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Pickwick Motor Coach Works Part 1
Pickwick Motor Coach Works Ltd., 1923-1933; El Segundo, Inglewood & Los Angeles, California
Associated Builders
Austin Utility Coach Co., 1933-1934; El Segundo, California

Pickwick and its related businesses are mainly remembered today for their memorable bi-level observation-buffet and Nite coaches which debuted in the mid-to-late twenties. Although the coaches were designed by Dwight E. Austin, they would not have been possible without the financial backing of the firm’s owner, Charles F. Wren.

Charles F. Wren was born on October 18, 1885 in Bethany, Missouri to Robert H. and Ella M. (Schaeffer) Wren. After a public education in Bethany he relocated to Tucson, Arizona where he worked as an electrician between 1905 and 1908. In June of 1907 he married Stella T. Purcell and to the blessed union was born four children, Charles F. Jr., Gladys I., Alsacia M., Donald C. Wren.

During 1909 and 1912 he was involved in a Prescott, Arizona mining operation after which he established his own tire manufacturing company that unsuccessfully tried to market an elastic wheel (a combination sprung tire and wheel) he had patented in late 1909.

Pickwick Stages, one of the most famous of pioneer operations in the West, can trace its inception back to the Mexican Revolution of 1912. A.L. Hayes, engaged in mining in Mexico was forced to leave his holdings and flee across the border to San Diego, California. As a means of livelihood he purchased a second-hand Ford and started an auto stage line that ran between San Diego and Escondido, a small town located 30 miles to the north.

Hayes later acquired a partner, Herbert T. Pattison, and during the next few years the firm increased their livery with successively larger vehicles which included Locomobile and Pierce-Arrow touring cars. Passengers were carried both inside and outside in this early service — outside seats being provided on the tool boxes. Eventually this line was extended through to Los Angeles, a distance of 132 miles.

In 1914 Hayes merged with another San Diego-based auto stage operator named C.W. Grise who owned the Limited  Imperial Valley Auto Stage, an early auto stage line founded in 1911 to transport passengers between San Diego and El Centro, a small Imperial Valley community located south of the Salton Sea and just north of the Mexican border.

The Limited San Diego, Imperial Valley Stage was founded by Charles Wesley Grise, a San Diego mechanic, in 1911. The service was inaugurated using a Cadillac touring car and a hired driver, which would transport well-heeled Californians on the 115 mile journey for $15 one way or a $25 round trip. Maintenance was performed by at Grise Auto Service, Third and Broadway, San Diego. Grise had as many as eight cars in operation at one time, and also operated taxicabs to Tijuana and Jitney buses to Hillcrest.

Bell's Cigar Store, at 1315 Broadway was the San Diego ticket agent while Brad's Smoke Shop served as the ticket agent in El Centro which was located 115 miles due east of San Diego in southeastern California’s picturesque Imperial Valley. Today Interstate 8 runs alongside the route originally followed by the Imperial Valley Stages which ran along the northern edge of the US-Mexico border.

Rock slides were common, and the stages carried dynamite to remove large boulders blocking the roadway as well as firearms to ward off any potential road bandits, which were commonplace during the stage line’s early days.

Prior to the 1915 merger with Hayes, both firms had used the popular Pickwick Theatre, 1027 Fourth Street, San Diego, as their departure point. Erected in 1904 by Louis J. Wilde, a later Mayor of San Diego, the Pickwick served as San Diego’s premiere vaudeville house and was managed by the Palmer and Faulkerson agency. Located on the East side of Fourth Avenue between Broadway and C Street, the 825 seat theater was designed by Hebbard and Gill and was demolished in 1926. (When the Pickwick Theatre was demolished, the stage line, now using buses, moved into a new building, the Pickwick Terminal Hotel, at 150 W. Broadway.)

Hayes and Grise subsequently adopted the name Pickwick Stages for their merged operations which remained at the Pickwick Theater. A.L. Hayes bought out Grise’s share of the firm in 1917 and reorganized the firm as the Pickwick Stage Line.

About the same time Charles F. Wren, later president of the Pickwick Corporation became interested in highway transportation. He had come to California in 1913 with the idea of starting a tourist transportation business, and one of his first steps was to take over one of the early parking stations in Los Angeles. With one touring car he commenced a service to Venice, a suburb 14 miles distant.

Having ability for organization, he next gathered the various jitneys operating throughout the city and concentrated their departures at his station. He was also successful in getting longer lines to use his depot as a terminal, including the A.L. Hayes line from San Diego to Los Angeles. In the spring of 1916 Wren started his first intercity line to San Fernando, a point 20 miles to the north, and in the fall of the same year extended it to Santa Barbara, a distance of 99 miles. By 1918, through a series of extensions, the service reached San Francisco. Consolidation was then effected with the A.L. Hayes Pickwick line from San Diego, and the name of the latter was adopted.

