The Los Angeles, California-based coachbuilder, Crown Coach, is mainly remembered today for their “Twinkie”-style, flat nose Type D school buses and for the streamlined fire equipment used on the 1972-1979 “Emergency” television series.
Crown was founded by Don Murrillo Brockway in 1903, who despite his name, was not closely related to William N. Brockway, the founder of the Brockway Carriage Works of Homer, New York. However, William N. Brockway was originally from Hartford, Connecticut which is just 35 miles away from Lyme, Connecticut, the home of Wolston Brockway, the progenitor of the American Brockways and Don Murillo Brockway’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Wolston Brockway (b.1637 - d.1718), emigrated from his native London, England, to Lyme, Connecticut in 1659. Brockway genealogists connect Don M. Brockway with Wolston as follows: Wolston Brockway (1st gen); Wolston Brockway II (2nd); Ephraim Brockway (3rd); Jonathan Brockway (4th); Martin Brockway (5th); Jeremiah Brockway (6th); Martin M. Brockway (7th); Don Murillo Brockway (8th generation and our subject).
Don Murrillo Brockway’s great-grandfather, Martin Brockway (5th generation) was a private during the Revolutionary War who descendants eventually relocated from Lyme, Connecticut to the Vermont-Quebec border during the early 19th century.
Don M. Brockway was born on May 8, 1866 in Troy, Orleans County, Vermont, to Martin M. and Sarah (Smith) Brockway. After a public education, Don left Vermont and took a job with a railroad company as a buffalo hunter. Although the buffalo herd had been decimated by that time, railroads continued the hunt in order to supply track-laying crews with fresh meat.
The Brockway family moved to California in 1884 and Don joined them in 1886 and became associated with Ernst and Rucker, the city’s largest hardware store. While working for the firm he married his wife Louise (Foss) and their union was blessed with the birth of four sons; Foss R.; Murillo M. (June 11, 1900); Don C.; William W. and one daughter; Ramona.
Ernst and Rucker were distributors of wagon and carriage parts and supplies and in 1903 Don M. Brockway decided to form his own business, which was organized as the Crown Carriage Co. Originally located in a barn behind his house, in 1904 the firm moved into a two-bay wood-framed workshop located at 717 E. 6th St. at the corner of S. Los Angeles St. The firm’s name and marketing slogan “Business Wagons for Business Men” was prominently displayed on the front of the building.
Crown’s delivery wagons were very popular as were their station wagons and mail coaches. Business improved and in 1910 the firm relocated to a larger two-story brick building just down the street at 621-623 E. 6th St. The firm’s commercial bodies were easily adapted to the motor truck and by 1916 the firm had constructed their first motorized charabanc, which was built on a Federal truck chassis.
Don M.’s eldest son, Foss R. Brockway pursued a career in engineering and in partnership with his father held a patent for a transformable automobile tractor which dates from March 25, 1916. After the war he became a professor in Mechanic Arts and Auto Mechanics at the University of Southern California.
Don M.’s second oldest son, Murillo, enlisted in the US Navy during World War I and following the Armistice attended college. In later years Murillo’s son Bob, credited his father with the firm’s venture into building school buses which commenced in 1920. Early Crown coaches were constructed using Reo, Diamond T and Moreland truck chassis.
A.B. Watson, owner of Crown Stage Lines, 117 E Fifth St., Los Angeles, used Crown Carriage Co. equipment exclusively, and named his company after the firm who first supplied him with motorized Reo-chassised coaches in 1920. Watson soon became one of Southern California’s largest private bus operators, and continued to use Crown-built coaches into the late 1920s.
After his graduation in 1921, Murillo went to work for Crown full-time and was put in charge of their school bus body division. The firm’s bus body business took off and in order to provide funds for a much-needed expansion, the firm was incorporated as the Crown Carriage Corp. in 1922 with 200 shares of stock, 100 of which were owned by Don M. Brockway. The remaining shares were held by the firm’s other investors.
