Thomas Built Buses
26.09.2008 - 00:00

German version

Thomas Built Buses: one of America’s leading school bus manufacturers
  • Supporting mobility since 1916
  • Expansion to Canada and South America
  • Close coordination with truck manufacturer Freightliner LLC

The safety standards are the same for all vehicles, length and equipment are specified by the customer: Type C – Conventional.

In 2006, Thomas Built Buses, based in High Point, North Carolina, celebrated 90 years of building buses and other vehicles. The company was originally named the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, after its founder, and has had its present name since 1972. The word “car” in the original name referred not to automobiles, but to streetcars. This mode of transport operated in every major American city before gradually fading from the scene in the 1930s, because of the Great Depression and the increasing prevalence of individual transport. This did not deter Perley A. Thomas, and in 1936 he started a changeover to a mode of transport less sensitive to economic cycles, which still dominates the American bus market today: school buses.

Thomas Built Buses manufactures modern cab-over-engine vehicles or conventional vehicles – as specified by the customer.

“Ladies in red”: quality and elegance

“Ladies in red” was the nickname used for the streetcars of the Riverfront Line, which used to transport passengers via Canal Street to the French quarter, the historic city center, until August 28, 2005, when New Orleans was submerged by the flooding unleashed by hurricane Katrina. These were original vehicles from the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, but they had not been in use without interruption since the 1920s. They were, in fact, re-commissioned as a tourist attraction in 1988, after a long time off the streets. And even in its heyday, Perley A. Thomas Car Works was hardly one of the leading American streetcar makers, with a market share of no more than five percent. Its vehicles were, however, renowned for their quality and elegance.

Given the complete domination of individual transport in the urban environment of the United States today, it is difficult to imagine just how much streetcars were part of the scene on the streets of American cities for over four decades. The streetcar age began almost simultaneously in Europe and America, after a ten-year experimental phase, towards the end of the 1880s. In Germany, the technology had been pioneered by Werner von Siemens since 1879, and the first tramlines went up in Bremen in 1890. And in the U.S.A., Frank J. Sprague, now an almost forgotten name, set up the first streetcar line in 1887, in the face of major teething problems, in Richmond, Virginia. Just one year later, streetcar lines were under construction or in operation in 200 cities.

Taking the initiative: Perley A. Thomas builds his first streetcar line

Perley A. Thomas was born on September 11, 1874 in Ontario, Canada, and moved 50 miles south to Detroit in 1901. He found a cityscape where streetcars were already a familiar sight, linking factory and residential areas, and enabling the more affluent citizens to reside in the green belt of the suburbs. In the weekends, they also transported millions of the city’s inhabitants to the pleasure parks located at the end of the streetcar lines. But the market was very unevenly distributed: the leading streetcar maker, J. G. Brill from Philadelphia, had a market share of almost 50 percent, as compared with 20 and 15 percent, respectively, for the St. Louis Car Company and Cincinnati Car Company, and many small manufacturers had also found a place in the local market.

As a mechanic’s son, Perley A. Thomas soon found work in the city, in the Streetcar Department of Detroit United Railroad. In 1906, he moved to Cleveland to work for the Kuhlmann Car Company, a subsidiary of the Brill Company. While working there, he also attended an evening course to complete his qualification as a structural engineer. Then, in 1910, he received a highly attractive offer to take up a higher-ranking position as Chief Engineer with the Southern Car Company in High Point, North Carolina, which was looking to increase its market share. Here, he was able to make good use of his specialist knowledge and skills in woodworking, since at that time most of the body and fittings in streetcars were made of wood. But this did not mean he was left behind five years later, when steel structures began to take over. He was responsible for the design of 52 streetcars with an all-steel body, which the company supplied to New Orleans in 1915 for 3000 dollars each.

Thomas soon buys up his ex-employer’s assets

But it was not easy for a small-scale manufacturer to survive in the market against tough competition. The Southern Car Works had to file for bankruptcy just one year later, leaving Perley A. Thomas without a job. However, the young engineer found it difficult to remain idle, and a few months later, with a loan of over 6,000 dollars and money inherited by his wife, he bought up the assets of his former employer and started production in his own right. New orders were beckoning, because streetcars were required for more than weekend excursions to pleasure parks: in April 1917, America entered the First World War, and, in that same month, Thomas received an order for nine closed streetcars from the naval support base in Mobile, Alabama.

