‘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)
included Louella (b. 1874-d.1955) Homer (b.1884) and Myrtle (b. 1887)
After the 1911 passing of Lizzie William F. Carpenter re-married to
Stephenson (b. 1852 - d. 1946) in 1913.
The 1880 US Census lists him in Spice
County, Indiana, his father’s occupation ‘farmer.’ After completing the
grade he worked as a blacksmith, a trade learned from his father;
position near Smithville, Indiana where much of his work involved
wagons and horseshoeing mules used for quarrying limestone at two
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
Vernita Florence (aka Billie, b. 1899 – d. 1995, m. Driscoll), Georgia
1904 – d. 2001, m. Burton), Mary Elizabeth (b. 1906, m. Erwin), Harold
–d. 1925 at age 16), Eulah Myrtle (aka ‘Duto’, b. 1911 - d. 1986, m.
Martha Ruth (b. 1912 – d. 1987, m. Mannix) Carpenter.
The 1900 US Census lists the young couple in
County, Indiana, his occupation, ‘blacksmith.’ The 1910 US Census lists
Salt Creek, Monroe County, Indiana, his occupation, ‘farmer.’ During
the teens Carpenter
settled in Mitchell, Indiana where he established his own
his September 12, 1918 Draft Registration card lists his address as
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
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
Co. (Noble L. Moore, prop.) - and commenced constructing utility bodies
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
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
(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
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
in Martinsburg, Ind., from 1940-1946 after which it served as a
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.
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 Carpenter employees were part-time farmers, relying upon
their bus building income to tide them over during the hot summer
A rise in fatal school bus accidents
resulted in an April
1939 conference in New York City where representatives from all 48
gathered to develop a set of national standards for school bus
operation. The symposium was chaired by Frank W. Cyr, a Columbia
professor and a former superintendent of the Chappell, Nebraska school
The conference was attended by
representatives of the bus
body industry and at the end of the 7-day event the group released a
minimum standards and recommendations. Among them were specifications
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
slightly different shades of yellow remained.
National School Bus Chrome became the chosen
slight variations allowed as yellow was a difficult color to reproduce
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
have been held, giving state and industry representatives a forum to
existing and establish new safety guidelines operating procedures for
For many years the Federal Government
allowed he industry to
regulate itself, but they became directly involved in motor vehicle
the passing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of
School Bus Safety Amendment was passed in 1974, and since that time the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued 36 Federal
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
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
“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
total loss until an inventory is completed.
“The fire raged out of control more than
hour, fed by
large quantities of cotton, upholstering materials, paints and oils.
“Bedford Firemen and policemen aided the
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
remarried, to Eldora Roberts (b. Jan. 1, 1881 - d. Oct. 4, 1963) on
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
On March 12, 1956, another fire broke out
Mitchell manufacturing plant. The plant was mostly destroyed, the March
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
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,
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
for several hours. Heat was so intense that a 7-foot safe burst open,
a heavy door 10 feet.
“Several bus bodies in the building were
residents in the area jumped into 25 to 30 completed buses parked near
burning building and drove them to safety.
“Foddrill said about 500 bodies nearly
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
without pay until later compensated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.,
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
three other school bus body manufacturers in Georgia, Texas and North
and their exclusive Texas dealers.
“The suits were a followup of a suit
filed Aug. 15
accusing 16 Texas firms and individuals of price-fixing on the sale of
buses costing $23 million.
“‘Exclusive contracts between these Texas
dealers and the
manufacturing companies made possible the bid-rigging by the dealers,’
“The suit against Carpenter charged a
restraint of trade,’ Wilson sought permanent injunctions against
restraint of trade and statutory penalties.”
lawsuit's resolution is currently unknown, although it's likely the
distributors took the fall, receiving a slap on the wrist and a small
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
Carpenter Body Works plant here are not likely to forget the goodwill
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
“Residents of the area entertained them at
ice cream socials, dinners, picnics, and with movies of their vacation
to such places as Hawaii. The Central American visitors, in turn, held
complete with piñata for some of the children of the community…
“The men, all professional drivers of
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
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
Carpenter Body Works in Mitchell, Ind., said his company doesn’t have
like the Superbus (Wayne Works just-introduced Lifeguard school bus).
all for safety and we revamp our models every year, but we’re playing a
game right now.’ Foddrill said that last year Carpenter installed the
padded seat ‘as standard equipment when no one else did.’ He said 30 to
students are killed in school bus accidents every year, while 50,000
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
custom accessories and design variations were available. Passenger capacities ranged from 29 to 72
vehicle lengths from 15' 9" to 32' 8" and a choice of 74"
or 79" headrooms.
