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Houston County Motor Co., Blue Bird Body Co., Blue Bird Corp., Cardinal Mfg., Blue Bird Central America, Blue Bird Canada, Micro Bird, Inc., Blue Bird de Mexico
Houston County Motor Co., 1920-1932; Blue Bird Body Co., 1932-1934; Perry, Georgia; Blue Bird Body Co., 1934-1992; Fort Valley, Georgia; Blue Bird Corp., 1992-present; Cardinal Mfg. (1963-1995); Blue Bird Wanderlodge, 1995-2007; Fort Valley, Georgia; 1982-1983 & 1988-2010, LaFayette, Georgia; Buena Vista, Virginia (1972-1992); Mount Pleasant, Iowa (1962-2002); Blue Bird Central America (1966-1992), Guatemala City, Guatemala; Blue Bird Canada, (1958-2007) Brantford, Ontario; (1975-1982) St. Lin, Quebec; Micro Bird, Inc. (joint venture with Girardin, 1981-present), Drummondville, Quebec;  Blue Bird de Mexico, 1995-2001; Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico; Omnibus BB Transporters, S.A., 1975-1981; Quito, Ecuador
Associated Firms
Coachwork Holdings, Inc., 2007-2009

As one of North America's top three school bus manufacturers - the other two being Thomas-Built (Daimler) and IC (Navistar) - Fort Valley, Georgia's Blue Bird Corporation delivers thousands of school buses to the market each year. According to current CEO Phil Horlock:

"We've built over 550,000 school buses since 1927, the amazing thing is over 200,000 of those are still on the road today, because our buses are built to last."

The firm can be traced to the Houston County Motor Co., a small Georgia Ford distributor founded in 1920 by Illinois native Albert L. Luce (b. June 26, 1888 – d. November 16, 1962).

Albert Laurence Luce was born on June 26, 1888 in La Grange, Cook County, Illinois to George Peck (b. in Penn., Apr. 26, 1860 - d.Dec. 10, 1923) and Jennifer Ophelia (Squier, in Penn., Jul. 22, 1866 - d. Mar. 26, 1938) Luce. Siblings included Edna Helene (b. Jan. 1892 - d. 1929); Ruth Isabel (aka Isabella b. Nov. 1892 - d. 1955); Esther Faith (b. 1902 - d. 1971) and Clayton Squier (b. 1904 - d. 1994) Luce. The 1900 US Census lists the Luce family in Downers Grove, Dupage County, Illinois, George’s occupation ‘lumber merchant.’

The 1910 and 1920 US Census lists the Luce family in the Chicago, Illinois suburb of La Grange, Cook County, Illinois, George’s occupation is listed as ‘manager’ of a ‘lumber yard’. The elder Luce was manager of the P.A. Lord Lumber Co., which in addition to supplying lumber and coal to citizens of LaGrange manufactured its own line of church furniture.

Albert attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, his yearbook photo in the 1911 Syllabus list his interests as ‘Y.M.C.A., University Band, Scientific Course’, his moto, ‘better late than never.’

The ‘Recent Agencies Appointed by Motor Car Manufacturers’ column of the September 16, 1915 issue of Motor Age lists A.L. Luce as El Centro, California’s Maxwell distributor, which is confirmed by his June 5, 1917 draft registration card, which lists his address as S. 6th St., El Centro, Imperial County, California, his occupation, ‘automobile dealer’ for ‘himself’. El Centro was a small border city located 115 miles east of San Diego, located across the US Mexican border from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico.

Luce enlisted in the US Army during the First World War, serving in the Company I of the 126th Infantry, which embarked for France on February 19, 1918. Initially used as a supply and replacement outfit, the 126th were eventually sent into battle seeing service in four major campaigns prior to the signing of the Armistice on November, 11, 1918. Members of the 126th all earned the French ‘Croix de Guerre’ (translated as ‘Cross of War) medallion, an award created to recognize French and Allied soldiers who helped liberate France during the War.

When the 126th Infantry returned to the United States in May of 1919, Luce’s previous experience as a Maxwell distributor enabled him to get the Ford Motor Co. franchise for Fort Valley, Georgia, a small pecan and peach growing community located 25 miles south of Macon. Luce’s Fort Valley Ford dealership was located on North Macon St. (Georgia Route 49 aka Macon Hwy., now North Camellia Blvd.), an area which continued to house most of the city’s auto-related business into the 1950s. The building was later home to the M Supply Co. (Ernest McGee). Luce’s second Ford Motor Co. distributorship, the Houston Valley Motor Co., was located 12 miles southeast at the corner of Ball and Commerce streets (Georgia Routes 341 and 41 respectively) in Perry, Georgia, Houston County's seat.

On June 23, 1920 Luce married Helen Tryphena Mathews (b. April 10, 1890 – d. July 2, 1976) of Fort Valley, Georgia, daughter of the Reverend George Mathews, one of the founders of the Indian Springs Holiness encampment, and to the blessed union was born three sons; George Edgar (b. May 21, 1921 in South Carolina - d. Jul. 5, 1990), Albert L. Jr. (aka Buddy, b. Jul 31, 1922-present) and Joseph Parley (b. Jul. 3, 1926-d. Dec. 17, 2006) Luce.

In 1925 the Penn Dixie Cement Co. requested a vehicle to transport workers to and from one of their cement plants. Luce equipped a Model T chassis with a rudimentary open-sided wooden bus body he secured from a North Carolina manufacturer (Thomas Car or Hackney Bros.), but was very dissatisfied with the coachwork, which he did not consider to be of very high quality.

In fact the bus's coachwork literally rattled itself apart on the unimproved Georgia roads and, as it was purchased on installments, Luce worried the body would fall apart before the customer to finish paying for it.

In a 1976 interview with Bobbie Hickson Nelson, Perry, Georgia resident Frances Hall remembered a similar motorized bus that her father, Homer Hall, had constructed. When the family moved beyond Houston Lake, he wished his children to continue going to school in Perry. He contacted the Houston County Board of Education and promised to supply a vehicle for all the area children if the Board would supply gas and oil. He bought an old truck, lined the sides and back with board seats, and covered the homemade body with a canvas curtain. Busses were later jointly owned by local farmers and the school districts typically the buseinssmen owned teh chassis, the school system, the bus body. In some areas this practice continued through the second World War after which the counties (or states) began to purchase buses via a closed bidding system.

To spare himself another embarrasment Luce investigated ways of building a better bus and in collaboration with a local blacksmith constructed a body using steel angles and channels, steel sheets, wood and canvas. Mounted on a 1927 Ford Model T chassis, it was built without proper window sashes, only a thin roll-up canvas curtain shielded its occupants during inclement weather. In a 1976 interview with Bobbie Hickson Nelson, former Blue Bird employee Francis Nunn recalled working on the prototype bus body in the shops of the Houston County Motor Co. at the corner of Ball and Commerce streets in Perry.

The bus, the very first Blue Bird constructed, was sold to Frank Slade of Marshallville, Georgia who used it to transport children to and from a rural school. Although it was deemed a success, few bus projects followed; none were built in 1928 and only a single example in 1929, a year in which he sold 107 Model T's out of his Fort Valley dealership.

The 1930 US Census lists Luce in Fort Valley, Georgia, his occupation ‘dealer’ in ‘Ford Cars.’ Only one Luce-built bus body was delivered during the year which saw a notable reduction new car sales with only 57 new Fords delivered in Fort Valley and 150 in Perry.

The following year was much worse, only 10 new Fords were delivered in all of 1931, 3 in Fort Valley and 7 in Perry; however, he managed to sell a few bus bodies, delivering 7 during the year. By the end of 1931 Luce had closed down the Fort Valley branch and consolidated all auto sales and body-building activity in Perry.

In the meantime several close relatives had fallen into poverty and Luce considered getting out of the automobile business entirely, but his wife Helen, a devout Methodist, implored her husband:

“Laurence, you must find a way to help these people to work.”

In 1932 he sold off the Perry Ford dealership and invested his last $12,000 in capital in the construction of 25 bus bodies, most of which were sold to operators who used them to transport children to and from school.

Luce stated the inspiration for starting the new company was directly attributed to his wife's support and the family's strong Methodist faith. Luce took the slowdown in automobile sales as a sign he should move into the school bus manufacturing field permanently, a business that would not only benefit his family, but the local population as well. At that time public education in the rural South consisted of small, neighborhood schoolhouses within walking distance of most students' homes. Luce reasoned as rural districts consolidated, and one-room schoolhouses were discontinued, their students would have to be bused to town centers, and he would be the man to supply them with their transportation.

