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Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Thomas Built Buses, Inc., Thomas Built Buses div. of Freightliner, Thomas Built Buses div. of Daimler Trucks N.A.
Perley A. Thomas Car Works 1916-1972; Thomas Built Buses, 1972-1998; Thomas Built Buses div. of Freightliner LLC, 1998-2008; Thomas Built Buses div. of Daimler Trucks North America LLC, 2008-present; High Point, N.C.; 2002-present, Jamestown, N.C.; Thomas Built Buses of Canada Ltd., 1962-2001; Woodstock, Ontario, Canada; Thomas Built Buses de Mexico; 1996-2008, Daimler Vehículos Comerciales México, S. de R.L. de C.V., 2008-present, Monterrey, Mexico; Carrocerias Ecuatorianas Thomas SA, 1970-1990s; Quito, Ecuador; Carrocerias Thomas del Peru, S.A., 1970s-1990s; Callao, Peru
Associated Firms
Southern Car Company

As one of North America's top three school bus manufacturers - the other two being Blue Bird (Fort Valley, Georgia) and IC - Navistar (Conway, Arkansas) - High Point, North Carolina's Thomas Built Buses delivers thousands of school buses to the market each year. Initially a reorganization of High Point, North Carolina's Southern Car Co., by its chief engineer, Perley A. Thomas (b. Sept. 17, 1874 – d. Apr. 28, 1958), the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, transitioned from street car builder to school bus builder in the mid-thirties. Thomas went on to become one of the nation's 'big six' school bus builders and in 1972 were reorganized as Thomas Built Buses, Inc. In 1998 the business was acquired by Freightliner LLC, and remains in business today as a  subsidiary of Daimler Trucks N.A.

Perley Albert Thomas was born on September 17, 1874 on a farm near Chatham, Ontario, Canada to John Andrew (b.1846-d1927) and Margaret Jane (Cunningham, b.1850-d.1934) Thomas, two Scottish immigrants. Siblings included George, Alex and Grace (twins), Mabel, Louise, Maude, Caroline and Rose. His father John was a journeyman millwright who supplemented his sporadic income through farming and woodworking.

The 1881 Canadian Census lists his residence as Harwich, Kent, Ontario, Canada. Young Thomas received his elementary education in the public schools of Kent, Ontario, which he supplemented with a correspondence course in mechanical drawing (drafting). Vocationally he was enamored with woodworking, and as a teenager amassed a large collection of hammers, chisels, and vises which he used to create chests of drawers, tables, chairs and mantels for his neighbors. The 1891 Canadian Census lists his residence as Chatham, Kent, Ontario, Canada.

Situated between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, the municipalities of Chatham - Kent were the center of much boatbuilding activity at the turn of the century and Perley found work as a draftsman and apprentice shipwright with a yet-un-named Canadian boat builder. By the time he was 22 he had saved an amount sufficient to marry his childhood sweetheart and on August 3, 1897 wed Margaret J. (Maggie) Milne in a ceremony in Mitchell, Perth, Ontario, Canada. Born on September 28, 1875 in Hamilton, Ontario his wife was also the child of two Scottish immigrants named John and Margaret (John and Margaret (Shankey) Milne). To the blessed union were born four children: Melva Isabella (m. Wm. H. Price - b. Mar. 12, 1898 in Canada, emigrated to US in 1902, d. Dec. 21, 1991), John Willard (b. 1901 in Canada, emigrated to US in 1902, d. 1972), James Norman (b. 1903 in Mich., d. 1996) and Mary E. (b. 1916 in N.C. - d. 1983) Thomas.

On June 6, 1901, Perley moved to Detroit, Michigan where he took a position as draftsman with the Detroit United Railroad (DUR), a major metropolitan electric railway operator which offered both passenger and freight service between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. The only listing I could locate for him in Detroit was in the1903 City Directory: Pearl A. Thomas, cabtmkr., h.123 22d.

In 1906, Thomas moved to the northeastern Cleveland suburb of Collinwood, where he took a drafting position with the G.C. Kuhlman Car Co., a subsidiary of the J.G. Brill & Co. of Philadelphia. The Detroit United Railway was one of Kuhlman’s top customers and it’s likely he established a connection with Kuhlmann while working for the DUR. He continued his vocational training by taking night courses in engineering at Cleveland’s Case Institute of Technology and is listed in the 1907-1911 Cleveland Directories as: ‘Perley A. Thomas, draftsman, r. 954 Brooks ave., Collinwood.’

The 1910 US Census lists Perley A. (b.1875 in Canada, emigrated in 1902, occupation ‘draftsman’ at ‘car works’), Margaret (b.1875 in Canada, emigrated in 1902), Melva F. (b.1898 in Canada, emigrated in 1902), John W. (b. 1901 in Canada, emigrated in 1902, d.1972) and James M. (b.1903 in Michigan, d. 1996) Thomas.

While working on a project with two Stone & Webster* engineers, Thomas was made aware of a job opening as chief engineer with the Southern Car Company, a small streetcar manufacturer located in High Point, North Carolina.

(*Founded in 1890 by two electrical engineers, Charles Stone and Edwin Webster, Stone & Webster, 147 Milk St., Boston, Mass., were a well-known electrical consulting firm that specialized in the construction, acquisition and management of electric - and later nuclear - utilities.)

He followed up on the lead and soon found himself in charge of Southern Car’s design and engineering department. A similar job offer had been tendered by the Cincinnati Car Co., a much larger concern, but Perley’s wife Margaret, fed up with the cold and dreary northern winters, strongly suggested he take the North Carolina job and he agreed.

The Southern Car Company*, which was a 1904 reorganization of the street car business of Amesbury, Massachusetts’ Briggs Carriage Company, claimed in advertisements that they had retained ‘the services of the skilled car builders from the North’ and had moved to North Carolina to take advantage of ‘the best timber section of the South.’

(*unrelated to the Southern Car & Foundry Co. of Chicago, Illinois; Gadsden & Adams, Alabama & Memphis & Lenoir, Tennessee, another rolling stock builder.)

Founded by Richard F. Briggs in 1866, the Briggs company had started life as a manufacturer of carriages, coaches and wagons. In 1889 they diversified into the manufacture of streetcars and other rolling stock constructing a new, two-story purpose-built factory with its own railroad siding. J.G. Brill’s  George Fowler was hired as foreman and production commenced in 1890, with coachwork supplied by Briggs body builders. Briggs constructed hundreds of streetcars for regional surface transportation operators and began building automobile bodies for Bridgeport Connecticut’s Locomobile when the streetcar local streetcar market had becme saturated, eventually halting all streetcar production after a 3-month strike in early 1903.

Richard F. Briggs’ son Edward R., discovered demand for streetcars in the southern US was still expanding and convinced a group of High Point, North Carolina businessmen to finance a new firm, which began conducting business in April 1903 as the Southern Car Company. Early officers included J. Elwood Cox, president; Ernest Ansel Snow, vice president; Edward R. Briggs, Secretary-Treasurer; with George Fowler – Briggs’ and Brill’s former plant manager, superintendent.

Briggs influence can be seen in the design of Southern’s single truck closed body and open cross bench cars; even to the point of using pictures of old Briggs cars in their advertising. Single truck cars of the Salisbury & Spencer Railway of North Carolina built before 1906 are said to be typical examples. Southern Car’s coaches were typical of the period with the exception of the Merrymaking convertible parlor car, which allowed its passengers the option of travelling with or without the elements. 

A period description of a Southern Car mentions:

“Enameled stanchions placed as to encourage passengers to take the proper handhold in boarding and alighting... instead of hand straps, white enameled tubing is arranged over the longitudinal seats in a horizontal position convenient for handholds... the floor is of tongue and groove yellow pine with the roof of half inch poplar with number eight canvas duck. The interior finish is dark cherry color with light green trim and the outside of the car is painted dark green.”

A fire destroyed the main structure of the Car Company during the evening of February 8, 1908; the February 10, 1908 edition of the High Point Daily Enterprise reporting:

“Southern Car Company Sustains Heavy Loss

“Main Building Covering Over An Acre is Burned: Loss between $80,000 and $100,000

“Insurance Carried only $28,000. A Big Loss – Twenty-three Valuable Cars are Burned – Will Build Block as Soon as Possible

“One of the most destructive fires in the history of the city in dollars and cents occurred here Saturday night when the main plant of the Southern Car Co. was completely destroyed, together with all machinery. The alarm was sounded at 10:15 o’clock and the firemen responded promptly, but all that could be done was to save the adjacent buildings.

“The loss is between $80,000 and $100,000, with about $30,000 insurance. There were 23 cars, worth several thousand dollars, thirteen of which were ready to go out and these were also destroyed. The origin of the fire is unknown, but it is believed to have stared in the cabinet room.

“The plant is located almost a mile from the business section of the city and by the time the fire companies arrived the mammoth building was on fire all over and there was no chances to save it. Work was then directed to saving new addition; a number of cars were also in course of construction and which is used as a finishing room and for other purposes. This and other buildings and a string of box cars standing on the side tracks were saved by the firemen or the loss would have been at least double what it was. The cars caught fire twice, but were promptly put out.

“A large black horse belonging to the company was driven from the stables only to return at once and drop dead from the heat by the time the stable was reached.

“The Southern Car Co. was organized in 1903 and the buildings were of brick. It was the only company making electric cars of its kind south of Wilmington, Delaware.

“The officers of the company are: President, J. Elwood Cox; Vice-President, E.A. Snow; Secretary and Treasurer, E.R. Briggs. The loss is a heavy one to the stockholders and High Point, also in that it was the only factory of its kind here, and it is to be hoped that out of the ashes will arise a better and larger plant, this being given out by Mr. Briggs today. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour the whole city seemed to be out to witness the big fire, which burned for several hours.

“A meeting of the stockholders will be held in a few days.

“The Enterprise feels keenly the loss of this plant to the town and sympathizes with the losers.”

One week later the February 19, 1908 edition of the High Point Enterprise announced the owners 'will rebuild at once':

“Though the Smoke Has Scarcely Died Away Rebuilding Has Begun

“Will Rebuild At Once

“Southern Car Plant to Rise From Ashes – One of the Best Plants in Every Way in The City

“As announced Wednesday the meeting of the stockholders of the Southern Car Co. was held this morning. There was full attendance. Mr. R.E. Briggs, of Amesbury was here to attend the meeting.

“It was decided at the meeting this morning to rebuild the shops at once. This is all the business transacted at today’s meeting.

“The decision to rebuild the plant will be good news to all. In fact High Point could entertain no other idea that to replace the valuable enterprise.”

The firm's hiring of Thomas coincided with a reorganization and recapitalization of the firm, the April 7, 1911 issue of Railway Age Gazette reporting:

“Plans for the reorganization of the Southern Car Company, High Point, NC, have been completed. J.B. Duke, president of the American Tobacco Company, Jersey City, N.J. and W.G. Brokaw of New York have taken the lead in the reorganization.”

The April 28, 1911 issue of Railway Age Gazette confirmed the recapitalization via a $200,000 offering of new stock:

“The Southern Car Company, High Point, N. C., will increase its capital stock from $100,000 to $300,000.”

The $200,000 would finance Southern Car’s transition from manufacturing wood streetcars to all-steel units, a program spearheaded by its new designer, Perley A. Thomas, J.L. Morris, the firm’s new president, and Albert H. Sisson, the firm's new production manager who came to the firm with a stunning resume (Jewett Car, St. Louis Car and Forsyth Bros.).

Southern Car went on to produce small numbers of all-steel cars for the Philadelphia and Western Railway (11 cars), Capitol Transit of Washington, DC (10 cars), and the New Orleans Railway and Light Company which ordered 52 400-series cars in 1915. The Thomas-designed 400s were comfortable and well-ventilated, proving popular with operators in northern (New York City) and southern (San Juan, Puerto Rico) climates.

The 1915 NC Corporation Commission Report, Vol. 16, reported Southern Car Co. had issued 249,212 shares of capital stock valued at $50,000, $21,000 assessed value of real estate. Unfortunately increased competition in the form of deals and price cuts from Brill and St Louis Car, forced Southern Car into receivership and closure in early 1916.

Southern’s skilled woodworkers found jobs with High Point’s furniture factories, while Perley A. Thomas started his own firm, the High Point Mantel Company, specializing in hardwood offices, fireplace mantels, staircases, home furnishings and parochial furniture.

During the summer of 1916 he was approached by a Charlotte, North Carolina streetcar operator who wanted him to convert their fleet of open coaches into convertible ones.
Thomas sent a small crew of ex-Southern Car craftsmen to Charlotte to complete the work, which was done in the car barns of the Southern Public Utilities Co.

Thomas rationalized that there were other operators that might be interested in having similar work done, and with a $6,000 loan from a High Point banker purchased Southern Car’s equipment at its bankruptcy auction and installed it in the former Sunnyside Ice Co. plant. His two sons, John Willard and James Norman Thomas, joined him in the new enterprise which began conducting business in the style of the Perley A. Thomas Car Works.

