The Oldest Converted Bus

Dick Seybolt, who was then involved with Diamond Coach, acquired a 1917 Packard bus with a converted interior. Recently, he donated it to the Antique Automobile Club of America that had merged with the Museum of Bus Transportation. Based on available evidence, it appears to be the oldest converted bus we know of and may well be the first converted bus ever built.

         Originally owned by Pickwick Stages, the bus is part of the early history of the bus industry. Pickwick at one time was the largest interstate bus company. It was a pioneer in offering reclining seats, food on board and offered transcontinental bus service with partners in 1928. It developed integral bus construction, built the famous Pickwick NiteCoach with sleeper compartments and tried to develop transcontinental service combining planes by day and sleeper coaches by night. It is a fascinating story and this 1917 Packard was in the middle of it all.

Early Recreational Vehicles

         To put things in perspective, it might be interesting to note that recreational vehicles are really a relatively modern innovation. Campgrounds became popular in the 1920s as roads developed and Americans took advantage of this to travel and see their country. However, campgrounds in the 1920s were campgrounds – people camped in tents and cooked over campfires. This began to change in the late 1920s and early 1930s when travelers began to design and build camp trailers that could be towed behind an automobile. The early ones were fairly small, maybe only six feet by nine feet, just enough space for beds and a few amenities. These camp trailers became popular at the campgrounds in the 1930s and encouraged the development of trailer parks at that time. The Great Depression, and its resulting financial concerns, encouraged this economical way to travel and even live.

         Expectedly, travel slowed down during the years of World War II. The first real commercial effort at a converted motorized vehicle came in 1949 when Flxible, a bus builder located in Loudonville, Ohio, created their Land Cruiser Division. They would build buses at Loudonville without an interior and then drive them to their Land Cruiser Division in Millersburg, Ohio to have custom interiors installed. These were primary commercial interiors such as x-ray units and mobile showrooms.

         In 1951, Miles Elmers, who had developed a laundry detergent and was selling it, asked the Land Cruiser Division to build a coach with a motor home interior for him. This became the first commercially converted coach with a motor home interior. To make a long story short, Miles and his son Kerwin would buy the Land Cruiser Division, turn it into Custom Coach Corporation and found the converted coach industry. This was a pioneer effort since this type of vehicle was not initially covered by licenses, insurance and financing. Today’s recreational vehicle industry then started developing after the converted coaches had paved the way.

         As you might expect, converted buses were relatively rare and few between in the years prior to World War II. The few that existed are usually well known. In 1928, Orville Caesar, general manager of Greyhound, had a Will bus outfitted as a traveling office. In later years, Arthur Genet took over as head of Greyhound in 1956 and had a GM PD4104 converted with an office and drawing room interior. It was used to tour the Greyhound system and was featured in a number of magazines.

         Another early bus conversion came about when Augustus Bush of the Anheuser-Bush Brewery in St. Louis had a new Yellow Coach Z-250 converted with a motor home interior in 1931. It was used during the 1930s and had the optional “observation” rear end. It survives today at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. As a side note, in more recent years there were “beer coach” conversions that went around teaching bartenders the finer points of pouring and serving beer. Most had an outside spigot for entertaining when the training session was over.

         Beyond this, early conversions have been difficult to find and document. It is known that some early circus performers had converted buses to live in and get from show location to show location. Our Modern Intercity Coaches book has a photo of an early bus rebuilt into a house car for “Princes Nellie” and “Major Stanley,” who appeared in a traveling midget show. At this point, it appears that the 1917 Packard is the oldest conversion we can document.

Pickwick Stages

         The reason for the 1917 Packard is tied into the history of Pickwick Stages. In 1912, Herbert L. Pattison and A. L. Hayes began operating an automobile on a 115-mile route between San Diego and El Centro, California. On the negative side, vehicles and roads were still rather primitive at this point. On the positive side, Pattison and Hayes were smart enough to pick a route that had no direct rail service. Any rail connection between San Diego and El Centro involved a round-about route and change of trains in Los Angeles or a more difficult detour through Mexico. In retrospect, it is interesting that this fledgling bus operation derived its name from the fact that it picked up passengers at the curb in front the Pickwick Theater in San Diego.

         History confirms the fact that the wise route choice was successful. This prompted expansion plans well beyond the dreams of the original founders. A second line was started north from San Diego via an inland route to Riverside and then into Los Angeles. In 1915, Charles F. Wren started a new line from Los Angeles north to Santa Barbara that eventually reached 450 miles to San Francisco. This was merged into Pickwick Stages in 1918.