Several theories surround the naming of the company, the family history stating that Luce felt using the family name would conjure up bad puns such as 'loose bus.' While showing a scale model of a blue & yellow bus to school officials, a student pronounced it a 'pretty little blue bird,' and the name stuck.

To save money, Luce did not build his own plant right away; instead he assembled the bodies in a rented peach-packing shed seen to the right. Although Luce had sold 25 bodies during the year, he had depleted his capital to the tune of $5,000, the remaining $7,000 being tied up in his house and equipment. On several occasions Luce found himself unable to make payroll, his son Buddy (A.L. Luce Jr.) recalling:

“I remember hearing my father walking the floor and praying every night, trying to figure out how to meet payroll. Everyone was having a terrible time. There were a dozen lawyers in town, and all of them were about to starve to death. The hardware store owner had to let his only paid employee go – a man with four young girls.

“The public schools were so hard up that they had to charge the children a fee- 50 cents a month. When I was in high school in the thirties, I remember children being sent home because they didn’t have the fee. My own father had trouble raising the $3.50 a month for my brothers and cousins.

“Amos Murray, one of our largest peach growers, had eleven Negro families on his place. He called them all together one day and told them he couldn’t carry on any more, but if they wanted to stay and live off the land, he’d try to give them a dollar a week. Every one of them stayed. But for eight years, Amos Murray’s wife didn’t have a new hat, and Amos didn’t buy a Coke until he had paid in full the fertilizer bill he had built up.

“One day my father went to the bank to get a loan – he had to have $110 to meet payroll. But the banker turned him down – there was just no money to loan. He left the bank to tell the workers Blue Bird would have to close. He stopped on the street to say a prayer, literally. While he was standing there a friend approached and recognized my father’s anguish. The spoke for a minute, and the man gave daddy a check for $110. It saved Blue Bird.”

Business improved during 1933 and in 1934 he moved out of the peach packing shed he was using in Perry to a former livery stable located in Fort Valley, also pictured to the right.

The school bus business operated on an unusual schedule for most of the next two decades. Although school boards and superintendents put off ordering new busses for the coming school year until the very last minute – typically April or May – they demanded the vehicles be ready in time for the upcoming school year, typically the last two weeks of August or first week of September.

Unless the constructor was well-heeled, building school bus bodies was a highly seasonal enterprise, with four months on, then eight months off. Money was unavailable until deposits were made in the spring, and the flow of money ended when the buses were delivered in August. Consequently most Blue Bird employees were full-time farmers, relying upon their bus building income to tide them over during the hot summer sabbatical.

Inside the stables Joe Twombly, an out-of-work peanut plant mechanic, installed a rudimentary assembly line where bodies were dragged from work station to work station on skids constructed of 4x4-in timbers. Each station contained a parts bin loaded with the raw materials needed for each subsequent operation. When completed the worker (or workers) would drag the skidded body to the next station. At year's end he had completed 87 bus bodies and made a large enough profit to purchase a plot of land in Five Points, a neighborhood located just north of town on Georgia Route 49 (aka Macon highway).

Minutes of the February 21, 1935 meeting of the Fort Valley City Council, state that A. L. Luce was planning on building a factory to ‘build school bus bodies’:

“A.L. Luce was present stating that he was going to build a factory here to manufacture School Bus Bodies and wanted to know if the City could or would offer him some inducement in the way of Taxes and License for a few years. After discussion upon motion by W.G. Brisendine seconded by W.J. Evans that the Mayor appoint a committee of three to confer with Mr. Luce, Committee W.G. Brisendine Chairman, J.E. Bledsoe, and W.A. Wood, carried.”

Lumber for the new 1-story 27,000 sq. ft. plant was purchased on credit from Perry, Georgia's J. Mead Tolleson and the structure erected by Luce's own employees. At this time Blue Bird was still building composite bus bodies created using sheet metal panels nailed to a sturdy screwed and glued ash wood framework. wrought iron braces were supplied by a Fort Valley blacksmith and a small sheet-metal shop located at 197-199 Church St., supplied Luce with headlamp buckets and other sheet-metal parts.

In early July Luce brought in a sales manager, Carlyle Irby, who by year's end had helped Blue Bird deliver 100 school buses, with an estimated profit for the year of $25,000. Most of the buses were built for regional school districts alhtough one was built for hauling Americus, Georgia's semi-pro baseball team from game to game.

Luce built a company that emphasized community and, influenced by his religious beliefs, clean living. Religious services were offered at the factory's lunchroom every other Monday.

In the mid-1930s a number of high-profile school bus-train accidents involving multiple fatalities got Luce interested in converting the Blue Bird factory over to the manufacture of all steel school bus bodies. Luce reasoned that if the unfortunate students had been riding in all-metal bus bodies, many lives may have been spared. He resolved that as soon as it was feasible, all Blue Bird buses would be made with all-steel coachwork.

After hearing from a school superintendent whose daughter had caught a cold and died as a result of riding in a school bus with no side curtains, Luce resolved to install all-weather windows  in his all-steel buses too.

After several hurdles were passed, one of the most difficult being developing a window sash that wouldn't leak, Blue Bird's first all-steel bus body debuted in late 1937 in time for the 1938 school bus season.

The change to all steel construction also proved a boon to business, as several large orders were clinched when the purchaser discovered that Blue Bird's buses were all-steel and the comptitions were not. Sales manager Carlyle Irby recalled one such sale to the city of Gunderson, Florida during 1938. Although Irby had learned that the school board had already agreed to buy 8 bus bodies from a Florida outfit, he met with the school superintendent to stress the safety factor of Blue Bird's all-steel bodies. The school board was called together hastily, and they reconsidered their decision gave the order to Blue Bird based solely on the reputation for safety that all-steel buses enjoyed at the time.

To say that Luce was 'tight' with his money is an understatement. In a 1986 interview with Forbes' magazine's Rita Koselka, George E. Luce recalled a 1939 incident that illustrated his father's resolve to manage costs even when dealing with his own children. His father told them:

"Boys, I can tell you almost to the penny what the sides, windows or bumpers of a bus cost. If we think the costs are too high in any area, we can try to find ways to cut those costs. Now, it costs me $500 to send you to college. From your grades, I don't think you studied more than 100 hours. That means it cost me $5 an hour for you to study. That's way too much."

The senior Luce proposed the following: he would lend his sons $500 each at the commencement of the school year. The loans would be repaid by studying, with an hour's worth of studying prior to dinner counting for one dollar and an hour of studying after dinner being worth 75 cents. (The discrepancy in the amount was due to Luce's belief that studying before dinner was more productive.)

Just as his salesmen were required to report their daily activities via a postcard to Blue Bird's bookkeeper, so were Luce's sons. Any amount of the loan that remained unpaid by the end of the school year were to be worked off during the summer at the bus plant at 40 cents per hour.

A continued rise in fatal school bus accidents resulted in an April 1939 conference in New York City where representatives from all 48 states gathered to develop a set of national standards for school bus construction and operation. The symposium was chaired by Frank W. Cyr, a Columbia University professor and a former superintendent of the Chappell, Nebraska school district.

The conference was attended by representatives of the bus body industry and at the end of the 7-day event the group released a list of minimum standards and recommendations. Among them were specifications for type of construction, body length, ceiling height and aisle width and color.

Strips of different colors were hung from the wall and the participants in the conference slowly narrowed down the colors until three slightly different shades of yellow remained.

National School Bus Chrome became the chosen shade with slight variations allowed as yellow was a difficult color to reproduce exactly. Yellow had been decided upon because it provided good visibility in the semi-darkness of early morning and late afternoon.

Since then, 12 National School Transportation Conferences have been held, giving state and industry representatives a forum to revise existing and establish new safety guidelines operating procedures for school buses.

For many years the Federal Government allowed the industry to regulate itself, but they became directly involved in motor vehicle safety with the passing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. A School Bus Safety Amendment was passed in 1974, and since that time the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued 36 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) which apply to school buses.

At the start of the Second World War school bus body manufacturers were forced to convert their factories over to military goods. Blue Bird won several contracts for military buses, one of which resulted in a number of headaches for the firm.

Unfortunately the firm’s normal all metal-buses were too heavy, the government contracts stipulating military bodies could use no more than 1,000 lbs. of the precious metal. Wood 2 x 4’s were substituted for the steel cross sills and tongue and groove boards replaced the stamped sheet metal flooring beneath the seats. Some buses were fitted with molded Masonite roof panels and steam-bent oak replaced the tubular steel formerly used in the seat frames.