The skeleton crew now numbered thirty, who were kept busy converting 4 more cars for the Winston-Salem branch of the Southern Public Utilities’ electric railroad. In April of 1917 the Car Works won an additional contract to convert 9 coaches for the U.S. Navy shipyards in Mobile, Alabama. The Trade Notes column of the January 5, 1918 issue of Electric Railway Journal announced the organization of the new enterprise to the trade:

“Perley A. Thomas, formerly chief engineer of the Southern Car Company, has now established a business for himself in High Point, NC. Mr. Thomas has had many years’ experience in car work of all kinds.”

The same issue’s Rolling Stock column stated they had also completed some cars for the Montgomery Alabama streetcar operator:

“Southern Public Utilities Company, Charlotte, NC, and the Montgomery Light & Traction Company, Montgomery, Ala., have recently changed a number of their open end cars to the prepayment type. The work was done in the shops of Perley A. Thomas, High Point, NC.”

The Rolling Stock column of the June 8, 1918 issue of Electric Railway Journal listed additional projects:

“Perley A. Thomas Car Works, High Point, NC, will be the builder of the four steel cars for the Southern Public Utilities Company, mentioned in this department two weeks ago, and not the Southern Car Company. The Perley Thomas company has succeeded to the business and plant of the Southern Car Company.”

The July 6, 1918 issue of Transit Journal published a clarification:

“Perley A. Thomas, manufacturer of cars and car materials, High Point, N. C., writes that he did not take over the car manufacturing plant of the Southern Car Company, as mentioned in a recent note in these columns, but conducts only the Perley A. Thomas Car Works.”

The Car Works also commenced manufacturing all-new cars; during 1918 Southern Public Utilities ordered two streetcars for its Winston-Salem operations and the Manhattan Three Cent Line ordered two new cars for its Manhattan Bridge crossing. Another Manhattan-based firm, the Anaconda Copper Co., purchased 4 streetcars to transport miners in Montana, other orders included 12 cars for Miami, 4 for San Juan, Puerto Rico and a single car for Havana, Cuba.

At the end of its first official year in business, The Thomas Car Works purchased a 30-acre parcel to provide room for the expanding operation, the December 28, 1918 issue of the Electric Railway Journal reporting:

“Perley A. Thomas, High Point, NC, has purchased 30 acres of land upon which he has erected several new buildings which, in addition to the mill and cabinet shop which he already had, puts him in position to take care of construction of steel or wooden cars, or to repair cars. He has now several orders for steel cars going through the shop and is repairing quite a number of others.”

The 1920 US Census lists the Thomas family in High Point, N.C. as follows: Perley A. (b.1875 in Canada, emigrated in 1902, occupation ‘manager’ at ‘car works’), his wife Margaret (b.1875 in Canada, emigrated in 1902), and children; Melvia F. (b.1898 in Canada, emigrated in 1902), John W. (b. 1901 in Canada, emigrated in 1902, d.1972), James N. (b.1903 in Michigan, d. 1996) and Mary E. (b.1916-d.1983) Thomas.

In 1921, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (aka NOPSI), the successor to NORL, decided to standardize on Thomas’ design, placing a series of orders, eventually numbering  150 cars, that were to be delivered from late 1921 into 1924. As the small Thomas works couldn't cope with the numbers required, in order to meet deadlines, they were forced to sublet some of the orders to Brill, but all the streetcars were based on his design.

The company had already delivered 25 streetcars to New Orleans when disaster struck in late 1921. A fire, apparently starting in a clogged-up dust removal system, swept through the plant, destroying 14 uncompleted New Orleans streetcars, the September 19, 1922 edition of the High Point Enterprise (NC) reporting:

“Thomas Car Works Destroyed By Fire Here Last Night: Loss of About $225,000 Is Incurred

“Fire of undermined origin here shortly after 6 o’clock last night partly destroyed the plant of the P. A. Thomas Car Works, west of the city on the Southern railroad tracks, entailing a loss estimated today by P.A. Thomas to reach $225,000.

“The fire is believed originated in the woodworking shop, but what caused the blaze had not been determined by Mr. Thomas today.

“An alarm was turned in and the firemen responded promptly, but they were unable to make any headway in combatting the flames because of the distance of the plant from a water hydrant, the plant being outside the city limits.

“Forty links of hose were connected, furnishing one stream of water, but this was insufficient for the firemen to make any success in fighting the blaze.

“Mr. Thomas today estimated loss to electrical equipment to reach $15,800; air break equipment, $8,000; and losses in other departments reaching a total of $225,000.

“It was explained that the car works recently received a contract for 25 trolley cars for New Orleans. Work on these cars was under way. This contract called for an expenditure of approximately $300,000. Mr. Thomas said.

“Insurance men are expected her Friday to look into the situation, and Mr. Thomas did not state today whether he would open the plant again. He said he hoped to do this, however, it depending upon the results of the conference with the insurance men.

“Workmen were not in the plant at the time of the fire. They stopped work at 5:30, and the flames were discovered shortly before 6 o’clock.”

Within a few hours of the fire, the president of the J.G. Brill Car Company in Philadelphia called Thomas with an offer of $25,000 of he would agree not to build any streetcars for the next five years. Realizing more money could be had by staying in business, Thomas refused and go back to work. He took a $100,000 deposit from NOPSI (New Orleans) and purchased all the parts needed for the next batch of 55 cars. During the coming year Thomas filled that 55-car order, plus a second for 25 additional cars. Between 1916 and 1928 New Orleans would receive more than 100 streetcars manufactured by the Thomas Car Works, a quarter of the firm total production.  Before 2005’s hurricane Katrina, there were 35 cars of the 900-series built in 1922/23 still running on the St. Charles line.

During the mid-twenties Thomas advertised its 'DUCO' process to residents of North Carolina, through display ads in local and regional newpapers, although automtive refinishing was never a large part of the firm's business.  The firm's 125 workman were kept busy in the main factory where a total of nine street cars (3 parallel siding, holding 3 cars each) could be found in various states of construction. It took about six days to build a single streetcar, and the factory's output averaged seven cars per week. Despite the space limitations, Thomas was the fourth largest street car manufacturer in the U.S. during 1924, with only the J.G. Brill, St. Louis Car and Cincinnati Car having a larger share of the market.  A period Thomas ad proclaimed:

“Thomas Built cars are going everywhere in ever-increasing numbers. Why do traction companies come to High Point, North Carolina, for new cars? Because 'Thomas Built cars' are built with an individual care and attention to details that insures attractive finish throughout and a long life of satis factory service. Furthermore, Perley A. Thomas' prices and quick deliveries appeal to the railway field. Let us quote on your new cars?”

Another large order came from the Detroit United Railroad which ordered 100 cars in 1926, the Associated Press newswire for October 11, 1926 reporting:

“Detroit (AP) – The city council today approved purchase of 100 street cars from the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, High Point, N.C., for $13,600 each.”

The 52-passenger DUR cars, which weren' t completed until 1929, were the longest the company had ever made, at more than 48 feet long and had the largest doorways, 5 ft. 4 in. wide. During their 14 years in the street car business the Thomas Car Works delivered cars to street railway systems in Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC; New York City; Chicago, IL; New Orleans, LA; Charlotte, NC; Greenville, NC; High Point, NC; Mobile, AL; Sheffield, AL; Detroit, MI; Miami, FL; Augusta, GA; Knoxville, TN; San Juan, Puerto Rico and Havana, Cuba.

Thomas' last order for streetcars came in 1930 when Mobile, Alabama's surface transit operator ordered 4 cars. That same year Thomas brought his children into the business as stockholders, reorganizing the firm as a stock company, the Perley A. Thomas Car Co., Inc.  His two sons, John Willard, and James M. Thomas, worked at the plant off and on while attending high school and college. In 1929 they were joined by their older sister Melva, who had gone to college, moved to Macon, Georgia, married (to William H. Price) and returned to High Point taking a postion as the firm's bookkeeper. Melva proved invaluable to the firm in later years serving as payroll supervisor, secretary to the president, office and insurance manager and check writer - the Car Works 'Help Wanted' classifieds for the next several decades listed Melva as the person to contact.

No one could have predicted the devestating effect the Depression would have on the firm. Between 1929 and 1934 Thomas’ work force suffered a 10-fold decrease, from 125 to less than a dozen, 3 of whom were his 0wn children. Thomas was determined to keep the company, John W. Thomas was forced to drop out of college and Perley returned to hand crafting furniture whenever he could find a customer.  The plant took in what little automobile refinishing and collision work was available  and constructed an occasional school bus and delivery truck body when the opportunity presented itself.  Despite the Thomas' family's valiant efforts one of the firm's creditors filed for receivership. As locating a buyer for the firm was unlikely, the judge agreed to let the firm continue its operations under the carfeul eye of the bank's representative, and they managed to sruvive, but just barely.

The firm's official history lists no projects during the years 1931 to 1932, the first glimmer of hope appearing in the form of an order for 4 trolley coaches - 2 for  Greensboro, NC in 1933, and 2 for Greenville, SC in 1934. The trolley coach was a hybrid of the streetcar and the bus; an electric-powered, rubber-tired bus that could move to the curb to pick up passengers, then swing back into the center of the street underneath the electric power lines.

In 1934 Thomas won an order for 10 transit buses for Anderson, South Carolina from  Duke Power Co., the successor to the Southern Public Utilities Co. an early Thomas Car Works customer. Duke Power was being generous to the firm as they had given a much larger order to Ohio's Twin Coach Co. for nearly identical coaches (Twin Coach model 23-R).

In 1936 the state of North Carolina advertised for bids for the construction of 500 wooden school bus bodies for its school system.

Although most street cars had converted over to all-metal construction in the teens, school buses were another matter. Although all-metal transit buses had been in production for more than a decade, school buses were another matter, as the safety of children was considered a low priority at the time. The contract called for a basic body with an all-weather roof, window openings with canvas shades and bi-lateral rows of inward-facing longitudenal bench seats running the length of the body. The driver had the benefit of the windshield and wiper motor furnished with the cowl and chassis, but even the headlights were deleted to save money - the buses would be driven during daylight hours only.

Knowing that they would have to beat the offers of their compeititors, which included Fort Valley Georgia's Blue Bird and Wilson, North Carolina's Hackney Bros.  Thomas' family history reports that the competition spread rumors about Perley A. Thomas Car Work's inability to meet the bid's financing and its specifications. One went so far as to suggest that the company didn't have access to the thick oak beams that secured the bus body to the frame.  When he heard the erroneous claims  Thomas  fired off a letter to N.C. School Transportation Superintendent C.C. Brown confirming that the company did indeed have the wooden supports and invited him to visit the factory to inspect them.

With a carefully prepared bid of $195 for a 17-foot bus, $205 for a 19-footer, and $225 for a 21-footer Thomas handily won the order, however their quote specified they could supply only 200 bodies in total as it couldn't afford to finance the capital required to purchase the raw materials need for the remaining 300. Consequently the state split the order between Thomas and Hackney Bros. The school bus order was completed in five months at which time Melva Price, Thomas' bookkeeper, announced that the company had made a profit on the order.

The next year North Carolina required 400 new buses, whose specifications were significantly revised compared to the previous year's requirements, the May 7, 1937 edition of the Robesonian (Lumberton, N.C.) reporting:

“State Buys 400 Bus Chassis and Bodies

“Raleigh - (AP) – The state board of awards purchased this week 400 school bus chassis and composite bodies for $387,305. Contracts were awarded in all cases to low bidders.

“The Sanders Motor company of Raleigh, Ford dealers, will supply the state with 400 16-foot chassis at $532 each. Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc., of High Point, will furnish 150 steel-and-wood bodies at $435 each and the Hackney Brothers company of Wilson will supply 250 similar bodies at $437.02. “The purchases brought the number of buses bought since the 1937 generally assembly adjourned to 750, for which a total of $737,339 was spent.”

During the late 1930's Thomas manufactured small numbers of travel trailers. Just as he had with his streetcars, Thomas insisted the quality of the woodwork exceed the competition's. Available in lengths of 15-, 19- and 21-feet the trailers were popular with traveling salesman and showmen and were even equipped with an outhouse-style toilet - essentially a seat mounted on a box above a 5-gallon bucket. Once the firm's school bus body business took off, they were forgotten, just like Thomas' bakery and milk trucks and unfortunately only a single picture survives which shows a lavish dark wooden interior more appropriate for a yachtsman than a 'tin can tourist'.

In 1938 Thomas Car Works introduced their first all-steel school bus body. The construction of Thomas' all-steel buses differed from the competitions by their utilization of a stamped single steel bow which extended in a large arc from one side of the bus to the other. Most of their competitors used a three-piece bow which was bolted or welded together. Thomas felt his competitors bolts or welds might fail in a crash or rollover, claiming his single piece of steel would fare much better. Thomas also weleded the bow to the outside of the frame, extending the ribs below the floor by several inches to stop smaller vehicles from running underneath the bus and overturning it in the event of a side-impact. Other features included a reinforced fire wall and outward-opening folding doors- at that time some of his competitors used a system where one door opened out, and the other opened in. Thomas reasoned that an accident might jam the inward door in the closed postion, his system allowed the doors to be forced open, a feature which soon became standard on all school buses.

