Thomas Built Buses
Thomas Built Buses, Inc. (commonly designated Thomas) is an American bus manufacturer. Headquartered in High Point, North Carolina, the company is a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America (the parent company of Freightliner). While best known for its yellow school buses, Thomas also produces activity buses/MFSAB (Multi-Function School Activity Buses), commercial buses, and bus bodies for aftermarket conversion.
|Predecessor||Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc.|
|Founder||Perley A. Thomas|
|Caley Edgerly (President, CEO)|
|15,000 vehicles/ year|
Number of employees
|Parent||Daimler Trucks North America|
Thomas bus bodies are produced in two facilities in High Point, North Carolina; Thomas also produces the chassis for its Saf-T-Liner/Transit Liner EFX and HDX buses.
The oldest surviving bus manufacturer in North America, Thomas Built Buses traces its roots to 1916. Following the closure of streetcar manufacturer Southern Car Company, Perley A. Thomas (trained as a woodworker and engineer) founded a company specializing in fireplace mantles and home furnishings. In the summer of 1916, Thomas shifted from furniture to streetcar construction, as he secured a contract to enclose existing streetcars in Charlotte, North Carolina, renovating them in a car barn.
In the summer of 1916, Thomas Car Works was founded; with a $6,000 loan ($138,147 in 2018), Thomas acquired the equipment of Southern Car Works at auction, opening an assembly facility in a former ice manufacturing plant in High Point. During 1917, the company renovated 9 streetcars for the United States Navy in Mobile, Alabama and for the city of Montgomery, Alabama.
1918 marked several milestones for the company, as Thomas Car Works began production of brand-new streetcars; 25 were produced. All-steel bodies were produced by the company for the first time, quickly overtaking wooden designs. At the end of 1918, the company began construction on larger factory, a 30-acre facility outside of High Point allowing for both construction and repair of streetcars.
In 1921, Thomas Car Works secured its largest order for streetcars. In New Orleans, NOPSI (New Orleans Public Service, Inc.) decided to standardize their streetcar fleet upon 150 Thomas-designed streetcars, delivered from 1921 to 1924. Unable to fill the massive order on their own, Thomas subcontracted a portion to Philadelphia-based competitor J. G. Brill (using the Thomas design).
In September 1922, after Thomas delivered 25 streetcars to NOPSI, the High Point factory was destroyed by fire, causing $225,000 in damage and destroying 14 streetcars under construction. Following the fire, Perley Thomas secured a $100,000 advance from NOPSI, rebuilding the factory and securing parts to build 55 more streetcars; 25 more were completed by the end of 1923 (bringing the total produced to 105).
In total, Thomas Car Works produced approximately 400 streetcars from 1918 to 1930; at its peak, Thomas was the fourth-largest manufacturer of streetcars in the United States. While best known from their use in New Orleans, Perley Thomas streetcars would also be utilized by communities across the United States, including Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Miami, FL; Mobile, AL; New York City; Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC, and exported as well, with Havana, Cuba as a user.
As of 2019, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority operates 35 Perley Thomas 900-series streetcars in active daily use (on the St. Charles line, the oldest streetcar line in the world); the streetcars date from 1923 and 1924.
1930s: Transition to bus construction
In 1930, Thomas Car Works was reincorporated as a stock company, with Perley Thomas making his family stockholders in Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc. For the last time, the company received an order for streetcars, producing 4 for Mobile, Alabama. While rail-based streetcars offered higher capacity, for public transit, automotive-based buses grew in popularity as they offered a greater degree of routing flexibility. In a transition away from streetcars, Thomas produced its first trolley bus in 1933; while still drawing power from overhead wires, a trolley bus was constructed from a bus chassis. For 1934, the company produced 10 transit buses for South Carolina-based Duke Power.
Following the collapse of its primary source of revenue, Thomas Car Works diversified its work, expanding into automotive refinishing and construction of bus and truck bodies. From 1929 to 1934, the company workforce decreased from 125 to nearly 10 (which included Perley Thomas and his 3 children). Eventually, a company creditor filed for receivership, with the lack of potential buyers allowing for the survival of the company.
In 1936, Thomas secured part of a bid to produced school bus bodies for North Carolina. While required to produce 500 bodies, the company was only financially able to acquire materials for 200 bodies, with North Carolina splitting the bid between Thomas and Hackney Brothers. Dependent on length, Thomas offered wood-bodied school buses for $195 to $225, beginning a long tradition with North Carolina that continues to the present day.