Several lightweight military spec bus bodies constructed for hauling workers to and from a Maine Naval shipyard were experiencing severe vibrations that were literally tearing the coachwork apart at the seams. Johnny Wells a Blue Bird engineer dispatched to the site reported that the rear-most part of the chassis was insufficiently braced to handle the weight of the overhung rear body. Senior engineer Bob Peeples was sent north to assist Wells. They determined the chassis was insufficiently braced and after fishplating the chassis from the cowl back, further strengthened it by sistering oak 3 x 4 timbers to the rear of the frame. The solution was awkward but it worked, and local mechanics modified the remainder of the fleet to the Navy’s satisfaction.

Another project completed during the War was the construction of several hundred 4-stretcher ambulance bodies that were distributed to major metropolitan areas to be used in the event of an aerial bombardment, which fortunately never happened.

After his graduation from Fort Valley High School, George E. Luce attended Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky and the Georgia School of Technology. On June 29, 1946 George married Willouise Butts (b.1921-d.2005) and to the blessed union were born two children.

After his graduation from Fort Valley High School, A.L. ‘Buddy’ Luce Jr. attended Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering during the War, enlisting in the US Army Reserves at Fort McPherson, Atlanta, Georgia on March 15, 1943, and in 1944 graduated from Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky.

After his graduation from Fort Valley High School, Joseph P. Luce enlisted in the US Navy. He trained with an Aviation Ordinance Flight Crew as a gunner and made it as far as San Diego to be shipped out when the war ended. He then attended Emory at Oxford and Georgia Tech, Le Tourneau Tech in Texas, and in 1950 graduated from Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky with a degree in History. Following graduation, Joseph married Marilyn Beth Stull, the daughter of Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries, and to the blessed union was born four children, Steve, Burt, Beth and Jenny Luce. (Following Marilyn‘s untimely passing Joseph re-married Mary Jim Fuller Lester on January 25, 2003.)

By the early 1940s Blue Bird buses could be found in a number of states bordering Georgia, and by the end of World War II the firm ranked seventh out of twelve bus manufacturers accounted for.

Tragedy struck the firm on one unusually cold winter morning in 1945. A blocked vent pipe on the coal stove that heated the administrative and engineering departments on the second floor of the Blue Bird plant created a fire in the wooden ceiling. The resulting blaze destroyed the entire plant and almost took the firm’s founder and president along with it.

Luce, who was in his office at the time, ran downstairs to retrieve a pyrene fire extinguisher, and returned to battle the flames. By that time the fire had spread to the roof and in mere minutes had become unmanageable. Realizing the gravity of the situation, and his employer’s location, Jolly Bryant climbed the stairs hoping to warn his boss, but he found the acrid smoke and flames unbearable. Bryant eventually located Luce after hearing his cries for help, and got Luce down the stairs and out of the building just in time to see the fire spread along the ceiling to the paint shop. The volatile paints cans started exploding and within 20 minutes the entire structure was involved and the entire building collpased 45 minutes after the first sparkes erupted. George E. Luce later recalled:

“There is no doubt about it, Jolly saved Dad's life. A couple of minutes after he brought him down the steps the flames were roaring down the corridor to the far end of the building. Twenty minutes from the time the fire was discovered it was apparent that the efforts of the volunteer fire department were not going to be successful in saving the building.”

The fire took place during business hours and most of the firm’s equipment and a majority of the buses located inside were saved thanks to Blue Bird’s dedicated employees. Everything that had been saved from the fire was taken to a building they owned across the road where they rigged up a temporary assembly line. Space was at a premium and many operations had to be completed outside under make-shift tents.

Luce was determined to get a proper factory up and running as soon as possible, which meant a metal building was his only option. However locating one was another matter, although wartime restrictions on commercial steel had been lifted, finding any for sale was near impossible.

Johnny Wells, the same metal fabricator who had helped solve their Naval bus problem during the War located a scrap metal dealer in Knoxville, Tennessee, who had 175,000 lbs. of steel beams and trusses for sale. After his structural engineer assured him they were usable, Luce purchased the lot and soon after its arrival in Fort Valley his employees commenced assembling the structural elements of the new factory building.

Getting galvanized sheet metal for the roof and sides of the new building was another matter. None was available through regular channels, but a helpful steel salesman put him in touch with a Birmingham, Alabama firm called Tennessee Coal and Iron, who had just enough of the material on hand to finish enclosing the new building. Thanks to Luces' determination and Blue Bird's dedicated employees, new buses began exiting the new factory within in the Spring of 1946, just a few short months after the fire destroyed its predecessor.

A little more than six months after Luce escaped death by fire, he nearly succumbed to a heart attack suffered on the way to work. Attentive staff noticed his suffering – which he had dismissed - and sent for the ambulance. While he was reuperating in the hospital, Luce casually mentioned to his sons that he would like to find the first bus he had built back in 1927.

Although long-retired, 'Blue Bird No. 1" was still owned by the orignal purchaser, Frank Slade, who had relegated it to a scrapheap behind his farm in Marshalville.  Although it had set outside for close to two decades, the structure was still intact, and Luce's sons set about getting it restored in time for Christmas.Slade donated it to Luce and sold them a suitable 1927 Model T donor to use as the chassis. Its retoration was undertaken by a group of volunteer employees and then stored in the paint booth under wraps until the day of the firm's Christmas chapel service. At the end of the service, Blue Bird employee Walt Anderson cranked it up and drove the bus out to present it to his boss. With tears in his eyes, Luce exclaimed:

“I would rather have Blue Bird No. 1 than anything else in the world that you could have given me.”

The bus was exhibited at the 1947 National School Administrators Show in Atlantic City, and also was on hand when Blue Bird opened its satellite facility in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.  Thirty years after its first restoration, Bleu Bird No. 1 was completely disassembled and restored, and after being displayed at The Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, returned to Fort Valley, where it remains on display on the Blue Bird factory floor.

When Luce was able to come back to work for a short time each day, his son Buddy (Albert L. Luce Jr.) called the management team together:

“You fellows know Dad's condition, we're going to have to have the help of everyone in order to keep him from getting upset. Regardless of what he asks for, see that he gets it. I don't care if it stops production, we can't have him disturbed.”

Many Blue Bird employees became more enthusiastic about their faith while working at the plant, especially when it resulted in an additional 30-minute respite from work.  It its early years the bi-weekly chapel services took place on Monday, but by the mid 1950s they had becaome a weekly affair which had moved to lunchtime on Wednesdays. Although never mandatory, a surprising number of Blue Bird employees once a week.

The senior Luce’s health improved during 1947 and in the fall of 1948 he and his wife Helen embarked on a trip to Europe to visit their son George E., who was in Belgium with his wife Willouise studying the native tongue in preparation for a missionary trip to the Congo. Their visit coincided with the 1948 ‘Salon de l'Automobile de Paris’ (aka Paris Auto Salon), and the two men decided to spend a day touring Europe’s preeminent automotive event.

One display attracted the attention of the senior Luce, a streamlined forward-control, front-engined General Motors-chassised bus manufactured by General Motors’ at its Antwerp, Belgium Opel assembly plant. The coachwork was likely supplied by Van Hool (in Lier) or Jonckheere (in Roeselare), two Belgian firms that specialized in autobus coachwork.

The next day the Luces called on the Opel plant in Antwerp to ask about buying a chassis. They learned that it was a model being built exclusively for European bus manufacturers and was unavailable for export to the US. George recalled:

“You understand how it is, Mssrs, we would like so much to accommodate you, but General Motors will not permit it.”

The Luces then called upon the coachbuilder (either Van Hool, in Lier or Jonckheere in Roeselare), who agreed to furnish them with a complete motor coach, and arrangements were made to have it shipped back home. Upon its arrival, Luce’s engineers discovered that the chassis was basically a modified Chevrolet bus chassis equipped with a wider front axle, a remote-controlled transmission and a relocated steering sector. They set about improving the overall designs, correcting several faults they discovered along the way, one of which required an all-new remote control shifter which was developed in-house by engineer Wilbur Rumph. By early 1949 the all-new Blue Bird ‘All American’ was ready for the road. A few early examples utilized GM-sourced chassis, but they required so much modification that Blue Bird started building their own chassis, which debuted when the first production ‘All American’ coaches were delivered in 1950. A dedicated 'All American' school bus debuted on May 9, 1952.