The Brockways realized that there was money to be made in both the manufacturing and maintenance of buses and in February 1922 they formed the Coach Maintenance Inc. to take care of the latter opportunity. The directors were the same as Crown Carriage and were as follows: D.M. Brockway, M.M. Brockway, Charles F. Koors and R.V. Davidson. Lewis Walker was hired to manage the concern and he was eventually made vice-president of the firm which specialized in fleet maintenance. The firm eventually relocated to Long Beach and remained in business at least into the 1950s.
On November 21, 1922 Murillo M. Brockway’s son, Robert M. Brockway was born.
Crown’s new factory was constructed in 1923 (some factory literature states 1918) at the corner of San Julian St. and East 6th St. Officially known as the Brockway Block, the new plant backed up to a railroad siding which enabled the firm to receive supplied and ship its products by rail. The firm’s Motto was slightly modified to “Business Bodies for Business Men” as horse-drawn wagons were no longer their primary product.
In 1927, the firm was reorganized as the Crown Motor Carriage Company, Inc. The new moniker better reflected its expanding product line which according to its advertising included: “auto trucks, commercial deliveries, auto truck cabs and bodies, paint shop, commercial designing and lettering, auto blacksmithing, forgings, and repair.”
During 1927 Crown introduced the world’s first school bus with dual rear wheels, which was mounted on a Reo truck chassis. The 6-wheeled bus did not have glass windows, opting to use roll-down canvas curtains as did many of Crown’s early buses which were designed specifically for Southern California’s dry and temperate climate.
In 1925 Crown entered the burgeoning personal aircraft manufacturing business when they obtained the rights to a small bi-plane built by the Kinner Airplane and Motor Corp. of Los Angeles. Today, Kinner’s main claim to rest in the fact that Amelia Earhart’s first airplane was a used Kinner Airster bi-plane that she purchased shortly after learning to fly in 1922.
Formed in 1919 by Winfield Bertram (Bert) Kinner, by 1927 the Long Beach firm was building monoplanes and was more than happy to license the outdated Airster airframe to Crown. Originally known as the Aircraft Division of the Crown Carriage Co., the firm was eventually incorporated as the Crown Aircraft Corp. whose officers were as follows: DM Brockway, President; M.M. Brockway, Vice President and Sales Manager; Hagan Barr, Secretary-Treasurer and Lee Brusse, Chief Pilot.
The test flight of the B-3 was covered by Western Aviation magazine in 1929:
The Airster was manufactured as the Crown B-3 and received ATC #199 (Approved Type Certificate) in 1929. A handful of B-3s are thought to have been built by direct order only between 1930 and 1933 when the contract with Kinner was cancelled.
Although they’re entirely forgotten about by today’s Crown enthusiasts, Crown produced a full line of commercial bodies during the teens, twenties and thirties. The earliest examples were built on Model T and TT chassis and included delivery trucks and municipal ambulances and funeral cars.
At least one custom Ford Model A town delivery was built for a Los Angeles department store and they continued to produce small numbers of ambulances and municipal coaches using existing panel delivery bodies.
Although Crown had been sheathing their truck and bus bodies in steel since the early 20s, it wasn’t until 1930 that they built their first all-steel body, a Mack-chassised 43-passenger school bus whose body was designed using the latest aeronautical techniques. The vehicle also included drop-sash metal-framed glass passenger windows, which replaced the firm’s antiquated roll-up canvas curtains.
Crown’s coaches were equipped with Protex-brand safety glass, a glass plate reinforced with a horizontally strung piano wire at 2-in. intervals that was distributed by the Protex Glass Co., 220 Fifth Ave., New York, NY. Although it was not as safe as laminated (plastic/glass sandwich) safety glass, Protex was commonly used in motor coaches and truck cabs into the late 30s, as a less expensive alternative.
Period advertisements touted Crown’s “integral” all-steel design whereby the body and chassis were both bolted and welded together providing for greater strength and improved passenger safety.
In March 15, 1930 the plant’s roof and windows were heavily damaged by a freak tornado which originated near Rancho Palos Verdes and proceeded through Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lennox before heading to East Los Angeles. Eyewitnesses reported that twister picked both cars and people up off the ground, carrying them 50 to 75 feet away. The Los Angeles Times said that “the air above Hawthorne was black with whirling tar paper.”
