The Ecphorizer

Growing Up in a Gillig
Tod Wicks

Issue 13 (February 2008)

School bus spotting in the early 1950s

No, I didn't have folks who owned a Gillig school bus conversion!  I just was one of those whose school districts happened to have had a variety of Gilligs.  Here's my tale of these school bus workhorses.

My school years commenced in 1947 when I entered kindergarten in the Sunnyvale

Old Bus 4 was a cranky old bus and frequently broke down...

(CA) school district.  At the time I lived in what were then considered the boonies and was bussed to school.  In 1951 my family moved a few miles north to an unincorporated part of Santa Clara County, served by Los Altos schools.

For some reason I was always fascinated by school busses, and my earliest memories date to the 2nd grade.  We had a Gillig front engine bus (called a "conventional" by bus enthusiasts, versus the "transit" bus typified by engines amidship or in the rear) that must have been manufactured before WW II.  What was really distinctive (and which really dated it) was the turn signal device.  This was truly an ancient device that predates the use of flashing turn signal lights.  It was a pair of yellow metal arrows perhaps a foot long with reflectors.  These two arrows (one near the front windshield, the other at the rear of the bus) were connected by a long rod.  The control was a handle inside the cab that the driver operated to one of four positions:  Arrow pointing to 6:00 (normal driving), pointing to 7:30 (slow down), pointing to 9:00 (left turn), and pointing to 10:30 (right turn).  This was strictly a manual mechanical device.  Of course the door control on this bus was the manual crank device.

Our driver was Mrs. Rusch, one nice lady to us younger kids.

When I was in 3rd grade (1950), our class went on a field trip to the San Francisco Zoo.  Our school had bought a new rear-engined Gillig and our wonderful school jack-of-all-trades guy (Mr. Harry Ariza) was our trip driver.  I remember how impressed i was with this absolutely huge new bus with no engine in front, and how interesting the sounds of the air brakes utterly fascinated me (I was easily entertained back then!).

During the 4th grade we moved to a rural area where there were few houses and long bus trips.  Though I enjoyed riding my bus, it wasn't until the next year that I began "spotting" our district's busses.  The year we moved the bus that I rode was Number 6, driven by Mrs. Wray.  It was a shorter rear-engine 1950 vehicle.  When I was able to compare busses, this one was a bit lower and several rows of seats shorter.  The rear of the bus had "expanded" sheet metal ventilator holes.  The door control was a manual crank device.

Upon entering the fifth grade I really ramped up on my observation of these Gilligs.  Rather than Bus 6, we had a few more pickups, which warranted a longer bus.  Bus 8 was the early bus and it was a1951 model.  Our driver was one of the transportation supervisors, Mr. Vern Combs.  I always remember him because he had a nice mellow Southern accent and he strongly resembled Vincent Price!

Bus 8 had a midship engine.  Like others of this vintage the seating was three across on the driver's side, with only two across on the door side.  This bus's door control employed a vacuum mechanism - a two-button control to the right of the driver that actuated a cylinder in a compartment above the door.

The late bus was Bus 4, driven by Mr. Chris Powell.  This was a very early post-World War II rear-engined job.  I was really fascinated by the door mechanism.  There was a control on the side panel to the left of the driver that I discovered later was a pneumatic switch.  When switched, it would open an exhaust line on one side and open the other side to a pressurized air tank.  The result was pressurized air flowing to one end of a cylinder, pushing a connecting rod to one of the doors.  As the piston moved, the compressed air in the other end was exhausted.  All this made quite an impressive noise (I also love to hang around steam locomotives for all their grunts and snorts as well, but that's way off topic!).  Another unusual thing about the door mechanism is that the front panel opened inward and the rear panel, outward.  Sort of what was then described to me as the "reverse flap" operation.  I once enquired about this and Mr. Powell had me crawl under the bus where I could see the intricate linkage between the doors.

Old  Bus 4 was a cranky old bus and frequently broke down during our afternoon route.  Without drawing any hasty conclusions, it did seem odd that the bus often broke down on a part of a rural road that descended into a gully, and our driver would always walk to a certain house to phone in to get a mechanic out to fix things, which usually took just minutes.

Prior to being delivered to our elementary school, both routes made a stop at our junior high school in the mornings.  There I thought I was in Gillig heaven as I saw all sorts of machines coming and going, dropping off 7th and 8th graders.

You have to remember that in the early to mid-50s the US was experiencing a baby boom.  This meant more classrooms were added, new schools were built, and of course, new busses being purchased.  Beginning 6th grade in the fall of 1953 was no exception.  Our district took delivery of four new Gilligs that summer:  Numbers 9 - 12.  Where before our route busses were #8 and #4, now we had the choice of #12 and #11.  Mr. Powell took over #12 as Mr. Combs became the transportation chief.  Mrs. Wray took over the controls of #11, which was the same size as her old #6.

Dear Mrs. Wray, I believe she had it out with the Transportation Chief over the door control of her new bus as it, like #6 before, had a manual crank device.  I suspect this because after a school break in October, her bus was then equipped with a front-panel-mounted air switch.  Gone was the crank assembly and in its place were several pieces of painted sheet metal covering the holes left by its removal.  I can remember to this day that several of our school's drivers met at our school at noon for lunch (and to later take Kinders home).  They really wanted to discourage young punks like myself from getting in and messing with all the controls so all the drivers closed their doors (there was some kind of switch that made this easy for those with the new vacuum mechanism).  Dear Mrs. Wray had to bend down and open a petcock under her doors and push them closed when the pressure was bled off.

We used Bus 12 during my 7th and 8th grade years, but the district purchased a 13th bus (designated Bus 14!) and that was given to Mrs. Wray to drive.  Again, it was a shorter, lower rear-engined bus.  They finally got a bus equipped with a door control to her liking:  The now standard vacuum mechanism.

Unfortunately our high school was part of another district and they used a large number of old front-engine no-name busses.  I had to say goodbye to my Gilligs on leaving 8th grade!

Pictures of Gillig school busses that resemble Bus 8 (top) and Bus 14

The original Gillig Bros. company built buggies in San Francisco.  After diversifying into motor car operations, the firm moved to Hayward, CA, where it still manufactures city transit busses, supplying transit districts all over the US. Gillig history, trivia and photographs can be found at various sites on the Internet.  The most comprehensive site, GilligCoaches.Net, is hosted by Gillig school bus collector Steve Rosenow.

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