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Ralph H. Carpenter Body Co., Carpenter Body Works, Inc., Carpenter Mfg. Co., Carpenter Industries, Inc. div of Spartan Industries
Ralph H. Carpenter Body Co., 1918-1937; Carpenter Body Works, 1937-1941;  Carpenter Body Works Inc., 1941-1990; Carpenter Mfg. Co., 1990-1996; Mitchell, Indiana (satellites in North Vernon and Seymour, Indiana); 1996-1998, Richmond, Indiana; Carpenter Industries, Inc. div of Spartan Industries 1998-2001, (aka Crown By Carpenter, 1996-1999), Richmond, Indiana
 
Associated Firms
Spartan Industries, Crown Coach
     

‘The Safest Link Between Home and School’

At one time Carpenter was one of the nation's largest manufacturers of school bus bodies, ranking 6th in total production at the end of the Second World War; its major competitors being Wayne, Blue Bird, Hicks, Thomas and Ward. The firm was founded by an enterprising Indiana blacksmith named Ralph H. Carpenter (b. Nov. 14, 1877 - d. Nov. 28, 1963).

Ralph H. Carpenter was born on November 14, 1877 in Bonds Chapel (near French Lick), Orange County, Indiana to William Francis (b. 1850 – d. 1932) and Elizabeth (aka ‘Lizzie’ McPheeters, b. 1853 - d. 1911) Carpenter. Siblings included Louella (b. 1874-d.1955) Homer (b.1884) and Myrtle (b. 1887) Carpenter. After the 1911 passing of Lizzie William F. Carpenter re-married to Mahala J. Stephenson (b. 1852 - d. 1946) in 1913.

The 1880 US Census lists him in Spice Valley, Lawrence County, Indiana, his father’s occupation ‘farmer.’ After completing the 8th grade he worked as a blacksmith, a trade learned from his father; taking a position near Smithville, Indiana where much of his work involved repairing wagons and horseshoeing mules used for quarrying limestone at two cement factories located outside of Bloomington.

On November 10, 1898 Carpenter married Beatrice Estella Back (b. Aug. 27, 1878 in Missouri-d. Nov. 7, 1949 in Florida) Children included Vernita Florence (aka Billie, b. 1899 – d. 1995, m. Driscoll), Georgia Luella (b. 1904 – d. 2001, m. Burton), Mary Elizabeth (b. 1906, m. Erwin), Harold (b. 1909 –d. 1925 at age 16), Eulah Myrtle (aka ‘Duto’, b. 1911 - d. 1986, m. Foddrill), Martha Ruth (b. 1912 – d. 1987, m. Mannix) Carpenter.

The 1900 US Census lists the young couple in Perry, Monroe County, Indiana, his occupation, ‘blacksmith.’ The 1910 US Census lists him in Salt Creek, Monroe County, Indiana, his occupation, ‘farmer.’ During the teens Carpenter settled in Mitchell, Indiana where he established his own smithworks, his September 12, 1918 Draft Registration card lists his address as Mitchell, Indiana and states he was a self-employed blacksmith, which is confirmed by the 1920 US Census.

Part of a blacksmith’s business at the time was repairing and constructing horse-drawn wagons, which on occasion would be modified into a ‘school hack’ by adding some wooden bench seats on the perimeter. In 1922 Carpenter moved his business into a brick two-story 40 ft. x 60 ft. factory located at Sixth and Brooks Streets - recently vacated by the Mitchell Casket Co. (Noble L. Moore, prop.) - and commenced constructing utility bodies for motor trucks. Soon after the 1922 consolidation of Mitchell and Marion Township's school, Carpenter constructed his first wooden school hack bodies, as they were known at the time - the term ‘school bus’ wasn't used until much later. The first Carpenter school bus body was constructed primarily of oak reinforced with iron braces with a plywood roof covered by a nitrite-coated faux-leather canvas.

Gradually metal–sheathed wood-framed bodies (aka composite) replaced his early all-wood designs, and in 1935 he constructed his first all-metal (metal-sheathed, metal-framed) school bus body. Its roof was made of 18-gauge sheet steel panels that were welded together to form a one-piece roof. The coach was equipped with an early ‘stop arm’ designed by Carpenter that consisted of a clenched fist cutout with a bright red index finger.