Wren’s operation was renamed the Pickwick Northern Division while Hayes reserved the Pickwick Stage Line for the name of the partner’s Southern operations. Under the Pickwick Corporation holding company the two partners pushed north to Portland and east to El Paso, St. Louis and Chicago, eventually reaching New York City via connecting lines. Remarkably, Wren’s Union Station was the Los Angeles terminal for three competing firms - Pickwick, White Star, and United Stages – into the early 1920s.

Both firms' operations were publicly operated under the Pickwick Stage Line moniker. The 1922 (fiscal July 1, 1921- June 31, 1922) Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of the State of California contained the following information in regards to the Pickwick Stages:

Pickwick Stages, Incorporated.
A. L. Hayes. First and E streets., San Diego, California.

Pickwick Stages, Northern Division, Incorporated.
C. F. Wren, General Manager. 506 South Los Angeles street, Los Angeles.

The Pickwick Stages, Northern Division, Incorporated, operating between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland, reports the gross revenue of $888,847, total operating expenses in the sum of $330,005; or a net revenue of $8,842 on an investment of approximately $200,000 or a little in excess of 4 per cent.

The Pickwick Corporation was organized under the laws of California on December 16, 1922 as a holding company to consolidate Wren’s various business enterprises. Soon after he reorganized Pickwick Stages' Northern and Southern divisions as Pickwick Stages, Northern Division, Inc. and Pickwick Stages, Southern Division, Inc. Pickwick Corp.’s acquisition of wealth was rapid. During 1923 its stages carried 422,000 passengers with a total revenue of $1,364,317. By 1924 the line claims to have tripled the number of passengers carried to 1,174,000 passengers, producing a total revenue of $2,560,000. The corporation listed its assets at $2,000,000 with a reported profit of $325,000 in 1924.

The Board of Railroad Commissioners' 1925 Report revealed the change in the firm’s organization and a noted increase in holding and profits:

Pickwick Stages, Southern Division Inc.
Chas. F. Wren, President; A. L. Hayes, Vice President and General Manager
1725 East Seventh street, Los Angeles, California.

Pickwick Stages, Northern Division, Inc.
C. F. Wren, General Manager,
1725 East Seventh street, Los Angeles, California.

The Pickwick Corp. also began buying up smaller lines and by 1925 controlled the Murrietta Mineral Hot Springs and Packard Stage Lines. By 1926 Pickwick Corp.’s assets exceeded the $4,000,000 mark and Wren began investing in the hotel and broadcasting businesses.

The small part of Wren’s operations that concern us is the Pickwick Motor Coach Works Ltd., Pickwick Stage’s in-house body builder, which was organized in 1923. The firm’s manager and vice-president was Dwight E. Austin (b.1897-d.1960), the designer of the world-famous Pickwick Nite Coach.

Dwight E. Austin, born on September 26, 1897, was a natural born engineer who excelled at his profession despite the fact that his formal education ended at the eighth grade. In 1915 he joined his father and brother in the formation of an automobile repair business where he developed a knack for working with wood and metal which led the firm into the body building business. After the 1922 sale of his father’s business, Dwight was subsequently hired by the Pickwick Stages who appointed him designer and superintendent of it body works in 1923.

Austin was the man responsible for the legendary Pickwick intercity parlor-buffet coaches which were introduced on the Pierce-Arrow Model Z chassis in 1925. In March of 1927 Austin introduced the Pickwick observation-buffet coach which was followed four months later by an improved model with a novel elevated driver’s compartment in the form of a crow’s nest jutting out from the top of the vehicle. Both models were built on the purpose-built Pierce-Arrow Model Z bus chassis.

In mid-1928 Wren introduced the revolutionary Pickwick Nite Coach, an Austin-designed 26-passenger all-metal double-decked sleeping coach with elevated driving compartment and interchangeable power pack. The Nite Coach featured a semi-monocoque steel framework covered by Duralumin panels, adapted by Austin for motor coach use.

The Duralumin trade name was derived from the material’s manufacturer, Dürener Metallwerke AG, and aluminum, its primary component. The December 1922 SAE Journal featured a 5-page paper highlighting the advantages and potential uses of Duralumin by the automotive industry.

The age-hardened aluminum alloy was discovered by German metallurgist Alfred Wilm while working at Dürener Metallwerke AG (Düren, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany) in 1903. Wilm found that after quenching, an aluminium alloy containing 4% copper (+ small amounts of manganese and magnesium) would slowly harden when left at room temperature for several days.

