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Columbia Coach Works
Columbia Coach Works, Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Lines Inc., 1933-1936; Los Angeles, California
Associated Builders
Pickwick Motor Coach Works

When Pickwick Motor Coach Works entered into bankruptcy in 1932, its principal owner, Charles F. Wren (b.1885-d.1944), created a new firm in order to refurbish and manufacture buses for the Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Lines Inc.. a recently organized Wren-backed firm that operated a Los Angles to Chicago passenger line which stopped off in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Just before Pickwick Motor Coach Works Ltd. went out of business, Wren had introduced an all-new rounded Nite Coach that debuted in late 1932 featuring Dwight E. Austin's patented angle drive mechanism and a transverse rear-mounted Waukesha engine.

Although the exact circumstances remain cloudy, it appears that Austin and Wren parted ways at the end of 1932, just as series production of the new Nite Coach was underway.

As Pacific Greyhound had already committed to purchasing the new coach, Wren likely purchased the necessary tooling from Pickwick's receiver and completed the remaining Nite Coach's construction in the new Columbia Coach Works facility.

Both Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Lines and Columbia Coach Works were named in recognition of the Columbia Finance Co., a newly formed holding company controlled by Wren that held a controlling stake in both firms.

Dwight E. Austin did not join Wren in the Columbia enterprise, electing instead to produce his own 21-passenger city transit bus, the Austin Utility Coach, in Pickwick’s former Mines Field factory which he leased from Pickwick's receiver, C.A. Sheedy.

What is known is that at least eighteen of the bread-box-style Nite Coaches were constructed. Ten were purchased by the Pacific Greyhound Line while the remaining eight coaches were sold to the Wren's Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Line. Whether they were constructed by Pickwick Motor Coach Works or by Columbia Coach Works remains unclear. At least one photograph gives a late 1932 date, although most state 1933 or later. Pictures exist of the coach in four liveries, Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Lines, Pacific Greyhound Line, Sante Fe Trail System Nite Coach and Santa Fe Trailways Sleeper Coach.

Columbia Pacific went bankrupt in late 1934 and the route was taken over by the Burlington Line on December 24, 1934. The new owners elected to replace the two-year-old coaches with more cost-effective units so they were sold to the recently established Sante Fe Trailways Stage Line, who refurbished them for use on its daily Kansas City to Los Angles run. Sante Fe’s president, A.E. Greenleaf, announced the launch of the new Nite Coach service in May of 1935:

“On May 27th (1935), a new. standard will be set in motorcoach transportation; according to A. E. Greenleaf, Vice-President of Santa Fe Trail System; America's largest individually owned and managed bus transportation company. On that date, Nite Coach highway sleeper service will be inaugurated between Kansas City and Los Angeles over the historic Old Santa Fe Trail.

“‘At a cost of over $20,000 each new Nite Coach will bring new travel comfort to the highway,’ said Mr. Greenleaf. ‘These coaches are luxurious parlor cars by day and have, sleeping accommodations for 25 persons by night. The berths are roomy and full length, everyone has the utmost privacy. Each compartment, of which there are five, is equipped with-radio, lavatory, ventilator, fan and hot water heater. A ladies dressing room and gentlemen's restroom are added conveniences. Regular low transcontinental fares will apply on the Nite Coach with a modest charge for berth accommodations, placing the finest transcontinental service within reach of all,’ said Mr. Greenleaf.”

The 1941 Paramount film Sullivan's Travels includes a thinly disguised 1933 Columbia Nite Coach. The Preston Sturgis comedy stars Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan, a young Hollywood director fresh from a string of profitable, yet shallow comedies who want to make a serious film depicting the plight of the downtrodden American.

Mr. Lebrand, the studio chief (played by Robert Warwick) refuses, demanding that Sullivan deliver another comedy. The idealistic Sullivan refuses and embarks on a tour of the country disguised as a hobo in order to get a first-hand taste of the sorrows of humanity.

Sullivan’s butler and valet trail Sullivan in a studio-supplied touring bus to ensure that their employer and star director make it back to Hollywood in one piece. The vehicle they use to trail Sullivan is the 1933 Columbia Nite Coach, fitted with a pair of hideous grills – front and rear – in order to disguise its true origin.

When Dwight E. Austin went to work for General Motors in 1934 he abandoned the Utility Coach project and the vacant Pickwick Motor Coach Works plant was sold by C.A. Sheedy, Pickwick’s receiver, for $30,000 to Los Angeles attorney Harry Elliott.