In 1932, Murillo M. Brockway, known as “Brock” to the firm’s employees, took control of all of the firm’s day-to-day activities, although his father remained president until his death in 1945. One year later (1933) the firm was reorganized as the Crown Body and Coach Corporation and in 1936 Murrillo acquired the outstanding 100 shares of the firm’s stock, giving the Brockway family complete control over the firm for the first time.
In 1932 Crown had introduced their first cab-forward school bus. Similar in design to current model Twin Coaches, the rectangular coach gave their customers significantly greater passenger-carrying capacity and improved driver’s vision.
Equipped with a Waukesha engine the vehicle included three independent braking systems: the first a four-wheel pedal-operated hydraulic, the second a four-wheel hand-operated vacuum, and the third an emergency brake that worked directly on the drive line. The new bus was well-received and by the time Crown introduced their Super Coach in 1935 almost all of Crown’s buses incorporated a cab-forward layout.
The Super Coach was the second iteration of Crown’s integral all-steel construction which debuted in 1932. The air-brake-equipped Super Coach’s 11 rows of forward facing seats could carry 67 adults or 78 children students in total comfort and safety.
In 1935 Crown introduced a budget-priced line of conventional chassised buses which were marketed as Metropolitans. Most were powered by flathead Ford V-8s and Crown continued using Ford power into the late 1930s. They also adopted Ford’s purpose-built Model 70 171”wheelbase bus chassis when it debuted in 1937 for use with their conventional bus bodies.
In 1936 Crown produced two overnight intercity sleeper coaches for the All American Bus Lines of New York for use on their Chicago to New York run. The buses featured underfloor engines manufactured by Hall-Scott in Berkeley, California, and included four sleeping compartments per side, with each one seating or sleeping three persons and containing a lavatory. The vehicles were amongst the first in the country to be built with air conditioning which was provided by the Dry-Ice Appliance Corp. of Mount Vernon, Ill. The initial order was divided between Crown and another Los Angeles-based coachbuilder, the Columbia Coach Works.
Monday, Aug. 10, 1936 Time magazine:
Later that year Crown constructed a brush fire fighting body for a White light truck chassis for use by the US Parks Service in the Angeles National Forest. At the time it was just considered a one-off special order as plans for production of Crown’s famous fire coaches was still many years away.
One especially attractive hearse was constructed by Crown using a 1937 Terraplane Series 70 custom panel delivery that featured unusual downward curving rear quarter windows not seen on any other vehicles.
An equally attractive series of streamlined bakery truck bodies were produced during the mid to late thirties using the same Ford powered Marmon-Herrington slide-out engine chassis that was used for some of Crown’s coaches.
Based on their experience with the overnight sleeper coaches Crown re-engineered the Super Coach in 1937 by placing a Hall-Scott engine amidships underneath the passenger compartment thereby increased its passenger carrying capacity. Additional improvements included new teardrop headlamps apparently sourced from the 1937-1939 Ford parts bin.
In 1939, Crown purchased the assets of the Moreland Motor Truck Co., a small truck manufacturer located in nearby Burbank, California that was an early proponent of heavy-duty 6-wheeled truck chassis. Organized by Watt L. Moreland on July 31, 1911, the firm was originally located in a small plant in East Los Angeles, but by World War I had expanded along with the Los Angeles economy to the point where a new plant was sorely needed.
Watt L. Moreland was born on February 11, 1879, in Munsey, Indiana to John B. and Alethea (Grice) Moreland. After a public education, at the age of eighteen Moreland went to work for the Republic Iron and Steel Co. where as a machine’s apprentice he took a mechanical engineering course with the International Correspondence School.
After three years with Republic, he was engaged by the Toledo Machine and Tool Co. as a die maker, but three months later was hired by the assembly and testing department of the Winton Motor Carriage Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, eventually being placed in charge of the mechanical engineering department of the firm’s New York branch.
His next position was with the Haynes-Apperson Auto Co. of Kokomo, Indiana, where he helped design and build the firm’s early endurance racers. In 1902 Moreland traveled to Los Angeles on vacation, and liked California so much that he decided to remain there.
