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:
“ARIZONIAN ESTABLISHES FIRST CALIF. AUTO TRAIN SERVICE
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.
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
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
“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.
“F. R. McCABE
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
“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
“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
“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
“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.
“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
“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
“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 - Coachbuilt.com