During the next decade (1934-1943) Austin served as a lead engineer in the General Motors coach division. A single Austin Utility Coach is known to have survived the scrap metal drives of World War II. Purchased in East L.A. for $400 and converted into a motorhome by Pat Patterson and family in 1948, the 1933 Utility Coach survived at least into the mid 50s before it was scrapped.

With the Nite Coaches completed, Columbia Coach Works refurbished existing sleep and day coaches for Wren's Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Corp. Columbia Coach Works introduced an interesting twin-engined prototype coach in 1936 which was christened the 'Pickwick Sleeper'. Equipped with two Ford V-8 engines mounted in the rear and driving through a complicated system of shafts to a single rear axle, the vehicle's most revolutionary feature was its mechanical air-conditioning system, reportedly the first ever used in a bus.

The novel drivetrain was highlighted in a 1936 article in Automotive Industries:

“Two Ford Engines Drive Night Coach. Power Plant conversion Uses V-8 Engines Driving Through Spiral Bevel Gears Into Single Clutch and Transmission

“Tests are said to indicate that this design provides a distinct advantage in efficient operation.

“The power plant, composed of two Ford V-8 engines seat at a 45 dgr. angle to the transmission shaft, is synchronized by a system of spiral bevel gears. From these gears it drives into a single clutch and transmission. The engines are timed to give alternate impulses, providing a 16-cylinder powerplant.

“With the two engines, the power plant has a brake test rating of 180 hp. At 3700 r.p.m. The maximum torque is 300 ft. lb. at 2100 r.p.m. Engines are set on either side of chassis behind the rear wheels, eliminating a long drive shaft.”

It's unknown if any further Columbia-designed twin-engined sleeper coaches were built, although Wren entered into an agreement to manufacture a small series of Hall-Scott engined coaches in association with Los Angeles' Crown Coach Co. in 1936. Some of those coaches were utilized by Wren's new bus operating company, All American Bus Lines which was organized in 1935 after Columbia Pacific Nite Coach went bankrupt.

All American is historically important as they were the very first coast-to-coast bus line owned by a single operator, Charles F. Wren. While the Greyhound cost-to-coast system predated All American’s by a number of years, it was a franchise operation made up of separate firms operating independently under the Greyhound banner.

At least two overnight intercity sleeper coaches were built by Crown for All American Bus Lines for use on their Chicago to New York City run. The buses featured underfloor engines manufactured by Hall-Scott in Berkeley, California, and included four sleeping compartments per side, with each one seating or sleeping three persons and containing a lavatory.  The vehicles were amongst the first in the country to be built with air conditioning which was provided by the Dry-Ice Appliance Corp. of Mount Vernon, Ill.

Exactly how many buses were built by Columbia Coach Works is unknown and their close resemblance to the Crown-built coaches doesn't make identification easy. The following new articles refer to generic sleepers and Nite Coaches of the era which in most cases were refurbished first (1928-29) and second (1932-33) series Pickwick Nite Coaches.

All-America used Crown-built coaches for a short period after which they purchased a fleet of rear-engined Flxible Clippers.

Columbia was mentioned in the the following article which appeared in the August 10, 1936 issue of Time magazine:

“Transport: Greyhound's Litter

“Class I railroads of the U. S. carried 445,995,000 passengers in 1935. Last week, the National Association of Motor Bus Operators announced that non-local bus lines had beaten this mark by carrying 651,999,000 passengers in 1935. An increase of almost 50% over 1934, it was the first time busses had handled more traffic than their biggest rivals. To keep pace with this new business, the largest U. S. bus line, Greyhound Corp., last week whelped the first 25 of a litter of 305 new busses, completely outmoding present standard equipment.

“Manufactured by General Motors, the new busses are chiefly notable in having their motors in the rear. This allows the driver to sit far forward, gives more room, makes the busses look almost the same at each end. They carry 36 passengers, three more than before, have roomier seats, indirect lighting. To eliminate "wheel seats" (seats over the wheel housing), the passenger deck is raised nearly 2 ft. so that passengers step up from the centre aisle. Made of aluminum, each coach is 5,000 lb. lighter than the old style, is rakishly painted to give an effect of graceful lines to its ugly rectangular bulk. First ones went into service last week between Boston and New York.