Moreland helped organize the Magnolia Auto Co. of Riverside, California where he was the firm’s general manager. When that small automaker succumbed to threats from the Selden patent combine, he became associated with the Auto Vehicle Co. of Los Angeles as superintendent of construction. In June, 1908, Moreland helped organize the Durocar Co., a small Los Angeles-based manufacturer of automobiles, of which he became vice-president and general manager.
Moreland eventually sold his stake In Durocar and returned to the Auto Vehicle Company as chief engineer. He eventually left AVC and after short stints with a number of Los Angeles-based automobile firms, he organized the Moreland Motor Truck Co., of which he became general manager. Moreland’s officers were as follows: R.H. Raphael, president; C. J. Kubach, vice-president, and J. L. Armer, secretary and treasurer.
In 1917 the nearby city of Burbank enticed Moreland to build his new plant there through the donation of a $25,000 site at the corner of San Fernando Blvd. and Alameda Ave., the former site of the Luttge farm.
Moreland's early vehicles included four models from 1½ to 5 tons in conventional or cabover versions. In 1924 Moreland introduced the industry’s first six-wheeled truck, the TX6, which took advantage of new liberal weight limits that had been spearheaded by the firm’s founder. The TX6’s dual rear axles allowed them to carry much larger loads than 4-wheel trucks.
The Los Angeles Fire Department eventually became a good customer and Moreland supplied their Hercules and Continental engined chassis to many of the regions small bus manufacturers, including Crown Carriage Co. During the late 20s, Moreland introduced a drop-frame bus chassis and competed against Fageol in the lucrative California bus chassis market. In fact the two firms entered into merger talks during 1931 but could not come to terms.
Moreland continued to struggle through the Depression and in 1935 sold their huge Burbank plant and consolidated operations in a much smaller Los Angeles facility located on S. Main St. between 24th and 25th Streets. At that time Watt L. Moreland stated that the company has built in the 28 years of its life, more than 12,000 trucks, ranging in capacity from 1½ to 30 tons.
By 1939 Moreland called it quits and sold of their chassis-building assets to Crown who combined them with their bus building operations in a new factory which was built at 2500 MacPherson Street, now East 12th Street. Moreland stayed in operation as a truck repair outlet into the 1940s and their Los Angeles facility was eventually taken over by Cook Brothers in 1949.
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.
Coinciding with the move to Crown’s new factory, the Super Coach received a number of new improvements. The Hall-Scott power plant moved to the back of the chassis giving the passenger compartment more headroom and providing space for two emergency exits, one at the side and another a top-hinged rear escape hatch/window at the rear.
During 1940 Crown built a single sedan-based airport limousine using a stretched 1940 Ford V-8 sedan. The 8-door vehicle had four rows of plush padded bench seats with integral arm rests. Although the vehicle was attractive no other examples are known to have been built.
Much of Crown’s workforce joined the US Armed Forces during World War II and the plant was placed in hibernation although a handful of fire apparatus bodies were built under a small War Dept. contract on Marmon-Herrington equipped 4wd Ford light truck chassis.
The firm’s founder, Don Murillo Brockway, passed away on February 17, 1945, and Murillo M. Brockway became president. His son, Bob, had decided on a career in medicine and attended dental school during most of the war. After graduation he took a sabbatical from his chosen career and went to work for his father in Crown’s engineering department.
Following the end of hostilities, a large number of soldiers who had seen duty in the Pacific theater decided to remain in California. And within a couple of years the state of California was in the midst of a housing boon that resulted in sharply increased demand for Crown’s school and transit buses.
Immediately after the War raw materials were hard to procure and in order to fulfill existing orders Crown became Wayne Works west coast distributor and issued their own co-branded Crown Coach-Wayne Works bus catalog. A 1-acre parcel located at the corner of 75th Ave. & Snell St. in Oakland, California was purchased in December of 1945 for use as Crown’s Northern California sales office and parts and service depot. In the 1950s a second satellite was established in Mercer Island, Washington.
In 1948 Crown and Wayne Works of Richmond, Indiana entered into another joint venture, Transicoach Inc., in order to market a revival of C.J. Hug's sectional bus. The Transicoach was a lowcost underfloor-engined forward-control school bus with a Hercules engine and 5-speed Fuller transmission mounted amidships on a Reo-supplied chassis. Only 200 Transicoaches were sold before the Richmond, Indiana-based Transicoach Inc. was dissolved in 1950.