Further refinements led to the commercial introduction of Duralumin in 1909. Pre-war, the material was confined for use by German industry which used it for framing the recently introduced rigid airship. After the War Dürener Metallwerke introduced a more tear-resistant formula that was adopted by the American aircraft industry in the late 20s who found it well suited to recently introduced monocoque construction techniques.

The Success of the 1928 Nite Coach prompted the introduction of a similar 53-passenger day coach, the Pickwick Duplex, in 1930.  Austin did not rest on his laurels and in 1932 introduced a totally new Sleeper Coach which featured aerodynamic breadbox styling that wouldn’t appear on his competitor’s coaches until the late 1930s.

The September 4, 1925 San Jose Evening News announced the debut of the Pierce-Arrow Pickwick Parlor-Buffet Coach:

“Parlor-Buffet Coach is Latest Development

“Marking the latest development in commercial auto travel, The Franciscan, ‘parlor-buffet’ motor coach, owned by the Pickwick stage company, is on exhibition today in front of the Union Stage depot at 25 S. Market St.

“The stage is the first of its kind ever constructed and is unique in that it is equipped with a buffet with a steam table in which hot meals will be prepared en route, a complete lavatory, smoking compartment, observation and parlor room.

“A steward is to be on duty in the car at all times.

“The stage was built at the Los Angeles shops of the Pickwick Stage Co., and is one of two of its kind which are to be put on between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“The cars will start at 7 a.m. and arrive at the opposite terminal at 9:45 p.m., thus cutting down the present schedule by two hours. Stops will be made at San Jose, Salinas, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

“The Franciscan will accommodate 20 passengers in addition to the steward and driver. The total length of the car is 32 feet.”

The September 27, 1925 Tucson Morning Sun included a small item that casually mentions that actress Mary Pickford had taken a trip in one of the new Pierce-Arrow Pickwick Parlor-Buffet coaches:


“TUCSON. Sept. 26, 1925—Passenger auto stages with all the conveniences of a modern Pullman coach have been established, on a romp between Los Angeles and San Francisco by Charles Wren, a former Tucsonan, brother-in-law of Judge S. W. Purcell.

“Extensive publicity was given the up-to-date enterprise by the California newspapers. These are said to be the first motor stages to include, with many other refinements and luxuries, a complete buffet for the preparation of meals a in carte and a well appointed lavatory and toilet.

“In other words, the former Tucson resident has applied Pullman conveniences to highway transportation for this first time. The service, which is to be expanded in inter-city road transportation in California, is known as the Pickwick Franciscan service.

“The following description of the stages is given by an admiring Los Angeles daily:

“‘Standards of motor stage travel a few days ago, christened by Mary Pickford who, along with a party, was on one of the two stages that made their maiden trips between two California metropolis.

“‘Each of the new parlor-buffet cars has five compartments, each a unit in itself and separated by glass doors from other parts of the coach.

“‘The ladies' compartment seats 12 on splendidly soft-cushioned reclining arm chairs which occupy the forward portions of the cars. The smoking compartment and observation section are in the back of the car with buffet and lavatory on opposite sides of the, car separating the smoker and forward section.’

“Mr. Wren married Miss Tessie Purcell, sister of Judge Purcell.”

A 1925 issue of The Commercial Vehicle contained a small piece on the Pierce-Arrow Pickwick Parlor-Buffet coaches:

“Parlor-Buffet Service on Buses a Time Saver

“Ushering in a new era in automobile passenger transportation, Pickwick Stages Inc., on September 15 sent its first parlor-buffet motor coach from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours less time than by previous motor schedules. 

“The new coach, with well-equipped buffet fro preparing hot meals en route, and finely appointed rest room is the first car of its kind in all the history of motor transportation. Cutting out all the lunch and rest stops heretofore makes possible the saving of 2 hours in the schedule.

“There are 20 reclining arm chairs in the parlor buffet car, 12 in the front compartment and eight in the smoker. Each chair, finely upholstered, is equipped with a foot pedal, which tilts it back to a head rest position when desired by the passenger.

“Near each passenger, in the wall, is a button which, when depressed, signals the steward in the buffet, who is instantly at hand to take orders for hot or cold lunch a la carte. In the buffet are a gas range, coffee urns, bread toaster, ice cream container, refrigerator and other utensils of a well-equipped kitchen. In the hour or two of evening travel on the San Francisco-Los Angeles run, each passenger aboard the new car will control the light over his chair as he may see fit. A snap switch in the wall lights an electric light over each seat.

“The seats in the smoking section are of leather. Here there is a card table, ash trays and hat racks the same as found in railroad cars. There are 4 seats in this section built for observation. There are 5 plate-glass windows 24 in. high and 48 in. in length, which enables occupants of this section to have a perfect view at the rear and at both sides. Each chair is provided with a white linen head-rest which is changed at the end of each run. At the press of a button the steward is summoned, who will bring food, cigars, papers, candy, ice cream drinking water or any article that is carried for the convenience of the passengers. The kitchen is located on the left side of the stage between the rear smoking compartment and the front or ladies’ compartment.