A rise in fatal school bus accidents resulted in an April 1939 conference in New York City where representatives from all 48 states gathered to develop a set of national standards for school bus construction and operation. The symposium was chaired by Frank W. Cyr, a Columbia University professor and a former superintendent of the Chappell, Nebraska school district.

The conference was attended by representatives of the bus body industry and at the end of the 7-day event the group released a list of minimum standards and recommendations. Among them were specifications for type of construction, body length, ceiling height and aisle width and color.

Strips of different colors were hung from the wall and the participants in the conference slowly narrowed down the colors until three slightly different shades of yellow remained.

National School Bus Chrome became the chosen shade with slight variations allowed as yellow was a difficult color to reproduce exactly. Yellow had been decided upon because it provided good visibility in the semi-darkness of early morning and late afternoon.

Since then, 12 National School Transportation Conferences have been held, giving state and industry representatives a forum to revise existing and establish new safety guidelines operating procedures for school buses.

For many years the Federal Government allowed the industry to regulate itself, but they became directly involved in motor vehicle safety with the passing of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. A School Bus Safety Amendment was passed in 1974, and since that time the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued 36 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) which apply to school buses.

Two years after winning their first contract from the state of North Carolina, they won another bid for an additional 900 units, putting the firm on firm financial ground, or so they thought. Unfortunately the onset of the Second World War put a halt to all school bus production, as the transportation of students in modern school buses became a low priority. Thomas’ last order for buses went to the U.S. Marine Corps. who ordered a small fleet to transport new recruits at Camp Lejune, North Carolina.

As the 1940s began, Perley A. Thomas turned over the day-to-day operation of the firm to his children although he remained president; John Willard Thomas oversaw the firm's sales and management; James Norman Thomas oversaw factory production, engineering and purchasing while Melva Thomas Price kept track of everything else, handling hiring and firing, bill paying and accounts receivable. She was assisted by their younger sister Mary Thomas, who  joined the company in 1946, by which time John Willard’s two sons, John and Pat Thomas, and Melva's son, Bill Price, were also working for the firm.

At the onset of the War the Thomas Car Works were awarded a number of military contracts. One was for metal pontoons to be used by Army engineers to bridge rivers, and the second was for a truck bodies for GMC 2½-Ton, 6×6, CCKW military ordnance trucks which was shared with Ward Body Works of Conway, Arkansas, another school bus body builder.

One body was outfitted as a mobile small arms repair shop (M7A1 & M7A2), and a second variation was used by the Signal Corps. as a general repair truck (M30 & M31). A reported 15 examples were constructed each day, with over a thousand examples completed during the war. The bodies were given several numerical designations as follows:

G138 - Ordnance Maintenance Truck, 2½-Ton, 6×6, GMC CCKW; M7A1 Small Arms Repair Truck; M7A2 Small Arms Repair Truck

G229 - Ordnance Maintenance Truck, 2½-Ton, 6×6, GMC CCKW; M31 signal corps general repair truck

G235 - Ordnance Maintenance Truck, 2½-Ton, 6×6, GMC CCKW; M30 signal corps general repair truck

G508 - Ordnance Maintenance Truck, 2½-Ton, 6×6, GMC CCKW; M7 Van, small arms repair: M30 Signal corps repair

G711 – Signal Corp Communications Truck, K-53 Truck - 2½-Ton, 6×6, GMC CCKW; Signal Corps Van Body

During the War the Car Works also constructed several orders for military buses and also performed body repairs on army vehicles. For their efforts during the conflict Thomas Car Works received a citation from the Ordinance Section, U.S. Army.

To make sure that labor strife did not disrupt the round-the-clock manufacturing going on all over the nation, the federal government required that all its manufacturers of transportation equipment invite the United Auto Workers to organize their work forces.

Although they were 'invited' to participate by Thomas management, the union was narrowly voted down by Thomas workers, the May 23, 1942 edition of the High Point Enterprise reporting:

“Election at Thomas Car Works Here Lost By CIO Auto Workers.

“The United Automobile Workers of American, CIO affiliate, lost an election conducted under the supervision of the fifth region National Labor Relations Board at the Thomas Car Works yesterday.

“Of a total of 123 eligible to vote, 106 employees cast their ballots. Forty-seven voted in favor of the union as bargaining agent and forty-nine voted against it. The election was held by R.D. Windstead, labor board representative.”

Another War-time activity for the firm was the refurbishing of streetcars, the May 24, 1942 edition of the High Point Enterprise included an interview with James Norman Thomas, who discusses the project:

“Thomas Car Works is Remodeling St. Cars

“There is a substantial demand for new street cars in these days of restricted transportation, but ‘it is out of the question’ to build them. J. Norman Thomas vice-president of the P. A. Thomas Car Works here, said yesterday.

“Thomas, commenting on reports his company was making a large number of street cars, said the rumor probably originated from the fact that the concern was nearing completion of a contract for the remodeling of a number of street cars.

“‘There is quite a demand for street car's now,’ he added ‘but it is just out of the question to build them, because there is no way to get material.

“‘And even if we could get the material for our street cars, it would be useless to build them for any city which did not already have its tracks in place and available, because there is no material available for new tracks.

“A number of cities, however, still do have their tracks in place, even though street car service has been abandoned in favor of busses and there were indications that in the event the materials situation should become less acute before the transportation system shows signs of improvement there would be a revived interest in street cars.

“The cars Thomas Car has been remodeling will be used in Birmingham, Ala., whose street cars have never been abandoned. The cars were sent here from a New England town and Thomas said it was necessary to remodel them ‘to meet the different conditions to be found in Birmingham.’

“Last of the cars being remodeled will be shipped south next week, Thomas said.”

After the war, the demand for school buses returned. The system for school bus purchases varied state to state. Some state governments pooled all of their counties' orders together, others published a list of approved vendors, and a few provided no guidance whatsoever. Five of the nations 20+ school bus body builders competed in Thomas' home markets of North and South Carolina, and as time went on Thomas became better recognized in surrounding states. After the War A.S. Priddy, Thomas' first national sales manager, established the firm's first distributorship in the state of Pennsylvania.  Other distributorships in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia, soon followed.

The October 15, 1948 edition of the Daily News (Huntington, Penn.) included an article on a new Fiberglas reinforced rubber gasket Thomas had adopted for use on their bus bodies:

“New Type Gasket Material Used on Bus Doors

“A new-type, rot-proof gasket material, designed to remain pliable and resilient under cold weather conditions and long service use, is being installed on the vertical and windshield edges of folding doors of school busses built by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, High Point, N. C. The material, consisting of Fiberglas cloth coated with rubber, replaces a rubber-coated organic fabric formerly used on vertical door edges, and a molded rubber material used on windshield edges.

“Purpose of the gasket material on the vertical edges is two-fold - to make the doors weather-tight and to provide a safety factor. School bus standards, prepared by the National Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Commission on Safety Education, require a clearance between folding doors so that a child’s hand or fingers will not get be caught should the driver close the doors before the child is clear of them. In cold weather, the rubber-coated organic gasket material became so stiff that it could not make a weather-tight closure.

“Pliability and resilience of the rubber-coated Fiberglas gasket material - manufactured by St. Clair Rubber Company, Marysville, Michigan – is not appreciably affected by temperature conditions, this providing a weather-tight closure at all times. Installed on windshield edges, the resilient Fiberglas-rubber material is able to stand up under the jarring caused by opening and closing the doors, that in time broke down the molded rubber material.”

One story that appears in the firm's official history describes a tour of the Thomas plant by a long-term prospect from New York State, who remarked on how modern the plant was. When prodded, the gentleman admitted to his hosts, J.W. and J.N. Thomas, that sales representative for their competition hadtold him that:

“...the entire Thomas factory was little more than a barn with dirt floors... the employees worked in their bare feet... and its workers were uneducated hicks who did not know how to build safe buses.”

At the time the firm operated a totally modern assembly line manned by 350 skilled laborers with an output of from 6 to 7 finished buses per day.

The February 4, 1949 edition of the Biloxi Daily Herald announced that Thomas had been one of the low bidders on a contract to provide the state with all-steel bus bodies:

“Name Low Bidders For School Buses

“Jackson, Feb. 4 (AP) – The Mississippi Department of Education has named three low bidders for contracts to sell 400 all-steel school bus bodies to the state.

“T.H. Naylor, building and transportation director, said they were the Bluebird Body Company of Fort Valley, Ga., the Wayne Works of Richmond, Ind., and the Perley A. Thomas Car Works of High Point, N.C. Six companies bid on the bodies and more than 180 bids were entered for contracts to furnish the chassis.”

Perley's grandson, William E. Price Jr. (Melva's son) is credited with coming up with the 'Chick Bus' concept after observing a local chicken breeder who was using an old Thomas bus to transport cages of baby chicks from the hatchery to a grow-out farm. Price ran the project by the firm engineers, who after consulting with local breeders and processors, came up with a the Thomas-built 'Chick Bus.' The purpose-built vehicle included windows that opened from the outside, a ventilated floor and side walls and a heating/cooling system that kept the chicks at a constant temperature, year 'round. Soon afterwards a number of their competitors (Blue Bird) were building their own 'chick buses.'

John Willard Thomas' sons, John W. Jr. and Perley A. (Pat) Thomas were also contributing  to the firm's success. Using experience gained as a Naval supply officer, Pat assumed responsibility for Thomas' parts department and eventualy rested control of government contracts from his father. The US Government was a valued client, even during peacetime, its contracts for buses, trailers and other projects helped keep the plant buys duing the  winter months when most bus producion was put on hiatus.

The school bus business operated on an unusual schedule for most of the 20th century. Although school boards and superintendents put off ordering new buses for the coming school year until the very last minute – typically April or May – they demanded the vehicles be ready in time for the upcoming school year, typically the last two weeks of August or first week of September.

Unless the constructor was well-heeled, building school bus bodies was a highly seasonal enterprise, with four months on, then eight months off. Money was unavailable until deposits were made in the spring, and the flow of money ended when the buses were delivered in August. Consequently many Thomas employees were part-time farmers, relying upon their bus building income to tide them over during the hot summer sabbatical.

The April 13, 1954 edition of the Lumberton Robesonian reported on a recent contract shared between Thomas and their North Carolina neighbors:

“New Buses

“Raleigh (AP) – The State Board of Award yesterday ordered 650 new school buses. Quality Equipment Supply of Charlotte will furnish 350 and Hackney Bros. of Wilson and Perley A. Thomas Car Works of High Point, 150 each. They will mount the bus bodies on chassis furnished by General Motors' Chevrolet division and International Harvester Co.”

Established in 1948, Charlotte's Quality Equipment & Supply was not a bus body-builder, but rather a bus and truck body distributor who handled various manufacturer's lines.

In the days before the government got involved in the purchase of school buses, more often than not, coaches were sold to third parties unconnected to the school district. Most were local individuals or small fleet operators who had won a bid for transporting a certain number of students to a certain school. The sale of a school bus was more akin to selling a motor vehicle to a single customer, sometimes a lot of leg work was involved in order to get a single bus sold and financed. During the 1950s more money became available for school transportation and many school districts began operating their own fleets, buying their own buses and hiring their own drivers on a non-profit absolute cost basis.

Bids for bus fleets would be let at a certain place and time, each salesman knowing that if he could learn the exact amount of his competitors’ bids, he would more often than not win the contract, even if he beat it by just a dollar or two.

A salesman for Blue Bird named 'Red Willie' once described a popular scheme he had used to drum up business, called ‘the pigeon drop.’ It utilized an ‘inside man’, typically a secretary or assistant superintendent who was short on cash. Our salesman's ‘friend’ would place a fictitious too-high bid from his firm in plain sight on top of his desk just before a competing salesman was due to arrive. The 'mark' would submit a slightly lower bid, believeing his was now the lowest. Later in the day, our 'resourceful' salesman would arrive at his appointeded time with an even lower bid, and if the superintendent hadn't caught on, would be awarded the contract, as the low bidder was always awarded the contract.

The 'Saf-T-Liner' trade name first poped up in Thomas advertisements during the late-1950s concurrent with the introduction of the Saf-T-Vue windshield. During the  1950s the term 'Saf-T-Vue' referred to Thomas' new two-piece wrap-around windshield.  More recently Thomas used 'Safe-T-Vue' to describe the bonded glass window in the passenger side footwell of the 'Saf-T-Liner' C2. Located just ahead of the front entrance doors, the window allows the driver to see students in the right front blind spot in front of the stairwell. Both terms appeared sporadically during the next two decades, with Saf-T-Liner becoming a standard part of their exploitation from the mid-1970s onward. The following text is from a 1957 advertisement in Metropolitan magazine:

“Your Safest Investment • Thomas SAF-T-LINER from every angle • Safety is standard in Saf-T-Liners by Thomas. Since 1916, Thomas has converted quality materials into safe, comfortable, durable transportation. More safety per dollar is the logical result of these 41 years experience applied toward ever higher standards. It pays to compare! Before you invest in any school bus, insist on a demonstration. Compare all buses for safety . . . feature by ... feature and dollar for dollar. You'll find, as so many others have found, that SAF-T-LINER by Thomas gives your school children more protection for your money. Thomas again demonstrates its leadership in the school transportation field with an improved safety feature ... a .. curved, larger SAF-T-VUE windshield. Vision is increased 30% to give operators a new safety sightline. It's just one of the many safety features provided by Thomas. Thomas' economical operation gives you more for your transportation dollar. Arrange now for a demonstration! Free Booklet - Write today for this fully illustrated brochure on the Thomas SAF-T-LINER. Also we will send you the name of your nearby Thomas distributor who will gladly arrange a demonstration for you and answer all your questions.”