Still in production today, the ‘All American’ is the longest-produced transit-style (Type D) school bus offered by an American manufacturer. The All American was substantially redesigned in 1957 with an enlarged panoramic windshieldwhich wrapped around to the entry door on one side and the driver's window on the other. A taller roof allowed passengers to walk the length of the coach without stooping and flatter body panels gave it a much more modern appearance. In 1958, quad headlights were added after federal legislation was enacted to permit them, and in 1961 a rear-engined 'All American' (RE) was made available, albeit with a chassis sourced from GMC.

Luce’s three sons, George, Albert 'Buddy,' Jr., and Joseph, gradually took over control of the business after their father's heart attack and in 1950 Buddy took over as Blue Bird president.

In the days before the government got involved in the purchase of school buses, more often than not, coaches were sold to third parties unconnected to the school district. Most were local individuals or small fleet operators who had won a bid for transporting a certain number of students to a certain school. The sale of a school bus was more akin to selling a motor vehicle to a single customer, sometimes a lot of leg work was involved in order to get a single bus sold and financed. During the 1950s more money became available for school transportation and many school districts began operating their own fleets, buying their own buses and hiring their own drivers on a non-profit absolute cost basis.

Bids for bus fleets would be let at a certain place and time, each salesman knowing that if he could learn the exact amount of his competitors’ bids, he would more often than not win the contract, even if he beat it by just a dollar or two.

‘Red Willie’, Blue Bird’s star salesman in those days, took whatever opportunity he could to get the sale, much to the chagrin of A.L. Luce Jr. and Sr. In an interview with Blue Bird historian Bernard Palmer, he recalled one scheme he used on several occasions which involved him putting a ‘dummy bid’ in his pants pocket which he subsequently ‘misplaced’ while sitting in the rival’s demonstrator:

“When I got out of the bus I conveniently knocked the envelope with my bid out of my pocket on the floor of the bus. After five or ten minutes I came back to the bus and began to look for my bid. The other guy told me I must have left it in the washroom. I went back to look and when I couldn't find it, I said I would make out a new bid.

“As soon as he (rival salesman) saw my envelope on the floor of his bus he opened it, saw my bid and set his own bid just a little lower than mine. I knocked off two or three hundred dollars in my new bid and got the contract. The instant he heard my bid he knew he had been had.”

Another popular scheme he called ‘the pigeon drop’ utilized an ‘inside man’, typically a secretary or assistant superintendent who was short on cash. Red’s ‘friend’ would place a fictitious bid from him on top of a pile of papers sitting on the superintendent’s desk when Red knew a competitor was due to arrive. Red would arrive later in the day with a slightly lower bid, and if nobody caught on, Red would get the contract.

As time went on, Red Willie's shenanigans could no longer be tolerated, and a more professional sales manager replaced him. By that time most contracts were secured through a more transparent public bidding process which required that the firm's sales people do their research, going through old newspaper article that provided exact dollar amounts of their competitors bids on similar coaches.

Despite their exhasutive efforts to stay on the up and up, Blue Bird and their Austin, Texas distributor were sued for price rigging, the April 26, 1961 edition of the San Antonio Express and News reporting:

“School Bus Makers Hit With Suits

“Four school bus body manufacturers and their exclusive Texas dealers were named defendants Friday in anti-trust suits filed in Austin and San Antonio by Atty. Gen. Will Wilson. Wilson said the suits are followup, ancillary actions to a suit he filed Aug. 16 accusing 16 Texas firms and individuals of rigging bids to fix prices on the sale in Texas of 5,100 school buses costing $23 million.

“‘The exclusive contracts between these Texas dealers and the manufacturing companies made possible the bid-rigging by the dealers,’ Wilson said.

“The latest suits allege a ‘conspiracy in restraint of trade,’ by destroying competition through exclusive sales agreements or contracts for the purchase and sale of school bus bodies in Texas. Wilson seeks permanent injunctions against further restraint of trade by the firms, and varying statutory penalties that could collectively total $6,780,000.

“At San Antonio, Carpenter Body Works, Inc., of Mitchell, Ind., and its Texas distributor, Commercial Body Corp., headed by John T. Lawson, 501 Eighth St., San Antonio, were named defendants.

“Named defendants in the suits filed in three Travis County district courts in Austin were:

“Blue Bird Body Co., of Fort Valley, Georgia, and its Texas distributor. Austin Sales Co., Inc., headed by Jack G. Fisk, 8419 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin.

“Ward Body Works of Texas, Inc., of Austin, headed by Charles D. Ward of 4201 S. Congress Ave., Austin, and The Texacoach Co., of Austin, headed by Fred Stroud. 106 Brown Bldg., Austin.

“Perley A. Thomas Car Works Inc., of High Point. N.C., and its Texas distributor. Hurst Bus Sales Co., headed by J. K. Hurst, 3913 Balcones Drive, Austin.

“Wilson asks the courts to assign penalties of $50 to $1,500 per day for each day of the alleged conspiracy, or totals of $226,000 to $6,780,000 for all eight defendants. The earlier suit sought to total possible penalties of $58 million.

“Ward Body Works and Texacoach are alleged to have violated the anti-trust statutes since Jan. 1, 1959; the Blue Bird and Austin Sales since Dec. 7, 1960; Thomas Car Works and Hurst Bus Sales since August 1, 1959; and Carpenter Body Works and Commercial Body Corps. since Jan. 1, 1961.”

The lawsuit's resolution is currently unknown, although it's likely the distributors took the fall, receiving a slap on the wrist and a small fine.

After his 1948 trips to Europe the senior Luce began thinking about expanding into foreign markets, which might keep the factory busy during the seasonal downtimes in the US school bus market. George E. Luce recalled:

“He was aware of many things that happened to the automobile industry and often mentioned Reo, a small truck company. They looked to their export markets on at least two occasions to take them over some lean times.”

Consequently the senior Luce made a trip to South America where he paid a visit to the Venezuela’s Wayne Works distributor, who on an initial visit seemed disinterested in handling a second line. On a return visit the next day Luce offered to send him a demonstrator on consignment, providing the dealer paid for the duty and the shipping. Again, Luce got no response. He then made an offer that no man could refuse, offering to pay the freight, the duty and agreeing to accept payment only after the bus was sold. That day marked the beginning of a decades-long relationship with the Venezuelan importer. The technique worked in a number of other Central and South American countries, and eventually became standard practice in communities where Blue Bird had difficulty finding a distributor or importer. Soon afterwards a retired Marine Colonel turned Ford distributor named Green provided Blue Bird with an entry into the Columbian marketplace.

One problem Blue Bird hadn’t counted on became apparent soon after they began operating outside of the United States. Bribes and kickbacks were a well-known cost of doing business in foreign countries. Blue Bird’s competitors had been paying them for years, but that didn’t mean Blue Bird was going to follow suit. In a 1976 interview with Blue Bird historian Bernard Palmer, former sales manager John Terry recalled:

“To Mr. Luce and to the boys when they took over, there was never any question about what they would do. There would be no money given to anyone in order to get business. It-didn't matter whether others were involved in making payoffs or not. It didn't even matter that refusing would mean a loss of business. And those of us who have been with the Luce's for any length of time were not surprised.”

Albert L. (Buddy) Luce Jr. told Palmer:

“We have never seriously discussed the matter of whether or not we should make kick-backs in order to get business in countries where that practice is well established. It is against our Christian principles, so we are content to get along without the sort of business that has to be bought.”

During the early 1950s Blue Bird introduced the  'Chick Express' a seat-less bus that was marketed to the Southeast's live chicken haulers. 'Driver rides INSIDE with the chicks'  claimed the vehicle's tearsheet which also touted its automatic climate control, custom ventilation system and generous carrying capacity. The vehicle 'met the requirements of USDA Chick Transport Research', making it 'ideal for chicks, poults, eggs and heavy supplies.'

Another unsual offering was the 77" 'High Headroom' bus which offered its passengers 'all the comfort and passengers conveniences of transit type buses while retaining all the profit-making advantages of a conventional bus'. The high headroom option, exclusive to Blue Bird, continues to remain an option on certain Blue Bird buses.

In early October, 1962 Albert L. Luce Sr. and his wife Helen took a week-long trip to California during which time he suffered a second, more damaging heart attack from which he did not recover, passing away of pneumonia October 16, 1962 at San Francisco’s Presbyterian Hospital. His son George made arrangements for Albert and his widow to return to Fort Valley, where Albert was interred at Oaklawn Cemetery.

At that time Blue Bird was the fourth-largest school bus company in the nation, battling for market share with five others; Carpenter, Superior (Pathfinder), Thomas, Ward and Wayne Works. Several competitors - Hicks, Oneida, Hackney and Marmon-Herrington - had already withdrawn from the field.