The firm was reorgnaized in 1937 as the Carpenter Body Works and in 1939 a new plant was built on Indiana Rte 37 at the west edge of Mitchell at 1500 W. Main St.

In 1983 Carpenter Body Works presented a restored 1939 Dodge 36-passenger school bus with a circa 1936 Carpenter body to the Smithsonian Institution. Restored by ex-Carpenter employees John A. Foddrill and Ollie Eager, the bus, originally owned by Russell Bishop, carried grade school children in Martinsburg, Ind., from 1940-1946 after which it served as a traveling grocery store.

The school bus business operated on an unusual schedule for most of the 20th century. Although school boards and superintendents put off ordering new buses 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 many Hicks employees were part-time farmers, relying upon their bus building income to tide them over during the hot summer sabbatical.

A 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 he 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.

Carpenter became a stock company in 1941, its officers being; Ralph H. Carpenter, president; John A. Foddrill, vice president; and Elva Morris, secretary-treasurer. Foddrill (b. Aug. 19, 1909-d. Aug. 3, 1999) was married to Eulah Myrtle Carpenter, the founder's daughter. During the second World War Carpenter Body Works produced several thousand bus bodies for the US Army and Navy, most of which were used to transport soldiers in and around its US training facilities.

For several months Astronaut Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom worked at the Carpenter plant, prior to attending college in 1947.

May 23, 1947 edition of the Jasper Herald (Ind.):

“Body Works Destroyed

“Mitchell, Ind. – May 23, (INS) – Fire, believed started in a paint booth, destroyed a large section of the Carpenter Body Works at Mitchell and left nearly 40 persons unemployed today.

“John Foddrill, manager of the body shop, said the loss would run into ‘many thousands of dollars’ but would be unable to estimate the total loss until an inventory is completed.

“The fire raged out of control more than an hour, fed by large quantities of cotton, upholstering materials, paints and oils.

“Bedford Firemen and policemen aided the Mitchell fire department in conquering the flames.”

From the 1940s on Carpenter had a summer home in Bradenton, Florida. After the 1949 passing of his first wife Beatrice, Carpenter remarried, to Eldora Roberts (b. Jan. 1, 1881 - d. Oct. 4, 1963) on November 7, 1950.

Post-War Carpenters school buses were constructed on the customer's choice of conventional chassis which were joined by a Marmon-Herrington forward control transit-style coach in 1954.

On March 12, 1956, another fire broke out inside Carpenter's Mitchell manufacturing plant. The plant was mostly destroyed, the March 13, 1956 edition of the Logansport Press reporting:

“Bus Body Plant Burns; 360 Put Out Of Work

“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) - Fire destroyed the main building of the Carpenter Body Works Monday with the loss estimated at $750,000.

“Company officials said many of the 360 persons employed in the manufacture of school bus bodies, one of the city's largest industries, would be out of work for 60 to 90 days.

“General Manager John Foddrill said his damage estimate of $750,000 may be too conservative. The upholstery shop, the paint room, and a warehouse were saved by firemen from Orleans, Mitchell and Bedford.

“The fire started in the room where bus bodies are mounted on truck frames and quickly spread throughout the plant, burning out of control for several hours. Heat was so intense that a 7-foot safe burst open, throwing a heavy door 10 feet.

“Several bus bodies in the building were destroyed, but residents in the area jumped into 25 to 30 completed buses parked near the burning building and drove them to safety.

“Foddrill said about 500 bodies nearly ready for delivery were not damaged, and some workers will be used to finish them.

“Firemen said a short or a spark from a heating fan may have started the blaze.”

With the help of factory workers, the factory was rebuilt and expanded in just 89 days. During the reconstruction, some workers worked without pay until later compensated.

For many years the system for school bus purchases varied from state to state. Some state governments pooled all of their counties' orders together, others published a list of approved vendors, and a few provided no guidance whatsoever.

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. After the War 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.

A salesman for Blue Bird named 'Red Willie' once described a popular scheme he had used to drum up business, called ‘the pigeon drop.’ It utilized an ‘inside man’, typically a secretary or assistant superintendent who was short on cash. Our salesman's ‘friend’ would place a fictitious too-high bid from his firm in plain sight on top of his desk just before a competing salesman was due to arrive. The 'mark' would submit a slightly lower bid, believing his was now the lowest. Later in the day, our 'resourceful' salesman would arrive at his appointeded time with an even lower bid, and if the superintendent hadn't caught on, would be awarded the contract, as the low bidder was always awarded the contract.