In 1938, the company introduced several major innovations to school bus body design, as it introduced its first steel-bodied school bus. Although Perley Thomas streetcars had adopted steel construction in 1918, school bus design had largely remained derived from farm wagons, with wooden bodies remaining in use into the 1930s. Although not the first manufacturer to construct an all-steel body, in 1938, Thomas introduced one-piece roof bows, internal roll bars welded to each side of the floor/frame structure. While the design has been updated for added strength, the one-piece roof bow is in use in all school buses manufactured in North America today. In another innovation, Thomas introduced an outward-opening entry door, designed to aid egress in emergency evacuation situations.
1940s: Wartime production
In 1940, day-to-day operation of Thomas Car Works was turned over from Perley Thomas (who remained company president) to his three children. John W. Thomas managed company operations along with sales, along with James Thomas handling the High Point factory. Following the outbreak of World War II, as with its competitors, Thomas bus production was shifted towards the armed forces. In a contract shared with Ward Body Works, Thomas also produced various bodies for the GMC CCKW truck.
While the war had brought school bus production to a halt, the High Point factory remained utilized in civilian capacity. To supplement its armed forces production, Thomas Car Works was put to use by refurbishing streetcars. As rationing had led to increased demands on public transportation, the upkeep of existing equipment was considered a priority.
Following World War II, with a rise in student populations, Thomas Car Works began to expand its sales market beyond the South, opening dealerships across the eastern half of the United States. To better weatherproof its entry door, the company developed a reinforced rubber-covered door hinge; the rubber also covered the gap between the two door panels as they closed.
After World War II, a third generation of the family joined the company, with John W. Thomas, Jr. and Perley (Pat) Thomas II, with the former becoming director of sales and the latter taking over control of government contracts.
1950s: First Saf-T-Liner
During the mid-1950s, Thomas Car Works introduced the Thomas Saf-T-Liner name as it developed a new windshield design for its bus bodies. During the decade, Thomas would become an internationally based company, establishing manufacturing facilities in Ecuador and Peru; Thomas would ship bodies from North Carolina in CKD form to be constructed on locally sourced chassis.
In 1958, company founder Perley Thomas died at the age of 84, with sons John W. Thomas and James Thomas continuing the operations of the company.
1960s: A move towards safety
In 1962, Thomas Car Works officially expanded its production beyond High Point as it established a factory in Woodstock, Ontario. At the time, the company became the third-largest producer of school buses in the United States.
For 1967, to reduce blind spots in front of the bus, Thomas developed a convex blind-spot mirror that became mandated in North Carolina. Allowing a 150-degree field of vision directly in front of the bus, the feature became adopted by 16 other states in only two years. In various forms, blind-spot mirrors are currently required on all school buses in North America.
1970s: Thomas Built Buses
In the early 1970s, Thomas underwent a number of major transitions in company leadership and market positioning. In 1972, company president John W. Thomas died, giving leadership to his brother James Thomas, who retired within a year. As the company had moved away from construction of streetcars following World War II, in 1972, company leaders chose a new name for the company tied closer to its current product lines: Perley A. Thomas Car Works became Thomas Built Buses, Inc (a name used in its emblems since the 1950s). A third generation of the Thomas family assumed control of the company leadership, with John Thomas, Jr. (President) and Perley Thomas II (VP, international operations).
In the 1970s, Thomas Built Buses began to expand its product lineup beyond the Saf-T-Liner cowled-chassis bus. As an alternative to the Blue Bird All American, Thomas developed the Thomas Saf-T-Liner ER (Engine Rear). As with a number of other manufacturers (Carpenter, Superior, Ward, Wayne), Thomas was dependent on a chassis supplied by another manufacturer for its transit-style school bus (using Ford, Dodge, GMC, International Harvester and Volvo). In 1978, as part of an update to the Saf-T-Liner ER, Thomas made a major change to its design: the introduction of a company-sourced chassis for the ER as well as a front-engine EF (Engine Front) counterpart. Thomas would become the first school bus manufacturer to source chassis for both front and rear-engine models, ahead of Blue Bird by a decade (California manufacturers Crown Coach and Gillig Corporation did not manufacture a front-engine model that competed with Thomas).