Perley A. Thomas retired from active management of the company in the late 1940s but retained the title of president until his passing on April 28, 1958 at the age of 84. He was survived by his four children, and his second wife, Joan (Madden, b.1880) Thomas. He was a long-time member of High Point's First Baptist Church, as well as the Elk and Masonic Lodges. He passsed away at his winter home in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was interred in Greenlawn Cemetery. 

Although the Auto Workers Union had been voted down by Thomas' workers druing the First World War, it had been approved shortly thereafter although no action had been initiated at the plant until mid- 1958, the January 4, 1959 edition of the Rocky Mount Evening Telegram reporting:

“Strike Vote Set Next Thursday

“High Point, N.C. (AP) — Union members will take a strike vote Thursday if agreement, on a renewed contract is not reached before then with the Thomas Car Works here.

“The company makes school bus bodies and fits them to truck chassis. James White, president of Local 63, United Auto Workers, said the local will vote Thursday whether to seek authorization from the national union to strike.

“The contract expired Nov. 27. White said some progress was made in first meetings with management, which began Nov. 17, but later meetings were stalemated. Company officials said negotiations were continuing.

“The issues at stake were not announced. About 120 workers will be eligible to vote Thursday. That's the normal work force, but only about 40 are working at present.

“A 10-day strike ended last summer with a wage raise of 12 to 16 cents more per worker for each unit produced.”

The April 7, 1960 edition of the High Point Enterprise included an entire page devoted to the history of the Car Works, which included a detailed description of the bus building process:

“P.A. Thomas Car Works Plant Goes From Trolley Cars To Buses

“by Robert Marks, Enterprise Sunday Editor

“Somewhere in the Old Quarter of New Orleans there is Streetcar No. 853 — the famous Streetcar Named Desire.

“In Mexico City, 100 trolley cars, built 30 years ago and recently purchased from the City of Detroit, have been placed in service in the city's transit system.

“Somewhere in North Carolina tomorrow, children will ride to school in a bright new orange bus.

“The New Orleans streetcar, the Mexico City trolleys and the North Carolina school bus are linked by a common thread. They all were made by High Point's P.A. Thomas Car Works Inc.

“The car works plant on Tryon Street is one of the city's largest, and unique, industries. It employs nearly 275 workers and can make school buses, its principal item of production, at the rate of one every 25 minutes.


“Founded in 1918 by Perley A. Thomas, the car works in the beginning manufactured trolley cars. But the trolley car market declined as the automobile came into greater use. The last big order came in 1930, when the company sold 100 trolley cars to Detroit. These were the cars recently purchased by Mexico City.

“Since 1930, the company has concentrated on the production of school bus bodies. Today, it has markets in more than 30 states as well as in Canada and in Central and South America.

“How to develop these markets further will be one of the major items of discussion when the car works holds its annual sales meeting here tomorrow and Tuesday.

“The assembly line is used in the production of the bus bodies. Parts are fed to the U-shaped line as it curves through the company's main building.


“The line begins with the welding of the floor for the bus body. The framework is added next. Then come the roof and side panels, the doors, and the installation of wiring and lights. At the far turn of the U in the assembly line, the body is attached to the truck bed. A paint booth and then an infra-red quick dry chamber put the finishing touches on the body. Glass and seats are installed, the interior is finished, a final check, is made of the body, and the bus is then ready for delivery.

“The State of North Carolina is the company's largest single customer. Basically, the school buses for the various states are similar, but there are some differences. Both North Carolina and Minnesota, for instance, want their buses painted a bright orange. For other states, the color is yellow.

“Special Order

“The car works also fills orders for transit buses and recently completed work on a ‘Chick’ bus. Made to order, the ‘Chick’ bus was designed to haul chicks up and down the East Coast. It required the installation of wider doors and a special heating system for handling of the chicks.

“Perley Thomas died in April, 1959, but the business is still in the Thomas family, being operated today by the children of the founder. J. W. Thomas Sr. is president; J. N. Thomas, vice president; Mrs. Melva Thomas Price, treasurer; and Miss Mary Thomas, secretary.

“Their children, in turn, are active in the operation and management of the car works.”

Another short biography of the firm included a story on how Perley A. (Pat) Thomas, the founder's grandson, had helped the Federal Goverment reduce overseas shipping costs, the March 9, 1961 edition of the High Point Enterprise reporting:

“Featured in the State Ports Magazine currently is a High Point Industry. It is the P.A. Thomas Car Works which was founded here in 1918 for the manufacture of street cars. It is a family owned business, management being in hands of J.W. Thomas as president; J. N. Thomas as vice-president; Mrs. Melva Thomas Price as treasurer, and Miss Mary Thomas as secretary. Six members of the third generation are also active in the operation and management. The company, which employs 275 people, produces one bus every 20 minutes. School and light transit buses have constituted 95 per cent of the firm's business since 1930, with sales ranging from Canada to South America. Largest single customer is the State of North Carolina which is among the largest users of school buses in the nation.

“Occasion of the story is the fact Thomas has come to be an important shipper through the State Ports with savings of thousands of dollars for the Air Force. The whole thing started when Pat Thomas, in charge of government sales for Thomas, came to realization that buses being made by his firm for the government were being driven to Charleston and Norfolk for loading aboard ships. He found that taking the same bus to Wilmington cost only $73 as against $116 to Charleston and $86 to Norfolk. Thomas, working with Harry Jackson, traffic manager for the State Ports Authority, got Wilmington and Morehead City added to the list of East Coast ports through which overseas shipments could be sent. December saw the first such consignment go out. Since then same hundred or so buses have been shipped through the Port of Wilmington, some few others through Morehead City. It has resulted, too, in Wilmington's being included as a possible port of exit for several other government contracts out for bids and more military shipments through State Port facilities, additional cargoes accruing at limes because they go along with the buses. This way the money remains in North Carolina instead of securing to another east coast state. Such things helped the Port Authority to return to the Stale recently a check for $100,000 as profits from operation of the State Ports, but the larger profit has been in the stimulation of trade throughout the stale by those ports.”

Despite the Thomas' family's exhaustive efforts to stay on the up and up, Thomas and their Austin, Texas distributor, J.K. Hurst,  were accused of price rigging, the April 26, 1961 edition of the San Antonio Express and News reporting:

“School Bus Makers Hit With Suits

“Four school bus body manufacturers and their exclusive Texas dealers were named defendants Friday in anti-trust suits filed in Austin and San Antonio by Atty. Gen. Will Wilson. Wilson said the suits are followup, ancillary actions to a suit he filed Aug. 16 accusing 16 Texas firms and individuals of rigging bids to fix prices on the sale in Texas of 5,100 school buses costing $23 million.

“‘The exclusive contracts between these Texas dealers and the manufacturing companies made possible the bid-rigging by the dealers,’ Wilson said.

“The latest suits allege a ‘conspiracy in restraint of trade,’ by destroying competition through exclusive sales agreements or contracts for the purchase and sale of school bus bodies in Texas. Wilson seeks permanent injunctions against further restraint of trade by the firms, and varying statutory penalties that could collectively total $6,780,000.

“At San Antonio, Carpenter Body Works, Inc., of Mitchell, Ind., and its Texas distributor, Commercial Body Corp., headed by John T. Lawson, 501 Eighth St., San Antonio, were named defendants.

“Named defendants in the suits filed in three Travis County district courts in Austin were:

“Blue Bird Body Co., of Fort Valley, Georgia, and its Texas distributor. Austin Sales Co., Inc., headed by Jack G. Fisk, 8419 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin.

“Ward Body Works of Texas, Inc., of Austin, headed by Charles D. Ward of 4201 S. Congress Ave., Austin, and The Texacoach Co., of Austin, headed by Fred Stroud. 106 Brown Bldg., Austin.

“Perley A. Thomas Car Works Inc., of High Point. N.C., and its Texas distributor. Hurst Bus Sales Co., headed by J. K. Hurst, 3913 Balcones Drive, Austin.

“Wilson asks the courts to assign penalties of $50 to $1,500 per day for each day of the alleged conspiracy, or totals of $226,000 to $6,780,000 for all eight defendants. The earlier suit sought to total possible penalties of $58 million.

“Ward Body Works and Texacoach are alleged to have violated the anti-trust statutes since Jan. 1, 1959; the Blue Bird and Austin Sales since Dec. 7, 1960; Thomas Car Works and Hurst Bus Sales since August 1, 1959; and Carpenter Body Works and Commercial Body Corps. since Jan. 1, 1961.”

The lawsuit's resolution is currently unknown, although it's likely the local distributors took the fall, receiving a slap on the wrist and a small fine.

In addition to putting the Car Works' parts department in order, Willard's son, Perley A. (Pat)  Thomas helped established the Car Works as an international company. He first ventured south of the border looking for prospective distributors in the late 1950s, eventually establishing assembly plants in Quito, Ecuador (Carrocerias Ecuatorianas Thomas, S.A.) and Callao, Peru (Carrocerias Thomas del Peru, S.A. ) where CKD (completely knocked down) Thomas bus bodies were assembled and installed on locally-sourced chassis.

Pat's older brother, John W. Thomas, Jr., started working for the company in 1943 sweeping floors and helping the mechanics to 'buck' rivets, a noisey process that involved flattening the heads of solid rivets with a big air hammer. John enrolled in the chemical engineering program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, later switching over to industrial engineering. Upon graduating he worked in Thomas' drafting and design department, then moved on to sales, eventually becoming National Sales Director.

When John explored a request by a Candian firm to distribute Thomas built buses north of the border, he quickly realized that the only solution was to establish a Canadian assembly plant, much like his brother had done in South America. A 100,000 facility was purchased in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada and in 1962 Thomas Built Buses of Canada Ltd. started assembling buses for the Canadian market under the direction of former regional sales managerJames T. Vance.

The December 18, 1962 edition of the High Point Enterprise announced that Thomas had won part of a $4 million contract:

“Local Firms Share School Bus Contract

“Raleigh - Two High Point firms have been awarded contracts for supplying school bus bodies and frames to the state. The High Point firms are among three in the state sharing the contracts, worth about $4 million annually.

“Lyles Chevrolet Co. of High Point was awarded the chassis contract. Worth about $2 million, the contract was held by Carpenter Chevrolet of Durham this year.

“The body contract, also worth about $2 million, was awarded to P.A. Thomas Car Works of High Point and Carolina Bus Sales of Asheville. The 1962 contract was held by Thomas Car Works and Superior - Moore Sales Co. of Salisbury.

“About 700 buses will be supplied the state under the 1963 contract, according to A.W. Allers of the State Purchase and Contract Division.”

At that time Thomas was the third-largest school bus company in the nation, battling for market share with five others; Blue Bird, Carpenter, Superior (Pathfinder), Ward and Wayne Works. Several competitors - Hicks, Oneida, Hackney and Marmon-Herrington - had already withdrawn from the field.

Within one years of its establishment, Thomas' Canadian plant won an award from the Prime Minister, the September 23, 1963 High Point Enterprise:

“Thomas Car Subsidiary Wins Honor

“Woodstock, Ontario – The Canadian subsidiary of a North Carolina firm today received Ontario’s highest industrial citation, the ‘A for Achievement’ award. Honored was Thomas Built Buses (Canada) Limited, a subsidiary of the Perlay A. Thomas Cars Works, Inc., High Point, N.C.

“Ontario’s Premier John Roberts made the award on the basis of the firm’s new product development – the manufacture of school buses, not previously made in Canada. Receiving the ‘A’ award was J.T. Vance, general manager.”

The firm attracted much national attention when the distributed a wire-photo of a full-size Chevrolet-Thomas school bus resting on top of another to demonstrate the strength and safety of Thomas' all-steel bodies, the June 24, 1964 edition of the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger (Ind.) included the following caption underneath the photo:

“Demonstrate Strength

“Anyone notice where I parked my bus last night? Not, that’s not the question. Nor is it a question of limited parking space. Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc., High Point, N.C., manufacturer, wanted to demonstrate strength and safety of all-steel school buses and hoisted on 5 ½ - ton bus atop other with help of Husky truck-crane. Manufacturer felt this safety load test is more dramatic and easier to comprehend that usual dead load test which employs piles of sand bags on roof. Thomas is a Bethlehem Steel Company customer of steel sheet.”

Thomas pioneered the placing of convex blind spot mirrors at the front of its school buses, the January 5, 1969 edition of the High Point Enterprise reporting:

“Safety Mirrors Okayed For State School Buses

“All North Carolina school buses will have special cross-over mirrors on the left front fenders by the spring.

“The mirrors were designed and are being installed to enable drivers to spot a small child who otherwise might be hidden by the engine of the bus.