Despite their exhaustive efforts to stay on the up and up, Carpenter and their San Antonio, Texas distributor were sued for price rigging, the April 26, 1961 edition of the Jasper Herald (Ind.) reporting:

“Mitchell School Bus Firm Named In Suit

“SAN ANTONIO, Tex.—(UPI)—A suit was filed here Friday by Texas Atty. Gen. Will Wilson charging the Carpenter Body Works, Inc., Mitchell, Ind., with violation of the anti-trust laws in connection with alleged price-fixing on school bus sales.

“Carpenter's Texas distributor, Commercial Body Corp., San Antonio, also was named in the suit. Wilson also filed suits in Austin against three other school bus body manufacturers in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina and their exclusive Texas dealers.

“The suits were a followup of a suit Wilson filed Aug. 15 accusing 16 Texas firms and individuals of price-fixing on the sale of 5,100 buses costing $23 million.

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

“The suit against Carpenter charged a ‘conspiracy in restraint of trade,’ Wilson sought permanent injunctions against further restraint of trade and statutory penalties.”

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.

When founder Ralph H. Carpenter passed away in 1963 his son-in-law, John A. Foddrill (married to Eulah Myrtle Carpenter) took over as president.

A 24 coach drive-away was covered in the July 22, 1970 edition of the Terre Haute Tribune:

“Mitchell Folks Welcome Visitors

“Mitchell, Ind. (Special) – The twenty-six men from Managua, Nicaragua who have arrive back home with two dozen buses manufactured in the Carpenter Body Works plant here are not likely to forget the goodwill and hospitality shown them by residents of the Lawrence Country area.

“The men, who arrived here after a week of day and night driving on the 4,000 mile trip, expected to be her only overnight, but were unexpectedly delayed.

“Residents of the area entertained them at patio parties, ice cream socials, dinners, picnics, and with movies of their vacation travels to such places as Hawaii. The Central American visitors, in turn, held a fiesta, complete with piñata for some of the children of the community…

“The men, all professional drivers of dual-wheeled trucks and buses in their country, will follow the Pan American Highway for the 13 to 15 day trip home, leaving it only where other routes offer less mountainous driving.”

In an article in the March 3, 1973 edition of the Brazil Times (Ind.) a reporter asked J. Stephen Foddrill, son of president John A. Foddrill, and grandson of founder Ralph H. Carpenter, about the firm's current safety features:

“Steve Foddrill, vice president for public relations of Carpenter Body Works in Mitchell, Ind., said his company doesn’t have anything like the Superbus (Wayne Works just-introduced Lifeguard school bus). ‘We’re all for safety and we revamp our models every year, but we’re playing a waiting game right now.’ Foddrill said that last year Carpenter installed the full padded seat ‘as standard equipment when no one else did.’ He said 30 to 100 students are killed in school bus accidents every year, while 50,000 persons die on US highways. ‘School bus transportation is the safest means of transportation in the world,’ he says.”

Carpenter was never an assembly-line producer, and al­though its conventional school bus bodies were largely standardized, a wide range of custom accessories and design variations were available. Passenger capacities ranged from 29 to 72 children, overall vehicle lengths from 15' 9" to 32' 8" and a choice of 74" or 79" headrooms.

In 1969 Carpenter introduced the Cadet CV, a small 26-32 passenger coach built on a General Motors-engined step van chassis constructed by Milwaukee's A.D. Smith Co. Soon after it was joined by a larger forward control transit-style coach built using a139" to 246" Oshkosh V-series chassis with a choice of Diesel and gasoline powerplants.  The Carpented Corsair offered the same benefits albeit with a pusher-type chassis furnished by Hendrickson. All three coaches were fitted with an extra-large two-piece curved windscreen that provided  exceptional visibility for its day.

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. 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.”

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 in crashes, 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 – wasn’t 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.

Surprisingly, compulsory installation of seat belts in school buses has yet 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.

In 1977 Indiana Magazine included a feature article on Carpenter, which included selected quotes by Carpenter vice-president J. Stephen Foddrill:

“‘The United States has the best capability of providing means for mass transportation for the world market.’