“A special system has been installed for notifying the driver if any of the stage doors are opened while the car is in motion. Each door is equipped with an electric door switch which is connected to a red electric light in the dash board. If any of the doors are opened while the car is in motion this switch makes an electrical connection and the red light lights up.

“The stages are Pierce-Arrow chassis, and are 32 ft. in length overall. Each stage is equipped with 34.7 in. dual tires in the rear.”

The October 31, 1925 New Castle News (New Castle, Pennsylvania) included a picture and small article about the Pierce-Arrow Pickwick Parlor-Buffet coaches:

“The great Improvement in travel now is coming by way of the motor busses upon the great paved, highways of the Nation. There was placed in service last week between Los Angeles and San Francisco by the Pickwick Transportation Company of California a parlor, buffet motor coach, the first in history to include a complete dining service with steward, and well appointed lavatory, and toilet, and individual upholstered arm chairs capable of adjustment.

“This coach is 32 feet in length, 8 feet wide, with stream lines of its own. The lower part of the body gray, the upper panels blue, while a broad belt of dark blue separates the two colors, and spreads over the hood to the nickeled radiator. This coach has a name like the modern railroad trains, and is called ‘The San Franciscan’ in honor of the Franciscan Padres who first trod ‘El Camino Real’, or the Coast Highway extending from San Diego to San Francisco. It is planned to add additional cars to the equipment of the company, and to operate them between San Diego, California, and Seattle, Washington.

“Sleeping Cars are being built as well. These, cars are consigned and built entirely in the Los Angeles shops of the Pickwick Corporation where several hundred men are now employed turning out the increasing number of these motor coaches.

“While the Government and the Railways argue, Motor Transportation improves mightily each year.”

The January 1926 issue of Better Buses featured the new Pierce-Arrow Pickwick Parlor-Buffet coaches:

“A Superlative Motor Coach Service By James V. Murray

“Superlative is the most appropriate word when describing "The Franciscan" — the new Parlor-buffet motor coach service now being operated by the Pickwick Stages System, between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“It its endeavor to rival the service features of such famous express trains, running between San Francisco and Los Angeles, as ‘The Padre’ and ‘The Sunset Limited’, the Pickwick people have, in many respects outpointed them.  The Franciscan line, consisting of three up-to-the- minute, specially designed, built and equipped 20-passenger coaches, is becoming as famous as the long-established express trains in giving a matchless service which appeals to travelers from even the highest stations in life.

“Claiming to be the first in the world with a parlor-buffet automobile coach service to offer to the traveling public,

“Only the rear-end housings and the motors are purchased features of the automotive equipment. Everything else, including the body and upholstery, is the output of the big shops of the company in Los Angeles.

“Smooth riding qualities have been attained by the addition of powerful air-springs, both front and rear, which cradle the car so easily that dining while traveling is really a pleasure.

“These springs are an exclusive Pickwick feature, new in the motor transportation field. But we are not concerned so much with the mechanical features of the new coaches, and their running schedules, as we are with the service features offered to the public, and why they are entitled to be called ‘superlative” in the auto-stage world.

“With a capacity for 20 people, there are twelve seats in the coach for ladies and eight for men. Those for ladies and their escorts are upholstered in fine velour, while the seats in the smoking section are upholstered in leather. The coaches are of the center- aisle type, and the seats are individual arm chairs with four reclining positions, operated at will by the passenger, by means of a ratchet device on the floor.

“High-backed chairs, higher than the head, afford a certain degree of privacy in the coach, as well as a comfortable head-rest. Removable linen covers adorn the head – rests, which are changed as often as the passenger, if necessary three or four times during the run, furnishing a …  (Missing text) …Salads.

“The company does not wish to profit on its food service, and seventy-five cents covers the present charge for full meals, which is from 25 to 30 percent less than the average café charge for the same dishes. As soon as the operators find they are making money on meals, they will either reduce prices or increase the quality of the food. At present, however, the meals are as attractive and adequate as those of any restaurant, and there has not been a single complaint registered on its "dining car service" since the new de luxe express line has been in operation.

“Disappearing card tables, which fold into the side of the coach, afford amusement to the occupants of the men’s smoking compartment, and in this single highly efficient, automotive unit there are such features as ice- cold drinking water with sanitary cups; lavatories for men and women, with hot and cold running water and toilet conveniences. And the towels are free. The only waste shed on the highway are the remains of the drinking water and the water used for washing purposes. Everything else is pumped into an antiseptic tank, which is emptied at each terminal and is odorless.

