Nov 062015
30 Foot Fishbowl Bus

The General Motors produced New Look, “Fishbowl” to those who know and love them, was the most common transit bus of the 1960s-1980s. There were tens of thousands of them made in the US and Canada and nearly every transit agency, big or small, had some on the roster. Many up until recently. Even today, you can find the occasional one still hard at work. The example we’ll be looking at today is a rare variant, the smallest model made, a thirty foot “Baby Fishbowl”.

GMC for a time was the largest producer of transit buses in North America. They had factories in the US, in Michigan, and Canada, in London Ontario (at the GM locomotive plant) and later a purpose built facility near Montreal Quebec. US production (Fishbowls) lasted from 1959-1977, and in Canada from 1961-1986. Over forty four thousand (yes 44k!) were made in total with a quarter of them being built in this country. Later examples made in Canada were often sold to US operators who loved them but could not buy them since GM there changed over to a different model.

A highway version was offered but was not that common.

The majority of the New Look buses were 35 or 40 feet long (approx. 10.5m and 12m respectively), in countless sub-models, with seating for up to fifty three. The thirty foot version (well technically twenty nine feet, or 9-ish metres) was designed for low traffic feeder routes and smaller operators and seated thirty three. It did not sell terribly well. For example this was the only one to operate in all BC. Baby Fishbowl production lasted only from 1969-1974, with output totaling some five hundred units, most going to US operators. Given the small niche market for this sub-model, all sold in Canada came from the American factory. It was just not worth setting up production here.

GMC Fishbowl

Today’s subject is this old transit bus.

GM quit the bus business in 1987 with both factories being sold off at that time. The Canadian plant today operates under the name Nova Bus. That make is pretty popular.

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Known for being durable and reliable, many Fishbowl buses lasted a long time in service. Calgary, the last major operator, kept some on the road well into 2013. A few small companies and specialized carriers use them as well. Calgary’s Spruce Meadows horse venue has a few, some 1960s built models, that are used as shuttle buses.

The nickname Fishbowl comes from that expansive multi-angled front window. Looking through it makes one feel as though a fish in an aquarium. It provides excellent visibility.

While the Baby New Look/Fishbowl looks outwardly much like their larger kin, they were in many ways mechanically quite different. They lack the usual V-drive setup seen on the bigger models for example. Powering this bus is a notorious GMC Toroflow diesel engine. These never sold well and were seen as unreliable and weak. Production only spanned a few years and not many remain in service today. That both the bus sub-model itself and its power plant are both pretty rare means parts are difficult to source and hence expensive. This one runs good now, so that’s not an immediate worry.

Just like the larger models, the Baby Fishbowl is made with monocoque construction, meaing the body itelf is the supporty strcuture. Inside it’s much like any other Fishbowl, only smaller. I have to say, it looks so cute.

This bus was built for Nelson BC Transit in 1971. That modest sized community, it has city status, in the West Kootenays in the south central part of the province has operated a transit system since the 1890s. Early on they even had street cars, the smallest such system in the country. Today, Nelson rosters about a half dozen buses.

Our subject is officially a model TDH-3301 (Transit – Diesel engine – Hydraulic transmission – 33 seats – series number). Maximum speed is 80kph, with a tailwind. Given the steep hills in Nelson (some San Francisco like in nature), one wonders how it fared. Recall, it is rather under-powered.

The bus was damaged in a garage fire in the mid-1970s and subsequently repaired. One side of the body had to be re-skinned.

Shorty after the fire, Nelson’s city operated transit system was amalgamated into the provincial run BC Transit network. The bus was little used after that time but remained in the community until the late 1980s when it was transferred to Victoria for planned conversion into a traveling transit exhibit. That never happened and so it sat for a time.

In the years 1993-2003, the bus belonged to a Victoria based historical society and was used to shuttle people to events and the like. Later it was sold to a private individual in that same city but was little used otherwise. A half dozen years ago, the current owner, located in Red Deer Alberta acquired it. This fellow. Steve Parkin, works for his local transit company and is a self proclaimed “bus geek”. He trucked it in from BC. Makes sense as it was never meant for highway service.

The bus arrived in good shape and easily passes inspection. It looks great too and still wears the old BC Transit colour scheme. It’s little modified from it original configuration, it’s got the roll signs and everything, and only lacks a fare box. Only a few seats show wear. It’s original in most every way! We never seen one like this outside a museum.

It’s rather low mileage given its age – remember it was a back up bus for much of its career in Nelson and not used much by later owners. The odometer read 161k miles. It runs, seem tight and appears to drive very well. We got to go for a ride and saw that first hand. Even the engine, which has a less than stellar reputation for reliability, purred smoothly. I understand it’s a real pig on fuel though.

Baby Fishbowl

It’s a 1971 GMC New Look shorty, aka a “Baby Fishbowl”.

Steve displays the bus at local car shows and events. He never travels far however, it’s too old and not cheap to run. Reason enough. Plans are to keep it pretty much as it is. There’s not to many as-built Baby Fishbowls out there! He puts it away for the winter.

Steve was kind enough not only to allow us a private tour, but also took us for a spin. Wow, thanks so much, we had a blast! I was like a kid in a candy store. Connie and I noticed the bus really turned heads as it traveled about. We did a couple run-bys and some panning shots, round and round and round, the latter taking place in a remote corner of a mall parking lot (surprised security didn’t come out); but I forgot to bring the proper ND filter, so most of that effort was for naught. Neutral Density:used to darken the scene so slower shutter speeds can be used, which can help accentuate or blur motion. Now you know!

We’re hope to revisit with Steve in the spring for a do over. We wanted to show the bus in motion, which we weren’t able to do account that bone-head oversight of mine. Movement will show it off like nothing else can.

More transit articles…
Spruce Meadows Fishbowls and Classics.
The last Classic?
They Live! Calgary Transit GMC Fishbowls in 2013.

If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!

Date: October, 2015.
Location: Red Deer, AB.
Article references: Owner Steve Parkin, Nelson and BC Transit records, GM production records.

Baby Fishbowl Bus

This bus runs well and is perfectly road worthy.

Baby New Look

There is seating for thirty or so riders.

Baby New Look Bus

We’re taken for a spin around town.

GMC Baby Fishbowl

Pedal to the metal!

GMC Truck and Coach

Built by the GMC Truck and Coach Division in Michigan.

GMC Fishbowl Diver's Seat

The driver’s position.

GMC Toroflow

A notorious GMC Toroflow engine.

TDH-3301 bus

GMC “Fishbowls” were quite popular, but the short models were not. It’s a rare one!

Nelson BC Transit

This bus originally belonged to Nelson BC Transit.

GMC bus

It was retired in the late 1980s and for a time stored.

TDH-3301 transit bus

It later came into the possession of a Victoria BC based historical society…

Bus side marker

…and later was acquired by a “bus geek” in Red Deer Alberta.

30 Foot Fishbowl Bus

A big thanks to Steve Parkin for allowing us a tour!


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10 Comments on "Baby Fishbowl"

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Ardis Hughes
Ardis Hughes

I liked the sparkly ceilings!

Brian Schuff
Brian Schuff

Neat…very cool indeed!

Rick Norman
Rick Norman

They’re so deco art like. The B&W is very effective. I don’t remember the interior of your bus (seat frames) being green.

Connie Biggart
Connie Biggart

A fun ride and a big thanks to Steve for the opportunity!

Chris Jones
Chris Jones

That’s one nice Fishbowl Drove the full sized versions here in Calgary.