         Pickwick soon developed a reputation for operating higher quality buses. Their standard bus used a Pierce-Arrow car chassis which had been stretched and had oversize radiators. Wren took advantage of this reputation for a higher quality service and began to expand the Pickwick System though merger and acquisition.

The 1917 Packard

         These were very active times at Pickwick Stages. Wren was expanding routes as well as acquiring and merging with other companies. What made the situation even more interesting is that there were few paved roads outside of cities so that route planning required on-site decisions to avoid or at least reduce problems with muddy, impassable routes. The answer to this was the 1917 Packard that would allow company officials to personally inspect and plan new or alternate routes.

         Surviving records indicate that the vehicle was purchased from Earl C. Anthony who held the Packard dealership for California from 1915 to 1958. Mechanically, it was powered by a 424 cubic inch twin six V-12 gasoline engine that produced 88 horsepower. The three-speed manual transmission was apparently original equipment. Overall length was about 25 feet with a wheelbase of 224 inches. Other features included 7:00×20 tires, and perhaps added in later years was air over hydraulic front suspension and manual brakes with air assist. Expectedly, the Packard had the engine and hood in front and big, brass headlamps.

         The interior was most likely built by the Earl C. Anthony Shop to specifications provided by Pickwick. What resulted was a design very much similar to today’s converted coaches but smaller. Equipment and design was also simpler given this early date and the fact that RV equipment was still decades in the future. However, the woodwork, cabinetry and finish of the vehicle is remarkable given the fact that it not only was a pioneer but is now more than 100 years old.

         As you might expect, the bedroom is located at the rear. Although finished in a darker wood, this area gets good light from three windows – one on each side and one in the rear. The floor is carpeted and there is a red plush cushion under the rear window. Matching couches on each side make into beds. There is some storage space in the cabinetry below the cushions. A circular vent is located in the ceiling.

         Separating the front from the rear are two closets. The smaller one is located on the curb side, adjacent to the galley. It has a single door and a shelf. While not huge, there is room here for a couple of suit coats and pairs of pants. Across, on the street side of the vehicle, is a small room with double doors that serves as a simple restroom. There is a dump valve but one has to question what kind of dumping facilities may have been available at this early date.

         At the curb side at the front is a small but adequate galley. The galley top extends from the closet to the door at the front of the bus. While finished in darker wood, the area is well lighted with a window in the side above the sink as well the front windows in the windshield and door. From the closet in back to front you have a sink below the window followed by a two-burner cook top and an ice chest. Refrigerators did not exist at this early date. Cabinets are provided beneath the galley top for storage. The cook top appears to have been fueled by a tank of gasoline. The valves on the rear galley wall were apparently used for this. Up above the galley area are more storage cabinets. The front of the bus is carpeted using the same pattern as in the rear. As in the rear, there is a vent in the ceiling.

         Opposite the galley, on the street side of the bus behind the driver’s seat, is what appears to be a work area. The main feature is a built-in table running from the restroom to the back of the driver’s seat. Like the rest of the coach, this area is finished with darker wood, but there is a window above the table. This and the windshield provide adequate light in this area. If you open the doors beneath the table you will find impressive pull-out drawers and shelves. There are also storage cabinets above the table. One can envision the route planning crew busy at work with early maps looking for alternate routes between cities.

         The front of the Packard is what you might expect with the passenger door on the right side and the driver’s seat and controls on the left. Easily recognizable is the steering wheel as well as an accelerator pedal, a brake pedal and a clutch pedal on the floor. There is no dash or panel, presumably that would come in later years, but there are two gauges. One appears to be for oil pressure and the other may be a tachometer. There also appears to be a primitive turn signal.

         People in the Packard did have a means of communication even at this early date prior to CB radios and cell phones. Do you want to guess what it was? They apparently had a way of backing up to telegraph poles, running wires up and hooking in. Hence, at least in a limited way, they could communicate via telegraph and exchange information with the company.

         If only the Packard could talk, we would probably hear some amazing stories. It probably got bogged down on muddy roads many times while looking at potential bus routes. Bear in mind that at least into the 1920s there were few paved roads outside of cities. The national network of federal highways did come about until the roads were paved in later years. Hence, there was an obvious need to plan bus routes that would be the easiest and most reliable to drive. Driving buses at this time was a great deal different than today.

Pickwick’s Later Years

         It can be presumed that the Packard did its job well because Pickwick Stages continued to expand at an amazing rate. Pickwick’s bus routes reached north to Seattle in 1926, ensuring that they were firmly entrenched on the West Coast. By mid-decade the company began to expand east reaching El Paso in 1926. With 2,250 route miles and 190 buses, Pickwick Stages was the longest bus system in the United States.