“Two steam cooking tables and an adequate sanitary ice chest are important features of the kitchen equipment. Alongside the driver is a large compartment, with a capacity for forty pieces of luggage. As the driver is in an enclosed section of the coach, this arrangement insures the baggage being protected from rain and does away with the baggage rack on the rear of the coach body. There are hat and parcel racks over each pair of seats, and ventilators provide fresh air for the coach even when inclement weather causes the closing of the windows.

“A peculiar individual service, and a highly welcome one to the traveler, is that rendered by the steward to each passenger. When the coach is within three miles of a passenger’s destination, the steward approaches him, informs him that the stage will soon arrive at the traveler’s getting off place, brush off his hat and his shoes, procures his baggage for him and dusts that off, helps him off the stage and hands him his luggage with a smile.”

The February 1926 issue of Motor Record included the following item concerning the Pierce-Arrow Pickwick Parlor-Buffet coaches:

“Parlor Motor Coaches Last Word in Riding Comfort by Francis A. Emmons

“The recent opening of the Pickwick Parlor Motor Coach Stage Line between Los Angeles and San Francisco marks a new epoch in highway transportation. These motor coaches are the first to include dining service with a steward, and lavatory with toilet. The Pickwick stage system is the outgrowth of an auto stage line that was initiated thirteen years ago between San Diego and Escondido, Mexico, by A.S. Hayes with one little Ford touring car.

“The original auto stage line has been gradually expanded by extensions, additions and consolidations until today the Pickwick system comprises 200 coaches and covers 5,000 miles of western highways, operating from the Mexican to the Canadian border and east to El Paso, Texas.

“The Pickwick Parlor Buffet Motor Coaches are 32 feet in length, 8 feet wide and are powered by Pierce-Arrow motors rated at 66 H. P. but which deliver over 100 H. P. while in actual use at normal speeds.”

In 1926 the Pickwick Corporation built its first hotel, an 8-story neo-Gothic structure located in downtown San Francisco near Union Square. The Pickwick was prominently featured in Dashiell Hammett's popular mystery, The Maltese Falcon, which was made into a number of motion pictures during the 1930s and 40s, one of which starred Humphrey Bogart.

After San Diego's Pickwick Theater closed down, Wren move his operations into the newly constructed Pickwick Terminal Hotel, which opened its doors in  May 1927. The neo-Gothic twin-towered hotel was located at the corner of First and Broadway and was considered to be San Diego's most luxurious hotel at the time. 

In 1928 the Pickwick Corp. bought San Diego radio station KFBC, the first of two stations that would form the Pickwick Broadcasting Corporation. The station's name was changed to KGB to reflect the involvement  of George Bowles, its station manager and PBC's vice-president. KGB's studio and transmitter were relocated to the new Pickwick Terminal Hotel remaining there until 1944. Pickwick Broadcasting Corp. later purchased KTM in Santa Monica, whose slogan was ‘KTM, the station with a smile’. KGB remains famous today as being the first employer of Art Linkletter, who served as a staff announcer while he attended San Diego State University during 1933.

Midway through 1928 Dwight Austin completed the vehicle with which he would forever be associated with, the Pickwick Nite Coach. The monocoque framework's principal structural members were 7-inch steel channels which extended along the lower outside edge of the coach tied together by 14 cross members of 4-inch seamless steel tubing forming a foundation to which the body framing and chassis were affixed. The heavy outside channels along the vehicles circumference also served as a guard rail, protecting the occupants of the coach from intrusion in the case of a collision.

Three additional steel and Duralumin channels ran along the entire length of the coach providing the upper and lower framework of the passenger windows which were fitted between pressed steel uprights that connected the 7-in. steel channel with the Duralumin upper framework. The vehicle's exterior was made up of double-walled Duralumin panels filled with Thermosote, a tar-impregnated wood fibre insulation board manufactured by the Agasote Millboard Co. 

The coach had a central aisle intermediate the two decks with single steps leading up and down into the thirteen 2-passenger compartments. Headroom over the center aisle was 86 inches and its roof was composed of a central Duralumin backbone and framework covered by insulating board and a heavy nitrite-coated canvas cover. 

The Nite Coach's front-mounted engine was built into a removable carrier frame which was fitted with a 110 horsepower Sterling Petrel 6-cylinder gasoline engine and Brown-Lipe transmission. Equipped with powerful air brakes, power was delivered to the rear wheels via a driveshaft that rode inside a 22 inch wide central isle which was constructed of made up of heavy 1/8 inch Duralumin plate. From the center aisle, steel uprights ran up to the roof forming a central framework to which the various compartment partitions and braces were attached. The resulting steel and Duralumin honeycomb resulted in a durable two story coach weighing little more than a standard single deck 33-passenger coach. The windows were made from shatterproof glass framed by composite Duralumin and Bakelite frames.