Production really started to pick up only at the end of the war, however, when the economy gained momentum, and Thomas received street orders from cities from New York to Miami, and even Puerto Rico and Havana. The secret of his success was a consistent commitment to the highest quality. Whenever he found any sign of slackness, employees were immediately out on their ear, but only to be invited back the same evening. He was particularly successful in New Orleans, where, in 1924, at the peak of his success as a streetcar marker, he sold 25 vehicles, also immediately picking up a further order for another 55.

The Perley A. Thomas Car Works in 1920.

Attractive offers from the competition

Then, however, the situation changed overnight, when a fire in the plant destroyed 14 of the vehicles already under construction. The President of the streetcar manufacturer J. G. Brill offered Thomas a five-year agreement for 5,000 dollars a year, or the entire amount as a lump sum, in return for an undertaking not to reopen the plant. Thomas rejected this offer, and instead spent an advance payment of over 100,000 dollars from New Orleans on repairing the damage, so that the streetcars could be delivered as soon as possible. With over 100 units - almost one third of the total production of Perley A. Thomas Car Works - New Orleans became the company’s most important customer, closely followed by Detroit, with an order for exactly 100 streetcars placed in 1929.

But the story was coming to an end. A further order for four vehicles was received in 1930 from Mobile, Alabama, but no sales were made over the next several years. The era of the streetcar in the USA was over.

New Orleans was the Number One customer for Thomas streetcars.

From streetcar to bus

The Great Depression of the 1930s had created a new situation: local authorities were facing high deficits, and yet there had been little or no increase in fares. Streetcars had also been operated by electricity utilities, but they, too, were in crisis. In any case, their main priority was to develop a comprehensive grid network, and they therefore withdrew from the public transport sector. Meanwhile, large vehicle manufacturers were seizing the opportunity to promote the use of diesel-powered buses.

In the company’s heyday, Thomas had employed 125 people, but the staff had now dwindled to barely a dozen, waiting in vain for new orders. The situation was relieved to some extent in 1934, with orders from Greensboro, North Carolina, and from Greenville and Anderson, both in South Carolina. The Greensboro and Greenville orders were each for two trolleybuses, which proved very successful, in spite of complaints that trolleybuses were disrupting radio reception. The third order, from Anderson, was for ten city buses. This was not enough to halt the company’s decline, but the increased volume of orders did convince Thomas to enter a new segment of the market. And when the State of North Carolina put a major contract for over 500 school buses out to tender just two years later, he saw his opportunity.

School buses a great business opportunity

There was little change of high profits from the contract for these buses: everything had to be built as economically as possible. The bodies were to be made of wood, with a tin roof. The seating was to be in the form of wooden benches, arranged lengthwise. One windshield wiper only was required, and additionally, to save costs, the State of North Carolina also decided to dispense completely with mirrors and headlamps. Another problem was that the company did not have the financial base to submit a tender for any more than 200 buses.

Thomas’s bid was 195 dollars for a 5.20-meter long bus, 205 dollars for a 5.80-meter bus, and 225 dollars for a 6.40-meter long bus. But Thomas, with the support of his daughter Melva and sons Willard and Norman, had calculated everything down to the last cent, and the plant in High Point was duly awarded the contract. The story of one of America’s leading school bus builders had begun.

Ribs made of bent steel profiles and leather upholstery: Thomas school bus of 1937.

Consolidation of the bus business

The school bus contract did not mean the end of the crisis of the company. Thomas found it difficult to accept the stark design of these buses, simply to save costs. Accordingly, his next initiative was to build luxury mobile homes, complete with bathrooms. These became a great favorite with traveling show people. Until such time as bus orders were sufficient on their own to carry the business, Thomas made all sorts of different vehicle bodies, including a whole fleet of delivery vans for a bakery business.

But in the long term, Thomas wanted more than a few one-off orders of this kind. He started looking for new design solutions to improve the construction of school buses. In 1938, he designed North Carolina’s first all-steel body school bus. The usual practice at the time was to build bus bodies from arched rib structures, each comprising two vertical sections and one horizontal section, which were welded or bolted on to the roof edge. The arch was then welded from above on to the frame. Thomas improved this design by making the entire rib structure from a single bent steel section, welded onto the frame from outside.

