First school bus gets second life

Old Cars Weekly archive – June 26, 2008 issue

Blue Bird bus company began with experimental Model A

By Meredyth Albright

Blue Bird 1, the country’s first school bus, is on display this 
summer at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The bus was built in 1927 by Georgia car dealer Frank Luce, Sr.

School may be out for the summer, but for those wanting to relive their school days, or more specifically the bus ride to school, a trip to the Henry Ford Museum will offer a trip down memory lane.

Blue Bird No. 1 — the country’s first steel-bodied school bus, — now has a new home — at the museum.

The steel-bodied vehicle became a school bus quite by accident after Albert Luce, Sr., the owner of Ford dealerships in Fort Valley and Perry, Georgia, responded to a customer request when he bought a wood-bodied vehicle that he turned into a bus.

The bus was used daily to transport workers to a Georgia cement plant. While it was an efficient way to get employees to work, the bus developed some problems. The wood deteriorated before the customer could finish paying for the vehicle, so Luce investigated ways of building a better bus. The result was the construction of a body using steel angles and channels, steel sheets, wood and canvas.

“It was important that the bus contained elements of steel,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum. “Steel wouldn’t rot, and since it was in the south, corrosion wasn’t an issue.” Basically, the improvements Luce made meant the bus wouldn’t rattle apart as it bounced around rugged back roads.

The last step Luce took before finishing the bus in 1927 was to mount it to a Ford Model TT chassis.

The renovated vehicle was sold to Frank Slade of Marshallville. Ga., who used it as a school bus. Slade, had a contract with several Georgia schools to transport children, but p until he purchased the bus, children traveled to school in horse-drawn wagons.

The concept of school buses seemed to be promising at the time and, in 1932, with car markets weakening during The Great Depression, Luce sold his car dealerships and focused on bus manufacturing. He named the new business Blue Bird Body Company.

Slade eventually removed the body of his first bus and put it on an AA chassis to improve the viability of the design. Eventually, the bus was parked. Sometime after World War II, the Luce family found the truck and the original body in a field and restored it to its original state, mounting it onto a Model T chassis. The bus has been in the Luce family since. By family agreement, the last surviving child of Frank Luce, Sr. would determine the fate of the bus. That decision fell to Frank “Buddy” Luce, Jr., who decided to donate the bus to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Visitors to the museum this summer will see the bus in its original form. The seats are padded benches lining the outside edges of the back of the truck. The driver’s seat is a salvaged jump seat from a limousine and the only glass is in the windshield. The side windows are covered with large pieces of canvas, which rolled down to protect the passengers from the weather.

According to Casey the original entrance to the bus was at the rear of the vehicle. “That was obviously not a safe place for children to be getting on and off a bus, so it was changed quickly,” he said.

Luce’s donation of the bus coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Model T Ford. “Donating Blue Bird No. 1 to The Henry Ford [museum] at this time is meaningful to me for many reasons” he said. “Last year was the 85th anniversary of the Blue Bird Body Company (now Blue Bird Corporation) and I feel this is a great way to acknowledge that milestone.”

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