In 1946 Crown started development on an all-new sightseeing bus for Tanner-Gray Line. The Pasadena-based tour operator was an outgrowth of a horse and buggy livery service inaugurated in 1906 by C.C. Tanner. In 1912 Tanner entered the automobile age and reorganized as C.C. Tanner Auto Service. By 1928 the Tanner Coach Service had branched out into one of the regions largest intercity passenger carriers and after the Second World War Tanner Motor Tours Ltd. had became a Gray Line franchisee.
After a 2 full years of development Crown introduced the all-new 1948 Super Coach. The new sightseeing bus included transit-style horizontal sliding side windows and was available in 32’ and 35’ single axle and 40’ double axle varieties.
The pre-war design was further streamlined and a redesigned roof offered an incredible 76” of headroom for its passengers. Purchasers were given a choice of a two-piece curved or four-piece flat glass windshield, although most opted for the curved windows.
The luxurious coaches seated between 33 to 57 and were initially powered with Hall-Scott underfloor engines located amidships although a rear-engined version was later made available that provided additional baggage-carrying capacity underneath the passenger compartment.
Some sightseeing coaches had a second row of curved windows built into the roof that could be used to observe the tops of landmarks normally obscured by a full-width roof.
While most of Crown’s competitors used 45,000 psi steel, Crown’s floorpan and framework was constructed of 90,000 psi ultra high tensile steel sheathed with heat treated aluminum bodywork affixed by heavy duty button rivets.
The Super Coach’s double-walled steel body structure was both bolted and welded to outriggers on the main chassis which was built using nested channel frame rails and cross-members.
Multiple body posts protected both ends of the coach and the roof of the 35’ model was made up of 22 roll bars spaced 17 ½” apart. The 40’ Super Coach used 26 roll bars, all constructed of the firm’s 90K psi 12 gauge steel. Crown offered an unprecedented 20-year/100,000 warranty on all of their sturdy coach bodies which was later increased to 20-years/150,000 miles.
The new coaches’ integral body and chassis was adapted for use as a school bus and the all-new Super Coach School Bus debuted in late 1949.
Many of the school buses built by the Gillig Bros. of San Francisco, California during the 1950s and 60s looked very similar to those produced by Crown, although there are subtle differences.
Gillig’s school buses featured black widow frames while Crown used body-colored frames. Gillig buses used a regular double door entrance, while most Crowns featured a single door entrance. The rear ends of Crown’s coaches were noticeably more rounded that Gilligs, and Crowns sheathed their steel-framed bodies in aluminum while Gillig preferred to use steel, which may explain why there are many more surviving Crowns than Gilligs.
Crown’s officers at the time were as follows:, M.M. Brockway, president; R.M. Brockway, vice-president; Charles Boehm, secretary and general manager, and R.H. Nickerson, executive secretary.
Although young Bob Brockway was a Crown executive, he was not immune form the draft and in 1951 he was called upon to serve his country. Luckily the Army had a number of opportunities for dentists and Bob and his new wife Merle took a position in France, thousands of miles away from the conflict in Korea. Although Lieutenant Brockway was given a second opportunity to pursue his dental career, he elected to return to Crown when he was discharged in 1953 and his father promoted him to executive vice-president. As executive vice-president, he oversaw E. Chris Keller, vice-president of marketing and Charles F. Koors, vice-president of engineering.
In 1949, engineer Roy Hardy left a job with Mack Truck’s Los Angeles plant to take a similar position with Crown. Of particular interest to Hardy was American-LaFrance’s recently introduced cab-forward 700 series of fire apparatus, which he reasoned could be easily improved upon using Crown’s similar-appearing Super Coach chassis. Murillo M. Brockway agreed to fund a prototype and the first Crown Firecoach was completed in 1951.
The vehicle was shown to a number of prospective customers and remained in the development stage until 1953, when the first production Firecoaches went on the market. Richard K. “Red” Willmore, the former head of school bus sales was placed in charge of the new Firecoach Division, whose chief engineer would be Roy Hardy.
