shipped to agencies across North America, as far afield as the San Francisco Municipal Railway. The popularity of the Orion VII was such that, when Orion tweaked the design in 2007 (to meet US Environmental Protection Agency emission standards), it didn’t call the new bus an Orion VIII, but instead labelled the model the Orion VII “Next Generation”. A further tweak to meet US EPA updated emission standards followed in 2010.

Orion was at the top of its game. Unfortunately, the company that managed it was not. Daimler, which had divested itself of Chrysler in 2007, suddenly announced in the April 2012 its intention to get out of the North American bus industry entirely. Citing austerity budgets by governments across North America, Daimler stated that it did not see a future for the industry — or, at least, not a future that could justify its continued investment.

The Fall of Orion Bus Industries

Orion stopped taking orders for new buses on April 25, 2012, and announced that its Mississauga factory would shut down after its current orders were completed. This closure occurred the next year. The Oriskany, New York facility would remain open to serve the aftermarket business of spare parts and maintenance. On March 1, 2013, New Flyer Industries announced it was buying out the remaining assets of Orion, including the aftermarket business, and its remaining bus orders.

For the past decade, Orion Bus Industries had a tremendous influence on agencies across America, especially in Ontario. That influence disappeared overnight due to its parent company losing interest in the manufacturing of buses. The transit agencies that have invested in the Orion VII are now served by New Flyer Industries for spare parts and maintenance. Over the next few years, New Flyer and other bus manufacturers will build the models that serve Toronto passengers.

As for Don Sheardon, he was recognized by the Canadian Urban Transportation Association by being put in their Hall of Fame in 1994. In their write-up, they said, “Don exported buses made in Mississauga to Sweden, Denmark and the United States, and OBI became the largest bus manufacturer in North America, growing from 45 employees in 1979 to 1,200 people in the early 90s. Don was a major contributor to his community and his industry. He supported CUTA extensively, and received the highest honour that any Canadian can receive - naming of the hockey arena in his hometown of Bolton, Ontario.”

The Orion logo will vanish from city streets, but not for a while. It takes some time for that many buses to fade away. Over that time, the Orions will have left a mark on Toronto transportation comparable to the General Motors New Look.

The Full TTC Orion Fleet History

Class

Fleet Numbers

Delivered

Retired

Length

Power

Notes

Orion I

8315

1979

????

30 feet

diesel

Prototype 

Orion I

8370-8378

1981

????

30 feet

diesel

#8370,2,4&6 sold to Metro Transit (1990) 

Orion I

8730-8739

1982

????

30 feet

diesel

 

Orion I

9360-9361

1989

1989

30 feet

diesel

CNG Demonstrators; demoed as GO Transit 1713/14 

Orion II

9500-9529

1985-6

????

21 feet

diesel

 

Orion II

9530-9564

1987

????

21 feet

diesel

 

Orion II

9570-9627

1987-9

????

21 feet

diesel

 

Orion II

9700-9705

1990-1

Oct 2012

21 feet

diesel

Community Bus, sold to Autobus Laval (2013) 

Orion II

9706

1991

Nov 2012

21 feet

diesel

Community Bus, bought from St. Catharines (2007); sold to Autobus Laval (2013) 

Orion III

6360-6419

1987-8

2003

60 feet

diesel

articulated 

Orion III

6530-6559

1988-9

2003

60 feet

diesel

articulated 

Orion V

6640-6745

1991-2

2010

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion V

9370-9394

1990-1

2005

40 feet

CNG

 

Orion V

7000-7134

1996

2014

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion V

9400-9449

1996-7

n/a

40 feet

CNG

Converted to diesel 

Orion VI

2000

1995

1996

40 feet

CNG

Demonstrator model, sold to Ride-On 

Orion VI

9200-9249

1997-8

2006

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII HEV

1043

2001

2001

40 feet

hybrid

demonstrator vehicle 

Orion VII

7400-7499

2002-4

n/a

40 feet

diesel

delivered with black skirts 

Orion VII

7500-7619

2004

n/a

40 feet

diesel

delivered with black skirts 

Orion VII

7620-7882

2004-5

n/a

40 feet

diesel

7794 renumbered 7882 after fatal collision 

Orion VII

7900-7979

2006

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII

8000-8099

2007

n/a

40 feet

diesel

8000-11 has 34 seats, retrofitted with luggage racks for 192 AIRPORT ROCKET service; 8012-99 has 38 seats 

Orion VII NG

1000-1149

2006

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

First hybrids in fleet 

Orion VII NG

1200-1423

2007-8

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

 

Orion VII NG

1500-1689

2008

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

1517 & 1671 retired due to collision damage 

Orion VII NG

1700-1829

2009

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

 

Orion VII NG

8100-8219

2009-10

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII EPA10

8300-8334

2011

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII EPA10

8335-8396

2011-2

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 


References

  • Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses, Stauss Publications, Woodland Hills (California), 1988.
  • “Buy American”, Syracuse Herald Journal, Syracuse (New York), January 10, 1984.
  • Corrugation Plant Closing”, Brampton Guardian, Brampton (Ontario), April 27, 2012.
  • Diesel City Bus, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 1991.
  • “Ontario Bails Out Oriskany Bus Company”, Syracuse Herald Journal, Syracuse (New York), April 6, 1995.
  • Orion International.” - CPTDB Wiki. Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 21 July 2014.
  • Our Story”, Donsson Innovation Group, Retrieved January 2, 2017.

We would like to thank Debbe Crandall for her assistance in researching this article and correcting a number of errors.