The Evolution of the School Bus

The first school buses weren’t buses at all: They were wagons. Known colloquially as “kid hacks” (“hack” referring to a type of horse-drawn carriage), these wagons were used in the late 19th century to ferry children in rural areas to the one-room schools that were popular at the time. Sleds were also sometimes used in extreme northern climates.

Following kid hacks, motorized school buses were introduced in the early 1900s, though these buses were really nothing more than trucks with tarpaulin drawn over them. The first “enclosed” school buses began appearing during the 1920s. Wayne Works was one of the first manufacturers to produce glass windows, which took the place of the roll-up canvas curtains that had been standard on the tarp buses. Gillig Bros developed a competing bus design, known as the “California Top,” that featured a slightly curved reinforced metal roof with windows separated by pillars. These windows were also made adjustable by a latching mechanism. While other companies continued to use canvas curtains on horse-drawn buses, Wayne Works began manufacturing its first model of all steel buses in 1930. Coach Crown followed shortly after with their Crown Supercoach, capable of seating a record 76 passengers.

No longer an adaptation of existing vehicles, like wagons, carriages and trucks, the school bus began developing into its own vehicle, with all-metal construction a la the Wayne Works model becoming increasingly standard. School buses didn’t become standardized for industrial production until 1939, however, thanks to a conference organized by rural education expert Dr. Frank W. Cyr. This conference, attended by transportation experts, chassis manufacturers and paint companies, forever changed the way school buses were designed and functioned. This conference resulted in a set of 44 standards adopted by all manufacturers, specifying uniform qualities for seating configuration and interior dimensions, among others. Also decided at this conference was the now standard yellow most school buses are painted in. The color was selected for safety reasons; it was agreed upon by conference-goers that the color yellow would be the most visible during a school bus’s normal operating hours (at dawn and at dusk), and it contrasted well with black lettering. The color is known officially as “National School Bus Glossy Yellow” in the United States and “Chrome Yellow” in some parts of Canada. Although not a standard outside of North America, school buses worldwide often feature some shade of yellow, in part or in whole.

Due to the baby boom that resulted in rapid population growth in the United States, the demand for school buses increased during the latter half of the 20th century. No longer just a feature of rural areas, school buses began finding use in urban and suburban settings. In the 1960s, smaller buses were developed for the transportation of special needs children and for routes unsuitable for larger buses.

By 1980, however, the industry began to contract, leaving six manufacturers still in business: Blue Bird Body Company (which developed flat-fronted buses), Carpenter Body Works, Wayne Corporation, Thomas Built Buses, Superior Coach Company and Ward Body Works. Even larger manufacturers like General Motors and Ford were shut out of the bus industry by 2003 (though they continue making smaller “Type A” buses as opposed to the full-size “Type C” ones). By 2005, only three of the “Big Six” companies continued to exist.

This consolidation of manufacturers led to several design changes throughout the industry, simplifying the structure of bus production, both at the design as well as production level. Many of the most recent changes have been made to reduce the impact buses have on the environment. These changes include the introduction of hybrid buses, the introduction of three-point seat belts and the use of GPS technology.