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Larry Plachno
September 12, 2022
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The Origin of Eagle Coaches (Part 1 of 2)

Editor’s Note:  This article was originally run in the April 2021 issue of  National Bus Trader Magazine. 

With the 85th anniversary of the Trailways organization being celebrated, it was not unusual to have industry people talking about Eagle coaches that were identified with Trailways for many years. We found it interesting that many younger members of the bus industry were unaware of the story behind the origin of Eagle coaches. 

Admittedly this now goes back 60 years to a different era of the motorcoach industry when scheduled service dominated, when Greyhound dominated scheduled service, and when General Motors dominated bus manufacturing. Moreover, it is interesting that the production of Eagle coaches both starts and ends with Greyhound. While many of us old-timers in the bus business remember this, it is worth repeating for the younger bus people to give them a window into the bus industry’s past.

The best place to start is probably with World War II. Bus riding was up significantly while bus production was down because of the war effort. In late 1943 the old Yellow Coach company became a division of General Motors. The main bus production line at Pontiac, Michigan was given over to production of amphibious ducks for military applications.

This explains why some of their parts were similar to contemporary GM buses. The War Production board did authorize the building of a handful of coaches, but for the most part the bus operators struggled with keeping their old fleets running to meet high transportation demands.

As bus production resumed after the war, bus operators began updating their fleets. In 1948, Greyhound placed an order with General Motors for 2,000 coaches. It was the largest motorcoach order ever. While part of this order introduced the new “41” series as the PD4151, the entire order was for “Silversides” models that had originally been introduced in the late 1930s.

Greyhound was already thinking ahead about developing a more modern coach design for the post-war years. In 1945, Greyhound let design contracts to both General Motors and Consolidated Vultee to develop a radically new intercity coach. Both dropped out of the project the following year and turned over what work they had done to Greyhound.

Undaunted, Greyhound continued the project in-house. Raymond Loewy (known for his design of the Pennsylvania railroad’s GG-1 electric locomotive) was commissioned to do the styling while a Greyhound subsidiary in Chicago (what remained of the old C.H. Will Motors Company) did the actual fabrication.

Greyhound’s initial attempt to develop a new post-war bus design was the double-deck GX-1. It proved to be too radical and languished around Chicago until it was scrapped many years later.
The GX-2 became the prototype for the Scenicruisers and was driven to state capitols to get permission for the 40-foot length. It was eventually sold to an entertainment group as shown here.

What they ended up with was a double-deck bus called the GX-1 that could seat 50 passengers in three-across seats with a side aisle. Two things are noteworthy. One is that it was known as the “Highway traveler,” the name that would later be given to the PD4104. The second is that it required using two engines because a single engine large enough was not available. This would also be a problem when the Scenicruisers were built. The GX-1 design proved to be too radical. It never saw revenue service and sat around in Chicago for a decade until it was scrapped. Greyhound then turned to General Motors for help.

What emerged from the Loewy design and the GM engineers in 1949 was a 40-foot, deck and-a-half, three-axle coach that was named the GX-2 or Scenicruiser. While the design seemed workable, the length was a concern since most states only permitted a length of 35 feet. In this pre-interstate era, the states still controlled length and width so the GX-2 made trips to state capitols to seek legislation permitting 40-foot buses on state highways.

All of this design and engineering work was used to develop three different models at GM. The PD4104 emerged as the next and somewhat advanced model in their “41” series. With a length of 35 feet, an inline 6-71 diesel engine, power steering and an optional restroom, it became the most popular motorcoach model to date. Next was the PD4501 deck-and-a-half, 40-foot Scenicruiser for Greyhound. It was originally built with dual 4-71 engines. 

The third model offered was the PD4901 Golden Chariot that retained PD4104 styling in a three-axle, 40-foot coach for the general industry. Like the Scenicruiser, it was built with dual 4-71 engines. the PD4901 was the only flat-roof, 40-foot production coach ever offered by GM. The first PD4104 coaches were built in 1953 and Greyhound began receiving deliveries of the PD4501 Scenicruiser in 1954. The lone PD4901 appeared soon after Scenicruiser production started in 1954.

Reports suggest that the early Trailways visit to Flxible led to the later development of their VL-100 Vista-Liner model with a roof window in imitation of the cenicruiser. This model was built with rubber spring torsilastic suspension that was later used on the Eagles.

To give you some idea of the dominance of scheduled service at this time, and Greyhound’s dominance of that part of the industry, we can add up GM coach production from 1953 to 1960.  Included were 5,065 of the PD4104 model, 1,000 Scenicruisers for Greyhound and the lone PD4901 for a total of 6,066 coaches. Of these 3,000 went to Greyhound (49 percent) while other scheduled service operators also bought PD4104 models.

An interesting side note to this is that about a decade later the smaller bus operators founded their own organization in 1971 called the United Bus Owners of America (UBOA) that later became the United Motorcoach Association (UMA). The smaller owners felt that the National Association of Motor Bus Owners (NAMBO), later the American Bus Association (ABA), was dominated by Greyhound and the larger bus operators.