1980s: Product diversification
The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period of struggle for all school bus manufacturers. Coupled with the slow economy, manufacturers could no longer count on the factor that had driven school bus sales for the past two decades: the entirety of the baby-boom generation had finished school; it would be years before student populations would create sufficient demand again. During this time, a number of manufacturers either encountered financial difficulty or closed their doors altogether. Thomas diversified its product lineup, entering the small school bus market, creating unique products, and redesigning its transit-style buses to compete with newly introduced competitors.
In the late 1970s, Thomas created its first small bus with the development of the Mighty Mite, a bus paired with the Chevrolet/GMC P30 stripped chassis. Designed as a competitor for the Carpenter Cadet and Blue Bird Mini Bird, the Mighty Mite name was first used as a narrow-body variant of the Saf-T-Liner conventional. In 1980, the Thomas Minotour was introduced. A cutaway-chassis bus, the Minotour was produced on both Ford and General Motors chassis.
The 1980s saw an expansion of the Saf-T-Liner model line, as Thomas introduced the WestCoastER, a heavy-duty variant marketed against Crown and Gillig school buses; in addition to heavier-duty driveline and suspension components, the WestCoastER was also available with tandem rear axles on certain versions. In the late 1980s, the Saf-T-Liner product line adopted the MVP suffix (which stood for Maneuverability, Visibility, and Protection).
In 1989, the Thomas Vista was introduced, adding a second conventional to the Thomas model line. In contrast to the standard Saf-T-Liner conventional, the design of the Vista featured a number of modifications to optimize forward sightlines for drivers. As with a front-engine transit-style bus, the engine was placed next to the driver instead of in front of the driver, shortening the hood length and repositioning the driver seat forward.
Alongside its product changes, during the late 1980s, the corporate structure of the company saw change as well. In order to better compete with other manufacturers, Thomas Built Buses sought to reorganize its management in order to raise capital without having to form partnerships with its own competitors. To do so, the board of directors brought in an investment group (the Odyssey Group) to buy out several shareholders as well as provide the needed capital.
In 1991, the Saf-T-Liner transit-style buses saw their first redesign since 1978. The ER and WestCoastER were given a much larger windshield, redesigned drivers' compartment, and saw the introduction of several new diesel engines. To better compete with the Blue Bird TC/2000 and Ward Senator (which became the AmTran Genesis), Thomas replaced the Saf-T-Liner EF with the All Star, using an Oshkosh-produced chassis. The Thomas Vista continued production, shifting chassis in 1991 from General Motors to a variant of Navistar chassis shared with the Saf-T-Liner Conventional.
During the mid-1990s, the company began development of environmentally cleaner buses, with compressed natural gas (CNG) school buses entering production in 1993; several battery-electric school buses were produced in 1994 as prototype vehicles.
By 1996, Thomas had become the largest school bus manufacturer in the United States (by market share). To keep up with added demand, the company opened a third factory in Monterrey, Mexico. To modernize its transit bus product range, the Chartour and CL960/Citiliner were joined by the TL960. A transit bus derived from the Saf-T-Liner/Transit Liner ER, the TL960 was a two-door bus that offered an integrated wheelchair ramp as an option.
During the later 1990s, Thomas Built Buses would undergo a number of significant changes, with some that have changed the future of school bus manufacturing. For the 1997 model year, Freightliner introduced the Freightliner FS-65 school bus chassis. Derived from the Freightliner FL60/FL70 medium-duty trucks introduced in 1995, the FS-65 chassis was paired with the Saf-T-Liner Conventional body, after several modifications (distinguished by the addition of a 4-piece windshield).
During the 1990s, Freightliner was expanding production into segments outside of highway trucks, with medium-duty trucks and school bus chassis among them. The FS-65 was the first completely new school bus chassis since 1980, with Freightliner as the first new chassis manufacturer since 1977. Other diversifications included the acquisition of American LaFrance, the chassis products of Oshkosh Corporation, and the rights to the heavy-truck range of Ford Motor Company (continued as Sterling Trucks). In October 1998, less than 18 months after the unveiling of the FS-65 chassis prototype, Freightliner acquired the entirety of Thomas Built Buses from the Thomas family and the Odyssey Group. Along with AmTran (in 1991) and Carpenter (also in 1998), Thomas was a school bus manufacturer acquired by a major supplier, with Thomas as the last major school bus manufacturer operating under family control.
Following the acquisition, several changes were made to the Thomas model line. At the end of the 1998 model year, Navistar ended its production of chassis of the Vista, ending its model run. Though Freightliner did not purchase the Ford medium-duty truck range or the school bus chassis derived from it, Ford ended full-size school bus chassis production after 1998, limiting production to Navistar or Freightliner (the last General Motors chassis for a Thomas bus was produced in 1991).