“The plan to install the mirrors on all state school buses was approved by the State Board of Education last week. The cost is estimated to be from $30,000 to $50,000.

“The mirrors have been installed on all new buses made by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works in High Point for the last two years, according to Willard Thomas, an official of the company. Thomas is one of the largest manufacturers of school buses in the world. Its buses are sold throughout the United States, as well as in Canada and in South America and in other countries.”

Holt McPherson’s ‘Good Morning’ column in the January 5, 1969 edition of the High Point Enterprise made further mention of Thomas' blind spot mirrors:

“Perley A. Thomas Car Works here, largest manufacturer of school busses-for North Carolina use and with distribution reaching all the states and several foreign countries for two years has made safety cross mirrors standard equipment on busses it has manufactured for North Carolina use. Now the State Board of Education has ordered their installation as a catchup on all busses to correct a ‘blind spot’ and thus give the driver a clear panaromic front view and accurate rear view of the tiniest tyke who might wander about this vehicle. The safety cross mirror is quite a safety feature, one the Thomas designers recognized and embraced a couple of years ago — it is optional equipment for busses going outside this state, but a must on all manufactured for Tar Heel use. Sixteen states require the safety cross mirror which eliminates the blind spot in front of the school bus with help of a convex lens that provides 150 degrees of vision. Several deaths have been reported from other states that could have been prevented by such precaution.”

On April 20, 1971 the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously (in Swann vs. Charlotte - Mecklenburg Board of Education) that forced busing of students could be ordered to achieve racial desegregation. Shortly thereafter the Danville, Virginia Register contacted sales manager James T. Vance, to see if the decision had had any effect on school bus sales, his response appearing in the paper'sJuly 29, 1971 issue:

“School Bus Manufacturer Sees No Order Increases

“High Point, N.C. (AP) —Officials of the P.A. Thomas Car Works, which manufacturers most of North Carolina's public school buses say they have not noticed any great increase in orders due to desegregation plans requiring busing.

“Jimmy Vance, advertising director of the firm, said although ‘we haven’t felt any wave of increased demand for school buses… we’ll probably beginning to see an increase a little later as the feeling that this (busing to achieve integration) has to be done spreads.’

“He said many North Carolina school districts seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude before purchasing additional buses.

Vance said he believed the market has remained steady because as some public school districts increase their orders, other districts reduce theirs due to competition from private schools.

“Some of the districts which operated extensive transportation systems in the past have curtailed the transportation, he said, as the private schools cut into their enrollment.

“As for private schools, he said many are having financial difficulties and therefore are using old, renovated buses.”

In 1972 James Norman Thomas temporarily assumed the firm's presidency following the unexpected death (heart attack) of his brother, John Willard Thomas Sr. As James had already planned on retiring, as did his older sister Melva Thomas Price, it proved to be an opportune moment for the third generation of the Thomas family to take the reigns of the family business, which was consequently reorganized as Thomas Built Buses, Inc., to better reflect the firm's main line of business.

Following Norman's resignation in 1973, John Willard Thomas Jr.,  was elected president; William E. Price, Jr., vice president of sales; Perley A. (Pat) Thomas, vice president of international operations; James T. Vance, vice president of domestic operations, and James Tidings, chief engineer.

Holt McPherson's ‘Good Afternoon’ column in the November 20, 1973 edition of the High Point Enterprise provided a number of details on the firm's reorganized operations:

“Because Perley A. Thomas wanted to stay in High Point when the old Southern Car Company — he was its chief engineer — closed around 1915, hundreds of thousands of students in this country, and beyond, ride to schools in Thomas Built Buses. The 4,000 sturdy buses Thomas turns out each year haul not only school children safely but also everybody else from church members to prisoners.

“As Company of the Month in this month's Industra-Lites that story is told graphically of how on a recent afternoon the Thomas plant yards also contained:

“A right-hand drive bus with steel spiked tires that was going to Sumatra in the Far East...A United Nations' Children's Fund bus also headed for a foreign land...a bus for a church congregation on Long Island...a specially heated and cooled bus to haul chickens...a fleet of buses for the University of Illinois.

“For the first 14 years of its history, Thomas Car Works was one of the nation's leading producers of street cars. The first two cars it built went to Winston-Salem, but others followed on flat cars to points as divergent as Miami, Detroit and New Orleans — one that went to New Orleans was reclaimed some years ago for the local museum. But by 1930 the building of street cars was a dying business and the late P.A. Thomas began looking for new fields of transportation that led him into the challenging field of bus building in which his firm has emerged as the nation's top producer of such vehicles.

“During World War II, Thomas suspended bus production to make war goods and vehicles, but following the war the company moved to the fore in the field of bus production. In 1962, a plant was opened at Woodstock, Canada, and since then new plants have been set up at Quito, Ecuador, and Lima, Peru.

“Bus bodies are constructed on the chassis to specifications of the customer – whether that be a Baptist congregation in South Carolina or the school system of Minnesota. When a bus is given its final okay, it has everything down to and including the correct name painted on it. Then the customer is notified to come to High Point and drive it to its destination.

“Thomas officials are optimistic about the future. Since 1930, the number of bus manufacturing facilities in the United States has dropped from 15 to eight. Thomas has thrived where others abandoned the business.

“Recently Thomas took some significant steps toward the future. After more than half a century as Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc., the name was changed to Thomas Built Buses, Inc. To facilitate future growth, and to catch up with its market, a long needed expansion program was launched that will greatly increase production to meet increasing demand for its product. Those are only preliminary moves in the direction of a new, more aggressive, growing company - all because Perley A. Thomas wanted to stay in High Point.”

Robert Marks’ Personality Profile of the Thaoms Built's new president, John W. Thomas, Jr., appeared in the December 9, 1973 edition of the High Point Enterprise:

“John Thomas Jr.: Businessman In Community Service

“The day begins early and ends late for John W. Thomas Jr. He is in his small corner office at Thomas Built Buses Inc. on Courtesy Road, where he is president, before 8:30 a.m. It is often after 6 p.m. before he returns to his home at 504 Emerywood Dr.

“Along the way, he may have attended a meeting of the High Point Civil Service Commission, or a meeting of the board of trustees of High Point Memorial Hospital, or Maryfield Nursing Home, or a meeting of the board of directors of the High Point office of North Carolina National Bank, or of First Federal Savings and Loan Assn.

“Last Thursday, Thomas journeyed to Raleigh where he attended his second meeting as a member of the North Carolina Water and Air Resources Board. It was an important meeting of the board. Because of the energy crisis, it voted to ease the standards for the sulphur content of fuel oil used in North Carolina.

“Thomas was named to the state board in November by Gov. Jim Holshouser. He attended his first meeting of the state board immediately after his swearing in. ‘They threw me right in,’ Thomas said.

“Plunging right in on a new task is not unusual for Thomas. A former member of the High Point City Council — he served one term from 1969 to 1971 — he has a wide-range of experience in the political, civic and business life of High Point. His appointment to the Water and Air Resources Board is his first position in state government.

“When asked how he manages his time, Thomas laughed, ‘You ought to ask my wife about that.’ Then, he explained the commitment which motivates him. ‘I have always felt that the businessman has the responsibility to serve his community. I know that sounds old hat and trite, but I believe that responsibility exists. ‘I realize that few businessmen have the staff which allows them to devote the time often necessary to government and community service. But I believe that this can be done. In my own experience, I found that service on City Council does take a lot of time. It places a major demand on time, while service on a commission can be adjusted to, because of the monthly schedule for most of these bodies. What I am saying is that the businessman can find the place where he might be needed and where he can serve fully. I deplore the professional politician,’ Thomas continued. ‘These are the people who come up time and time again to run for office. I think there ought to be a limit on that sort of thing. We need the turnover, the new faces and the new ideas. No one has all the answers to the problems of the community. We all have to work at these problems together.’

“Thomas has been involved with High Point all of his life. He is one of the third generation now directing Thomas Built Buses, founded by his grandfather as the P.A. Thomas Car Works. The company moved from the production of streetcars to the manufacture of school buses, and now has plants in South America and Canada as well, and sells its buses in practically every country in the world.

“Thomas was sales manager for the company before he moved into the presidency. A native of High Point, he is a graduate of Central High School and has a degree in industrial engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He enrolled in VPI after serving with the Navy during the Second World War, and it was at VPI that he met Tommie Munford, daughter of the commandant of the cadet corps. She is now Mrs. Thomas. There are five sons in the family — John, Matt, Bruce, Chris, and Stuart, the youngest, who is a student at Westchester Academy.

“Thomas is a member of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, where he serves as an elder, a Sunday School teacher, and a member of the choir.

“In his office at the Courtesy Road plant, there are plaques on the wall recognizing his service as a director of the Chamber of Commerce and as the first president of the High Point Drug Action Council. On a bookcase in a corner of the office is a small, mounted model of a Thomas Highway Coach, with the inscription that this was presented to Thomas at the company's sales meeting in 1972. On top of a small stack of papers on the desk itself is a small book with the title, ‘Quiet Thoughts.’ It is there, obviously, for reading by the man who sits behind the desk during the busy day.”

Although safety was an oft-mentioned phrase in each respective manufacturer’s advertisements, aside from the adoption of ‘National School Bus Yellow’ in 1939, no Federal legislation mandating standards were enacted until 1973, when emergency exits and window releases became mandatory. Illinois Senator Charles Percy pointed out in a 1973 congressional hearing on the subject that school administrators typically purchased school buses on bids, and more often than not, the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder. Although several firms, in particular Ward and Wayne Works, had started offering extra-safe ‘superbuses’ most school districts couldn’t justify the additional expense to budget-minded voters and administrators. Percy summed up the need for a Federal Safety Standard as follows:

“So long as there are not adequate standards, then the bids come in for a school bus but not necessarily for a safe school bus.”

Congress finally acted and enacted a new sets of regulations that would dramatically increase the safety of schoolchildren. The new standards which were slated to take effect on April 1, 1977 included; FMVSS No. 220 (School Bus Rollover Protection); FMVSS No 221 (School Bus Body Joint Strength); FMVSS No. 222 (School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection) and FMVSS No 301 (Fuel System Integrity - School Buses). FMVSS No. 217 (Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release) had already taken effect (on September 1, 1973).

Safety was foremost when Perley A. Thomas produced his first all-steel school bus back in 1938, and the firm continued to make safety its number one priority. Although the new standards were estimated to increase the cost of a new school bus from $1200-$1500, the company believed the new regulations would increase sales over the long run as districts were more likley to replace outdated 'unsafe' buses with new vehicles that met the new standards. Furthermore the fiscal restraints championed by Melva Thomas Price decades earlier enabled Thomas Built to build safer buses at a profit while many of its competitors could not.

Thomas' chief engineer, James Tidings, contributed to an Associated Press article detailing the costs involved in producing buses that met the new regulations, the October 3, 1974 edition of the High Point Enterprise reporting:

“Safety Cost Possibly Prohibitive by A.H. Rotstein, Associated Press writer

“Chicago – (AP) – Safety Requirements for next year's school buses may push price tags beyond the reach of many school districts, industry and safety officials say.

“Some school districts already are feeling the pinch of price hikes of 25 per cent or more in the last year, said Edward T. Clayton of Blue Bird Body Co. of Fort Valley, Ga. The firm is one of six major school bus producers.

“Much of the increase in prices is due to higher raw material costs. But officials who gathered for a National Safety Congress meeting in Chicago said Wednesday they expect additional hikes to result from safety advances such as padded seat backs and guard railings.

“Exact costs have not been tabulated, they said. A 66-passenger bus now costs from $14,000 to $16,000, depending on safety specifications in a given state, Clayton said. Clayton predicted that continued cost hikes would mean ‘schools in some states will be operating 10-year-old buses.’

“Robert B. Kurre, an engineer for the Wayne Transportation Co. of Richmond, Ind., said in a telephone interview that it's too early to measure the sales impact of price increases. He said most school districts submit orders early in the calendar year for fall delivery. A spokesman for the School Bus Manufacturers' Institute in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“James Tidings, chief engineer for Thomas Built Buses Inc. of High Point, N.C., said from 12 to 25 school bus passengers die annually. Government figures put the annual death, toll at 25 to 35, with some 5,000 injuries. One major change proposed by the government would require foam padding on top, back and sides of seats on next year's models.

“‘Seat design has completely changed in the last two or three years,’ Clayton said during a panel discussion on school bus safety. Some states already require seat back and guard rail padding and some manufacturers have made them standard equipment. He cited other recent safety improvements, including elimination of rough interior metal edges and corners. Tidings said safety improvements not only push prices higher, but such features as safer seats cut available space, meaning districts will need more buses to carry the same number of children.”

The January 25, 1975 edition of the High Point Enterprise mentioned that Thomas Built was embroiled in yet another price-fixing lawsuit, this time in the state of Alabama:

“Alabama Sues Bus Company In Price-Fixing

“A High Point company is being sued for conspiracy to fix prices for school buses purchased by the state of Alabama.

“Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley filed suit in federal court Friday charging the local company, Thomas Built Buses, Inc., and 14 other manufacturers and sellers of school bus bodies with conspiracy to fix prices on the buses in violation of federal antitrust laws.