Willmore wasted no time getting the vehicles in the hands of prospective customers, and by years end had sold a number of the vehicles to Southern California municipalities, including the City of Los Angeles, Crown’s hometown.
During the 1940s and 50s Crown was one of Hall-Scott’s largest customers, but due to an increasing demand for diesel-powered buses, in 1954 they began to offer a Cummins diesel as an extra-cost option on their Super Coaches and Firecoaches.
Soon afterwards Crown introduced a bus/truck hybrid or bruck that combined passenger and freight-carrying capability in a single vehicle. Popular with small railroads, the vehicle was built using their 40’ tandem rear axle chassis. The coach half of the vehicle carried 20-passengers who sat ahead of 20’ deep windowless rear freight compartment that was loaded through a pair of doors at the rear. A handful of shorter 35’ brucks were built using a single rear axle and seating for 12.
The idea originated with Kenworth who produced a fleet of 10 Brucks for the Great Northern Railroad starting in 1951. The railroad used them to replace their famous Galloping Goose railcars, which coincidently used bodies built by Wayne Works. As were Crown’s brucks the Kenworth units were also built using a school bus, the Kenworth Model T, which debuted in 1949.
A few dedicated freight-carrying vehicles marketed as the Crown Cargo Coach were also produced using a Trailmobile dry freight body mated to a Crown Super Coach driver’s compartment. Similar vehicles were manufactured starting in 1955 under contract for the US Postal Service for use as mobile mail sorting stations.
As the US highway system grew, increasingly fewer passengers used the railroad which resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of trains that could be used to carry the mail. The Highway Post Office was initiated to address the problem and Crown was contracted to built the vehicles in single (35’) and tandem-axle (40’) versions.
Clerks inside the buses sorted mail in transit just as Railway Mail Service clerks had done aboard trains. Clerks would sort the next day’s mail during an overnight journey between two large metropolitan areas, say between Los Angles and San Francisco.
The interiors of these buses were based on Railway Post Offices, with letter cases and the letter distributing table on one side and the paper distributing table and holders for mail sacks on the other.
The vehicles included barred and screened side windows in the forward compartment which was used to process mail while the bus was in motion. The rear section was reserved for storing sacks of processed mail being carried to the next destination and was accessible through a separate door in the rear. As the bus drivers were contractors and not Postal Service employees, a locked screen door was placed behind the driver, separating him from the mail clerks and keeping the mail secure.
Another Crown specialty was the 42 to 64 passenger Security Coach which was available in 35’ or 40’ versions, all equipped with barred windows and a secure screened-in prisoner/passenger compartments.
In 1955 Crown introduced their first 6-wheeled school bus, which had a seating capacity of 91 children, 10” brakes became optional in 1956 and by 1958 were standard on all Crown-badged vehicles. In 1957 they produced a short-wheelbase 33-passenger Crown Firecoach bus for the City of Los Angeles Fire Dept. that still exists today.
Crown served as the west coast distributor for the Ford-based Coachette mini bus in the late 50s and early 60s. The Coachette was a 21-passenger city transit bus built in Dallas, Texas using a 172” wheelbase Ford step van chassis and bodywork supplied by the Ward Body Co. of Austin, Texas.
In 1962 Murillo M “Brock” Brockway passed away and his son Bob, became president of Crown.
After the 1965 Watts Riots, most new Crown Firecoach fire engines were ordered with fully-enclosed cabs to better protect the firefighters from violence, and add-on cab roofs were retrofitted to many open-cab Crown Firecoaches already in use.
During the 1960s the demand for Crown’s school buses eventually outstripped the factory’s production capacity, and Crown relocated its Firecoach operations to a new addition located at 2428 East 12th St., giving their bus-building operations the use of the entire 2500 East 12th St facility.
Crown started offering a bi-level coach similar in appearance to the famous Greyhound Scenic Cruiser that offered increased baggage carrying capacity and also produced short runs of special use vehicles. An articulated two compartment 3-axle prototype was built long before the joint venture with Ikarus, although it never entered production.
Crown attempted to compete against Gerstenslager in the lucrative bookmobile and mobile television studio field in the 1960s and 70s. Red Skelton used 3 Crown Coaches for mobile production of his television program and Gene Autry toured the west coast in a specially outfitted Super Coach. They also produced a handful of mobile X-ray and health department trucks and even produced a heavy-duty wrecker using a Firecoach cab and chassis.