For 1999, Thomas entered the low-floor transit bus market, debuting the Thomas Dennis SLF200. In a joint venture with British bus manufacturer Dennis, the Dennis Dart SLF was imported (in CKD form) and final assembly was completed by Thomas in North Carolina; final distribution was undertaken by Canadian bus manufacturer Orion Bus (another Daimler subsidiary).
2000s: New-generation buses
In the school bus manufacturing segment, the beginning of the 2000s marked a period of uncertainty. While the purchase by Freightliner brought financial stability to Thomas (not afforded to Blue Bird Corporation), in 2001, Carpenter would close its doors forever and AmTran would rebrand itself (twice, in less than two years). From 1991 to the end of 2001, the number of manufacturers assembling full-size school buses in the United States had declined from seven to three (Blue Bird, IC, and Thomas). In 2002, Daimler (the parent company of Freightliner) reorganized its bus manufacturing operations, shifting Thomas from the acquisitions of Freightliner to DaimlerChrysler Commercial Buses North America, grouping the company with Orion and Setra, along with Sprinter.
In spite of previous efforts to move beyond school bus production, during the early 2000s, Thomas began to wind down its presence in the transit bus segment. In 2000, the TL960 (derived from the Transit Liner ER) replaced the aging Chartour/CL960 (from the early 1980s). The TL960 was only produced through 2002, as Thomas chose to concentrate on school bus derivatives (the Transit Liner EF/ER). 2002 also marked the end of the Thomas SLF200; as DaimlerChrysler acquired Orion, the Thomas Dennis joint venture was reorganized, replacing Thomas with Orion (through the latter, continued through 2007).
In contrast to its effective exit from the transit segment, during the early 2000s, Thomas made extensive updates to its school bus range. For 2001, the Saf-T-Liner HD (combining the Saf-T-Liner ER, WestCoastER, and the MVP ER) adapted many components from Freightliner, distinguished by its large mirror housings, which integrated sideview, convex, and cross-view mirrors into a single assembly. For 2003, all Saf-T-Liner Conventionals became Saf-T-Liner FS-65s, as Freightliner became the sole chassis available for the Thomas body.
In 2001, Freightliner replaced the FL-series Business Class with the Freightliner Business Class M2, leading Freightliner and Thomas to commence work on a new-generation school bus. In 2004, the Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2 made its debut, marking the first completely new school bus body from Thomas since 1972. In a shift from industry precedent, both the Thomas body and Freightliner chassis were designed together as a common unit, which allowed the use of the donor chassis dashboard in its entirety.
In 2004, company founder Perley Thomas became one of the first inductees (posthumously) of the North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame in Raleigh, North Carolina.
On December 13, 2006, the final Saf-T-Liner FS-65 was produced, marking nearly 35 years of production of the Saf-T-Liner Conventional body; 62,764 examples were produced on the Freightliner chassis from 1997-2006.
For 2009, Thomas launched a second model line of small buses, named the Thomas MyBus. Geared towards the MFSAB (activity bus) segment, the MyBus model line uses a modified version of the Minotour body.
2010s: Second century
In 2011, Thomas marked the introduction of the 2012 Saf-T-Liner EFX, its first all-new front-engine bus since 1994. Using similar design features as the Saf-T-Liner HDX (its windshield and upper bodywork), the EFX also utilized a center-mounted Freightliner instrument panel.
During the early 2010s, Thomas would expand its environmentally friendly product line. Introduced in 2007, the Saf-T-Liner C2e hybrid diesel-electric school bus met with little success and was discontinued in 2013. Having introduced compressed natural gas (CNG) in the 1993 Saf-T-Liner ER, Thomas retained alternative-fuel powertrains through the 1990s and 2000s, with the Saf-T-Liner C2 gaining propane and CNG powertrains (in 2014 and 2016, respectively). Depending on chassis specification, propane and CNG-fuel variants of the Minotour are also available.
In 2012, as Daimler ended its bus division in North America (closing Orion and MCI adapting distribution of Setra for North America), within Daimler, Thomas shifted to Daimler Trucks North America, home to Freightliner and Western Star.