“The effect of the conspiracy, Baxley said, has been to increase and maintain artificially high prices of school bus bodies purchased by the state and local boards of education.”

In an article detailing the proposed purchase of a fleet of eighteen $62,500 GM Transit Coaches for the city of High Point, the March 11, 1976 edition of the High Point Enterprise mentioned that:

“Thomas Built Buses, Inc., manufactures a school bus of roughly comparable size which sells for about $18,000 to $20,000. Equipped with a diesel engine, which the city buses will have, a similar bus would cost $25,000, according to Thomas sales representative Bill Price. A Thomas bus with a flat-faced front would run about $40,000, Price said Thomas makes no transport buses except those manufactured in the firm's Ecuador plants for sale in South America.”

On October 17, 1976 the High Point Enterprise published the following article in which Associated Press staff writer Jay Perkins detailed some of the events that led to the passing of the new Federal School Bus Safety Standards which were to take effect on April 1, 1977:

“First School Bus Regulations Effective This Spring; ‘School Bus Transportation Is Safest, But School Buses Unsafest Vehicles’

“Editor’s note: A major manufacturer of school buses, mentioned in this account, is Thomas Built Buses Inc. of High Point. An article is being prepared for publication this week containing the firm's views on the new regulations.

“By Jay Perkins, Associated Press Writer

“Washington (AP) - On Oct. 2, 1967, four sleepy-eyed students boarded a school bus in Waterloo, Neb , for their last ride to class.

“They died minutes later when a Union Pacific freight ripped the bus apart, twisting the sheet metal skin and exposing sharp, lethal edges. The nine other children aboard were injured, some of them on the exposed edges. Federal investigators later would label them child-lacerating ‘cookie cutters.’

“Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the bus came apart too easily. Joints failed under too little pressure. Seats ripped from the floor. Children riding in the disintegrated portion were tossed about and ‘probably . . . struck many hard and sharp surfaces.’

“It was the first time a federal agency had found fault with the way most of the nation's 250,000 school buses are made, although independent testing laboratories previously had reported problems.

“Yet it would be another five years before the government would propose the first regulation to improve school bus construction. And it will be April 1, 1977, when the three federal regulations finally agreed upon go into effect.

“Why the delay? Because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that there weren't that many fatal school bus accidents, despite the safely problems.

“‘We found it (school bus transportation) was the safest mode of transportation we had, bar none,’ says Bob Boaz, the NHTSA's public information officer. ‘We had a limited amount of funds and we're dealing with the whole spectrum of highway accidents. So when we looked at priorities, there was no way to say 100 fatalities here should be a high priority when we had so many more being killed in passenger cars. But then Congress got involved and said the heck with cost benefits, issue some standards, so we did.’

“The NHTSA's three regulations will have the force of law, unless overturned by Congress.

“How effective will these regulations be? One of them designed to eliminate ‘cookie cutter’ edges, has a loophole that allows manufacturers to make a school bus's metal skin even thinner and less safe than it is today (the manufacturers say they won't use the loophole). Another regulation, aimed at keeping the roof from collapsing when a bus overturns, relies on a test that even the NHTSA once said wouldn't determine if the roof were really safe. And the third, requiring padded bus seals and seats designed to hold children in place during an accident, is not as strong as originally proposed. The original regulation specified seat backs eight or nine inches higher than they are on most buses today. But school administrators argued that this might create a discipline problem because drivers wouldn't be able to see children. So the NHTSA compromised with a regulation that adds four or five inches to present seatbacks.

“Until now, there have been no Federal regulations governing school bus construction. And no state has set safety regulations as strong as the NHTSA rules effective next spring.

“Despite their shortcomings, the NHTSA and the six principal manufacturers of school buses believe the regulations will produce safer buses, once the buses now in use are re placed. That will take a decade or more.

“Meanwhile, more than 20 million children ride those traditional yellow school buses each school day. Fifteen to 20 are killed and 5,000 are injured in an average year, according to federal statistics.

“That's not an alarming accident rate. The buses avoid accidents by travelling slowly, other drivers watch out for them, and school bus drivers are good drivers, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., explained at a congressional hearing in 1973. But, he added: ‘School buses are probably the unsafest vehicles on the road because when they are involved in an accident, the results are often catastrophic. Today's school bus is shoddily constructed ...’

“Dr. Stanley J. Behrman, representing the American Society of Oral Surgeons, told the National Safety Council in 1972 that nearly 10 per cent of the 16,000 children treated by society members in one year were injured on school buses.

“‘Injuries to the jaw caused by children striking the metal bar across the top of the seat in school buses many times cause permanent deformities and a child with a facial deformity may not achieve his full potential in the world.’ he said.

“Why then do school districts buy the unsafe buses — those made by attaching a riveted, sheet metal bus body to a truck frame and motor purchased from an outside supplier? This type of construction, which is about half as expensive as building the bus as a unit, is used for 97 per cent of the school buses made today. The remaining three per cent are safer. They are mostly buses made as a unit, much like the commercial buses that carry passengers cross country.

“Sen. Charles Percy. R-Ill, noted during a 1973 congressional hearing that school administrators usually purchase buses from the lowest bidder. ‘So long as there are not adequate standards, then the bids come in for a school bus but not necessarily for a safe school bus.’ Percy said. He added that school administrators have not been trained to determine safety factors.

“Between 30,000 and 35,000 school buses are made each year. Most cost $12,000 to $15,000. The new regulations are expected to add $1,200 to the price of each bus.

“The problems of school bus construction were laid out in a special report by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1971. The board found that many injuries in two Alabama school bus accidents were caused by ‘the laceration of child passengers by exposed edges of the bus interior sheet metal, including the ceiling.’ It concluded that the sheet metal panels used for the roof and sides of school buses were poorly attached to the underlying frame.

“There are six major manufacturers of the body-on-frame type of school bus — Blue Bird Body Co. of Fort Valley, Ga.; Carpenter Body Works, Mitchell, Ind.; Superior Coach Division, Lima, Ohio; Thomas Built Buses, High Point, N.C.; Ward School Bus Co., Conway, Ark., and Wayne Corp., Richmond, Ind.

“Most of these manufacturers still use numerous sheets of metal to form the skin — a practice criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board in its 1971 report. That report said the panels were poorly fastened. Spacing between rivets was so wide — four to 10 inches — that it was ‘sufficient to resist wind and weather but the joint could contribute little to structural strength.’

“Wayne Corp. now uses sheet metal panels that run the length of the passenger compartment. This eliminates many joints and produces a cabin compartment that is much safer, federal investigators say.

“Ward has been marketing a safety bus since 1971 containing more than twice as many rivets to hold the sheet metal in place than in pre-1971 buses. Other manufacturers are using better fasteners and more rivets than they did nine years ago.

“These changes apparently have occurred primarily because the NTSB report and the concern of the public have made school districts and school bus manufacturers more conscious of safety and a bit less concerned about price. Less than five years ago, 95 per cent of all school buses were purchased on a low bid basis. That figure has slipped a few percentage points, the bus manufacturers say.

“The principal concern about the adequacy of the new federal safety regulations concerns a loophole in the rule designed to keep the sheet metal skin panels from breaking loose in an accident.

“The regulation says the joints between panels must have 60 per cent of the strength of the panels. But it doesn't say how strong the panels themselves must be. So manufacturers can meet the standard by doubling the number of rivets at the joints — as NHTSA intends — or by reducing the strength of the panels. ‘You can make those panels out of tissue paper and meet the standard,’ said an expert in the field.

“Guy Hunter, an NHTSA specialist in school bus construction, said the agency was aware of the loophole when the regulation was issued, but decided to leave it in to give manufacturers leeway in future designs. He also said the loophole can't be used because strong panels are needed to make the buses rigid enough to pass the rollover test.

“Manufacturers and engineers outside NHTSA disagree. They say the skin panels play little part in supporting the framework that keeps a bus's roof from collapsing in a rollover.

“The regulation designed to keep school bus roofs from collapsing when buses overturn requires each roof to be strong enough to hold 150 per cent of the bus's weight. That's 50 per cent stronger than most school bus roofs today. But these roofs usually collapse during a rollover accident not because weight is put directly on them, but because side pressures bend the roof columns, federal officials have said. And there is no test to determine if the columns can resist side pressures.

“Nevertheless, Hunter says the NHTSA has decided that the roof test specified in the new regulation is adequate. The seating standard requires manufacturers to pad their seals, thus eliminating the bare metal bar across the top so frequently implicated in injuries. It also requires that the back of the bus seat be at least 24 inches in height to ‘compartmentalize’ children and prevent them from being thrown about the bus in an accident.

“The National Education Association and other school organizations have tried in the past to produce uniform bus safety standards. Some states have adopted some of the recommendations made — among them Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Connecticut, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.

“Dr. Glen Featherstone, who chaired several of the National Education Association's conferences on school bus standards, said there were several reasons why NEA's school bus recommendations were not as effective as they should have been.

“One is that members of the NEA conferences did not have the technical expertise to argue with school bus manufacturers. Another is that the conference had to adopt a middle ground because ‘you had people who don't want to be bothered much and you have people who want things that are very well made.’

“The third factor was cost. ‘You've got to seek a middle ground between safety and cost. The school districts are hard pressed for money. They are really pushed to do it as economically as they can and be fairly safe.’”

Details of each Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard relating to school buses follow:

FMVSS Standard No. 217 - Bus Emergency Exits and Window Retention and Release:

This established requirements for bus window retention and release to reduce the likelihood of passenger ejection in crashes, and for emergency exits to facilitate passenger exit in emergencies. It also requires that each school bus have an interlock system to prevent the engine starting if an emergency door is locked, and an alarm that sounds if an emergency door is not fully closed while the engine is running. Another portion of FMVSS 217 required that yellow, white, or red retroreflective tape be applied so as to mark all emergency exits, so rescue personnel can quickly find them in darkness.

Standard No. 220 - School Bus Rollover Protection:

This established performance requirements for school bus rollover protection, to reduce deaths and injuries from failure of a school bus body structure to withstand forces encountered in rollover crashes.

Standard No. 221 - School Bus Body Joint Strength:

This established requirements for the strength of the body panel joints in school bus bodies, to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from structural collapse of school bus bodies during crashes.

Standard No. 222 - School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection:

This established occupant protection requirements for school bus passenger seating and restraining barriers, to reduce deaths and injuries from the impact of school bus occupants against structures within the vehicle during crashes and sudden driving maneuvers.

Standard No. 301 - Fuel System Integrity - School Buses:

This specified requirements for the integrity of motor vehicle fuel systems, to reduce the likelihood of fuel spillage and resultant fires during and after crashes.

Standard No. 131 - School Bus Pedestrian Safety Devices – wasn’t implemented until May 5, 1991.

This standard establishes requirements for devices that can be installed on school buses to improve the safety of pedestrians in the vicinity of stopped school buses. Its purpose is to reduce deaths and injuries by minimizing the likelihood of vehicles passing a stopped school bus and striking pedestrians in the vicinity of the bus.

Surprisingly, compulsory installation of seat belts in school buses has yet (as of 2015) to be made a Federal requirement, although several states have enacted legislation that requires them; California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas. However only one state, New Jersey, mandates their use.

Although privately, Thomas' management knew the regulations were good for business, they were reluctant to support the controversial rules in public due to possible backlash from the public. Their official 'rebuttle' to the October 17, 1976 Associated Press article supporting the regulations, appeared in the October 24, 1976 edition of the High Point Enterprise:

“Thomas Adapts Buses To Safety Rules by Bill Collins, Enterprise Staff Writer

“High Point bus manufacturer John W. Thomas is not entirely pleased with new school bus engineering standards set to go into effect April 1, but he is, nonetheless, proceeding with changes to accommodate the new rules.

“Thomas, president of Thomas Built Buses, Inc., said in a recent interview that he believes the new federal regulations are unnecessary. ‘The industry is not sold on the benefit of these standards,’ he said. He noted that school bus makers and state pupil transportation experts first met to regulate themselves in 1939, and have met periodically ever since to strengthen the standards Thomas said he has complete confidence in the safety of Thomas buses.

“Public awareness of the dangers in school bus transportation has grown tremendously in recent years, Thomas said. Before the late 1960s, Thomas said no thorough research had ever been done on buses' resistance to impact.

“At about that time, traffic safety researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) began to study the buses' structural strength during impact. Greater knowledge soon brought on demands for safer cars and buses. The new standards, which grew out of these public and congressional demands for action, cover three areas: seat design, strength of the outside metal skin, and the roof's resistance to collapse. The rules allow a reduction in the tensile strength of the metal skins, but Thomas said his company does not plan to take advantage of it.

“Thomas said the greatest changes anticipated locally will be in seat construction. The new engineering innovations, which will require taller seatbacks and more seat padding, will be implemented soon at the local plant he said.

“In spite of the inconveniences, Thomas admits that there are some advantages in the federal rules. He said that in the past the multitude of state bus standards created production problems. The tendency then, Thomas said, was for manufacturers to build all their buses to meet the specifications of the toughest state.

“At one time, for example, New York State required bumpers far more resistant to impact than other states. At Thomas, engineers changed the bumper designs for buses shipped everywhere.