“An interesting note about the office complex, completed in 1970, was the company objective to utilize materials originating in Indiana. ‘With the possible exception of carpeting,’ Foddrill noted, the ‘construction involved Hoosier contractors and Hoosier products. The building was manufactured in Terre Haute; wall and ceiling systems came from Shoals; all pre-cast concrete structures were made in Salem, and Jasper provided the furnishings.’

“Working with raw materials, Carpenter forms and fabricates the body components for buses. The company also makes its own seats and upholstery and does its own painting.

“‘There are six bus manufacturers in the United States,’ Foddrill explained, noting that four — including Carpenter — are family-owned, and two are part of larger conglomerates which were at one time family-operated.

“‘The domestic market calls for only 30-35,000 school buses a year. We build about 6,000 buses annually and are now moving into the field of providing bodies for a small transit bus.’ This small bus is part of a developing market serving the needs of medium and larger sized metropolitan areas throughout the United States.

“When purchasing a bus, customers contact their local dealer for a chassis and then the body distributor. Chassis are then shipped to the body plant. The Mitchell facility is conveniently located near its steel suppliers and to the chassis plants in Detroit, Michigan; Louisville, Kentucky and Springfield, Ohio.

“Buses manufactured by Carpenter, which employs approximately 600 people, vary in size and format according to customer needs and requirements. Illustrated in the company catalog are versions ranging from a 66- passenger conventional Carpenter school bus to an 18-passenger Cadet. Customers often take the basic product and, assisted by Carpenter engineers, innovate to create a vehicle serving special needs.”

The 'Energy Crisis' and a 78-day strike by the United Mine Workers were blamed by management for a mid-February layoff of Carpenter's workforce, the February 21, 1978 edition of the Kokomo Tribune reporting:

“State Layoffs Increase Because of Coal Strike

“By The Associated Press - The nation’s largest manufacturer of school bus bodies is laying off 500 of its 560 workers because of the energy crisis. Carpenter Body Works of Mitchell, Ind., announced the furloughs Monday, pushing to more than 2,000 the number of Hoosiers laid off because of shortages stemming from the 78-day strike by United Mine Workers.”

Carpenter's workforce had already been working without a contract and in mid-March they countered the firm's layoffs wiht their own work stoppage, the March 21, 1978 edition of the Jasper Herald reporting:

“Mitchell Bus Firm Is Hit By Walkout

”Mitchell – (UPI) – Carpenter Body Works, one of the first Hoosier industries to feel the pinch of the coal strike, has been hit by a strike of its own employees.

“About 500 member of United Auto Workers Local 1785 have left their jobs after negotiators failed to reach an agreement on a new contract to replace one that expired Jan. 13. Members voted Sunday, 386-23, to strike, the left their jobs Monday.”

The strike, which was marred by the occasional violent episode, continued into June, the June 9, 1978 edition of the Kokomo Tribune reporting on the ongoing stalemate:

“U.A.W. Officials Deny Violence At Bus Plant

“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) — United Auto Workers officials, whose contempt hearing was scheduled today in Lawrence Circuit Court at Bedford, denied charges of strike-related violence at the Carpenter Body Works plant.

“Carpenter, the nation's largest bus body builder, asked Judge John Plummer of the Bedford court to permanently limit strike-related UMW activity.

“The firm also requested contempt of court citations against 11 members of UMW Local 1785, charging they violated a temporary restraining order issued last week limiting pickets to five per plant gate.

“Roger Survance, local president, said Thursday, ‘We're not worried about being found in contempt of court, because we haven't violated the order.’ He said sometimes strikers stop and briefly talk with picketers but he didn't consider that a real violation.

“The 520-menber local, whose contract with Carpenter expired Jan. 1, struck March 20. Wages and the annual work schedule remain unresolved, Survance said.

“‘The guys work about 9 1/2 months a year. They earn an average of $4.33 an hour, and most didn't make over $8,000 last year. The plant slowdown usually comes in December, January and February, when a family's fuel bill is the highest. People here just try to get by on unemployment.’

“Survance said the strike was relatively quiet during the first 10 weeks before the company began hiring nonunion workers. He said 25 state troopers patrolled the plant Monday to help local and county authorities enforce the temporary restraining order.

“He said picket lines remained quiet until Wednesday when state troopers withdrew and windows of cars of several non-union employees were broken.

“Carpenter attorneys told the court that despite the restraining order, strikers continue to block incoming traffic and pelt the vehicles with rocks.

