How many transit systems can say there have an active fleet of GMC Fishbowl buses? Not many! Most cities have retired these venerable workhorses and outside of a couple stragglers here and there, Calgary’s remaining examples comprise the largest fleet in service anywhere. They live!
All the buses we see here represent the very last of what was once a huge fleet of hundreds and hundreds that Calgary Transit once possessed. All seen were built in the period 1978-1982. Other examples dating from 1961-1977 have already been retired. With the youngest being well over thirty years old this makes these buses some of he oldest in service anywhere. Interestingly they’ve outlived some other models that came later, a testament to how durable the design is.
Officially named “The New Look” by maker GMC, this model was affectionately known as “Fishbowls” by both the public and those who operated them. This nickname came about due to the multi-angle multi-part expansive windshield which gave a slightly distorted view when looking in or out, much like one would see when peering through a rounded aquarium.
The first examples were made in 1959 – it’s an old design. Canadian production started in 1961 and from that date until 1980 or so (some say sources say 1982) they were made at the huge General Motors Diesel Division locomotive plant in London Ontario – known as GMD or GMDD. That factory closed in 2012 by the way.
Later, a purpose built factory was set up in Saint Eustache Quebec which continued to make this model until 1986 for various customers across North America – US transit systems liked the design so much in fact that they continued to purchase Canadian made models long after US production ended in 1977.
Over forty four thousand were produced, in numerous variations, with about a quarter of that output coming from Canada. Nearly every transit system in North America had at least some on their roster and in many cites they were the most common bus seen.
Given the longevity of the design it’s clear this was a superior product, at least in respects to reliability and serviceability. Not fancy, they most certainly tough, durable and clearly able to handle nearly anything thrown at them (like cold Canadian winters). Showing how good the design was, only a scant few years ago they were very common across North America with most fleets only being retired recently, say in the last five to ten years. Many Fishbowls ended up lasting longer than the buses that were supposed to replace them!
The “New Look” or “Fishbowl was also produced in a suburban highway model. Edmonton Alberta, until recently had some trolley bus versions, the only ones so built.
It’s not clear how many Fishbowls are left in the Calgary Transit fleet. I’ve been told perhaps a few dozen at most. The day of our visit, we saw eleven head out for service plus one was parked in the back lot. Given their advanced age, it’s likely that the fleet usage varies. I’ve been told some days they are not used at all.
Showing how much faith Calgary Transit has in these old buses, many were seen heading toward the always busy Deerfoot Trail. You don’t want to take an unreliable vehicle on that stretch of highway, it’s just too congested.
According to a few reports found by this author, there are plans in place to keep the Fishbowls in service until 2014. Surprising! In fact I thought they were already done for and when visiting the barns over the last five or six months we saw many of them languishing in the back lot, presumably not being used. Never count them out I guess and I guess they were only in temporary retirement.
It was a chance spotting of #977 in service a couple weeks ago that inspired this article. Prior to that it’s been the spring since we last saw one out in the wild.
One can assume that any bus that develops a serious mechanical issue will get retired ahead of that 2014 schedule.
On to the bus barns – we staked out a spot across the street just before the afternoon rush. In the span of half an hour, early in the rush, we saw all we’d see. In spite of hanging around much longer no more would emerge from the barns. It was a short GMC parade, although an endless stream of other buses continued to leave the whole time.
Of the dozen Fishbowls seen (in numerical order), #902, #934, #970 (not in service), #974 and #977 (the one that inspired this article) were all from an eighty bus order built in 1978. As built, these originally had the traditional roller sign which was later changed to the programmable electronic versions we see today. Hmmm, it would be interesting to know what bus was the last to have the roller signs? Later, on our way home, we saw #902 hard at work and loaded with passengers. A spotting in the wild!
The following two buses, #1010 and #1115, were from 1979 order comprising thirty six buses. These were the first Calgary GMCs that came from the factory with electronic destination signs.
Calgary Transit ordered seventy five buses in 1980 and #1059 is from that order.
The final Fishbowl order was in 1982 and #1094, #1148, #1154 and #1156 are from that group. These would be the final GMC produced buses of any model that Calgary Transit would purchase.
Given I lived in Calgary on and off since the 1970s, I am pretty sure I’ve ridden some of these buses as some point. If you’ve taken the bus in Calgary in the last few decades, chances are you have too.
Also seen in this report is a bus model known as “The MCI Classic” of simply the “Classic). It was produced by GMC (1983-1987), Motor Coach Industries (MCI – of Greyhound fame – 1987-1993) and later Nova Bus (1993-1997) all at the same Quebec factory. Nova Bus would change over to to newer designs after production of that model ended.
Designed by GMC to replace the Fishbowl, the Classic ended up being produced concurrently with the older model. Calgary Transit never purchased any from GM or Nova, but they did get some from MCI. These date from the early 1990s and represents the next oldest fleet after the Fishbowls. Many of the Classics, numbering over a hundred, have been rebuilt and for the time being their future seems assured. These buses, along with the Fishbowls, and a few older New Flyer models are the only non-low floor buses on the roster.
The Classic is interesting as while it looks different from the Fishbowl, it shares a lot in common with the older design. Think of it as a re-skinned and slightly updated new “New Look”. We will hopefully do a report on them soon.
The Spring Garden bus barn where the Fishbowls are based out of is huge, the biggest facility the transit system has. It’s home to hundreds of buses of all makes and types. They do everything here from minor maintenance to major overhauls. Given how long they have been in the fleet, the mechanics must know the Fishbowls inside and out.
If everything goes well we hope to catch a ride in one of these buses before they are finally put out to pasture. Stay tuned.
We visited the same bus barns in February 2013 to document the Fishbowls then in service then and to see that report, click the link below…
More GMC Fishbowls.
If you wish more information on these buses, by all means contact us!
Date: November, 2013.
Location: Calgary, AB, Calgary Transit Spring Garden bus barns.