The State immediately responded with an order for 400 school buses, followed by another 900 units over the next two years. Around the same time, in 1939, the company’s fortunes were boosted by a national conference convened at Colombia University by a certain Frank W. Cyr, with the objective of laying down minimum standards for the safety of school bus transport. Ever since then, school buses in the U.S.A. have been clearly identifiable by their bright yellow color. This led to Cyr being seen as the “father of the yellow school bus,” so Thomas’s concern with safety came at just the right time.

This sales brochure of 1940 emphasizes the longevity of Thomas buses.

Now that he could be confident the company was back on the road to prosperity, Thomas, who was by now over 60, gradually started to hand the business over to his children, Willard, Norman, Melva, and later their sister Mary, who was much younger than her siblings. They shared the tasks between them: Willard Thomas was the general manager, and looked after customer relations. His younger brother Norman was in charge of production, development, and procurement, and Melva Thomas handled the business side of the operation. All important decisions were taken jointly. By the time the youngest child, Mary, joined the company in 1946, there were already several grandchildren of the founder on the staff.

Expansion to Canada and South America

Just as the company’s future seemed assured, it was again in jeopardy. When the USA entered the Second World War, there was no longer any demand for school buses. In this difficult situation, it was again the inventive mind of the company founder, Perley A. Thomas, that came to the rescue. Thomas submitted a proposal to the army that was favora­bly received: he offered to produce a truck body that could be used as a mobile repair workshop for light hand weapons. The plant turned out 15 units a day, and they all provided a valuable service at the front.

During World War II, the plant manufactured mobile workshop bodies for trucks.

The postwar years again saw a sharp increase in the demand for school buses, but most suppliers at the time were still operating only at regional level. Thomas had five competitors in North and South Carolina alone, and nationally the market was divided between over 20 manufacturers. Thomas’ company was one of the first to look beyond its own region, and develop a nationwide distribution and service network. A branch in Pennsylvania was soon followed by others in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and New Jersey. The company now has over 50 branch establishments in the United States.

Thomas school buses were also in such demand in Canada that, in 1962, the manufacturer set up a branch factory in Woodstock, Ontario, which at its peak was turning out around one-third of Thomas’s total production. During the 1960s, a further two plants were opened in Ecuador and Peru, although these proved to be short-lived. And in 1972, the company - which had stopped making streetcars long before - changed to the name it still bears today: Thomas Built Buses.

Thomas bus body on a Dodge chassis, 1948.

Important contribution to high safety standards in America

For a school bus, nothing can be more important than its safety. Perley A. Thomas realized this from the outset, and continually suggested possibilities for improvements. From the perspective of the plant in High Point, the new safety standards issued in the 1970s were not a difficult challenge to be overcome, but merely a confirmation of an approach consistently applied by the company over many years.

School buses in America are also required to meet the customer’s expectations. They have to be strong, reliable, and safe, and each customer defines its own specifications accordingly. In addition, many calls for tenders also require extreme cost cutting on the part of the bus manufacturer. This puts the development costs for new frame structures and brake systems, for example, beyond the reach of a small-scale operator. During the 1970s, this prompted many local suppliers to seek a national presence. By 1980, there were only six school bus manufacturers left - one of which was Thomas Built Buses.

Most of America’s yellow school buses are strongly built cab-behind-engine, or “conventional” vehicles, often simply identified with the letter C. But even in the 1950s, Thomas was already looking at cab-over-designs as well. In 1978, the company introduced its Saf-T-Liner, which, as well as featuring a vertical front end, was also the first model to have its own chassis with a rear engine. The cab-over-engine design proved so successful that in the 1980s the company also decided to enter the city bus segment of the market.

The cab-over-engine Saf-T-Liner has been manufactured by Thomas since 1978.

1980 saw the introduction of another outstandingly successful model that is still sold today, with numerous improvements. This was the Minotour midibus, with seating for up to 30 school pupils. And from 1989 to 1998, Thomas also supplied the Vista semi-forward control model, which from the outside looked like a conventional bus, but provided better visibility. In 1993, the company took a natural-gas-powered bus on a nationwide road show, followed by a battery-powered model in 1994. The company has also been a pioneer in the area of equipment for the handicapped and safety seats for children.

The Minotour (Type A) midi-bus has been available since 1980.