“The union wants the company to either guarantee a full work year or establish a trust fund to help supplement worker income during the seasonal layoffs.

“The union also seeks raises of $1.50, $1.25 and $1.15 during the three-year contract, Survance said. The company has offered increases of 45, 30 and 25 cents.

“No new negotiations are scheduled, he added.”

Two weeks later the violence had escalated to the point where replacement workers were getting shot at, the June 24, 1978 edition of the Kokomo Tribune reporting:

“Police Still Searching for suspects in Shooting

“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) – Authorities were still searching Friday for suspects in a shooting incident that left a replacement employee at the strike-bound Carpenter Body Works in the hospital.

“Sherry L. Alsman, 25, of Washington was wounded Thursday in the rear of her head, her neck and left shoulder, police said.

“Trooper Jim Mitchell of the Bloomington post said Miss Alsman was driving along Indiana 60 around 4:15 p.m. about five miles west of here when someone in a car behind her fired a shotgun at her.

“She was taken to a Bedford hospital for treatment, Mitchell said. United Auto Workers Local 1785 has been on strike at the firm for three months in a contract dispute.”

The end of the 6-month-long strike was announced in the August 7, 1978 edition of the Anderson Herald Bulletin:

“Carpenter Recall

“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) – Production should reach normal levels within a week at Carpenter Body Works here following ratification of a new contract by striking employees a company spokesman said.

“The members of the United Auto Workers Local 1785 approved a new 33-month contract on Saturday by a vote of 237-181, ending a four-month strike at the facility, which is one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of school bus bodies.

“Steve Foddrill, Carpenter executive vice president, said he was pleased with the vote results and added, ‘we’re looking forward to getting back into operation.

“‘We are trying to increase production to meet demands as best we can,’ Foddrill said.”

During the 1980s, Carpenter introduced major updates to its product lineup. The Classic, its conventional-style school bus, underwent significant revisions in 1984 and 1986 and the Corsair transit-style coach, in production since the 1960s, was replaced by the all-new Cavalier. Carpenter also introduced their first Type A cutaway van-based mini coach called the Clipper/Classmate.

Even though the firm's lineup had been overhauled, overcapacity, a declining market and an unstable economy helped push Carpenter into Chapter 11 bankrupcty during the late 1980s. Salvation came to the company in the form ofDr. Beurt SerVaas, an Indianapolis-based industrialist, who formed a holding company, CBW Inc., in an attempt to turn Carpenter around. The scheme depended on the cooperation of the United Auto Workers, who were initially unreceptive to the concessions put upon them, theMarch 22,1990 edition of the Kokomo Tribune reporting:

“SerVaas Withdraws offer for Carpenter

“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) – An Indianapolis businessman has withdrawn an offer to purchase Carpenter Body Works after union workers rejected a contract proposal. The move makes the future of the financially troubled bus manufacturing plant uncertain.

“Beurt R. SerVaas withdrew his offer last week to buy the company's assets and continue production at the plant in Lawrence County. That offer was contingent upon United Auto Workers Local 1785 accepting a new labor contract.

“The union rejected the proposal on a 193-122 vote March 11. The factory shut down the next day. The union had scheduled a second vote on the proposal Thursday, but SerVaas notified union officials it would not be necessary.

“In a memorandum sent to the union, SerVaas said he was ‘no longer willing to agree to a second vote’ and that he had withdrawn his proposal.

“Workers who went to the union hall Thursday night to vote were given copies of the memorandum and worried that the plant would close permanently.

“‘I was told this was it,’ said worker Debbie King. ‘The end.’

“Some employees had said the proposal would strip the union of much of its power, reduce vacation and medical benefits and eliminate a profit-sharing plan.

“Chris Burton, an attorney for Carpenter, said he did not know whether the bus plant would close.

“‘Right now it is trying to find a way to move forward,’ Burton said.”

Carpenter's board, which consisted mainly of family members and long-time supporters, agreed to SerVaas purchase offer, as reported in the March 29, 1990 Logansport Pharos Tribune (Ind.):

“School Bus Maker's Assets For Sale

Mitchell, Ind. (AP) — Carpenter Body Works of Mitchell has tentatively agreed to sell most of its assets to a company formed to acquire the school bus manufacturer, an official said.

