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Austin Utility Coach; Austin Systems
Austin Utility Coach; Austin Systems, 1933-1934; El Segundo, California
Associated Builders
Pickwick Motor Coach Works; Yellow Truck & Coach

When Pickwick Motor Coach Works entered into bankruptcy in 1932, its principal owner, Charles F. Wren (b.1885-d.1944), created a new firm in order to refurbish and manufacture buses for the Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Corp. a Dallas, Texas based operation that operated a Los Angles to Chicago passenger line which stopped off in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Just before Pickwick Motor Coach Works Ltd. went out of business, Wren had introduced an all-new rounded Nite Coach that debuted in late 1932 featuring Dwight E. Austin's patented angle drive mechanism and a transverse rear-mounted Waukesha engine.

Although the exact circumstances remain cloudy, it appears that Austin and Wren parted ways at the end of 1932, just as series production of the redesigned Nite Coach was underway.

As Pacific Greyhound had already committed to purchasing the new coach, Wren likely purchased the necessary tooling from Pickwick's receiver and completed the remaining Nite Coach's construction in the new Columbia Coach Works facility.

Both Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Lines and Columbia Coach Works were named in recognition of the Columbia Finance Co., a newly formed holding company controlled by Wren that held a controlling stake in both firms.

Dwight E. Austin did not join Wren in the Columbia enterprise, electing instead to produce his own 21-passenger city transit bus, the Austin Utility Coach, in Pickwick’s former Mines Field factory which he leased from Pickwick's receiver, C.A. Sheedy.

What is known is that at least eighteen of the bread-box-style Nite Coaches were constructed. Ten were purchased by the Pacific Greyhound Line while the remaining eight coaches were sold to the Wren's Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Line. Whether they were constructed by Pickwick Motor Coach Works or by Columbia Coach Works remains unclear. At least one photograph gives a late 1932 date, although most state 1933 or later. Pictures exist of the coach in four liveries, Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Lines, Pacific Greyhound Line, Sante Fe Trail System Nite Coach and Santa Fe Trailways Sleeper Coach.

Columbia Pacific went bankrupt in 1935 and the route was taken over by the Burlington Line. The new owners elected to replace the two-year-old coaches with more cost-effective units so they were sold to the recently established Sante Fe Trailways Stage Line, who refurbished them for use on its daily Kansas City to Los Angles run.

When Austin went to work for General Motors in 1934 he abandoned the Utility Coach project and the vacant Pickwick Motor Coach Works plant was sold by C.A. Sheedy, Pickwick’s receiver, for $30,000 to Los Angeles attorney Harry Elliott.

A single Austin Utility Coach is known to have survived the scrap metal drives of World War II. Purchased in East L.A. for $400 and converted into a motor home by Pat Patterson and family in 1948, the 1933 Utility Coach survived at least into the mid 50s before it was scrapped.

In 1934 Austin went to work for General Motors’ Yellow Truck & Coach Division as a lead engineer in their motor coach engineering department. Although he is better known for his Pickick Duplex and Nite Coaches he also helped develop several popular Yellow Coaches of the thirties, one of which was the 1935 Model 719 ‘Super Coach’.

In hiring Austin General Motors also received the rights to his 1932 angle drive patent which was used in one form or another on the vast majority of Yellow’s pusher type buses from the mid thirties onward. Austin’s angle drive first appeared on the rear-engined 1932 Pickwick / 1933 Columbia bread box-style Nite Coaches of which 18 examples are though to have been built.

He parted ways with Charles F. Wren, Pickwick’s owner, in late 1932 (or early 1933) establishing his own coach manufacturing company, Austin Utility Coach, in Pickwick’s former Mines Field factory. The Depressions was not the best time to start your own manufacturing business and after building a handful of the 22-passenger mid-sized city transit buses, Austin threw in the towel in early 1934, accepting the job with General Motors.

Part of the deal involved the licensing of Austin’s angle drive patent to GM, which had apparently been working on a similar system for quite some time. Austin’s system proved to be the superior design and was used by Yellow Coach on all of its subsequent pusher coaches. 

Austin's drive allowed a bus engine to be placed transversely across the back of a vehicle. It consisted of a set of gears that redirected the transmissions output shaft 90 degrees forward - 45 degrees at the transmission, 45 degrees at the axle - allowing power to be transmitted to an offset differential housed at the back of the vehicle’s rear drive axle.

Two main advantages were gained by the use of Austin’s system, it allowed for greater utilization of the available space and the engine’s longitudinal placement at the very rear of the coach permitted easier access to the engine for maintenance and replacement operations. The only downside besides the additional cost and weight of the unit, was a loss in efficiency necessitated by routing the engine through an additional set of gears. 

When Austin first moved to Yellow Coach, he joined the General’s efforts to perfect the platform-type integral construction he had pioneered while working at Pickwick. One of his first efforts was the model 1935 Model 719 Yellow Coach, which was designed for Greyhound, an important customer at that time as it was partially owned by General Motors. With its transverse pusher engine, high passenger level and underfloor luggage compartments, the ‘Super Coach’ is considered by many to be the first truly modern interstate coach and its basic layout continues to be used today, three quarters of a century later.

1943 issue of Bus Transportation:

“Dwight Austin, well-known bus designer, now heads up Dwight Austin & Associates, Inc. with headquarters in Kent, Ohio. Mr. Austin has recently obtained a commission to cooperate on the new designs for postwar production by Twin Coach Co. He was the principle factor in the designing and building of coaches for the Pickwick Corporation where he later became vice president and general manager. In 1933 he resigned from the Pickwick Corporation to build Austin Utilities coaches under the name of Austin System. The Utilities coaches attracted attention due to their light weight and modern design, and the Yellow Truck & Coach Co, brought the designer to their plant as new development engineer. He resigned this position on March 31, 1943.”

Besides his work for Twin Coach - which involved seat design in addition to HVAC and other mechanical systems - Austin found his innovative seating ideas were well received by the railroad industry. During the 40s and 50s large numbers of railroad passengers sat in Austin-designed transformable seating systems and slept in Austin-designed sleeping compartments which featured his patented ‘Slumber Foam Foundation’.

Two well-known customers were the Santa Fe and Canadian Pacific railroads whose passenger cars included fixed and transformable stainless steel upholstered seating designed by Austin. His consulting firm, Dwight Austin & Associates, was located in Ken, Ohio’s former Erie Railroad carshops at 600 Mogadore Rd. Sharing the facility was Dwight Austin Products Co., a manufacturing firm that built railroad furniture as well as a line of institutional furniture similar to the products offered by Herman Miller.

After Austin passed away in March of 1960, the railroad seating division of Dwight Austin Products Co. was acquired by Adams & Westlake, the Elkhart, Indiana manufacturer of Adlake dining and business car railroad seating and breather windows.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -







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