In 1996, Thomas Built Buses opened a new plant in Mexico, at Monterrey, but this fresh attempt to gain a foothold in Latin American markets again proved ill-fated. Just as the plant opened its doors, the countries forming the target markets for its products went into an economic slump. Now the Brazilian bus body builder Marcopolo operates in Monterrey. However, DaimlerChrysler still has a stake in the Mexican plant, which produces up to 4,000 buses a year.

The Thomas family had sold some of its shares to the Odyssey New York investment group in 1985, but the company, now one of the three remaining large-scale builders of school buses with a market share of around 33 percent, was still largely a family business. But to ensure its long-term survival, Thomas needed a strong partner, particularly to fund capital expenditure programs at its headquarters plant in North Carolina.

Thomas Built Buses finds ideal partner in Freightliner

In October 1998, the company was taken over by Freightliner, which since 1981 had been part of the DaimlerChrysler Group. At the time of the takeover, a new plant in High Point, where the Minotour is now produced, had almost been completed. Its new status as part of a worldwide group opened up new opportunities for Thomas Built Buses, although from now on it was to focus solely on its core business as a school bus manufacturer. The plant in Ontario, Canada, which was also the location of Orion, another bus building company owned by DaimlerChrysler, closed down at the end of 2001. In place of the Canadian operation, Thomas announced plans to build yet another state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in High Point, solely dedicated to production of the latest model of the Saf-T-Liner, the C2.

Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2.

Meanwhile, a joint venture was set up in 1999 between Thomas Built Buses and the British manufacturer Dennis, at that time owned by the Mayflower group. The aim was to develop a low-floor city bus for the American market. The Dennis Dart became the model for the SLF, the first Thomas low-floor bus. This was followed by further variants, sold under the Orion brand since 2003 by Daimler Chrysler Commercial Buses North America (DCCBNA), based at Greensboro, North Carolina. At the same time, Setra again started making inroads into the American market with the TopClass bus. Daimler Chrysler purchased all Dennis’s shares, in order to coordinate all coach and bus activities under the Dodge, Orion, and Setra brands under the umbrella of DCCBNA.

The Dennis Dart served as a model for the SLF 200 low-floor bus.

Focus on core business: School buses with leading-edge technology

Today, the name Thomas Built Buses is again synonymous with safe, reliable, state-of-the-art buses made in High Point, North Carolina. In November 2003, Thomas launched its new Saf-T-Liner C2 model, in production since August 2004 at the new ISO 14001-certified plant in High Point. The company has invested a total of $39.7 million in this plant, designed to produce 22 units a day in the first instance, with provision for expansion to twice that figure. On a 1.2-kilometer automated conveyer line, the bus passes through 75 stations, from the assembly line to the robot-operated paint shop and the finishing line to complete the process. The production operation features the use of leading-edge technology, including the combination of adhesive and self-piercing rivet joints.

The Saf-T-Liner C2 is very different from earlier school bus models, even in terms of its outward appearance. Enhanced visibility is provided by a very large, undivided front windshield (trucks in the U.S. often still have a divided windshield) and a steeply sloped, clearly rounded hood. The 55-degree steering lock and modern, clearly laid-out driver workstation with non-reflective fittings make the driver’s job easier. The combined rivet and adhesive joint system has been tested as twice as durable a rivet-only joint. The onboard diagnosis system simplifies servicing and repair operations.

The distinguishing feature of the C2 is its undivided windshield.

The economical Mercedes-Benz MBE 906 engine is characterized by low emissions (complying with the US standard EPA 2004) and high torque, delivering up to 250 hp. As an option, the Saf-T-Liner C2 can also be supplied with a Cummins ISB engine. Along with the Saf-T-Liner C2, on a Freightliner chassis, and the Minotour, Thomas still sells an older cab-behind-engine model on an FS-65 chassis (the last order for the FS-65 was taken in May 2006; production ended in October 2006) and the modern cab-over-engine Saf-T-Liner HDX model, which replaced the older Saf-T-Liner ER and HD models in 2002. The HDX is also available with a Mercedes-Benz MBE 906 engine, delivering up to 280 hp, a Caterpillar diesel engine with a maximum power rating of 300 hp, or a John Deere natural gas engine.

Ultramodern mirrors and a rather traditional design are the hallmarks of the
Saf-T-Liner CS (since 2004).

The latest generation of the cab-over-engine Saf-T-Liner Type HDX

Thomas Built Webseite

Photos and text:
Daimler AG


gedruckt am 25.03.2023 - 06:00