It is generally agreed that only four Nite Coaches were built (Carlton Jackson claims five), the first of which was christened the Alsacia after Alsacia M. Wren, one of Charles F. Wren's two daughters. The Alsacia had an unusual flat rear roof over the rear-most first floor cabin, a feature not found on subsequent Nite Coaches which all featured a fastback rear roof with an enclosed luggage compartment. The next Nite Coach built, the Gladys, was named after Gladys I. Wren, Charles F. Wren's second daughter. The third coach constructed was christened the Morpheus, after the Greek god of dreams and sleep, while the name of the fourth and final first series Nite Coach has been lost to history.

In an interview with author Curtis Jackson, T.T. Davis, a former Nite Coach driver, recalled that driving the highway behemoths was a generally miserable experience and although the driver was isolated from the passengers by a glass partition, he was forced to sit directly over the poorly insulated, hot and noisy, engine compartment for hours at a time.  

On long overnight runs, the Nite Coach was typically staffed by a porter and two drivers, one of whom typically slept while the other drove. According to Davis, the porter, who was normally African-American, had the best job of all:

"They earned as much money on one of these trips as a driver did in a month. The soft drink and food concessions were entirely theirs, and the ice they used was furnished free by the company. At the end of the line, the porter usually tipped the drivers anywhere from five to ten dollars each."

The following letter to the editor appeared in the June 25, 1928 issue of Time magazine:

“Pickwick Stages

“Sirs: Aren't you a little "behind TIME"?

“In TIME, June 4, there is a short article concerning transcontinental motor stage service instituted by the California Transit Co. of Los Angeles.

“Please note that the Pickwick Stages System, also of Los Angeles, has been operating transcontinental motor stage service for some months, utilizing strictly its own coaches straight through from California to Philadelphia, by way of Phoenix, El Paso, St. Louis and Indianapolis—with an optional route by way of Salt Lake City and Denver.

“You will also be interested in knowing that this company designs and builds all its own equipment—that it operates over some 8,000 miles of highway routes.

“Here's another interesting one. Pickwick Started about three years ago to operate Observation-Dining cars along the California Coast High-Way, between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. These stages now have upper decks, raised pilot houses for drivers, lavatory, radio, kitchen, and chef who prepares and serves hot meals while the cars are in motion.

“Charles F. Wren, of Los Angeles, is the guiding spirit and president of the Pickwick System, who has consistently pushed motor stage service across from West to East, and who has sponsored the many original features of equipment and service begun by this company.

Beaumont & Hohman,
Los Angeles, Calif.”

The Nite Coach was debuted to the public during the 1928 Pacific Southwest Exposition which was held in Long Beach, California. Movie star Clara Bow was pictured with the vehicle and its picture was published in numerous newspapers and magazines, many of which included re-formatted versions of Pickwick's press release. Three slightly different versions follow. The first is from the August 14, 1928 Capital Times, Madison Wisconsin:

“Newest Motor Coach Is Veritable Hotel on Wheels Has Dining Rooms, Berths and Balcony

“$30,000 Vehicle Will Be Used On San Diego, 'Frisco Trip

“The newest in the line of motor transportation is the Pickwick ‘Nitecoach’, a veritable hotel on wheels, having thirteen double sleeping compartments which may be converted to dayrooms, a kitchen and dining facilities, and a second deck for use in fair weather.

“Dwight Austin, engineer of the Pickwick Co., is the designer and inventor of this palatial motor bus, which will be used between Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. Its construction was finished on July 30, and the coach was to be shown at the Long Beach Pacific Southwest exposition before making its maiden trip.

“Over 34 Feet Long

“The ‘Nitecoach’ is 34 feet and six inches long, eight feet wide, ten feet high, weighs 14,000 pounds, and cost $30,000. Following are the complete details of the new road monster. Here are a few points of interest:

“Construction: Solid metal throughout, steel frame and cross-members with Duralumin body. Duralumin stronger than steel and as light as aluminum. No wood in body or coachwork. There is no chassis on the ‘Nitecoach’ –Heavy frame of I- beam steel around the car just below the lower berth windows serves as chassis and as a guard rail which protects the coach and passengers

“Sleeping accommodations: Capacity 26 passengers in 13 compartments. The compartments are arranged in upper and lower decks with an aisle running down the center or the coach. Single step from aisle to either upper or lower deck. Each compartment accommodates 2 people and is equipped with upper and lower berths. Passengers, sit facing each other during the daytime and the seats are used to form the berths at night. Each berth is 6 ft. 4 inches long and of ample width, beds are covered with a mattress which is carried under the scats. Adjoining the bed is a dressing space with full head room and heavy draw curtains to cut it off from the rest of the car. In each compartment are five lights, a thermos jug of ice water, a wash basin with running water, an extra seat for convenience in dressing, two large drawers for the clothing and personal effects of passengers and space to store two suitcases.