In the production of its vehicles, during the 2000s and 2010s, Thomas has cleaned the environment, with the company achieving Zero-Waste-to-Landfill status in 2011. For 2012, Thomas was designated a North Carolina Environmental Steward because of its superior environmental performance, commitment to continued reduction of its environmental impact, and demonstrated commitment to exceed compliance regulations.
In 2016, Thomas Built Buses marked 100 years since the founding of Thomas Car Works, becoming the first current bus body manufacturer to reach 100 years of production in North America.
In late 2017, in line with each major school bus manufacturer, Thomas unveiled a fully electric school bus. Named "Jouley" (derived from the unit of energy), the prototype is based upon the Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2; a production version is predicted to reach production for 2019.
Thomas Built Buses is a leading manufacturer of Type A, C and D school buses. Thomas Built also produces activity buses, commercial buses, specialty buses and child-care buses derived from the Minotour, Mybus, C2, EFX, and HDX lines.
|Current Product Line|
|Model Name||Thomas Minotour||Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2||Thomas Saf-T-Liner (EFX, HDX)|
|Assembly||High Point, North Carolina|
Type A (cutaway van)
|Type C (conventional)||
Type D (transit-style)
(front engine, rear engine)
Ford Motor Company
Daimler Trucks North America LLC
|Thomas Built Buses
|Passenger Capacity||14-30||up to 81||up to 90|
|Former Product Lines|
|Model Name||Years Produced||Configuration||Chassis Supplier||Notes|
||mid 1980s-early 1990s||Type B (integrated)||
|Type C (Conventional)||
Ford Motor Company
International Harvester Company
|Type C (Semi-forward control conventional)||
General Motors (1989-1991)
Navistar International (1992-1998)
|Thomas Saf-T-Liner (EF, ER, WestCoastER)
||Type D (transit-style)
||Thomas Built Buses||
|Saf-T-Liner MVP EF/ER, All-Star
Type D (transit-style)
Saf-T-Liner MVP EF
Saf-T-Liner MVP ER
- Transit Liner MVP EF/ER- commercial derivative of Saf-T-Liner MVP school bus
- TL960 - rear-engine transit bus derived from Saf-T-Liner ER
- Chartour- rear-engine transit bus
- CL960 - rear-engine transit bus
- SLF200 (Super Low Floor) series - badge engineered transit bus built under license from Dennis Specialist Vehicles, based on the Alexander ALX200. It had a Dennis Dart SLF chassis.
|Thomas Built Buses, Inc. Timeline|
|Type B||Mighty Mite|
|Type D||Saf-T-Liner EF/ER||Saf-T-Liner ER|
|Saf-T-Liner MVP EF/Saf-T-Liner EF||Saf-T-Liner EFX|
|Saf-T-Liner MVP ER|
|Saf-T-Liner HD||Saf-T-Liner HDX|
|All Star EF|
- "About Us--Quick Facts" Archived 2010-04-07 at the Wayback Machine. Thomas Built Buses website. Retrieved 2010-04-30.
- "Thomas school bus history,Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Thomas Built Buses, Thomas Built Buses div. of Freightliner, Thomas Built Buses div. of Daimler Trucks, High Point, N.C. - CoachBuilt.com". www.coachbuilt.com. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
- "Perley A. Thomas Car Works". www.midcontinent.org. Retrieved 2019-01-18.
- Freightliner (1998-01-18). "FREIGHTLINER ENTERS SCHOOL BUS MARKET" (Press release). Archived from the original on 1998-01-18. Retrieved 2018-02-02.
- Freightliner (1998-01-18). "FIRST FREIGHTLINER SCHOOL BUS COMPLETED AND DELIVERED TO LARGEST CONTRACTOR IN MAINE" (Press release). Archived from the original on 1998-01-18. Retrieved 2018-02-02.
- "RETIRED: SAF-T-LINER® FS-65 YEARS OF RELIABLE SERVICE". Thomasbus.com. 2006-12-13. Archived from the original on 2015-10-13. Retrieved 2010-02-20.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
- Thomas Built Buses (June 3, 2009). "Thomas Built Introduces New Activity Bus" (Press release). Archived from the original on September 12, 2012. Retrieved April 30, 2010.
- "Our Buses". MyBus. Retrieved April 30, 2010.
- "Commercial Transit Products". Thomas Built Buses. 1997-04-01. Archived from the original on April 1, 1997. Retrieved 2014-01-04.
- "TL960™". Thomas Built Buses. 2000-04-23. Archived from the original on April 23, 2000. Retrieved 2014-01-04.