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
Yellow’ in 1939, no Federal legislation mandating standards were
1973, when emergency exits and window releases became mandatory.
Charles Percy pointed out in a 1973 congressional hearing on the
school administrators typically purchased school buses on bids, and
than not, the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder. Although
in particular Ward and Wayne Works, had started offering extra-safe
most school districts couldn’t justify the additional expense to
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
following article in which Jay Perkins explains the long overdue
Bus Safety Standards which were to take effect on April 1, 1977. The
Safety Standard relating to school buses - FMVSS No. 217 (Bus Emergency
and Window Retention and Release) had already taken effect (on
1973). The next four implemented were FMVSS No. 220 (School Bus
Protection); FMVSS No 221 (School Bus Body Joint Strength); FMVSS No.
Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection) and FMVSS No 301 (Fuel
Integrity - School Buses).
“By Jay Perkins, Associated Press Writer
“Washington - (AP) – On Oct. 2, 1967, four
students boarded a school bus in Waterloo, Neb., for their last ride to
“They died minutes later when a Union
Pacific freight ripped
the bus apart, twisting the sheet metal skin and exposing sharp, lethal
The nine other children aboard were injured, some of them on the
Federal investigators later would label them child-lacerating ‘cookie
“Investigators from the National
Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) found the bus came apart too easily. Joints failed under too
pressure. Seats ripped from the floor. Children riding in the
portion were tossed about and ‘probably... struck many hard and sharp
“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
testing laboratories previously had reported problems.
“Yet, it would be another five years
would propose the first regulation to improve school bus construction.
will be April 1, 1977, when the three federal regulations finally
go into effect.
“Why the delay?
“Because the National Highway Traffic
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
information officer. ‘We had a limited amount of funds and we're
the whole spectrum of highway accidents. So when we looked at
was no way to say 100 fatalities here should be a high priority when we
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
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
to make a school bus's metal skin even thinner and less safe than it is
The builders say they won't use the loophole.
“Another regulation, aimed at keeping the
collapsing when a bus overturns, relies on a test that even the NHTSA
wouldn't determine if the roof were really safe. And the third,
seats designed to hold children in place during an accident, is not as
originally proposed. The original regulation specified seat backs eight
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
with a regulation that adds four or five inches to present seatbacks.
“Until now, there have been no federal
school buses. And no state has set safety regulations as strong as the
rules effective next spring.
“Despite their shortcomings, the NHTSA and
the six principal
manufacturers of school buses believe the regulations will produce
once the buses now in use are replaced. That will take a decade or more.
“Meanwhile, more than 20 million children
traditional yellow school buses each school day. Fifteen to 20 are
5,000 are injured in an average year, the government reports. That's
alarming accident rate. The buses avoid accidents by travelling slowly,
drivers watch out for them, and school bus drivers are good drivers,
Aspin, D-Wisc., told a 1973 congressional hearing. But he added:
are probably the unsafest vehicles on the road because when they are
in an accident, the results are often catastrophic. Today's school bus
“Dr. Stanley J. Behrman, representing the
of Oral Surgeons, told the National Safety Council in 1972 nearly 10
of the 16,000 children treated by society members in one year were
“Why then do school districts buy the
buses - those
made by attaching a riveted, sheet metal bus body to a truck frame and
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
today. The remaining three per cent are safer.
“They are mostly buses made as a unit,
commercial buses that carry passengers across the country.
“Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., noted during
congressional hearing that school administrators usually purchase buses
the lowest bidder. ‘So long as there are not adequate standards, then
come in for a school bus but not necessarily for a safe school bus,’
“Between 30,000 and 35,000 school buses
made each year.
Most cost $12,000 to $15,000. The new regulations are expected to add
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
exposed edges of the bus interior sheet metal, including the ceiling...’
“There are six major manufacturers of the
of school bus - Blue Bird Body Co. of Fort
Valley, Ga.; Carpenter Body Works, Mitchell, Ind.;
Division, Lima, Ohio; Thomas Built Buses, High Point, N.C.; Ward School
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
panels were poorly fastened. Spacing between rivets was so wide - four
inches - that it resisted ‘wind and weather but the joint could
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
“Ward has been marketing since 1971 a
more than twice as many rivets than in pre-1971 buses. Other
using better fasteners and more rivets than they did nine years ago.
“The principal concern about the adequacy
regulations concerns a loophole in the rule designed to keep the sheet
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
panels themselves must be. So manufacturers can meet the standard by
the number of rivets at the joints - as NHTSA intends - or by reducing
strength of the panels. ‘You can make those panels out of tissue paper
the standard,’ said one expert.
