C.N. Johnston Shops - 1920s-1930s - Bakersfield, California


CN Johnston Shops – Bakersfield, CA – School Bus bodies SIA #148 pp42-43

Custom Bus Bodies: How They Got To School Back Then - by Richard Kelley SIA #148 Jul-Aug 1995 pp42-45

The classic era was a high point in automobile coachbuilding. Murphy and Rollston and Derham were busy clothing Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce and Packard chassis with some of the handsomest bodies ever seen. But during that same period of the 1920s and 1930s dozens of unknown firms throughout the land were also turning out bodies, not for automobiles but for school buses.

At this time few auto and truck man­ufacturers produced complete buses. That field was left to the aftermarket builders and these entrepreneurs, most­ly in rural areas, developed a minor market that lasted into the thirties. De­pending on the finances of the school districts involved, bodies ranged from simple boxes on wheels to lush coaches. They were designed with seating for from 12 to 40 eager students.

The chassis used ran the gamut from beefed-up passenger car underpinnings to heavy-duty Mack and White running gear. Most were delivered with only hood and firewall on a bare frame. The shop would then design a body tailored to the needs of the schools involved.

One of the busier outfits turning out such bus bodies during the 1920s and 1930s was the firm of the C.N. Johnston Shops of Bakersfield, California. Johnston started as a blacksmith shop and the company moved from merely doing repair work to building wagons-to-order soon after its founding in 1874. By the turn of the century the emphasis had turned to automobiles - one of the early invoices is for a "running board" for the Western Auto Stage company, a pioneering bus line in the area. In 1910 Johnston built the body for what was then the largest bus in the central valley. Unfortunately no photos remain of the vehicle. Oddly, Johnston never built a custom body for an automobile.

As the First World War ended, unified school districts began turning to buses to transport students from far-flung farms and ranches. At the start, com­plete units were purchased in Los Angeles and were driven over the narrow and twisting Ridge Route for delivery in Bakersfield, a trip that battered many of the new buses so badly that repairs and general reinforcement of the bodies was immediately necessary. Johnson saw a market for purpose-built bodies, and went to work.

The popular chassis for the larger units included General Motors, White, Mack and Fageol. International and Graham provided the footing for the smaller units. Durability was a necessi­ty - these buses traveled hundreds of miles over pot-holed county roads - but styling was important, too, and John­ston spent a great deal of effort on aes­thetics.

Johnston used construction methods that were fairly common for the era. A beefy sub-frame was first welded to the truck's frame rails to support the floor. Atop this was a body framing of hard­wood to which aluminum body panels were screwed. Since bodies were essen­tially boxes with mostly flat surfaces, few compound curves were called for. The firm had its own body men, painters and upholsterers, and quality control was rigid. For example, Johnston usual­ly finished off seams with a decorative half-round aluminum strip; the slots in the screws that held the half-round decorative aluminum trim were always left in a line parallel to the trim line.

The company files have photos of dozens of buses in many different styles, but some features were standard. Since temperatures in the area top 100 degrees throughout half the year, each vehicle had windows which could be opened for, ventilation. These varied from simple snap-on isinglass curtains to regulator-operated wind-down glass windows. Many bodies had a series of doors down the side, rather than a sin­gle entry at the front. For extra style, many had upscale hardware, handles and latches that echoed the equipment used on high-priced automobiles of the day.

One series of almost identical Mack-based rigs of the late twenties featured seven full-width leather-cushioned seats, with a door on the right side of the bus for each row. One of this series, a vehicle which carried the school band on concert tours throughout the state as well as being used for normal daily school runs, included an outside closed luggage compartment at the rear, topped by a chromed rack, for the band instruments.

Johnston's bus building business lasted into the late 1930s. By this time, major manufacturers were turning out their own buses and' firms like Grumman were building large series of bus bodies, and Johnston could no longer compete. Its last bus was delivered in 1939.

The company has always had a large auto body repair business, and for 'a time had an upholstery department for furniture. During the immediate post­war period, Johnston developed a five-passenger "crew cab" for pickup trucks which was popular with oil-field firms in the area. The staff also designed an enclosed cabin for cotton picker opera­tors. These later were equipped with air conditioners.