“The proposal between Carpenter and CBW Inc. must be approved by Carpenter's shareholders, said CBW spokesman Stephen Plopper.

“He said notices of the proposed sale will be sent to all Carpenter creditors and claimants as well as shareholders.

“The terms of the sale are that CBW assume and pay all of Carpenter's obligations to bankers, pay manufacturing bills and $5 million to Carpenter over 12 years, Plopper said.”

However, the United Auto Workers continued to sabotage the deal, the April 4, 1990 eidtion of the Anderson Herald reporting:

“Bus Plant Sale Hinges On Union

“Mitchell, Ind. — A plan to save Carpenter Body Works, the city's largest employer, may fall apart if union members reject a proposal submitted by the buyer, an attorney for the company said.

“The deal to sell most of Carpenter's assets to CBW Inc. is ‘probably 100 percent hinging’ on whether United Auto Workers Local 1785 agrees to the new company's terms, said attorney Stephen Plopper of Indianapolis.

“CBW is a group of unnamed investors formed to buy the school bus manufacturer, which has been struggling in recent months. Most of the more than 300 employees were laid off about three weeks ago.”

Two weeks later the UAW agreed to the  takeover and production of school buses resumed, the April 23, 1990 edition of the Kokomo Tribune reporting:

“Union Clears Way for Plant Purchase

“Mitchell, Ind. – (AP) – The on-again, off-again buyout of Carpenter Body Works, Inc., has been resurrected under a labor agreement signed by the United Auto Workers and the school bus maker.

“Officials prepared for the plant’s 350 employees to return to work today after the labor agreement was signed Saturday.

“The next step is for CBW, headed by Indianapolis businessman Beurt R. SerVaas, to iron out financial and other concerns before it completes the purchase. The 67-year-old assembly plant has struggled financially for years. The plant was closed after UAW Local 1785 in Mitchell rejected an initial proposal by SerVaas’ firm.

“Negotiators met Thursday evening and for 12 hours on Friday to reach an agreement, said Terry Thurman, a UAW international official. The contract includes a provision for independent arbitration, a key stick point between the UAW and CBW.”

In the June 3, 1990 edition of the Bloomington, Indiana Herald Times' investigative reporter Jackie Sheckler detailed the mis-steps made by Carpenter's former management in an article entitled, 'Decades of history, hard work lie behind Carpenter bus plant':

“Although former company officials declined to detail problems that led the bus company to the edge of liquidation, Indianapolis businessman Beurt SerVaas, who formed CBW Inc. to purchase the financially ailing company, said at a press conference during sales transactions that ‘very poor management practices and very poor union practices combined to drag the company down to the rather pitiful state it is now.’

“Although he called Carpenter buses ‘the Cadillac of the school buses,’ SerVaas said the company had lost $10 to $12 million in the last couple of years.

“Bad investments and the opening of the North Vernon and Seymour operations contributed to Carpenter's problems, and Carpenter owed about $13.6 million when it was sold to CBW Inc., according to a stockholders' report. Carpenter's creditors committee told executives of the struggling bus company in March that they had until April 6 to find a buyer or else Carpenter would have to go into bankruptcy court.

“In 1981 Carpenter borrowed heavily from Indiana National Bank and branched out to North Vernon to open a tool and die workshop and a metal room operation. North Vernon had received a federal grant in 1980 to help bring Carpenter to the city and the city loaned over $1 million to the manufacturer. About $395,800 is left unpaid.

“One of the reasons for the North Vernon location, reports said, was the strike of 1978 when Carpenter workers were off the job at the Mitchell plant in a dispute over wages. Replacement workers were hired to fill in but buses weren't produced according to schedule and much of the plant's equipment was damaged by inexperienced workers. Carpenter management at the time reportedly told union members that if another strike ever occurred they would close down the Mitchell plant and move operations to North Vernon.

“At the height of production in 1983, the North Vernon plant employed about 170 hourly and salaried personnel. However, the North Vernon plant reportedly never made a profit and the Mitchell plant was supporting the North Vernon plant and another one built in Seymour around 1985. The Seymour plant was to produce chassis for Carpenter but that venture also failed and closed in less than a year.

“Carpenter began gradually phasing out the North Vernon operation in 1984 and closed it down in 1988. But for the last two years the plant was shut down, it reportedly was costing Carpenter almost $1 million a year to pay insurance, taxes, utilities, security protection and other costs for the inactive plant.