“Thomas said that to meet the government rules, ‘It may well require some additional people, a minimum of people.’ He said his company will either procure the added labor within the existing work force, or hire a few extra workers.

“Prices for Thomas buses will rise by $1,000-1,500 because of the regulations. A recent Associated Press article stated that body-on-frame buses, the type manufactured at Thomas, are inferior to buses built as one unit. Over 95 per cent of America's school districts use the body-on-frame type.

“Thomas disputes the AP writer's assertion. ‘The fact remains that they're not safer, and the record supports it.’ He said that there are more body-on-frame accidents than transit bus accidents because fewer transit buses are used in America.

“In the future, Thomas said bus makers face an inevitable shrinkage in the school bus market that has little to do with federal regulation. School districts, which are highly dependent on local property taxes for revenue, are strapped financially. Their response, Thomas said, has been to buy less of everything, including buses.

“That, coupled with a decline in the school-age population, is forcing the school districts to reduce purchases of new buses. Old buses are being used longer, Thomas said, and the more expensive new buses — which have increased in cost 35-40 per cent in the last 3-4 years — are not being bought as often.

“The result, Thomas said, is a reduction in the domestic market from the usual 30-35,000 buses a year, to around 26,000 now.

“‘The market is very depressed now,’ Thomas admitted. The High Point firm has responded by penetrating the specialty bus market for churches and other groups, and by selling more buses in Latin America and abroad.

“Thomas is confident that his firm will weather the depressed market, and will go on to prosper. He said that although he accepts the new federal rules ‘this kind of thing affects businesses greatly.’

“‘We have been inundated with the bigness of government,’ he said. ‘I have a lot more faith in people that I do in government,’ he added.”

The April 27, 1977 edition of the Statesville Record & Landmark published an Associated Press article that implied increased school bus safety started with better educated school officials:

“Quality Of School Transportation Depends Heavily On Local Officials; Survey On Accident Statistics Show Buses Have Good Safety Record

“Editor’s note: Every school bus accident raises doubts about the safety of the buses, especially when children are injured. Here, in the second of four reports on North Carolina school transportation, The AP reports on statistics which may show that buses are safer than many critics think.

“By David Tomlin, Associated Press Writer

“RALEIGH (AP) - A child is safer from serious injury on a school bus than he would be in his family's car, an Associated Press study of North Carolina accident statistics shows.

“Oddly enough, the same statistics indicate that a child is far more likely to be involved in an accident on a bus than in a car.

“But the AP analysis showed all vehicles In North Carolina, mostly cars, had a serious injury every 1.8 million miles they drove last year. School buses, on the other hand, drove more than 3.5 million miles for every serious injury.

“The safety gap between school buses and all vehicles grows many times wider when you consider that each mile of school bus travel represents 30 or more passenger miles, which is another way of saying that school buses carry more people farther with fewer serious injuries than most other means of travel.

“Moreover, buses scored better than most other kinds of transportation on brake failure as a cause of accidents. Out of every 100 reported accidents in the state in 1975, for example, 2.25 were caused by defective brakes. For school buses the figure was 0.35.

“It is difficult to know how North Carolina compares with other states on school bus safety. The data offered by the National Safety Council is unreliable, since each state has different criteria for choosing the incidents it will report.

“But entries in a national school bus fleet safety contest had an average of 15.92 accidents for every million miles they drove. North Carolina's rate in the 1975-76 school year was 12.61.

“None of this is especially surprising, according to Dr. Patricia F. Waller of the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

“‘You would expect school buses to be safer,’ she said. They drive in daylight on weekdays, safe times when there is little fatigue or alcohol on the road. They travel familiar routes, they are clearly marked in bright colors, their speed is limited mechanically to 35 miles per hour and strict laws protect them from unsafe practices of other drivers.

“In short, there is no statistical support for the view that school buses are any more dangerous than common sense says they ought to be.

“Why, then, is the school bus system the target of periodic outbursts of public criticism?

“‘It's just so emotional,’ said James Vance, vice president of Thomas Built Buses, Inc., of High Point, which makes about 6,000 school buses each year. ‘The worst thing In the world that can happen is for a child to get hurt.’

“School buses carry a priceless cargo, and the responsibility which that implies is keenly felt by workers at almost every level of the school bus transportation system.

“‘I don't want to feel like negligence on our part or on the part of a driver had anything to do with a kid getting hurt or killed,’ said Harrington Morrison, school transportation supervisor for Harnett County.

“Since 1955, when the state shed control of the buses to avoid being hamstrung by school integration lawsuits, each county has operated its own school bus maintenance program. The state foots the bill and plays a fairly strong advisory role, but the authority and responsibility are the county's.

“Mechanics and transportation supervisors are hired by local school boards, which also determine how many buses they will buy and where and how they will be maintained.

“Each school principal is in charge of routing, driver selection and general management of his own bus system.

“The state, with the power of the purse and some supportive statutes, keeps track of costs in each county and rides herd on maintenance with monthly bus inspection reports from the counties and a thorough annual inspection of each bus by a state expert.

“But the quality of school transportation in each county depends heavily on local officials, most of whom seem to prefer it that way.

“‘You get a nut sitting behind a desk out here, you'll ruin a county,’ says Harnett County school superintendent Robert A. Gray. ‘You get a nut sitting behind a desk in Raleigh, he'll ruin a whole state.’

“All the same, the way the system is set up means that some counties will have better preventive maintenance for their buses than others, simply because they hire a supervisor more carefully or because their supervisor is a better manager.

“The Associated Press polled supervisors at random around the state and discovered several areas in which maintenance procedures vary.

“In some counties — Pitt and Cumberland, for example — a mechanic climbs into every school bus every day, or every two days at most, to check for brake pressure and steering.

“In others, it may be a week or two between mechanic checks, although drivers are supposed to report even the smallest maintenance problems daily.

“In Yancey County, where 15-year-old Lisa Haney was paralyzed in a wreck last November, each bus is checked every other day. The bus that crashed was due for a check the same day. Driver Jim Edwards didn't notice a drop in brake pressure because he was a substitute — the third driver in that particular bus in two days.

“Differences in maintenance quality also show up at the state level in cost studies which show 14 or 15 counties spending more than they should on maintenance. State school transportation director Louis Alexander says cost overruns often coincide with sloppiness in other areas.

“The age of the buses is another area in which some counties may fare better than others. The state replaces all buses after 12 years. Local boards buy any buses they need to expand their systems. In Yancey County, the board decided it couldn't afford three new buses for the new Mountain Heritage High School right away. Instead, officials asked for, and got, state permission to put three retired buses back Into service until the system could afford new ones. Lisa Haney was hurt in the oldest of the three. The other two are still in use.

“A total of 187 retired buses are in service statewide.

“Most mechanics and supervisors polled by the AP insisted old buses, well maintained, are as safe as new ones, maybe safer. But James Simmons, in charge of Yancey County school bus maintenance, disagrees.

“‘Any vehicle on the road 11 or 12 years, especially on our roads, running mostly in lower gears, is literally worn out from one end to the other,’ Simmons says. ‘You spend so much time keeping it running, you don't have time for preventive maintenance.’

“Another consideration, Simmons noted, is that school bus manufacturers only began installing dual brake systems 10 years ago. On older buses, if the brake system fails, there is no backup. Now Simmons checks those buses daily.”

In 1978, Thomas' High Point factory constructed 6,000 school buses in a 400,00o sq. ft. facility situtated on 125 acres of land, several of which were paved over to store buses waiting for delivery.

In order to meet the upcoming FMVSS Thomas engineers redesigned their conventional Saf-T-Liner school bus bodies, which were now distinguishable from earlier units by their sloping front ends, designed so the bus driver could better see children passing in front of the bus. They also introduced 2 transit-style (flat face) buses, the Saf-T-Liner EF and ER (EF=Engine Front, ER=Engine Rear), which utilized the first Thomas-designed chassis.

In 1980 Thomas introduced a cutaway van-based school bus called the Minotour, which could accommodate up to 30 passengers. Although it's been substantially redesigned, the Mintour remains in production today, 35 years after it introduction.

Thomas pioneered the integration of wheelchair lifts, creating a lift module that was compatible with the entire Thomas Built range, which could be constructed using a full flat floorfor dedicated wheelchair use. They also introduced a safety latch that prevented the entrance doors from being opened accidentally and offered enhanced security against intruders when left unattended.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a pronounced consolidation of the north American bus manufacturing business and by 1985 Thomas' management realized additional capital would be required to maintain the firm's current postion in the market. Certain directors and shareholders, primarily older, extended members of the Thomas family, were unwilling to give up their dividends to finance the expansion and wanted out. That left four options: recapitalize the firm through a public stock offering; sell the firm outright; merge their operations with that of a competitor; or have a third party buy out the uninterested shareholders, keeping the current management intact.

The board preferred the latter, bringing in Odyssey Partners, a Manhattan-based investment group, to initiate, organize and capitalize the process. The new owner-managers included 5 members of the Thomas family; John W. Thomas Jr., James Thomas, William E. Price Jr.,  Perley A. (Pat) Thomas, Albert Thomas and 3 non-family members; W.P. Duncan, Morris Adams and Roger Chilton. Odyssey Partners provided the capital to buy out the hostile shareholders, keeping a number of those shares for their trouble and distributing the rest amongst the new management as desired.

In 1989 Thomas introduced a snub-nosed version of the Saf-T-Liner called the Vista, which mated the appearance of a conventional Saf-T-Liner at the rear with a foreshortened front end that greatly improved visibility and maneuverability by mounting the driver's seat alongside the engine rather than behind it. The Vista used Chevrolet-GMC chassis from 1989 to 1991 and International chassis from 1992 to 1998 when it was discontinued.

In 1992, only 7 years after Odyssey's 1985 management buyout, an all new slate of officers took over from the third generation of the Thomas'. John W. Thomas Jr. retired and his son John W. Thomas III, became president and his other son Chris took over as manager of fleet/contract sales. William E. Price Jr.'s son, Robert, became national sales manager; James Thomas's son-in-law, Doug Harrison, became vice president of manufacturing; and Albert Thomas's son, Bradley, was appointed purchasing agent.

In 1993 a CNG-powered Thomas Built bus made a 35-day, 3,500-mile journey from North Carolina to California to demonstrate that the infrastructure was already in place to make Compressed Natural Gas/propane a viable alternative to diesel/gasoline technology.  The following year they introduced an electric-powered bus with a 60-mile radius, but the technology would become viable for another two decades, and even then only as hybrid-electric (with an on-board generator).

Between 1933 and 1996 the firm's official history estimated Thomas, High Point's largest industrial employer, had constructed more than 300,000 units. In 1994 the company was awarded the largest single contract in its history, a $104 million bid to manufacture 2,000 buses for the South Carolina school system. In 1995 they produced more than 8,000 buses in High Point and another 2,500 in their plant in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Between 1990 and 1995, total annual production for both the United States and the Canadian operations topped 10,000 units.

The High Point operation covered more than 184 acres in seven buildings with 686,000 square feet under roof, while the Canadian operation utilized 225,000 square feet of factory space on a 60 acre site - the two operations employing 1,500 people.

By 1996 the number of competitors in the school bus market dropped to just four major players; Thomas had 34% of the market; Blue Bird, 33%; Carpenter, 11%; and Amtran (formerly Ward), 9%. The remaining 13 percent was split between a dozen small firms, most of whom manufactured Class A cutaway van minibuses.

Once the Mexican plant got up to speed, it produced 4 buses per day, daily production at High Point averaged 18 per day, and  at Woodstock, 18 per day.

In 1996 Thomas established an assembly plant in Monterrey, Mexico that produced 4 buses per day, the firm's High Point plant averaging 36 per day, and Woodstock, 18 per day. Mexican operations were discontinued in 2001 and the plant converted over to assemble buses for Marco Polo, a Brazilian manufacturers long associated with Daimler Trucks, NA.

In 1996 the firm's offical biographer, Clint Johnson, detailed the steps required to assemble a new Thomas Built bus:

“It is not hard to imagine what it is like inside the Thomas Built Buses factory in High Point. It is noisy. Holes are being drilled through sheet metal. Wheel wells are being sawed out of other pieces of sheet metal. The top caps of buses are being stretch-formed. More than a thousand people are moving around one huge building.

“There are 64 stations in the Thomas Built factory with a schedule of moving each bus to the next station every twelve and a half minutes.

“The bus floor starts as a flat sheet of steel with two raised areas that will become the wheel wells. Steel bow frames are welded on the outside of the floor with several inches of the frame extending below the floor. While most other bus manufacturers do not extend their bow frames below the level of the floor, Thomas Built Buses has determined that these extensions act as a barrier, keeping smaller vehicles from running underneath a bus.

“Once the frames are welded in place, the front and rear caps are welded onto the bus. The frame, now mounted on roller wheels which ride rails placed on the floor of the factory, is pushed to another assembly station. This station is where the side walls are riveted in place and the steel for the wheel well is cut away. The bus body is beginning to take shape.

“As the body advances through the factory, plywood is placed over the floor for sound deadening and insulation. More insulation is added to the sides and ceiling, even inside the bow frames if the bus is destined for delivery to a school district in a cold climate.