The Trailways people were also looking for a new model at an early date. Records indicate that there was a meeting between Continental Trailways and Flxible of Loudonville, Ohio in 1949. This was a logical move since Flxible was the second-largest bus builder and had sold several coaches to Trailways operators over the years although Greyhound had also purchased some. There are several suggestions that this meeting prompted Flxible to develop their 35-foot Vista-Liner model that was announced in 1954 and put into production in 1955.

The two companion models to the Scenicruiser were the 40-foot PD4901 (left) and the very popular 35-foot PD4104 (right). Given the Michigan license plates and the destination signs, this photo was taken while the PD4901 was running for North Star Lines.
The Aerocoach was considered underpowered by many larger bus operations but was an economical charter coach for smaller companies. This one operated for Barans Transit Lines and is now part of the museum collection in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Their smaller Clipper model in its variations was popular on numerous lines that did not require a larger coach. While it was used by some Trailways operators, even Greyhound operated some on its lighter and branch lines. 

The higher level 35-foot VL-100 Vista-Liner put luggage under the passengers and hence had a higher passenger capacity than the Clipper and was similar to other 35-foot coaches of that era. In common with the Scenicruiser, it had two passenger levels, a window in the roof and silversiding; although the difference between the two levels was less than on the Scenicruiser. Some of these were purchased by Trailways operators. 

It has been suggested that the Trailways people never could convince Flxible to produce a 40-foot coach. However, they did like the rubber spring torsilastic suspension used on the Vista-Liner. This type of suspension had been previously used in the Fageol Twin Coach transit bus and some military vehicles.

The introduction of the modern new bus models into the Greyhound fleet caused some consternation among competing scheduled service operators. Several operators who could afford it simply purchased some new PD4104 coaches to compete. Others with tighter budgets stayed with their older fleets or other manufacturers. Gasoline-powered coaches rapidly went out of fashion. Trailways members showed renewed interest in having a bus model of their own to compete with Greyhound. 

The most obvious first choice was the new PD4901 from GM. Greyhound tried it out in their Pennsylvania Greyhound operation and it also made a trip to Dallas to see if Continental trailways was interested. But no orders developed. The sole PD4901 was eventually sold to North Star Lines in Michigan and later passed on to other bus operators.

In retrospect, GM had done a great job in improving its product line of both coaches and transit buses. Four major areas I can think of included integral construction, use of aluminum, diesel engines and financing – and there are probably more. GM hired Dwight E. Austin who had developed integral construction with the NiteCoach for Pickwick. 

He went on to develop the 719 and 743 SuperCoaches for GM while improving their transit line. While tubular steel was still in the future, GM’s use of angle iron and engineering developed integral construction to new levels. Their extensive use of aluminum also cut down on corrosion.

Meanwhile, in 1937 GM began developing the Detroit Diesel engine that effectively moved the bus industry from gasoline to diesel power. They also offered financing to those who needed it. The result was that most other bus builders could not offer what GM was offering and were being left behind.

Continental Trailways, the operator of the longer routes that were the “backbone” of the Trailways system, took the lead in seeking a unique model for Trailways to compete with Greyhound. In their search, two problems became obvious. The first was that Greyhound had an advantage in being a single company that could invest in new products and buy in quantity. With Trailways being an association of smaller, independent operators, it was difficult to guarantee sales of a new model or find a way to help cover costs of engineering, tooling and jigs that some manufacturers demanded.

The introduction of the Greyhound Scenicruiser and its companion models caused other bus operators to look for competitive coaches and some bus manufacturers to throw in the towel. While there were several bus models built with similar styling, none of them survived for very long. 

Shown here is a restored Scenicruiser belonging to Tom McNally while on a photo shoot along Route 66.

A second problem is that most of the United States coach manufacturers were increasingly unable to compete with GM and were leaving the market. Could Trailways count on long-term availability of buses from these companies? As things turned out, only Flxible survived into the 1960s.

It would have been interesting to go along with the people from Continental Trailways on their quest for a new coach model for Trailways to compete with Greyhound’s Scenicruiser. This probably primarily took place in 1954 and 1955, when some of the major bus builders had already quit.

In the late 1950s, Mack developed their own MV-620 model. In spite of the Greyhound lettering, no orders were received and the coach became a one-of-a-kind like the PD4901.

Editors Note: In the next part of this article, Larry goes over the history and end of manufacturing for companies like Aerocoach, Beck, Mack, and ACF – brill.  We also find out who Continental Trailways contracted to build their Eagles.

In earlier years, Mack had established a good reputation for reliable coaches. This 1931 Mack model BK operated for Greyhound and became part of its historical bus collection.
Article written by Larry Plachno

Larry Plachno has spent most of his life working in the bus industry. He purchased his first bus in 1963, worked for bus companies and owned bus companies including Executive Commuter Coach and Wisconsin Illinois Stages.

He has owned several bus conversions including three by Custom Coach. Since 1977, he has served as the editor of National Bus Trader.

You can contact Larry Plachno at
Reception@BusMag.com
or visit the website: BusMag.com

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