Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by buses. I can’t explain why, but I’ve always loved them. I remember playing with any rectangular object — be it toothpaste box or a block — I could find as a kid, making a bus out of it. I even drew details on them like wheels, windows, vents, route numbers, even aerial roof markings.
From school age on through high school (and hell, even now if I find myself riding a bus) I always made it a point to sit up front to watch the drivers operate the buses. I actually got hired a few years ago to be a driver for the Los Angeles Metro. Other than the stability and benefits, I was more excited to drive the buses. But I ended up not taking the job because after researching, I found out about the horror stories from drivers of being attacked, spit on, hit, or nearly killed. This gave me a new appreciation for these drivers. Especially since Covid-19.
While all buses got love from me, I had a special affinity for a certain type of bus. I love rear-engined buses. Front engine buses were cool, too, but I kind of found them weird in a van-like way. But rear engines were something else. Anytime I was on a bus (which was usually rear-engined) I would purposely sit in the back to be near the engine, especially in school. Everyone knows the cool kids or older kids sat in the back just to be back there. I sat in the back to be near the engine. I remember getting bullied in kindergarten and first grade because I was the only small kid who was sitting in the back of the bus with the fourth and fifth graders.
But there are 2 particular buses I have always longed for. The first: the GMC RTS. I have memories of riding these downtown L.A. back when L.A. Metro was called RTD (Rapid Transit District). And nasty! Oh man, these buses were dirty as hell. Like “a roach crawling across a seat with duct tape covering a rip” nasty. But I loved these orange, red and white things, nonetheless.
For a bus, the history of the RTS is pretty interesting (RTS stands for Rapid Transit Series). The RTS series began life as a concept called RTX (Rapid Transit Experimental). The concept made its debut in 1968. It was ahead of its time: Power came from a 280 horsepower turbine engine; it had 10 wheels on three axles; the engine was equipped with a regenerator that recovered the heat energy from the engine before it got released into the atmosphere; and the transmission was also an experimental automatic that had no gears. Instead, its moving parts transferred energy from one rolling part to the other by use of friction. So no oil or fluid was needed either.
With its 40 ft length and low floor, it was equipped with lounge shaped bucket seats. And the interior looked just as you would imagine the interior of a late ’60s concept vehicle to look: Sleek and retro-modern.
The RTX was part of a larger, federally backed mass transit project called the Transbus program. The project sought to bring to market a transit bus that had specifications that were federally compliant and specific. GM was one of three manufacturers that submitted a design, the other two being AM General and a company called Rohr Industries.
By the time GM had submitted its design for the RTX to the program, it had morphed into the RTS 3T, a direct successor to the original RTX concept. But it soon emerged that the Transbus project was falling ill to typical government oversight and red tape. So it was abandoned in 1979. But GM pressed on with the RTS, and it was put into production as the RTS II. It came to production with several ingenious innovations which was surprising for something that was going to be used by the public at large:
- It had modular construction
- Exterior windows were acrylic. Which means they were impervious to impact.
- It was the first bus to have a kneeling feature for the disabled and elderly. Nearly every bus has this feature today.
- It was almost resistant to vandalism with fiberglass exterior panels that couldn’t be graffitied on and fiberglass /vinyl seats that couldn’t be tampered with.
The first production RTS buses rolled off the line in 1977 and went to Long Beach Transit. Over the years it had different variants and lengths depending on the need. There were 30-, 35-, or 40-foot lengths. Power always came from six or eight cylinder Detroit Diesel engines mated to Allison transmissions.
You had either integrated (which were known as square back; these are the ones you most likely saw in service) or capped rear roof variants which housed the A/C units.
Then there were the infamous slantback variants. The RTS had a few small reliability issues with things like its suspension and cooling. A major problem were a/c unit failures. GM implemented a fix to the units condenser which resulted in these models of the RTS having a slanted rear. Mechanical problems weren’t the only thing wrong though. Since its debut in the ’70s, there were six generations of the RTS produced by four different companies. Production was its own set of problems:
- Frustrated with sales and reliability problems, GM gave up on its bus operations in 1987.
- RTS design and manufacturing rights were sold to the Transportation Manufacturing Corporation (TMC) a subsidiary of large bus manufacturer MCI.
- TMC made RTS buses out of Roswell, New Mexico until 1994.
- In ’94, TMC sold its RTS rights to a company called Novabus.
- Novabus continued to make the RTS in Roswell until ’02.
- Novabus then sold their rights for the RTS to Millenium Transit Service.
- Millennium Transit Service made the RTS through 2009 when they declared bankruptcy.
- Somehow they came out of bankruptcy in 2011 and continue to operate the Roswell plant.
Although used by many agencies, it was never in widespread use like many other bus models. And finding one for sale is becoming harder and harder as the years go by. They seem to have up and vanished. And the ones that can be found for sale are in rough shape. Our own Mercedes Streeter knows this well. Surprisingly, some transit authorities were still using them late into the 00's. I know that L.A. Metro was still using the RTS up until 2008 when they switched to clean air vehicles.
My second favorite bus is probably more widely known. It’s the Blue Bird All American school bus. It has been continuously produced for over 70 years through six generations. I specifically only like the third though sixth (and current) generations with rear engines. Most kids in America have probably ridden on a Blue Bird All American at some time in their lives (or their Thomas Bus competitors). Here’s some background on the All American.
The third generation of the All American debuted in 1989. This generation’s debut brought about extensive changes that the bus hadn’t seen in years. Changes to driver comfort and to the chassis brought modern engineering to the bus. This generation also saw the introduction of Cummins I6 diesel engines as well as California-compliant CNG (compressed natural gas) engines. The third generation was produced until 1998.
The fourth gen brought about another drastic change. Introduced for 1999 and produced until 2013, a drop frame chassis was introduced for the bus. This meant that the frame rails sat lower in the chassis.
Nothing of note changed on the fifth generation. It was produced at the same time as the fourth generation, with their production years overlapping. It was only produced from 2010-13. Aside from some exterior design changes, most of the improvements to this generation were centered on driver comfort and safety: a redesigned instrument panel and a bigger curved windshield helped driver sight lines.
The sixth and current generation of the All American debuted in 2014. While a 6.7-liter Cummins I6 engine is standard, the biggest change big was the introduction of a hybrid version on rear-engined variants. Called the All American RE Electric, it’s differentiated by green front and rear bumpers and green Blue Bird logos alongside the roof. With 100-150 kWh batteries, the All American Electric has a range of up to 120 miles.
Luckily, both of these can be found pretty cheap if I wanted to buy one, though I’d have better luck finding an old All American over an RTS. If I had the room to store either of these, I would do so in a heartbeat. Even searching for them for sale gets me all giddy. So one day if I stumble into a place that has enough room for me to store one of these when I’m not driving it, I’ll be pissing off a few family members with a wonderful wasteful purchase.