    For more information please read:

Richard Kelley - Custom Bus Bodies: How They Got To School Back Then - Special Interest Autos #148 Jul-Aug 1995

Ed Strauss & Karen Strauss - The Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses

G.N. Georgano & G. Marshall Naul - The Complete Encyclopedia of Commercial Vehicles

Albert Mroz - Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Trucks & Commercial Vehicles

Donald F. Wood - American Buses

Denis Miller - The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trucks and Buses

Susan Meikle Mandell - A Historical Survey of Transit Buses in the United States

David Jacobs - American Buses, Greyhound, Trailways and Urban Transportation

William A. Luke & Linda L. Metler - Highway Buses of the 20th Century: A Photo Gallery 

William A. Luke & Brian Grams - Buses of Motorcoach Industries 1932-2000 Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Greyhound Buses 1914-2000 Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Prevost Buses 1924-2002 Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Flxible Intercity Buses 1924-1970 Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Buses of ACF Photo Archive (including ACF-Brill & CCF-Brill)

William A. Luke - Trailways Buses 1936-2001 Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Fageol & Twin Coach Buses 1922-1956 Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Yellow Coach Buses 1923 Through 1943: Photo Archive

William A. Luke - Trolley Buses: 1913 Through 2001 Photo Archive

Harvey Eckart - Mack Buses: 1900 Through 1960 Photo Archive

Brian Grams & Andrew Gold - GM Intercity Coaches 1944-1980 Photo Archive

Robert R. Ebert  - Flxible: A History of the Bus and the Company

John McKane - Flxible Transit Buses: 1953 Through 1995 Photo Archive

Bill Vossler - Cars, Trucks and Buses Made by Tractor Companies

Lyndon W Rowe - Municipal buses of the 1960s

Edward S. Kaminsky - American Car & Foundry Company 1899-1999

Dylan Frautschi - Greyhound in Postcards: Buses, Depots and Post Houses

Tad Burness - American Truck Spotter's Guide, 1920-1970

Tad Burness - American Truck & Bus Spotter's Guide, 1920-1985

Robert M Roll - American trucking: A seventy-five year odyssey

David Jacobs - American Trucks: A photographic essay of American Trucks and Trucking

David Jacobs - American Trucks: More Colour Photographs of Truck & Trucking

John Gunnell - American Work Trucks: A Pictorial History of Commercial Trucks 1900-1994

George W. Green - Special-Use Vehicles: An Illustrated History of Unconventional Cars and Trucks

Daniel D. Hutchins - Wheels Across America: Carriage Art & Craftsmanship

Ronald G. Adams - 100 Years of Semi Trucks

Stan Holtzman - Big Rigs: The Complete History of the American Semi Truck

Stan Holtzman & Jeremy Harris Lipschultz - Classic American Semi Trucks

Stan Holtzman - Semi Truck Color History

Donald F. Wood - American Beer Trucks

Donald F. Wood - Beverage Trucks: Photo Archive

Donald F. Wood - Commercial Trucks

Donald F. Wood - Delivery Trucks

Donald F. Wood - Dump Trucks

Donald F. Wood - Gas & Oil Trucks

Donald F. Wood - Logging Trucks 1915 Through 1970: Photo Archive

Donald F. Wood - New Car Carriers 1910-1998 Photo Album

Donald F. Wood - RVs & Campers 1900-2000: An Illustrated History

Donald F. Wood - Wreckers and Tow Trucks

Gini Rice - Relics of the Road

Gini Rice - Relics of the Road - Impressive International Trucks 1907-1947

Gini Rice - Relics of the Road - Keen Kenworth Trucks - 1915-1955

Richard J. Copello - American Car Haulers

Niels Jansen - Pictorial History of American Trucks

John B. Montville - Refuse Trucks: Photo Archive

Bill Rhodes - Circus and Carnival Trucks 1941-2000: Photo Archive

Howard L. Applegate - Coca-Cola: Its Vehicles in Photographs 1930 Through 1969: Photo Archive

James T. Lenzke & Karen E. O'Brien - Standard Catalog of American Light-Duty Trucks: 1896-2000

James K. Wagner - Ford Trucks since 1905

Don Bunn - Dodge Trucks

Fred Crismon - International Trucks

Don Bunn - Encyclopedia of Chevrolet Trucks


© 2004 Coachbuilt.com, Inc. | Index | Disclaimer | Privacy