Each of the brothers had specific areas of responsibility. In addition to his corporate post of Blue Bird president, Albert L. Jr. (Buddy) Luce served as the firm's general manager, keeping a  close watch on the firms sales and finances. With his engineering background George E. Luce oversaw the firm's engineering and machine tool departments. He also oversaw the installation of equipment at the firm's South and Central American assembly plants where he knowledge of foreign languages proved invaluable. Joe Luce, the youngest of the three brothers, proved adept at problem solveing and dealing with the workforce, keeping a keen eye on the firm's various assembly lines and production facilities.

In the mid-1960s the firm introduced the Blue Bird Galaxy Cargo System, a tandem-axle bus which offered two-point access for palletized cargo. Developed in conjunction with a regional soft drink manufacturer,  less than 50 examples are thought to have been constructed - all equiped with a GMC V-6 engine.

Blue Bird also ventured into the charter bus and municipal transit bus field on several occasions, with mixed results, one example being the Blue Bird City Bird. They also tried manufacturing window fans, yet another product which failed to find customers. One notable exception to the aformentioned  experiments was their foray into the field of recreational vehicles.

In October of 1963 Blue Bird introduced the Blue Bird Transit Home, a high-end recreational vehicle based upon the All American, and manufactured by a new subsidiary, the Cardinal Manufacturing Co. Originally priced at $12,000, there was little interest at first and Blue Bird sent the prototype around the country campgrounds and RV parks to see if they could generate some interest in their new product, which the were rightly proud of. The trip was largely unrewarding for the firm, however it attracted the attention of House Beautiful magazine who in1965 published a story on Land Yachts which included pictures and a description of the Blue Bird Transit Home and 10 of its competitors. Shortly after the story appeared, Blue Bird received five Transit Home orders, and sales took off from there.

By 1968 the price of the Transit Home had risen to $25,000 and the original moniker had been abandoned in favor of the name it's known by today, Wanderlodge. Notable
Wanderlodge owners included King Hussein of Jordan, President Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, John Wayne and Johnny Cash.  For several years Blue Bird offered a budget-priced companion to the Wanderlodge, the Blue Bird Inn, a minimally equipped recreational vehicle constructed using a conventional-chassised school bus shell - unsuprisingly few were sold.

As the demand for school buses in Central America increased a Blue-Bird financed assembly plant, Blue Bird Centro Americana, was established in Guatemala City, Guatemala in 1966.

In 1967, Blue Bird's decades-old rounded front roof cap was replaced by a new vertical design which would remain in use for several more decades - in fact it's still used on the Vision. The following year (1968) the Wanderlodge and All-American's horisontal dual headlamps were superceded by vertically-oriented units.

During the October 12, 1974 US House of Representatives hearings on school bus safety, Georgia Rep. Jack Brinkley (D) commended Blue Bird on its flawless safety record:

“For the record, on schoolbus construction, I point out with pride to the truly outstanding safety record which has been compiled by the Blue Bird Body Co., with home offices in For Valley, Ga., manufacturers of the Blue Bird All American School Bus. This record has resulted from voluntary good business practices which encompass the pursuit of excellence in a competitive environment.

“There has never been a student or driver fatality in a Blue Bird All American School Bus during the 25 years it has been built by the Blue Bird Body Co.

“What make this safety record all the more impressive is the fact that Blue Bird schoolbuses have been sold in all 50 states, in every Canadian province and territory, in the Caribbean, Guam, Virgin Islands, and in Central and South America.”

Established in 1975, Omnibus BB Transporters S.A. was a joint venture with a Hungarian entrepreneur named Bela Botar Kendur that assembled Blue Bird buses in Quito, Ecuador. In 1981 General Motors purchased a controlling interest in the firm, which now assembles trucks, buses and automobiles for the Ecuadoran market.

Although safety was an oft-mentioned phrase in each respective manufacturer’s advertisements, aside from the adoption of ‘National School Bus Yellow’ in 1939, no Federal legislation mandating standards were enacted until 1973, when emergency exits and window releases became mandatory. Illinois Senator Charles Percy pointed out in a 1973 congressional hearing on the subject that school administrators typically purchased school buses on bids, and more often than not, the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder. Although several firms, in particular Ward and Wayne Works, had started offering extra-safe ‘superbuses’ most school districts couldn’t justify the additional expense to budget-minded voters and administrators. Sen. Percy summed up the need for a Federal Safety Standard as follows:

“So long as there are not adequate standards, then the bids come in for a school bus but not necessarily for a safe school bus.”

On October 17, 1976 the Associated Press distributed the following article in which Jay Perkins explains the long overdue Federal School Bus Safety Standards which were to take effect on April 1, 1977. The first Federal Safety Standard relating to school buses - FMVSS No. 217 (Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release) had already taken effect (on September 1, 1973). The next four implemented were FMVSS No. 220 (School Bus Rollover Protection); FMVSS No 221 (School Bus Body Joint Strength); FMVSS No. 222 (School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection) and FMVSS No 301 (Fuel System Integrity - School Buses).

“By Jay Perkins, Associated Press Writer

“Washington - (AP) – On Oct. 2, 1967, four sleepy-eyed students boarded a school bus in Waterloo, Neb., for their last ride to class.

“They died minutes later when a Union Pacific freight ripped the bus apart, twisting the sheet metal skin and exposing sharp, lethal edges. The nine other children aboard were injured, some of them on the exposed edges. Federal investigators later would label them child-lacerating ‘cookie cutters.’

“Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the bus came apart too easily. Joints failed under too little pressure. Seats ripped from the floor. Children riding in the disintegrated portion were tossed about and ‘probably... struck many hard and sharp surfaces.’

“It was the first time a federal agency found fault with the way most of the nation's 250,000 school buses are made, although independent testing laboratories previously had reported problems.

“Yet, it would be another five years before the government would propose the first regulation to improve school bus construction. And it will be April 1, 1977, when the three federal regulations finally agreed upon go into effect.

“Why the delay?

“Because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration felt there weren't many fatal school bus accidents.

“‘We found it (school bus transportation) was the safest mode of transportation we had, bar none,’ says Bob Boaz, the NHTSA' s public information officer. ‘We had a limited amount of funds and we're dealing with the whole spectrum of highway accidents. So when we looked at priorities, there was no way to say 100 fatalities here should be a high priority when we had so many more being killed in passenger cars. But then Congress got involved and said the heck with cost benefits, issue some standards, so we did.’

“The NHTSA's three regulations will have the force of law, unless overturned by Congress. How effective will these regulations be? One of them, designed to eliminate ‘cookie cutter’ edges, has a loophole that allows manufacturers to make a school bus's metal skin even thinner and less safe than it is today. The builders say they won't use the loophole.

“Another regulation, aimed at keeping the roof from collapsing when a bus overturns, relies on a test that even the NHTSA once said wouldn't determine if the roof were really safe. And the third, requiring padded seats designed to hold children in place during an accident, is not as strong as originally proposed. The original regulation specified seat backs eight or nine inches higher than they now are.

“But school administrators said this might create a discipline problem because drivers wouldn't be able to see children. So the NHTSA compromised with a regulation that adds four or five inches to present seatbacks.

“Until now, there have been no federal regulations governing school buses. And no state has set safety regulations as strong as the NHTSA rules effective next spring.

“Despite their shortcomings, the NHTSA and the six principal manufacturers of school buses believe the regulations will produce safer buses, once the buses now in use are replaced. That will take a decade or more.

“Meanwhile, more than 20 million children ride those traditional yellow school buses each school day. Fifteen to 20 are killed and 5,000 are injured in an average year, the government reports. That's not an alarming accident rate. The buses avoid accidents by travelling slowly, other drivers watch out for them, and school bus drivers are good drivers, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wisc., told a 1973 congressional hearing. But he added: ‘School buses are probably the unsafest vehicles on the road because when they are involved in an accident, the results are often catastrophic. Today's school bus is shoddily constructed...’

“Dr. Stanley J. Behrman, representing the American Society of Oral Surgeons, told the National Safety Council in 1972 nearly 10 per cent of the 16,000 children treated by society members in one year were injured on school buses.

“Why then do school districts buy the unsafe buses - those made by attaching a riveted, sheet metal bus body to a truck frame and motor purchased from an outside supplier?

“This type of construction, which is about half as expensive as building the bus as a unit, is used for 97 per cent of the school buses made today. The remaining three per cent are safer.

“They are mostly buses made as a unit, much like the commercial buses that carry passengers across the country.

“Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., noted during a 1973 congressional hearing that school administrators usually purchase buses from the lowest bidder. ‘So long as there are not adequate standards, then the bids come in for a school bus but not necessarily for a safe school bus,’ Percy said.

“Between 30,000 and 35,000 school buses are made each year. Most cost $12,000 to $15,000. The new regulations are expected to add $1,200 to the price of each bus.

“The NTSB reported in 1971 that many injuries in two Alabama school bus accidents were caused by ‘the laceration of child passengers by exposed edges of the bus interior sheet metal, including the ceiling...’

“There are six major manufacturers of the body-on-frame type of school bus - Blue Bird Body Co. of  Fort Valley, Ga.; Carpenter Body Works, Mitchell, Ind.; Superior Coach Division, Lima, Ohio; Thomas Built Buses, High Point, N.C.; Ward School Bus Co., Conway, Ark., and Wayne Corp., Richmond, Ind.

“Most of them still use numerous sheets of metal to form the skin - a practice criticized by the NTSB in the 1971 report, which said the panels were poorly fastened. Spacing between rivets was so wide - four to 10 inches - that it resisted ‘wind and weather but the joint could contribute little to structural strength.’

“Wayne Corp. now uses sheet metal panels that run the length of the passenger compartment. This eliminates many joints and produces a safer cabin compartment.

“Ward has been marketing since 1971 a safety bus containing more than twice as many rivets than in pre-1971 buses. Other manufacturers are using better fasteners and more rivets than they did nine years ago.

“The principal concern about the adequacy of the new regulations concerns a loophole in the rule designed to keep the sheet metal skin panels from breaking loose in an accident.

“The regulation says the joints between panels must have 60 per cent of the strength of the panels. But it doesn't say how strong the panels themselves must be. So manufacturers can meet the standard by doubling the number of rivets at the joints - as NHTSA intends - or by reducing the strength of the panels. ‘You can make those panels out of tissue paper and meet the standard,’ said one expert.

“Guy Hunter, an NHTSA specialist in school bus construction, said the agency was aware of the loophole when the regulation was issued, but left it in to give manufacturers leeway in future designs.

“He also said the loophole can't be used because strong panels are needed to make the buses rigid enough to pass the rollover test.”

The new bus-related Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are outlined as follows:

Standard No. 217 - Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release:

This established requirements for bus window retention and release to reduce the likelihood of passenger ejection incrashes, and for emergency exits to facilitate passenger exit in emergencies. It also requires that each school bus have an interlock system to prevent the engine starting if an emergency door is locked, and an alarm that sounds if an emergency door is not fully closed while the engine is running.  Another portion of FMVSS 217 required that yellow, white, or red retroreflective tape be applied so as to mark all emergency exits, so rescue personnel can quickly find them in darkness.

Standard No. 220 - School Bus Rollover Protection:

This established performance requirements for school bus rollover protection, to reduce deaths and injuries from failure of a school bus body structure to withstand forces encountered in rollover crashes.

Standard No. 221 - School Bus Body Joint Strength:

This established requirements for the strength of the body panel joints in school bus bodies, to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from structural collapse of school bus bodies during crashes.

Standard No. 222 - School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection:

This established occupant protection requirements for school bus passenger seating and restraining barriers, to reduce deaths and injuries from the impact of school bus occupants against structures within the vehicle during crashes and sudden driving maneuvers.

Standard No. 301 - Fuel System Integrity - School Buses:

This specified requirements for the integrity of motor vehicle fuel systems, to reduce the likelihood of fuel spillage and resultant fires during and after crashes.

Standard No. 131 - School Bus Pedestrian Safety Devices (not implemented until May 5, 1991).

This standard establishes requirements for devices that can be installed on school buses to improve the safety of pedestrians in the vicinity of stopped school buses. Its purpose is to reduce deaths and injuries by minimizing the likelihood of vehicles passing a stopped school bus and striking pedestrians in the vicinity of the bus.

To meet the new rules, Blue Bird fitted the All American with higher-back seats and made several changes to improve the strength of the body. On the outside, the curved rear roof cap was redesigned to match the vertical front cap allowing addtional real estate to install 8-light warning systems, which were now mandated in numerous states.

Surprisingly, compulsory installation of seat belts in school buses has yet (as of 2015) to be made a Federal requirement, although several states have enacted legislation that requires them; California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas, although New Jersey is the only state that mandates their use.

The second-generation All American went through the 1980s with relatively little change save for a 1982 modification that replaced the formerly fixed-position rear seat passenger window with a drop-sash window. While gasoline engines were still available in high-capacity buses, most school distrcits and fleets were opting for more economical diesel powertrains.  A downturn in overseas sales saw the1982 closure ot two Bleu Bird plants, Blue Bird East in Buena Vista, Virginia and  Blue Bird Central America in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

Heart problems continued to plague the Luce family and all three Luce brothers  underwent bypass surgery in the early 1980s. As they were no longer capable of handling the day-to-day operations of the firm the board of directors brought in Paul Glaske as president in 1984.  Glaske had previously served as president of Marathon LeTourneau, the heavy equipment manufacturer headquartered in Longview, Texas. Glaske would mind the farm until the third generation of Luces gained enough experience to take the helm. Still in their 30s, Albert L. Luce Jr.’s son, Robert, worked in the firm's manufacturing section while Joseph D. Luce's two sons, Stephen and Burton worked in Blue Bird’s marketing and administration departments.

During the decade sales of the firm's Wanderlodge continued to rise, and by the late 1980s the pricey RV accounted for 20% of Blue Bird sales, selling from 150 to 200 untirs pwer year. The price of a Wanderlodge had risen exponentially since its debut depdening on the size and equipment was now priced between $200,000 and $350,000, before options.Blue Bird offered Wanderloge owners free camping at the firm's Wanderlodge Wayside Park, while their Wanderlodges were in for scheduled service or upgrades.

By the mid-1980s one out of every three school bus sales was a Blue Bird, and the company sold about 11,000 school buses annually. Blue Bird employees, which numbered about 1,500 in Fort Valley alone, were paid above the local average wage, and the sense of family and community bred by the elder Luce continued--the Luce brothers knew many of their employees by name.

In 1988, Blue Bird began offering its own rear-engine chassis for the All American, allowing them to better compete on price in markets where rear-engine buses were in demand.  In an effort to secure bids from larger fleet operators Blue Bird introduced a budget-priced All American dubbed the TC/2000 which was priced nearly in line with the firms conventional school buses.

A substantially upgraded All-American debuted in 1989. Fitted with a completely redesigned drivers compartment with a new insturment cluster and down-sized engine cover, the coach's entry doors were fitted with substantially larger glass panels - a feature soon adopted across the entire Blue Bird lineup. The front end was also modified to include access panels for ease of maintenance and the vertically-oriented dual headlights units were replaced by horizontal rectangular units mounted just above the front bumper.

At the start of the 1990s Blue Bird controlled a remarkable 50% of the North American school bus market which saw a pronounced consolidation in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade three major players were gone; Superior Coach, Wayne Corp. and Carpenter; Ward Body Works had been acquired by Navistar and reorganized as IC Corp. Even Blue Bird saw an unanticipated slowdown in school bus sales prompting a reduction in its salaried workforce from 427 to 300.

It turned out that the third generation of Luce's were uninterested in running the company and they all left to pursue other interests. When George E. Luce died in 1990, Buddy (A.L. Luce Jr.) approached president Glaske and told him that the brothers planned to put the company up for sale prompting a steady stream of prospective buyers to visit the plant  during the summer of 1991. The Luce family preferred that current management (including Glaske) be retained, and even gave them a piece of the firm when the deal was concluded that November.

Of the six bidders, Merrill Lynch Capital Partners, Inc., a division of Merrill Lynch & Co., made the best offer, agreeing to pay $397 million for an 82 percent share in Blue Bird. Glaske, along with 14 other Blue Bird managers selected by the Luce brothers, acquired the remainder which was reorganized as the Blue Bird Corporation.  In early 1992 Albert L. 'Buddy' Luce told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution:

“We've made an impact in this community, put a manufacturing base where there was none. ... At my retirement party a man came up to me and said, `You hired me when I was 18 and now I'm 38, and my first-born is getting ready for college, and every dollar came from this good company. I hope people will be able to say that for a long time. I think they will.”

In 1991, the Wanderlodge motorhome ended the use of the Blue Bird-built All American school bus chassis and went to a dedicated Class A motorcoach chassis manufactured by Spartan Motors. Also introduced that year was the first compressed natural gas-powered Blue Bird coach, the CNG All-American RE.