“And all the time, Carpenter was getting more and more heavily in debt to INB and other creditors. At one time, according to reports, Carpenter owed $24 million.

“With that much money at stake, creditors were reluctant to shut off funds to keep the financially ailing bus company going because they feared losing their investment. But in December of 1989, Carpenter had its bank loan paid down to about $3.5 million and owed an additional $10 million to suppliers and other creditors, reports said, when creditors decided to pull the plug.

“INB recently initiated foreclosure proceedings at the 148,100-square-foot North Vernon plant, which once was listed in national and state publications for a sale price of nearly $5 million. The plant was scheduled to be sold at a sheriff's auction. But this week INB officials said that Cummins Engine Co. of Columbus is considering purchasing the North Vernon plant for $2.3 million.”

Early in the 1990s, the company gained an additional Type A bus as Carpenter began to distribute single rear-wheel buses manufactured by Quebec-based manufacturer Les Enterprises Michel Corbeil.

In May 1991, Carpenter purchased the rights to the trade name, tooling and intellectual property of Crown Coach, Los Angeles, California's much beloved school bus manufacturer. Carpenter hoped to restart production of Crown's Supercoach II, but upon closer examination it's complex unibody construction was deemed too expensive to replicate for mass production.  In 1992 they introduced a similar coach, the Carpenter RE (rear engine), utilizing an existing rear-engine chassis supplied by Charlotte, Michigan's Spartan Motors Inc.  The REwas replaced by the Counselor RE in 1994, which continued using a Spartan rear-engined chassis.

To inject some life into the company Carpenter's new management closed down their antiquated Mitchell, Indiana factory and moved into a leased 550,000 sq. ft. factory formerly occupied by Wayne Works in Richmond, Indiana. During this transition, which took place from 1995-1996, Carpenter revised its bodies, the changes including full-length upper rubrails and a new roof featuring stronger one-piece roof supports (roof bows). A new model, the 'Crown Classic' debuted, featuring numerous parts lifted from the discontinued Wayne Lifeguard; its windshield, entry door, and driver's switch panel. The move to Richmond coincided with a revision to the technique used to weld the roof joints, a change that should have happened year's earlier - see Epilogue -  although no-one could have predicted the outcome.

The mostly new 'Crown by Carpenter' lineup included 2 Type A coaches (Classmate SW/DW), 1 Type B bus (the Cadet + a Cadet-based route delivery van), 1 Type C bus (the Classic) and 2 Type D buses (FE/RE - the Crown RE still using a Spartan chassis). One unique feature of the new RE was a full-height rear emergency exit door, its rear-engined competitors' rear emergency exits were strictly through the window only.

At the time of the transition  Carpenter owed Spartan Motors a  substantial sum,  for which the latter received a 1/3 interest in the firm during 1996. Two years later Spartan Motors Inc. completed their takeover of Carpenter when they purchased another third, effectively giving them control over the entire operation.

Under Spartan, Carpenter dropped the unpopular and confusing 'Crown by Carpenter' moniker, returning to just plain Carpenter. They pared their product line from 7 buses down to 3, deciding to concentrate on three full-sized offerings, the Classic 2000, a conventional Type C school bus; the Chancellor FE, a front engined Type D transit-style coach; and the Chancellor RE, a rear-engined Type D transit coach, which continued to utilize a Spartan chassis. The Classic 2000 and Chancellor FE shared the same overall body design, which now included an entirely new driver's area, new rub rail mounts, a fully vertical rear body, larger rear emergency exit doors, and new roof caps.  Introduced for the 2001 model year, the luxurious Chancellor RE featured full air-ride suspension, double frame rails, and a flat floor made possible by exchanging 19-inch wheels for the former RE's 22.5-inch units. Unfortunately only 2 Chancellor RE's were constructed - 1 complete and 1 bare chassis - before Spartan pulled the plug on the entire Carpenter operation, the October 5, 2000 edition of the Logansport Pharos Tribune announcing the plant's impending closure:

“Michigan Company Says It Will Close Richmond Bus Factory

“Richmond, Ind. (AP) — A school bus factory in Richmond will close within 60 days unless a new owner can be found, a spokesman for its parent company said.

“Production at Carpenter Industries has fallen this year from 12 buses a day to four, which is not enough to keep the business profitable, said spokesman John R. Gaedert of Spartan Motors Inc.