“Once the body has been insulated and windows installed, it is ready to be lifted onto one of several styles of chassis. Thomas Built Buses has been building its own rear-engined chassis since 1977 and its own front-engined chassis since October 1994. The diesel engines from Cummins or Caterpillar come in four different horsepower ratings, depending on what part of the country the bus will operate. Conventional chassis are manufactured by Navistar or Ford and are delivered daily to the Thomas Built factory.

“Once the bus body and the chassis have been bolted together, the bus then rolls forward into a large painting booth where the familiar yellow paint is applied. Once the paint is dry, the stop signs, warning lights and other safety devices are added to the bus.

“Seats, also manufactured by Thomas Built, are added to the bus at this point. The seat frames are welded by robotic machines, the only aspect of the assembly operation that is not performed by human workers. Once the seats are added and a final inspection made, the buses are then driven to another Thomas site where final preparation such as painting the name of the school district is completed. Once the bus is complete, school districts either send their own drivers or hire a "drive away" company to deliver the bus to its final destination.

“The manufacturing of a single bus, from start to finish, from first weld to final sweeping of the inside, takes about two weeks. The production schedule in early 1995 called for the completion of 36 buses every day working on a single shift, five-day week in High Point. The Canadian plant produces 18 buses per day.

“The company has kept several manufacturing practices from the days when streetcars were built on the same site as today's modern factory. Once the day's goal has been met, the employees are free to leave, giving them an incentive to work quickly and efficiently. Haste does not lead to waste, however. Each department inspects its own work, meaning that at least 64 inspections of each bus are completed before it leaves the factory. Every employee is trained in at least one other job so if one part of the production line is short due to illness or vacation, other employees can fill in so manufacturing is not slowed.”

In 1997 Thomas commenced the use of the purpose-built Freightliner FS-65 school bus chassis on the Thomas Saf-T-Liner FS-65. All Freightliner FS-65 chassis wore Thomas bodies between 2001 and 2007 when the bus was discontinued. The FS-65 is easily distinguishable from a regular Saf-T-Liner by its 4-piece windshield – the standard Saf-T-Liner used a smaller 2-piece windshield.

The 1990s marked a decade of acquisitions for Freightliner, which had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Daimler-Benz, AG, in 1981. In 1995 Freightliner purchased American LaFrance and the chassis division of Oshkosh Corp., the latter re-christened as Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. In 1997, it acquired the heavy truck division of Ford Motor Co., which was re-launched as Sterling. Coincident with Daimler’s ‘merger’ with Chrysler (DaimlerChrysler) in 1998, Freightliner acquired Thomas Built from the Odyssey Group. They added Western Star Trucks in 2000, and in 2003 launched Unimog North America.

In late 1999, Thomas Built opened a new plant in High Point to build its popular Minotour bus. They also ormed a joint venture with European bus maker, Mayflower Corporation, to build a super low floor transit bus for the North American market to be distributed by Orion, a division of DaimlerChrysler Commercial Buses N.A. In early 2000, Thomas built a new facility in Jamestown, N.C., to build the SLF 200 super low floor bus. Orion was a reorganization of Ontario Bus Industries, a Mississauga, Ontario, Canada firm founded in 1975 to manufacture transit buses for the government of Ontario. Business expanded into the United States during the 1980s and a plant was established in Oriskany, New York to handle the final assembly and testing of US-bound vehicles. Privatized in 1993 as Orion Bus Industries, both operations were acquired by Daimler Chrysler in 2002 and renamed Orion International joining Setra and Thomas-Built as subsidiaries of DaimlerChrysler Buses North America, and after 2008, Daimler Buses North America.

The March 7, 2001 edition of the Gastonia Gaston Gazette (NC) announced Thomas was eliminating 125 jobs at the High Point plant:

“High Point Bus Maker To Cut 150 Jobs

“High Point —Thomas Built Buses will cut 125 jobs over the next year, but the company's president says most of those employees have a good chance of being rehired.

“The lost jobs will shift to a plant operated by Thomas' parent company, Freightliner, in Gaffney, S.C., which will soon take over manufacturing of two bus chassis styles.

“Thomas Built President John Thomas III said Monday the bus maker will likely be able to absorb most of those employees back into its work force because of growing demand for the company's transit buses.

“Most of the new jobs would be created at the company's Jamestown plant, which currently employs more than 110 workers. The company said last summer it had plans to employ at least 300 workers at the plant when it was at full capacity.

“Thomas said the facility being vacated by the production transfer will be occupied by other Thomas Built manufacturing sectors.”

Shortly after Freightliner announced they were adding the production of a Mercedes-based delivery van to its Gaffney, South Carolina plant, the March 23, 2001 Gastonia Gaston Gazette (NC) reporting:

“Freightliner adds commercial van to its plant in Gaffney, S.C., by Thomas J. Monigan, Gazette Business Editor

“Freightliner LLC announced Thursday that a new commercial van called ‘Sprinter’ will be assembled and marketed at its Gaffney, S.C., plant in cooperation with Mercedes-Benz.

“‘We'll start producing them in May of this year,’ spokeswoman Debi Nicholson said from the Mid-America Truck Show in Louisville, where the Sprinter was unveiled. ‘It was introduced in Europe in 1995 and has become the biggest-selling van there. In Europe it's sold under the Mercedes-Benz badge, but here it will be sold under the Freightliner badge.’

“According to a company statement, Freightliner will be making its first major expansion into the lighter-duty segment of the North American commercial vehicles market, which has a volume of about 360,000 units annually in the U.S. and Canada.

“‘This year we'll produce 5,000 or 6,000 to start,’ Nicholson said. ‘And in the first full year, we expect 20,000 a year initially.’

“Nicholson said she knew of no immediate hiring plans, but ‘as we get into increasing production, we would hire accordingly.’

“Nicholson said primary uses for the Sprinter would be parcel delivery by companies, passenger transportation by municipalities, airports and shuttle services, as well as light construction.

“‘It can handle a full range of service, from utilities to landscaping,’ she said.

“According to the company statement, the Sprinter will be available in three basic configurations — cargo van, passenger van and cab chassis - with three wheelbase lengths, two overall weights and two roof heights. It will be powered by a Mercedes-Benz five-cylinder, turbocharged diesel engine featuring a five-speed automatic transmission.

“There will also be four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, driver and passenger air bags, and impact-absorbing interior panels and sheet metal for increased driver and passenger safety.

“Approximate cost of either model was not immediately available.

“Freightliner LLC, headquartered in Portland, Ore., is the leading manufacturer of commercial vehicles in North America. The company produces and markets Class 3-8 vehicles under the Freightliner, Sterling, Western Star, American LaFrance, Thomas Built Buses and Orion Bus nameplates.

“Freightliner, which has a truck manufacturing plant in Mount Holly, is a DaimlerChrysler Company, the world's leading commercial vehicle manufacturer.”

Although a Sprinter-based type A cutaway school bus seems like it would make a great Thomas product, the not insignificant weight of the Thomas school bus body exceeded the rated capacity of the Sprinter 1-ton chassis. Even if it was viable, the additional cost of the Sprinter cutaway - approximately $10,000 over a comparable Ford or GM unit - made it a non-starter in the school bus business. However several third parties introduced some very attractive Sprinter cutaway shuttle buses and motor homes, albeit with much lighter Fiberglas coachwork.

Soon after Freightliner announced that Thomas Built was considering a move to Gaffney as well, the April 26, 2002 edition of the Shelby Star (N.C.) reporting:

“Gaffney Bids For Bus Plant

“High Point stands to lose one of its oldest employers, Thomas Built

“HIGH POINT (AP) — High Point officials are working to keep Thomas Built Buses in the area after the bus company said it was considering expanding or improving outdated facilities.

“The company, which is one of the oldest employers in High Point, has received a bid from Gaffney, S.C., to move, sources told the High Point Enterprise.

“Thomas Built is a subsidiary of Freightliner LLC of Portland, Ore., and a part of DaimlerChrysler AG of Stuttgart, Germany.

“John Thomas III, president of Thomas Built Buses, said no projects have been approved, but the company is considering expanding or improving outdated facilities. ‘A move to Gaffney is certainly something that would be logical to look at, but like I say, at this point, I would say that it would be premature to say that we are or we are not moving down there,’ he said.

“At stake for High Point is the Thomas Built operation, which is the third-largest employer in the city with 1,625 jobs. High Point is home to the corporate headquarters of Thomas Built Buses and manufacturing facilities for a full line of vehicles for the commercial transit, school bus and specialty vehicle markets.

“Freightliner also operates its Custom Chassis Corp. in Gaffney, producing vehicle chassis for Type. A motor homes, commercial shuttle buses, school buses and commercial delivery vans. The Gaffney facility was built in 1995.

“Thomas Built started in 1916 when Perley A. Thomas opened Perley A. Thomas Car Works for the manufacture of streetcars.”

Guilford County became very concerned about the potential loss of their largest industry and after much discussion offered the firm $450,000 in incentives to stay. They were joined by the City of High Point who offered $4.5 million, North Carolina kicked in $8.5 million and Randolph County and the neighboring city of Archdale pledged another $750,000, the June 22, 2002 edition of the Shelby Star (N.C.) reporting:

“Thomas Built gets money for staying

“Greensboro — The Guilford County commissioners have approved a plan to pay Thomas Built Buses $450,000 for deciding not to leave High Point, joining four other governments that have promised cash to the company.

“The commissioners, however, were the only elected board who were not unanimous on the issue. Three Republicans voted Thursday against paying the company money.

“The company plans to build a $34 million plant on the Guilford-Randolph line, adding 178 employees. The company had threatened to put the new plant in Gaffney, S.C., which instigated a flurry of deal-making on the part of North Carolina governments.

“The state will pay the company incentives worth $8.5 million; the High Point City Council voted Monday to pay it $4.1 million. The Archdale City Council and Randolph County commissioners both voted unanimously Thursday to pay $250,000 and $500,000, respectively, to the company.”

Thomas Built Buses invested a reported $39.7 million in the plant, which produces 22 units per day, with the capability to double the output when necessary. A 1.2-kilometer automated conveyor system takes the bus about 75 stations of the assembly line by the robot-operated paint shop to final finish line. Latest technologies are used in the combination of adhesive and self-drilling rivets compounds used.

Even in appearance, the Saf-T-Liner C2 differed from previous school buses. A very large, undivided windscreen and a steep, strongly rounded bonnet ensure maximum visibility. A steering angle of up to 55 degrees and a modern, clear driver's workplace with mirror-free fittings and plenty of storage options to facilitate the driver's work. The combined riveted and glued connection has been found in tests than twice as durable as a pure rivet joint. On-board diagnostics helps in maintenance and repair.

Low emission levels that meet the US standard EPO 2004, and a high torque characterize the frugal MBE 906 engine from Mercedes-Benz, which provides up to 250 hp. Optionally, the Saf-T-Liner C2 with a Cummins ISB engine available. In addition to the Saf-T-Liner C2, which is built on a Freightliner chassis, and the Minotour, Thomas offered its old-style FS-65 chassis into 2006. The redesignedSaf-T-Liner HDX, replaced the older Saf-T-Liner ER and HD in 2002.

Freightliner divested itself of American LaFrance in 2005, and in 2007, Cerberus Capital Management purchased the Chrysler assets from DaimlerChrysler necessitating a name change for Freightliner’s parent company to Daimler AG. In 2008 Freightliner was renamed Daimler Trucks North America and after Daimler AG closed down its North American Bus Division in 2012, Thomas Built joined Western Star and Freightliner as subsidiaries of Daimler Trucks, North America. Distribution of Setra buses (built in Germany by EvoBus GmbH) was taken over by MCI (Motor Coach industries) and Orion International was disbanded and its plants in Mississauga and Oriskany closed down.

Today the Thomas Built Bus subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America operates two manufacturing plants in North Carolina and employs over 1,600 people worldwide.

© 2015 Mark Theobald for

Appendix 1: Thomas Built videos:








Clint Johnson - From Rails to Roads: The History of Perley A. Thomas Car Works and Thomas Built Buses, pub. 1996

Asheville Evening News - Prominent People of North Carolina, pub. 1906

Lewis Pub. Co. - History of North Carolina: Vol. V., North Carolina Biography, pub. 1919

Louis C. Hennick & ‎Elbridge Harper Charlton - The Streetcars of New Orleans, pub. 1965

William S. Powell – Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Vol. 6 T-Z, pub. 1996

Harold E. Cox – The Birney Car, pub. 1966

Ian Arnold - Locomotive, Trolley, and Rail Car Builders: An All-time Directory, pub. 1965

Thomas Built Cars - Electric Railway Historical Society Bulletin No. 31, pub. 1959.

Bernard Palmer - Wings of Blue Bird, pub. 1977

Kenneth C. Springirth - Greater Erie Trolleys, pub. 2006

Kenneth C. Springirth - Southeastern Pennsylvania Trolleys, pub. 2008

Connecticut Motor Coach Museum - New London County Trolleys, pub. 2004

Pioneer Days and Progress of High Point, N.C., 1859–1948 (1948).

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