“Guy Hunter, an NHTSA specialist in school
said the agency was aware of the loophole when the regulation was
left it in to give manufacturers leeway in future designs.
“He also said the loophole can't be used
panels are needed to make the buses rigid enough to pass the rollover
Standard No. 217 - Bus Emergency Exits and
This established requirements for bus
release to reduce the likelihood of passenger ejection in crashes,
emergency exits to facilitate passenger exit in emergencies. It also
that each school bus have an interlock system to prevent the engine
an emergency door is locked, and an alarm that sounds if an emergency
not fully closed while the engine is running. Another portion of
217 required that yellow, white, or red retroreflective tape be applied
to mark all emergency exits, so rescue personnel can quickly find them
Standard No. 220 - School Bus Rollover
This established performance requirements
for school bus
rollover protection, to reduce deaths and injuries from failure of a
body structure to withstand forces encountered in rollover crashes.
Standard No. 221 - School Bus Body Joint
This established requirements for the
strength of the body
panel joints in school bus bodies, to reduce deaths and injuries
structural collapse of school bus bodies during crashes.
Standard No. 222 - School Bus Passenger
Seating and Crash
This established occupant protection
requirements for school
bus passenger seating and restraining barriers, to reduce deaths and
from the impact of school bus occupants against structures within the
during crashes and sudden driving maneuvers.
Standard No. 301 - Fuel System Integrity -
This specified requirements for the
integrity of motor
vehicle fuel systems, to reduce the likelihood of fuel spillage and
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
of stopped school buses. Its purpose is to reduce deaths and injuries
minimizing the likelihood of vehicles passing a stopped school bus and
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
enacted legislation that requires them; California, Florida, Louisiana,
New York and Texas, although New Jersey is the only state that mandates
In 1977 Indiana Magazine included a feature article on Carpenter, which included selected quotes by
J. Stephen Foddrill:
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
involved Hoosier contractors and Hoosier products. The building was
in Terre Haute; wall and ceiling systems came from Shoals; all pre-cast
concrete structures were made in Salem, and Jasper provided the
“Working with raw materials, Carpenter
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
Foddrill explained, noting that four — including Carpenter — are
family-owned, and two are part of larger conglomerates which were at
“‘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
providing bodies for a small transit bus.’ This small bus is part of a
developing market serving the needs of medium and larger sized
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
body plant. The Mitchell facility is conveniently located near its
suppliers and to the chassis plants in Detroit, Michigan; Louisville,
and Springfield, Ohio.
manufactured by Carpenter, which
600 people, vary in size and format according to customer needs and
requirements. Illustrated in the company catalog are versions ranging
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
'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
“State Layoffs Increase Because of Coal
“By The Associated Press - The nation’s
of school bus bodies is laying off 500 of its 560 workers because of
crisis. Carpenter Body Works of Mitchell, Ind., announced the
Monday, pushing to more than 2,000 the number of Hoosiers laid off
shortages stemming from the 78-day strike by United Mine Workers.”
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
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,
strike, the left their jobs Monday.”
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
“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) — United Auto Workers
contempt hearing was scheduled today in Lawrence Circuit Court at
charges of strike-related violence at the Carpenter Body Works plant.
“Carpenter, the nation's largest bus body
Judge John Plummer of the Bedford court to permanently limit
“The firm also requested contempt of court
11 members of UMW Local 1785, charging they violated a temporary
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
order.’ He said sometimes strikers stop and briefly talk with picketers
didn't consider that a real violation.
“The 520-menber local, whose contract with
Jan. 1, struck March 20. Wages and the annual work schedule remain
“‘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.
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
the temporary restraining order.
“He said picket lines remained quiet until
state troopers withdrew and windows of cars of several non-union
“Carpenter attorneys told the court that
restraining order, strikers continue to block incoming traffic and pelt
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 union also seeks raises of $1.50,
during the three-year contract, Survance said. The company has offered
increases of 45, 30 and 25 cents.
“No new negotiations are scheduled, he
weeks later the violence had escalated to the point where replacement
workers were getting shot at, the June 24, 1978 edition of the Kokomo
“Police Still Searching for suspects in
“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) – Authorities were
Friday for suspects in a shooting incident that left a replacement
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
here when someone in a car behind her fired a shotgun at her.
“She was taken to a Bedford hospital for
said. United Auto Workers Local 1785 has been on strike at the firm for
months in a contract dispute.”
The end of the 6-month-long strike was announced in the August 7, 1978 edition of the Anderson
“Mitchell, Ind. (AP) – Production should
reach normal levels
within a week at Carpenter Body Works here following ratification of a
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
strike at the facility, which is one of the nation’s largest
school bus bodies.