Crown produced an open-air Super Coach for Atlantic Richfield that was used for touring the firm’s Signal Hill oil field in Los Angeles. Although their products were popular in California they were rarely sold outside of the state.
Between 1969 and 1983 Crown served as the west coast distributor for Prevost Car, a highly regarded manufacturer of intercity coaches and tour buses based in Sainte-Claire, Quebec, Canada.
As smaller capacity buses became popular in the mid-70s Crown once again decided to distribute buses from other manufacturers rather than go to the expense of producing their own line of mini-buses and for the next decade and a half distributed products built by Wayne Works, Blue Bird and Thomas.
Beginning in the late 30s most Crowns were equipped with Hall-Scott engines, although Ford and International power was also available. Crown later offered underfloor Cummins diesels and near the end of production used engines from Detroit Diesel and Caterpillar. Hall-Scotts were also the powerplant of choice in the Crown Firecoach, although some were built with Ford and International gas engines and Cummins and Detroit diesels.
A major selling point of the Super Coach was its built-in safety. For almost 40 years Crown emphasized the fact that the passengers rode above the point of impact in a 90K psi ultra high tensile steel integrated superstructure. The Super Coaches’ rear seat was located well above the crash level and in the event of a rear end collision, the main force of the impact was absorbed by the all-steel, reinforced, rear baggage compartment — effectively protecting the occupants of the rear seat.
A built-in crush zone, both front and rear combined with a full width 10-guage steel apron below the seat rail offered passengers greater strength and protection than any coach on the road.
For many years the Federal Government allowed the industry to regulate itself, but they became directly involved in motor vehicle safety with the passing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. A School Bus Safety Amendment was passed in 1974, and since that time the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued 36 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) which apply to school buses.
Remarkably Crown’s Super Coach met most of the 1974 NHTSA safety standards when it was introduced in 1950.
In 1979 Jack L. Courtemanche, a Los Angeles-based Peterbilt Truck distributor, purchased Crown Coach Corp. from the Brockway family. Courtemanche was well connected within the industry and from 1970-1975 he was a Mack Truck’s vice president in charge of the western United States. From 1961-1970 he headed Automotive Equipment Co. a Portland, Oregon based a distributor of heavy-duty trucks and related equipment.
Courtemanche was also good friends with President-elect Ronald Reagan and had earlier served as the ex-governor’s campaign finance manager. From 1982 to 1989 he served in the Reagan administration in a number of post which included: executive director of the White House Conference on Productivity; deputy assistant to the President for Public Liaison; executive director of the National White House Conference on Small Business, and also served as Nancy Reagan's chief of staff.
One of Courtemanch’s Peterbilt outlets was located across from Crown’s E. 12 St. factory and he was eventually made aware of Robert Brockway’s intention to sell the firm. Courtemanch had “always been impressed with the quality of Crown buses and fire engines” and made a deal with Brockway were the former owner was retained as a consultant.
Courtemanch was well aware that Crown’s basic design had not changed in over 30 years, and to remain viable, a totally new design was needed. Rather than engineer a new vehicle from the ground up, Crown entered into a limited partnership with the Ikarus, a highly respected European bus manufacturer headquartered in Budapest, Hungary.
The Crown-Ikarus articulated transit coach was built using Hungarian technology and American drive-trains and interiors. Powered by an underfloor Cummins dieselmated to an Allison automatic transmission, the 60’ long three axle coaches included a flexible body joint behind the second axle and was available with seating for between 61 to 76 adults with extra-side aisles that could easily accommodate another 37 standing passengers. Between 1981 and 1986 243 Crown-Ikarus articulated buses found buyers.
Courtemanch also discontinued production of Crown’s Firecoaches in 1981. Records tabulated by Firecoach enthusiast Bill Friedrich indicate that between 1951 and 1981 875 Crown Firecoaches were built, 95% for California fire departments.
When Courtemanch left to work for the Reagan administration he sold Crown to Llewellyn C. Werner, a Los Angeles based financier and attorney who was a former member of California governor Jerry Brown’s staff.
