Affectionately she’s the Big Old Red Transit Bus or simply just Big Red. Spending a great deal of its almost fifty year working career in Calgary, hauling commuters or in charter service, it’s now in semi-retirement and resides with a collector in Edmonton. This iconic “Fishbowl”, the most common transit bus of its era, runs well, is pretty much original in layout and appearance and looks fantastic for having worked so long and hard. It’s a bus lover’s dream.
The proud owner, our gracious host, James Paull, takes it out on the road from time to time. It could be for a simple shakedown run to make sure everything continues to work as it should. Or maybe he’ll drive it to some community event or car show and put it on display for all to see. I’m sure it’s always the centre of attention there. And when a couple bus nuts wanting to document it ask, well, he’s more than accommodating. His suggestion…let’s go for a ride!
The maker of the bus, General Motors, the largest player in the industry back in the day, called this model a “New Look”. Doesn’t really roll off the tongue well. To most, operators included, it’s a “Fishbowl”. Why the name? Its broad multi-piece windshield gives one the feeling they’re looking into an aquarium – all that glass with a bit of distortion. You get the idea.
GM made these buses in both the US (1959-1977) and Canada (1961-1986). For the sake of simplicity we’ll only discuss ones made here.
From the start until about 1980-ish production happened at the General Motor Diesel Division (aka GMDD) Plant in London Ontario. This factory also made locomotives, giant mining dump trucks and military vehicles. Later bus production was transferred to a purpose built factory in Quebec which GM then sold in second half of the 1980s. The place still operates under the name NovaBus. In between it was Motor Coach Industries.
Total Fishbowl production was some forty four thousand with a quarter of that coming from the Canadian Factories.
Every transit system across the county, big, small or in between, its seems, had Fishbowls on the roster. All production prior to 1977, in Canada, was for Canadian Transit Agencies, but afterwards sales were made to American carriers as well. It’s bloody complicated, but it was much to the chagrin of GM Bus and Coach in the US who dropped the model prematurely while still in demand. The design was so well-regarded that for a time it was built concurrent for a time with model that was supposed to replace it, the “Classic” (in production under various owners, 1983-1997).
There were numerous sub-models within the Fishbowl series but in appearance there’s little difference between most. Basically, one from the 1960s looks much like one from the 1980s. Various lengths, vehicle widths, seating arrangements and door layouts were offered. Some got AC, but most in Canada didn’t. But they did have sliding windows! Oh, those iconic shaped windows. There was also a “Suburban” highway version in the 1960s/1970s.
The body of the bus forgoes a standard frame, the entire body itself, instead, doing the job of supporting everything. This is called monocoque construction and is used in aircraft. The engine in the rear is canted forward for easy access. Most of these buses had automatics. For the latter at least the transmission is at an angle in relation to the engine (not sure with the manuals). This layout was known as a “V-Drive”.
Big Red was made for Calgary Transit and was one of just over two dozen Fishbowls delivered to the city in 1967. While in service it carried the number #615 and a much different paint job than seen today. It’s a sub model TDH-5303 (Transit, Diesel, Hydraulic or Auto Transmission, nominal 53 seat capacity, and 03, the series number). By the time the city bought the last Fishbowl model, in 1982, it was one of hundreds and hundreds on the roster making it by far the most common bus the CTS owned then. Ditto for most cities that operated them – they’re were popular and well loved and made up the majority of most fleets. The last CTS Fishbowls were not retired until 2013 (now that’s getting your money’s worth). Number #615, however, didn’t last that long and was retired in 1986.
There’s a chance this author rode this very bus in the old days. Took transit a lot as a youngster.
Number #615 didn’t have a date with the scrap yard on retirement however. It, along with some other ex-CTS Fishbowls from the same series were acquired by Perimeter Transportation and used in charter service (Expo ’86 in Vancouver). That firm was later taken over by another, Pacific Western Transportation, and this bus and its stablemates, shortly after were repatriated, being transferred to subsidiary Red Arrow Transportation in Calgary. The fleet was used almost exclusively to shuttle people about the Spruce Meadow’s Horse Venue south of town. All were even painted in Spruce Meadow’s colours (green/silver). It’s carried the number #665 since leaving Calgary Transit.
The Red Arrow firm kept the buses in fine operating condition and in spite of being very old they continued to serve well. Right to the very end. Still, it couldn’t go on forever and they were retired en-masse in 2015 and put up for sale. One of the series was picked up by Rapido Trains, near Toronto, painted in Toronto Transit Colours and used a flag ship of sorts for this firm, which makes model railway cars. They even made a model version of their bus!
Other ex-Red Arrow buses were picked up by collectors. I understand one was scrapped. James snatched his up in early 2016, for a song. It required no major work, just little things. It runs well and all mechanical and body parts are in fine shape. Ditto for the retro interior which is fairly original. I recall those colour seats used by Calgary Transit…so long ago. It was so tight, James had it driven from Calgary to Edmonton.
The bus has been repainted, but unhappy with the results, James plans a do-over soon. Those crazy bus guys demand perfection. The only other changes he’s done is the replacement of the front destination roll-sign with an electronic version. This allow custom messages to be displayed – Big Red greeted us on our arrival. And were we flattered!
While it’s nice to shoot a static bus, it’s far more fun to capture action out on the road. With no real plan, we cruise about Northeast Edmonton and rural backroads just outside town, stopping here and there for photo ops, and turning heads as we go. We get especially odd “have I gone through some time warp” stare from those waiting at bus stops. Is that my bus? Wait, the route number’s right! (Don’t tell anyone, we we’re having some fun with the destination sign).
That look we got on passing! From people waiting for a bus, pedestrians, people in cars, and huge triple-takes from other bus drivers! I rode a bus like that! I drove a bus like that!
A train parallels us for time. It’s not an usual thing I guess in this part of Edmonton which is a spider-web of lines. It’s interesting to know the battered old locomotives we see also came from the same factory as this bus. A chance meeting of alumni from GMDD-U. Class of 1967 meet class of 1980 (lead loco). Wonder what the train crew thought as we paced their freight? The GMDD factory closed a few years back.
James handled the bus like an expert beaming the whole time. He’s a proud owner and we learned of its history as we drove about. There’s lots of photos of the bus, in the bus. They’re up where ads used to go.
A swing by the Alberta Hospital Grounds north of town is an interesting diversion. Some old dis-used buildings there catch our attention and become a backdrop for photos. Memo to self…how can we get inside them? I guess there’s toxic stuff, so little chance there. Might still try for the heck of it.
The light failing, we snap off the last of our pics and we head out. Damn it was a blast. A couple hours on a vintage bus, hanging with its proud owner. Can’t be beat. Damn, should have hit a Tim’s Drive-Through. A big thanks to James Paull for being so accommodating. You’re the best and I mean it. The bus has a Facebook Page by the way (search “Big Old Red Transit Bus”). If you have an old bus, truck, car or piece of machinery you’d like us to document, much as we did here, fire off an email and we’ll respond promptly. We’d love to hear from you. Old iron is a passion.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: November, 2016.
Location: Edmonton, AB.
Article references and thanks: James Paull, Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board Wiki, Various GMDD Bus Production Records.