“Steve Foddrill, Carpenter executive vice
president, said he
was pleased with the vote results and added, ‘we’re looking forward to
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.
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
form ofDr. Beurt
SerVaas, an Indianapolis-based industrialist, who formed a holding company,
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
contract proposal. The move makes the future of the financially
troubled bus manufacturing
“Beurt R. SerVaas withdrew his offer last
week to buy the
company's assets and continue production at the plant in Lawrence
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
the proposal Thursday, but SerVaas notified union officials it would
not be necessary.
“In a memorandum sent to the union,
said he was ‘no longer
willing to agree to a second vote’ and that he had withdrawn his
“Workers who went to the union hall
night to vote
were given copies of the memorandum and worried that the plant would
“‘I was told this was it,’ said worker
Debbie King. ‘The end.’
“Some employees had said the proposal
strip the union
of much of its power, reduce vacation and medical benefits and
“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.”
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
“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
the school bus manufacturer, an official said.
“The proposal between Carpenter and CBW
approved by Carpenter's shareholders, said CBW spokesman Stephen
“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
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
submitted by the buyer, an attorney for the company said.
“The deal to sell most of Carpenter's
to CBW Inc. is
‘probably 100 percent hinging’ on whether United Auto Workers Local
to the new company's terms, said attorney Stephen Plopper of
“CBW is a group of unnamed investors
to buy the
school bus manufacturer, which has been struggling in recent months.
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
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
businessman Beurt R. SerVaas, to iron out financial and other concerns
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
hours on Friday to reach an agreement, said Terry Thurman, a UAW
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
problems that led the bus company to the edge of liquidation,
businessman Beurt SerVaas, who formed CBW Inc. to purchase the
ailing company, said at a press conference during sales transactions
that ‘very poor management practices and very poor union practices combined
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
last couple of years.
“Bad investments and the opening of the
North Vernon and
Seymour operations contributed to Carpenter's problems, and Carpenter
about $13.6 million when it was sold to CBW Inc., according to a
report. Carpenter's creditors committee told executives of the
company in March that they had until April 6 to find a buyer or else
would have to go into bankruptcy court.
“In 1981 Carpenter borrowed heavily from
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
Carpenter to the city and the city loaned over $1 million to the
About $395,800 is left unpaid.
“One of the reasons for the North Vernon
said, was the strike of 1978 when Carpenter workers were off the job at
Mitchell plant in a dispute over wages. Replacement workers were hired
in but buses weren't produced according to schedule and much of the
equipment was damaged by inexperienced workers. Carpenter management at
time reportedly told union members that if another strike ever occurred
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
plant reportedly never made a profit and the Mitchell plant was
North Vernon plant and another one built in Seymour around 1985. The
plant was to produce chassis for Carpenter but that venture also failed
closed in less than a year.
“Carpenter began gradually phasing out the
operation in 1984 and closed it down in 1988. But for the last two
plant was shut down, it reportedly was costing Carpenter almost $1
year to pay insurance, taxes, utilities, security protection and other
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
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
feared losing their investment. But in December of 1989, Carpenter had
loan paid down to about $3.5 million and owed an additional $10 million
suppliers and other creditors, reports said, when creditors decided to
“INB recently initiated foreclosure
proceedings at the
148,100-square-foot North Vernon plant, which once was listed in
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
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
Quebec-based manufacturer Les Enterprises Michel Corbeil.
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
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
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
factory formerly occupied by Wayne Works in Richmond, Indiana. During
transition, which took place from 1995-1996, Carpenter revised its
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
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
(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
Under Spartan, Carpenter dropped the
unpopular and confusing 'Crown by
Carpenter' moniker, returning to just plain Carpenter. They pared
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
area, new rub rail
fully vertical rear body, larger rear emergency exit doors, and new
roof caps. Introduced for the 2001 model year, the luxurious
Chancellor RE featured
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
in Richmond will
close within 60 days unless a new owner can be found, a spokesman for
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
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
“Gaedert said Carpenter still suffers from
past quality problems and faces tough competition from larger bus
makers, such as
“Charlotte, Mich.-based Spartan makes
chassis for buses, fire trucks, recreational vehicles and other
Carpenter had been struggling for almost 20
years when it
ended school bus production in 2001. During the economic times around
millennium, lower initial capital costs seemed to trump longevity as a
factor. When it was time for purchasing decisions, financially pressed
districts and contractors tended to select lower-cost products with
life cycles. Spartan Motors, by then the ⅔ owner of the
not see a solution to the market dilemma and felt the projected
losses would exceed the value to their business plan, voted to end its
© 2015 Mark
Theobald for Coachbuilt.com
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:
“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
“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
“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
“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.”