         The El Paso route was extended to Oklahoma City in 1927 and then on to St. Louis. Here, Pickwick made connection with Purple Swan Safety Coach, operating between Kansas City and Chicago. It was part of Motor Transit Corp., the company that would become Greyhound. A 1928 agreement saw Purple Swan renamed Pickwick-Greyhound Lines. Service was pushed east to Pittsburgh where connection was made with Greyhound’s Cardinal Stages that operated to the East Coast. Hence, for the first time, Pickwick could offer transcontinental service.

         While it probably had nothing to do with the 1917 Packard, two of the final developments at Pickwick are worth mentioning for their historical interest. Because of their large fleet, Pickwick had done much of the work on their buses themselves in a large and well-equipped shop located in Los Angeles. While other bus operators used less expensive buses, Wren and the leaders at Pickwick continued to operate the finest. Most of the Pickwick buses were still built with Pierce-Arrow chassis.

         Based on their reputation, Pickwick started building buses in their Los Angeles shop for the upscale market. The first prototype was built on a conventional Pierce-Arrow chassis. This multi-level bus had an upper level, a small galley, a rear observation lounge and a raised driver’s area. It was named the Cherokee, since Pickwick often used names instead of numbers for their buses. Although it was put in service on the San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco route, it was never duplicated.

         Dwight E. Austin, Pickwick’s vice president, was responsible for the second prototype. Named, Alsacia, this was the first of the NiteCoaches. It had 13 compartments, each accommodating two passengers somewhat like a Pullman car, with seats for day travel and berths for sleeping at night. While the compartments were located on two levels, there was only one center aisle with passengers stepping up or down into the compartments. Additional features included lavatory facilities and a small galley for food service. Each bus was apparently crewed by a driver, a steward and a chef.

         The NiteCoach marked a milestone in bus construction. Since it was impossible to put this large vehicle on a Pierce-Arrow chassis, Austin developed what came to be called integral construction with two rails running the length of the bus. The design was soon modernized with Austin developing the transverse engine and V-drive.

         Management at Pickwick made the decision to get out of bus operations and get into bus building and aviation. A deal with Greyhound in 1929 led to the formation of Pacific Greyhound Lines that merged Pickwick’s lines with those of Greyhound. By this point the Pickwick fleet had reached a total of 359 units. In exchange, Pickwick received a payment of $1.5 million. A major investment was made by Pickwick to build a bus factory in the Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo.

         Commercial aviation was still in its infancy with airplanes flying only during daylight hours. Hence the origin of the derogatory term “fly-by-night airline.” Pickwick’s idea was to let passengers fly by day and transfer to their NiteCoaches at night. This was actually tried and worked reasonably well. One thought was to build and lease the NiteCoaches to commercial operators, much like Pullman cars. Pickwick Airways was formed in 1928 and 10 tri-motored airplanes were ordered, each seating 10 passengers.

         While Greyhound continued to operate, Pickwick’s plans were decimated by the stock market crash in October of 1929. A few NiteCoaches were built and operated on limited routes. The same design was offered as a seated coach, known as the Duplex, that provided seats for 50-54 passengers. It was more successful than the NiteCoach version although some of the NiteCoaches operated as late as 1942. While aviation struggled through the Great Depression, eventually radio beacons were built to allow planes to fly both day and night. Dwight Austin ended up moving to General Motors where he perfected integral bus construction and developed the SuperCoach for GM.

The Packard’s Recent History

         The 1917 Packard was one of the few survivors of Pickwick Stages. Existing information indicates that it was saved by Packard collectors who verified its origin and numbers. It spent decades in collections in various states of repair. Dick Seybold ran Diamond Coach, a company based in Oswego, Kansas that built smaller buses and cutaways. Seybold ran across the Packard in California in 1981 and purchased it. The Packard was in very rough shape when it was trucked back to Kansas.

         For about 10 years it sat in this state of disrepair. At that point some of the staff at Diamond Coach offered to restore the Packard as a Christmas present for Seybold. The result was so impressive that he decided to put the bus on display at the Family Motor Coach Association convention in Oklahoma City in July of 2001 where it received a lot of attention and praise. For a while, Seybold allowed the bus to be displayed at a Packard museum on old US 66. More recently, he donated the Packard to the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

         Hopefully, the Packard is now safe and secure while starting its second century. In the absence of any conflicting data, it appears to be the oldest converted bus still existing and may well be the very first commercial bus conversion.             Our special thanks to Randy Wilcox who graciously took the time to photograph the Packard at the Hershey Museum so that we could include interior photos with this article. His efforts are much appreciated and his photos add a lot to this article.

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