In 1984 Werner built a new modern factory thirty miles to the east in Chino, California at 13799 Monte Vista Ave. Werner sold off the firm’s E. 12th St. plant in 1986 and reorganized the firm as Crown Coach International.
The capacity of the new plant was 15 coaches per week, however Crown’s sales rarely met that goal and the plant augmented bus production by building rear-engined pusher chassis for Mitchell Coach Mfg., the builder of Vogue luxury motorhomes and custom coaches. A small number of chassis were also produced for use by a small transit bus manufacturer.
Crown also did a fair amount of coach restoration and was able to turn a decades-old school bus into a vehicle that was indistinguishable from new. Consequently it wasn’t unusual to see a 20 or 30-year-old Crown in daily service. Many other used Crowns were sold to bus operators in Mexico and Central and South America and as of this writing were still in use as intercity coaches and transit buses.
In an interview with Ed Haas, Bob Brockway recalled that Werner made a switch from using a 5/8” marine-grade plywood sub-floor to less expensive particle board. The new material couldn’t stand up to the daily washings they were subjected to in the field and consequently failed in large numbers. Other similar measures were implemented by Werner and after a couple of year’s his cost-cutting measures had only succeeded in ruining the firm’s reputation and in late 1986 Crown Coach International entered into receivership.
On April 23, 1987 the firm’s assets and real estate were sold at auction to GE Railcar Services, a subsidiary of General Electric. GE elected to continue bus building operations as Crown Coach, Inc. and in July of 1987 the Chino plant started production once again.
It’s remarkable, but save for slightly more advanced suspension, drivetrain, modern instrument panel and optional Allison automatic transmission, the Crown Super Coaches offered in 1990 were little changed from the Super Coach that debuted in 1950. Rear and amidships-engined coaches were available although the latter outsold the rear-engined version 3 to 1. Most customers opted for diesel powerplants although gasoline and methanol-fueled coaches were available.
In fact use of the methanol-fueled Detroit 6V92 required a redesigned rear endcap as the tall V-6 engine wouldn’t fit underneath the rear floor of the Super Coach. A slightly re-designed front end was used on buses so-equipped, creating the first noticeable styling change to the Super Coach since 1950 and were designated as Series II Crown Super Coaches. In the ensuing years most of the Series II Super Coaches originally built with methanol-burning Detroit Diesel 6V92 engines were converted to burn diesel fuel.
Despite the fact that the Super Coach was decades old, a handful of customers continued to fork over the $90,000-$130,000 required to purchase one through March 31st, 1991 when General Electric pulled the plug on the now unprofitable subsidiary and on May 21, 1991 Crown Coaches’ assets and intellectual property were sold at auction.
The production of Crown’s “Twinkie” style coaches averaged 100 examples per year between 1950 and 1991, however a period of increased sales commenced in the early 1970s that lasted until the move to Chino in 1984. During that period production was often double or triple the norm and at it peak may have reached 500 coaches in a single year. Consequently total Crown Super Coach production is estimated at 6,000 coaches, a figure approximately 8 times greater than the 800 Firecoaches built between 1953 and 1984.
Crown’s spare parts were purchased by West Coach Corp., a Chino-based International bus dealer and maintenance facility owned by former Crown employee Jerry Hillenbrand. Carpenter Industries, a large mid-west school bus manufacturer based in Mitchell, Indiana, purchased the rights to the Crown name. According to a news item in the Winter 1991-92 issue of Bus World Magazine, Carpenter intended to produce an updated Crown Coach with all-new Carpenter designed bodywork.
The new Crown Coach never materialized and in 1995 Carpenter closed down their antiquated Mitchell, Indiana factory and moved into the former 550,000 sq. ft. Wayne plant in Richmond, Indiana where they produced school buses and walk-in vans under the Crown by Carpenter brand into 1999. The Crown name was dropped when Carpenter introduced the Classic 2000 model late in the year. The Classic’s production was very short-lived as the Carpenter shut down the Richmond plant in 2000 and permanently retired the Crown and Carpenter trade names.
As of 2004, West Coach continues to supply Crown owners with OEM parts and service at 13790 Redwood St., Chino, California facility.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com