Here we see a ubiquitous GMC “Fishbowl” bus. If you live in a town with a transit system it’s likely you’ve seen one these, although maybe not that recently. Officially named The New Look by its maker, it seems that it’s often refereed to by it’s more endearing nickname instead.
In production for an amazing 28 years and with over 44 thousand (yes thousand) made in that span of time, it was the most common transit bus in Canada and US throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. And in fact, many lasted well into the 2000s with their original owners and a few cites, including my own town Calgary (as of early 2013), still operate them today.
The GM Truck and Bus Division introduced this model in 1959 and it almost instantly became a sales success. Well designed, reliable and tough as nails, it sold more than any other bus before or since and it could be seen all over North America (and I am sure elsewhere but I am not sure how many may have been exported).
Produced in the US from 1959-1977 and in Canada from 1961-1986 most parts were interchangeable regardless of the country of origin. Without knowing the history of a bus, it would be difficult to to say which factory made it.
Canadian produced models were initially made at the General Motors Diesel Division (GMDD) plant in London Ontario. This factory is well known for making locomotives but to help offset the cyclical nature of that business, they built other things as well, like the buses (along with mining dump trucks and military vehicles). This plant shut down in 2012 after an ugly strike and as a result locomotive production was transferred to the US. Later New Look production, from 1980 on (thereabouts), were made at a different factory in St-Eustache, Quebec near Montreal, a plant that still makes buses today.
In 1977 GM came up with a replacement for the New Look, but it was rejected in Canada and so the older models were retained. In time even US transit systems came knocking, purchasing late model New Looks from Canada, It seems that US customers found the new GM bus (called the RTS) less than satisfactory. The final Fishbowl bus produced (in April 1986) was for a transit line in Santa Monica CA.
The Canadian factory never made the RTS bus, the planned successor for the New Look. It did however come up with its own replacement, called The Classic. Produced from about 1982 on it was built concurrently with the New Look, some customers insisting on ordering the proven and reliable, if dated looking, older design over the newer model. GM Canada stopped producing buses in 1987, selling the Quebec factory to Motor Coach Industries (of Greyhound bus fame). Later this plant was sold yet again and is now known as Nova Bus. They still make transit buses which seem to be quite popular.
The most usual Fishbowls made was a series of trolley coaches built for Edmonton Transit in the early 1980s. Outside of the poles they otherwise looked identical to the internal combustion version. These buses were retried in batches up until 2009 when the town trolley system was finally abandoned (leaving only Vancouver in Canada with trolley buses). I recall riding the Edmonton trolley buses in the 1990s and they had amazing acceleration.
Of the 44,484 Fishbowl buses built, 11,071 of them, in many variants, were made in Canada. Most were built with Detroit Diesel engines and Allison automatic transmissions. They came in many lengths and widths and were made in both transit and suburban form. There was a whole gamut of seating options depending on intended use. Most had standard 2+2 side by side seating but others had lengthy wall benches for better crush (standee) loading. Depending on the configuration it was possible to jam 75 people or more inside. Most of the New Looks had two doors, but some suburban ones had only one. Others had three, with two exit doors in the back.
The drive train for these buses sat on a removable cradle allowing the engine and transmission to be pulled out as one unit for easy maintenance. That’s quite an advanced feature for something designed so long ago. In spite the number made and large time span they made in, the overall look inside and out remained remarkably static with little change over time. That’s the hallmark of a superior product.
I am not sure if this is a hard and fast rule, but any older US produced models I have seen seem to be labelled “GM”, while later ones from that country said“GMC”. Every Canadian one I have seen says “GMC” regardless of age. My experience anyway – any expert care to chime in on this?
The bus’ nickname came about due to the angular front windshield which gave a magnified fishbowl effect. Odd looking, it helped with visibility and it was almost possible to see the front bumper from the driver’s position.
The New Look seen here formerly belonged to the Lethbridge Transit system, some 60km south of here where we found it. That small city in Southern Alberta has a modest transit system that dates back over a hundred years. In the past they even had street cars. Today they have some forty buses active over twelve routes.
Lethbridge Transit #116 was built in 1974 or 1975 depending on which report you read and was one of two built to that order. When delivered it carried the number #16 later changing to its current number in the early 1980s. It appears this bus had a rather unremarkable life and this author had seen pictures of it in service all the way up to about 2004. It’s assumed that the bus was retired around that time but in reading some online reports it sounds like it languished in the dead lines for some time, perhaps up to five years before heading north here to Carmangay Alberta at some undetermined time, where it sits today. Was it complete when brought up here, I can’t say for certain.
Our bus has the typical roll destination sign of the era. Later examples had programmable electronic signs.
As it sits today, it’s missing its engine but otherwise looks complete. A peek inside shows all seating in place and there are even old advertisements on the sign boards. It’s pretty dusty too!
As mentioned, some of this model bus are still employed in transit service, but probably not for long. And those that do are usually only used during peak hours. Outside of transit use I have also seen them in charter service, put to use as fire department mobile base stations, in church and charitable origination service and other uses and while I am sure some will continue to roll for some time their ranks are quickly thinning and most are likely to be scrapped.
To see an interesting GMC motor home, go here…
The GMC Motorhome, a cool retro camper.
If you wish more information on this bus, by all means contact us!
Date: February, 2013.
Location: Carmangay, AB.