“Portholes For Ventilation

“Ventilation: Each compartment has three windows and two portholes. Large center window closed at night and smaller windows on each end of berth are opened. Portholes supply ventilation to lower berths. Fan ventilation system supplies warm or cold air to individual compartments as desired.

“Interior finish: Ceilings and walls of coach are lined with composition paneling which serves as a noise deadener as well as insulator against weather. The floor is of composite composition. Seats upholstered in brown-green upholstery which blends with the finish of the coach. Artistic drape curtains over all windows. Unbreakable glass divisions between compartments and aisle space are provided with curtains for privacy.

“Kitchen and lavatory: Lavatory located directly in the rear of the car and equipped with flushing toilet, chemical tank for collection of waste, wash stand with running water and full length plate glass mirror. The kitchen is located in the entranceway of the car and is complete in every detail. Range, percolator, toaster, ice box and cooking utensils as well as table wear for 20 passengers carried. Meals will be served on tables in the compartments.

“Uses 6-Cylinder Motor

“Outside finish: The car is a radical departure from any previous design, streamlined to the last degree. Portholes and windows make it resemble an ocean liner. Finished in blue, black and grey lacquer.

“Motor: A powerful 6-cylinder motor built entirely in the Pickwick shops is used. An unusual feature is the fact that the motor, transmission and all units around the motor can be slid out and replaced by a new power plant in a few minutes time by merely loosening 4 bolts and disconnecting electric, gas and oil lines. This will be used on all future Pickwick equipment and will eliminate delays due to motor trouble. Reserve motors will be kept at all terminal points. Motor generates 110 horsepower

“Crew: Cook and steward to care for car and make up berths, and driver.

“Miscellaneous: Designed and invented by Dwight Austin, brilliant Pickwick engineer who also drafted plans for Pickwick Observation Buffet car with raised observation seats and raised driver's cab. Austin personally drafted plans for the Nitecoach on a specially constructed 30 foot drawing board.”

A slightly altered version of the release was published in the August 26, 1928 Pittsburgh Press:

“First Auto Bus Sleeper Ready For Use

“Amazing Pickwick Coach has Sleeping Quarters for 26 Passengers, Crew.

“Special To the Pittsburgh Press

“Los Angeles, Aug 25, 1928 – What seems to be the final stage in motor bus construction seems to have been reached in the ‘Nitecoach’ bus introduced this week by the Pickwick Stages systems at the Pacific Southwest Exposition in Long Beach, Cal.

“The spectacular car containing 13 compartments offers comfortable sleeping quarters for 26 people, a complete dining service, lavatory and many other unusual features. Its has been christened by Clara Bow, vivacious screen star, in the presence of more than 20,000 people at the exposition.

“Designed and built in atmosphere of greatest secrecy in the Pickwick shops here, the new car has come as a complete surprise to the transportation world and to the public. At first glance, it appears to be a gleaming blue and gray submarine on bulging balloon tires, for it is gracefully streamlined and is equipped with portholes as well as big observation windows.

“There is no hood as on the ordinary motor bus, the portion of the body containing the driver’s compartment being built directly over the motor.

“But the big surprise is to find that this compact vehicle, no larger than other deluxe cars being operated by the Pickwick System, has sleeping room for 26 adults, with comfortable sleeping space during the day as well. The entrance is an arched doorway near the front of the car, opening immediately on a compact kitchen which is part of the regular equipment. His section opens into a high-roofed center aisle running the length of the car, on either side of which are found 13 compartments on the upper and lower decks.

“The mystery of where so many passengers can find both seating and sleeping accommodations is cleared up when the car is examined. By an ingenious arrangement, upper and lower compartments are made to interlock, reducing the height of the car to only a few inches above the ordinary single-deck stage. The center aisle is located half way between the floors of upper and lower decks, so that it is but a short step down or up to either level.

“Miniature Staterooms

“Head room of center aisle is seven feet from floor to ceiling, and the aisle is 22 inches wide. Heavy sliding curtains give privacy to each compartment at night. With curtains drawn aside, each compartment is revealed as a little stateroom, with two deep cushioned chairs facing each other and a wide three-paneled window extending its full length. These windows, all moveable, have both shades and draw curtains.

“That these compartments are deserving to be called staterooms is shown by the following features: In each there is a built-in thermos jug of ice water and a gleaming nickel wash basin with running water. Two sliding drawers, measuring 14 by 17 inches, are for clothing and personal effects. There is space where a suitcase may be stored, making it completely accessible at all times. It is almost impossible, until one has seen the car, to imagine where all this space in each compartment can be.