In 1992 Blue Bird introduced the Q-Bus, a 37-foot 45-passenger medium-duty restroom-equipped intercity transit coach that was targeted at the expanding commuter market. Blue Bird also entered into an agreement with Drummondville, Quebec's Girardin Autobus to supply its US dealers with a single rear-wheel Type 1 cutaway van-based minibus called the Blue Bird MB-II/IV (by Girardin). 

Using grants supplied by the California Energy Commision, Blue Bird teamed with Westinghouse Electronic Sytems to develop an all-electric prototype school bus for the Lancaster, California's Antelope Valley School District in 1994. The following year they installed a John Deere-sourced CNG engine in a demonstrator for Sand Diego California's Poway Unified School District. Two years later Blue Bird teamed with Electrosource, Inc. in the development of an advanced battery system to power buses and other large electric vehicles.

In 1995, the company opened its first factory in Mexico (Blue Bird de Mexico) in Monterrey, Nuevo León, but they overestimated the potential market and closed it down 6 years later (2001).

In 1997, Blue Bird introduced the TC/1000 an all-new front-engined Type D bus that was equipped with smaller wheels providing a flat floored opassenger compartment.  Wanderlodge also entered the competitive commercial  highway coach market with the LTC-40 (Luxury Touring Coach, 40 feet long) which was produced in very small numbers into 2003.

In 1999, Blue Bird introduced the third generation All American, an all-new coach internally designated at the 'A3'. Available in both front- (FE) and rear- (RE) engined versions it replaced the TC/2000 RE, but not the TC/2000 FE and TC/1000 which continued into production for several more years (2003/2001 respectively). The new All American featured a larger windshield, a redsigned drivers' compartment and a revoltionary 'dropped' front frame which reduced the size of the engine housing and its intrusion in the driver's compartment.

As the close of the decade approached, Merrill Lynch Capital Partners decided they no longer were interested in the motor coach business (specifically Blue Bird's $237 million debt service) and began searching for a buyer. In 1999, Britain’s largest transit coach supplier, Henlys Group PLC, purchased Blue Bird from Merrill Lynch Capital Partners for $428 million, which included assumption of Blue Bird’s $237 million of debt. At the time Henlys Group also controlled UK’s Transbus International (a joint venture with the Mayflower Group which included British bus manufacturers Plaxton, Northern Counties, Dennis and Walter Alexander) as well as a 49% share in Quebec’s Prevost Car, which was 51% owned by Volvo Group, who held a 10% stake in Henlys. Prevost Car owned Nova Bus, a transit coach operator with plants in Quebec and Roswell, New Mexico.

Henlys chairman Norman Askew announced his pleasure with the acquisition in a prepared statement, stating:

“Blue Bird's market leadership position, proven experienced management team coupled with a strong financial track record will complement Henlys' existing North American activities. Jointly we will capitalize on existing relationships and distribution networks to deliver strong growth in order to enhance shareholder value.”

Unfortunately problems in the UK, which were precipitated by the 2004 failure of the Mayflower Group, forced TransBus into administration at which time Henlys brought in a new chairman, David James, in an attempt to rescue Henlys North American operations, which remained profitable.

James determined that Henlys' debt service, in particular the debt incurred by overpaying for Blue Bird, was unsustainable and recommended a complete restructuring of the firm. Volvo emerged the big winner in the subsequent reorganization which saw it take complete control of Prevost Car/Novabus and a 42.5% share in Peach County Holdings, a new holding company of which Blue Bird was a wholly-owned subsidiary. Another 42.5% share in Peach County was taken by Henlys’ creditors while the remaining 15% was split among Henlys pension fund and a group of Blue Bird executives. After a bankruptcy filing in 2006, Blue Bird was acquired by Cerberus Capital Management.

In the early 2000s Blue Bird’s commercial bus production increased and in 2002 it realigned its bus manufacturing facilities. Blue Bird Midwest in Mount Pleasant, Iowa was closed down and all school bus manufacturing operations were relocated to a new satellite facility in LaFayette, Georgia, with the Fort Valley plants reserved for the manufacture of transit buses and the Wanderlodge motor coach.

In 2002, the poor-selling Q-Bus was replaced by the Xcel102, a high floor shuttle bus with a low two step entry, extra-wide 102” body and lengths of up to 40 feet. In 2003 Blue Bird introduced two all-new low-floor transit buses, the Ultra LF and Ultra LMB. Another cleverly packaged vehicle, the Ultras failed to find an audience and the line was sold off to NABI (American Ikarus) in 2007.

What would soon become Blue Bird's most successful offering ever, the first-generation Blue Bird Vision was introduced in 2003 as the replacement for the conventional Blue Bird CV200 school bus, which had utilized third-party chassis from Freightliner, General Motors, and Navistar.

The Vision debuted Blue Bird's all-new proprietary type C bus chassis although its most obvious feature was its sharply angled hood which allowed the driver to see small children passing in front of the bus. Maneuverability was increased through the introduction of a 50° turning angle (wheel cut) which gave the Vision an industry-leading turning radius. Other features included an all-new instrument panel with large back-lit gauges and switches and a high roof-option which included a totally flat floor, a ncessary option when the coach was outfitted with a wheelchair lift which were designated as ''Handy Buses'. Between 2003 to 2005, the Vision was equipped with a Caterpillar C7 engine with a Cummins ISB engine becomgin an option in 2006.

In 2005, the Mini Bird was discontinued after a 28-year run which saw very few changes save for a switch from round headlights to square headlights in the mid-1990s.

Blue Bird borrowed a substantial amount of money to finance the development of the Vision, hoping that increased sales and profits would help finance the debt service.  The Visions proved to be a success, but profits were offset by the failure of the firm's redesigned transit coaches.

In September of 2005, Blue Bird concluded that they were financing more bank debt than they could support, and worked out a restructuring plan. On January 3, 2006 Volvo Group, Peach County Holdings/Blue Bird’s majority shareholder, abandoned its plans to purchase the remainder of Blue Bird’s shares from the firm’s other investors, prompting Blue Bird’s lenders to seek out a new partner. To ensure that would happen, on January 26, 2006 Peach County Holdings and its subsidiary, Blue Bird Body Company filed voluntary provisions for relief under Chapter 11 of title 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. The firm’s debtors were all proponents of the Joint Prepackaged Plan of Reorganization of Blue Bird Body and Certain Affiliates, dated January 24, 2006.

The firm looked attractive to the New York-based private equity group Cerebus Capital Management, and during 2006, a Cerebus subsidiary, Traxis Group, B.V., headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut, purchased a controlling interest in Blue Bird from Volvo. On a buying spree, Cerebus would purchase Chrysler from Daimler-Benz in 2007.

Blue Bird Canada, the firm’s last remaining international plant (located in Brantford, Ontario) was closed August 10, 2007, the firm's other Canadian assembly plant, located in St. Lin, Quebec, had closed 25 years earlier, in 1982.

At the end of 2007, Blue Bird ended all motorcoach production as the rights to the Wanderlodge were sold to Coachworks Holdings, Inc., a sister company to Complete Coach Works Inc., a 22-year-old California company that specialized in refurbishing and selling used transit buses.

In April of 2009 Coachworks Holdings Inc., shut down production of luxury Blue Bird Wanderlodge buses and filed for bankruptcy protection. The firm's motor coach building assets were auctioned off at the former Wanderlodge plant at 10:00 AM on Thursday, October 15, 2009 by Hudson & Marshall, auctioneers. Steve Mitchell, president of Parliament Coach, Clearwater, Florida, purchased the firm’s intellectual property and rights to the Wanderlodge trade name for $55,000. After all useful parts and equipment was auctioned off, whatever remained was sold to the handful of scrap metal dealers that remained. What remained at day’s end was sold off the following Saturday, October 17, 2009.

In 2008 Blue Bird established a second plant in Fort Valley (called Blue Bird South) in order to fabricate various components required in the bus assembly process such as seat frames, steps, sheet metal panels, bumpers, etc.

For the 2008 model year, Blue Bird updated the exterior body design of the Vision. The sharply angled hood was replaced with a rounded design that offered a larger grille. Instead of sourcing parts from the All American, the new Vision sourced some of its parts (headlights, steering column, instrument cluster) from Volvo trucks; in the early 2000s, Volvo was one of the parent companies of Blue Bird. Along with the traditional manual and air-powered service doors, an electric-powered service door became an option.

The new-generation 2010 All American, known by the code name "D3", was unveiled at an industry trade show in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on October 28, 2008. The exterior features the most extensive changes to the All American's body design in nearly 50 years.