“The factory currently employs 200 people, down from about 500 in early 1998.

“Spartan has invested more than $25 million in Carpenter Industries since buying a one-third ownership in the business in 1996. Spartan assumed full ownership last year.

“’We sure wish it could have ended differently, or in reality not ended at all,’ Gaedert said.

“‘It's a sad ending to an interesting era there.’

“Gaedert said Carpenter still suffers from past quality problems and faces tough competition from larger bus makers, such as Blue Bird.

“Charlotte, Mich.-based Spartan makes chassis for buses, fire trucks, recreational vehicles and other vehicles.”

Carpenter had been struggling for almost 20 years when it ended school bus production in 2001. During the economic times around the millennium, lower initial capital costs seemed to trump longevity as a selling factor. When it was time for purchasing decisions, financially pressed districts and contractors tended to select lower-cost products with shorter life cycles. Spartan Motors, by then the ⅔ owner of the company, did not see a solution to the market dilemma and felt the projected continued losses would exceed the value to their business plan, voted to end its venture.

© 2015 Mark Theobald for Coachbuilt.com

Epilogue

On March 20, 2003 an 83-passenger Mitchell, Indiana-built Carpenter Type C school bus rolled over onto its roof, causing it (the roof) to fully collapse all the way to the top of the seats. Luckily there were no passengers on board at the time and although severely injured, the driver survived.

A post-crash inspection of the vehicle revealed numerous broken welds in the roof and roof pillars. NHTSA became involved and a nationwide inspection of Carpenter school buses revealed hundreds of similar cracked and failed welds on buses constructed at the Mitchell plant prior to its closing in late 1995. NHTSA also determined the problem was not confined to the South (the accident occurred in Alachua County, Florida), and issued several advisories warning Carpenter school bus operators and owners that virtually all Carpenter and ‘Crown by Carpenter’ branded products built at the Mitchell plant could potentially have the same flaw:

http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/buses/CarpenterBus/

“The welds in question are located at the junction of the vertical side posts (between the windows) and the horizontal structural member (the Carlin rail) above the windows. The inspection will require the removal of interior panels as well as the removal of some of the windows. The following information is provided for your consideration and use:

“The buses in question are Carpenter Type A, B, C and D school buses built in Mitchell, Indiana, prior to the plant closing in late 1995. It appears that the buses built at Carpenter’s Richmond, Indiana plant do not have similar problems.

“There are noticeable differences between the rub rail locations for the two Carpenter plants. The rub rail at the floor line in all buses made at the Mitchell plant is interrupted at the wheel openings. The rub rail at the floor line in all buses made at the Richmond plant is continuous and is located just above the wheel opening. If the 6 digit body number starts with the number 4, then the bus was built in the Richmond, Indiana plant and utilized full length body bows.





“All Carpenter school buses built in Mitchell, Indiana, no matter what the body number, should be inspected for cracked or broken welds in the roof structure. The photograph below shows the locations of the components that are welded together.


“Two diagrams showing the components and weld locations are shown below:



“Reports received from various states and school districts around the country indicate differences in the extent of the failures. Some reports reveal significant numbers of school buses with numerous cracked or broken welds, while other reports reveal few, if any, cracked or broken welds. Furthermore, in some cases, metal deterioration has occurred. Insufficient data exists to ascertain whether the failures are related to the environment, age, and/or mileage.

“NHTSA recommends that the following actions be taken with respect to any Carpenter school bus built in the Mitchell plant that has been found to have cracked or broken welds in the roof structure:

“The bus should be taken out of service and replaced as soon as practicable.

“If the bus must continue in use, the cracked or broken welds should be repaired as soon as possible by qualified service personnel.

“In order to minimize the risk of a rollover, the bus should be used on routes that operate in low speed environments.

“Busses that are taken out of service should have scrap or equivalent language marked on their titles to preclude their sale to unsuspecting purchasers.

“Transportation experts agree that school buses are among the safest of all modes of transportation. Statistics show that children are safer on a school bus than on other modes of transportation. With respect to the Carpenter bus weld problem, each State and school bus operator must assess its own situation and circumstances in deciding what actions to take.”


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Jackie Sheckler - Decades of history, hard work lie behind Carpenter bus plant, Herald Times (Bloomington, Ind.), June 3, 1990 issue

   
 
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