“A porter demonstrates the most interesting featured of the ‘Nitecoach’ by making up the berths in a compartment. He deftly swings up the back of each seat, which is hinged at the top, until lower ends join, thus forming a single bed 24 inches wide. This makes the upper berth. From under the seats he produces a mattress and lays it over the cushioned seat backs, adding linen and blankets to make a snug and inviting bed. The lower berth is just as easily made up. The lower portion of each seat is in two sections, which are arranged along the floor to form a continuous cushion. With the blankets and pillow, this also becomes a comfortable bed.

“Full Head Room

“The interlocking feature of compartments allows a private dressing room for each, directly adjoining. This space is six feet four inches high, permitting occupants of the compartment to stand upright while dressing. It is a little over three feet long, and while only 18 inches wide, the berth space gives additional room to make dressing easy. A plate glass mirror above the wash basin is an additional convenience. The dressing room is curtained off from the aisle and is provided with a folding seat.

“Five electric lights in each compartment five plenty of illumination. There is one light at the head and one at the foot of each bed, as well as one in the dressing room, all controlled by individual switches. The aisle is also indirectly lighted at night.

“Ventilation and heating are given much attention, When berths are made up a night, the wide center windows are locked shut, for safety, but the two smaller windows in each compartment can be opened at the will of the occupants. In addition, there are portholes all around the car, which give perfect ventilation, aided by electric fans. In cold weather fresh fan-circulated warm air is forced through the car.

“Hot Meals Served

“In the compact kitchen in the front of the car a steward prepares hot lunches on order at any time of the day. They are served on large trays to passengers in their compartments. The chef’s culinary equipment is ample, consisting of a sizable range, refrigerator, coffee percolator, food containers, space for all cooking utensils and tableware. Aisle space at the entrance of the car gives plenty of elbow room in the kitchen while the car is in motion and door closed.

“The construction features of the ‘Nitecoach’ are next in interest after curiosity about sleeping arrangements has been satisfied. The car is different in construction from any previous type of motor stage. It has no chassis, as the word is generally understood, the frame and body being one unit. For additional strength they are riveted together, not bolted. The heavy frame of I-beam steel is seen on the outside of the car, extending clear around as a graceful bend or belt line. Passengers on the lower deck are inside this sturdy, practically impregnable to outside shocks.

“More Engine Power

“Proportions of the new car are imposing, but do not exceed those of the ordinary large motor stage. The ‘Nitecoach’ measures 34 feet four inches long, 10 feet three inches high and eight feet wide. The weight is about 14,000 pounds, actually less that that of some cars Pickwick is now operating. This light weight is due to the use of Duralumin in the construction of nearly every part of the body. This is a costly metal that is as strong as steel but as light as aluminum. Duralumin, according to Pickwick engineers, is less easily crystallized than steel, adding greatly to the safety of vehicles constructed of it. Cross members of four-inch seamless steel tubing, placed at frequent intervals, add to the rigidity and strength of the ‘Nitecoach’ body. Sheets of Duralumin cover the whole car in a solid shell, lined with thermosote, a composition paneling which serves as insulation against heat and cold.

“Motor Pickwick Made

“The motor in the ‘Nitecoach’ is an exclusive Pickwick design and construction. IT develops over 110 horsepower, ample for sustained power over all kinds of highways. The differential, transmission and other important units are also the product of this company’s plant.

“A remarkable new feature developed by the engineers is the manner in which the motor can be removed for repair or replacement. A few bolts are loosened, oil, gas and electric lines disconnected, and the complete power plant is slid forward and out of the frame almost instantly. The feature will eliminate delays due to motor trouble, for the motor can be taken out and a new one bolted in place anywhere along the route.

“The driver, in a compartment entirely separate from the passengers, is located immediately above the motor, high enough to give him a much better view of the highway than is possible in ordinary motor stages. The engine is quickly accessible beneath the floor boards.

“The Pickwick system has a brilliant young engineer named Dwight Austin, whose brain furnished almost every detail of the ‘Nitecoach’. He completed the design early in 1928 and construction was begun the middle of May. The car was completed the last of July – a surprising record, considering that an entirely new type of car was being built and every detail of design and construction was new and puzzling.”

The Pickwick story is continued HERE

© 2004 Mark Theobald -



The Pickwick story is continued




James E. Reading - The San Diego and Escondido Stage, The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1957 issue

Larry Plachno - Integral Construction, National Bus Trader, Feb 2005 issue

Deluxe Night Bus Has Private Berths - Modern Mechanix, Jul, 1935 issue

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

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