A notable feature of the D3's redesign was the design of the headlights: the 2010 All American is the first version since the 1950s to have dual headlights instead of quad headlights and it is the first All American to have round headlights since 1988. Inside, the driver's compartment was completely redesigned for better visibility and ergonomics. Other changes were intended to make the D3 more passenger-friendly; the D3's roof has squared-off corners to increase headroom while standing up and a flat floor is available as an option in front-engine models. Both of these designs were influenced by the TC/1000 of 1997-2001.

In 2009, a CNG (compressed naural gas - or propane) option was made available on the Vision. Equipped with a GMC 8.1L Vortec V8 engine, it was the first CNG school bus to be offered by a school bus manufacturer - previous school buses fueled by propane were all converted by third parties.

In October 2009, Blue Bird further streamlined its bus production as it entered into another joint venture, Micro Bird, Inc., with Quebec's Girardin Autobus. The new plant assumed production of all of Blue Bird's Type A (van-based cutaway) buses, company officials stating the  joint venture provided greater production capacity in Fort Valley and a 'first-class' Type A bus for Blue Bird customers.

In August of 2010, Blue Bird closed down its LaFayette, Georgia Type C school bus plant, which had been established back in 1982. All conventional school bus  manufacturing was consolidated at Fort Valley and 350 employees were put out of work.The move resulted from gradually declining school bus sales, the firm stating that moving the Lafayette operations to Fort Valley would centralize all production, technical staff and services and would bolster efficiency. The move coincided with additional investments in manufacturing technology and a revised production line layout, which helped to further increase Fort Valley's capacity and efficiency.

For 2011, Blue Bird made several detail changes to the Vision. On the outside, the exterior design of the rub rails were changed. On the inside, Blue Bird replaced the Volvo-sourced instrument cluster and steering column to increase parts commonality with the All American. CNG-equipped buses switched from GM power to Ford's 6.8L V-10.

At the end of 2012 Blue Bird introduced an updated rear-engined school bus , the 2014 All-American RE, to celebrate its 85 years in business. Previous updates to the model were done in 2010, 1999, 1989, 1977, and in 1962. Blue Bird also introduced a new front-engined transit/shuttle bus called the Sigma FE. Built under license from Quebec's Sigma Industries, a leading composite and metal products manufacturer, the coach is availible with para-transit capabilities and capacities of up to 89 persons.

The rising star for Blue Bird has been its propane autogas school buses, sales of which have consistently grown year over year. In 2013 in particular, the company’s propane bus sales multiplied compared to 2012. CEO Horlock noted that customers were seeing multiple benefits with the propane buses, such as lower fuel and maintenance costs, quieter operation and more reliable starting in cold weather.

While many school bus operations were initially buying one or two propane buses at a time, large orders have become more common in the past few years and between 2012 and 2014 the company’s total sales increased a record 40% and more than 200 new employees were added to the roster.

One thing that continues to set Blue Bird apart from its competitors is its strong Christian principles. Since its founding in 1927, Blue Bird has continually had a chaplain on staff, and the position is currently occupied by Jay Jones who's held the post for over eigt years. He explains... “The Luce family made a covenant: keep God at the center of the company.”

With a workforce of about 1,500 people, Blue Bird remains the region's largest employer, staff members hail from more than 40 of Georgia’s 159 counties.

In October 2013, the revised 2015 Vision was introduced. A detail change saw the deletion of the Vision's namesake Safety View Vision Panel, while added features included clear-lens headlights and a new grille. Propane-fueled versions gained the option of an extended-range 98-gallon fuel tank.

In November 2014, Blue Bird introduced the Micro Bird T-Series, a Girardin-bodied Type A school bus, the first school bus body ever produced for the Ford Transit in North America.

On September 23, 2014 the Associated Press carried the following item:

“A Texas company, Hennessey Capital Acquisition, says it has reached a deal to buy the Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley.

“Hennessey says they'll purchase all of Blue Bird's outstanding stock from the investment company that now owns it. Counting cash stock purchasing and taking over Blue Bird's debt, Hennessey says the deal is worth nearly $500 million.

“President and CEO Phil Horlock will remain in charge at Blue Bird, according to the news release.

“Horlock says their sales have grown 60% in the last four years, and says the company has created a lot of value. He's confident the sale will only improve the company.”

Hennessy Capital Acquisition Corp. will buy School Bus Holdings Inc., an indirect parent company of Blue Bird Corp., in a deal worth $500 million.

The deal includes $225 million in cash and stock and the assumption of $235 million of Blue Bird’s debt. Upon closing, Blue Bird will be taken public, according to a joint press release from the companies.

According to Daniel J. Hennessy, chairman and CEO of Houston-based HCAC:

“We are acquiring an iconic American brand with an 87-year history of innovation and product leadership led by a superb management team at a very attractive price. We believe Blue Bird fits squarely into our stated investment criteria, and that as a public company, Blue Bird will have the capital structure, ownership support, operating flexibility and enhanced public image to achieve its maximum potential.”

© 2015 Mark Theobald for

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Appendix 1 Blue Bird Patents:

Motor vehicle body construction – US Pat. No. 1948223 ‎Filed Nov 5, 1931 - ‎Issued Feb 20, 1934 to ‎Albert L Luce assigned to ‎Albert L Luce

Window sash fastener - US Pat. No. 2031897 - ‎Filed Nov 19, 1934 - ‎Issued Feb 25, 1936 to ‎Albert L Luce assigned to ‎Albert L Luce

Structural steel vehicle body - US Pat. No. 2199886 - ‎Filed May 16, 1938 - ‎Issued May 7, 1940 to ‎Albert L Luce assigned to ‎Albert L Luce

Aisle seat - US Pat. No. 2621708 - ‎Filed Nov 9, 1949 - ‎Issued Dec 16, 1952 to ‎Albert L. Luce Jr. assigned to ‎Albert L. Luce Jr.

Remote gearshift control adapter - US Pat. No. 2686435 - ‎Filed Mar 19, 1953 - ‎Issued Aug 17, 1954 to ‎Albert L. Luce Jr. assigned to ‎Albert L. Luce Jr.

Swingable battery carrier – US Pat. No. 2709494 - ‎Filed Jul 7, 1954 - ‎Issued May 31, 1955 to ‎George E. Luce assigned to ‎Blue Bird Body Co

Bus door operator with positive latch – US Pat. No. 3722303 - ‎Filed Oct 26, 1971 - ‎Issued March 27, 1973 to ‎Wilbur Rump and William L. Ragan – assigned to ‎Blue Bird Body Co

Wheelchair holding device for vehicles - US Pat. No. 4027747 - ‎Filed Feb 10, 1976 - ‎Issued Jun 7, 1977 to ‎James H. Moorman, Jr. – assigned to ‎Blue Bird Body Co

Heating system with safety features - US Pat. No. 5178323 - ‎Filed Jan 2, 1991 - ‎Issued Jan 12, 1993 to ‎Larry G. Hanson assigned to ‎Blue Bird Body Co

Emergency exit window - US Pat. No. 5169205 - ‎Filed Aug 6, 1991 - ‎Issued Dec 8, 1992 to ‎David R. James assigned to ‎Blue Bird Body Co

Appendix 2 Blue Bird Videos:



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Bernard Palmer - Wings of Blue Bird, pub. 1977

Bobbie Hickson Nelson - A Land So Dedicated: Houston County, Georgia, pub. 1976

International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 35, pub. 2001

Thomas McMahon - Blue Bird rallies in Fort Valley, ramps up business, School Bus Fleet, May 30, 2014 issue

Ray Jenkins - Blind Vengeance: The Roy Moody Mail Bomb Murders, pub. 2012

Rita Koselka - It Was Important to Father and Mother, and It's Important to Us, Forbes, October 6, 1986 issue, p. 88.

Emil B. Gansser - History of the 126th Infantry in the War with Germany, pub. 1920

Bradley Robert Rice & ‎Harvey H. Jackson - Georgia: Empire State of the South, pub. 1988

Stephanie Jordan - Few Changes Planned After Blue Bird Buyout,' Macon Telegraph, December 16, 1991.

N.R. Kleinfield - On the Road in a $350,000 Home, New York Times, June 21, 1987, p. 4.

Randall Smith - Merrill Lynch Unit Agrees to Buy-Out of Blue Bird Body, Wall Street Journal, December 11, 1991, p. B3.

Scott Thurston - Georgia's Blue Bird Rolls into New Era,' Atlanta Journal and Constitution, July 19, 1992, p. R1.

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