“Very similar in design to the new Greyhound busses are the East's first sleeper-busses, introduced on the Chicago-New York run last month by a new company named All American Bus Lines. The West Coast has had sleepers since 1928. Last year Greyhound extended its nite-coach service eastward as far as Kansas City (TIME, May 6, 1935). That the East was ripe for a similar facility was amply proven last week by the crowds which filled All American's sleepers to 95% of capacity.

“The only transcontinental line not financed by railroads, All American started last September with $1,000,000 capital, now operates some 30 day coaches. The new sleepers, built in Los Angeles by Crown Body Works and Columbia Coach Works, are about the best in the country. They have four compartments on each side, each compartment seating or sleeping three persons and containing a lavatory. Chief improvement, in addition to lightness, streamlining and quiet, is air conditioning, based on a new system. Previous sleepers have had cooling apparatus which never succeeded because it was too heavy. The new lightweight system, installed by Dry-Ice Appliance Corp. of Mount Vernon, Ill., consists of a chemical refrigerant piped around the girth of the bus after passing over carbon dioxide. A 12-hr, run in 100° temperature requires 100 lb. of dry ice. Cost: $2.

“Less roomy than Pullmans, the new sleepers have a great advantage in price. A Chicago-New York lower berth Pullman ride costs $33.25. In the bus it costs $20.25—and all meals are free. At present limited to this run, which they make in 26 hr., the new sleepers will go on a transcontinental schedule as soon as more are built.”

After Columbia Pacific Nite Coach Corp. collapsed, Wren organized a new firm, the All-American Bus Lines. Formed in 1935, the firm’s main office was at 506 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago, Illinois. All American is historically important as they were the very first coast-to-coast bus line owned by a single operator. While the Greyhound cost-to-coast system predated All American’s by a number of years, it was a franchise operation made up of separate firms operating independently under the Greyhound banner.

A number of decommissioned Pickwick and Columbia Nite Coaches were relegated to charter service which for the most part involved transporting the popular big bands and orchestras of the era to and from their numerous appearances at the popular nightclubs of the time. 

In his 1945 memoir ‘Russ's Bus: Adventures of an American Bus Driver, Russell Aaron Byrd detailed his career as an interstate motor coach pilot. Among his repeat customers were the big bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Ted FioRito, Jan Garber, Benny Goodman, Glen Gray, Phil Harris, John Scott Trotter and Rudy Vallee.

The multi-compartment Nite Coaches were well-suited for charter service. Byrd reports that a typical band of the era had eighteen members, including its leader, manager and porter. On a Columbia-built sleeper all eighteen can be put up in four of the five available compartments, with the fifth reserved for the band’s instruments and gear.

Byrd states: “The main thing is that the driver bring the band in on time at every stop, with a margin of safety.” One related tale reveals that when he drove for the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the bandleader typically popped into the driver’s compartment around 4 a.m. to “get his advice on things”. Byrd later learned the nightly discussions were of a more serious nature. Apparently Dorsey had read a report that revealed most early morning accidents were caused by drowsy drivers, and his 4 a.m. visits were time to keep his band members safe.

After Charles F. Wren’s passing in 1944, All-American’s vice-president, L.D. Jones, was elected president. In 1945 the firm became a Trailways franchise reorganizing as American Buslines Inc. In 1953 the firm’s operations were purchased by the Transcontinental Bus /Continental Trailways system.

Incorporated by Wren in 1935, All American Bus Lines was reorganized soon after his death (1944) as American Buslines. Soon after the firm became a Trailways partner and in 1953 was absorbed by the Transcontinental Bus System/Continental Trailways system.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -







All American Bus Lines - Across America by All American, Motor Coach Age, January 1975 issue

Larry Plachno - Integral Construction, National Bus Trader, Feb 2005 issue

Deluxe Night Bus Has Private Berths - Modern Mechanix, Jul, 1935 issue

Russell Aaron Byrd - Russ's bus: adventures of an American bus driver, pub 1945

Albert Meier & John P. Hoschek - Over The Road, A History of Intercity Bus Transportation in the United States, pub 1975

Carlton Jackson - Hounds of the road: a history of the Greyhound Bus Company, pub 1984, pp42-44

John W. Adams - A Million Miles or More, pub 2008

Pickwick-Greyhound Lines – Motor Coach Age, January-February 1992 issue

Ford Kingsbury Edwards - Principles of Motor Transportation‎, pub. 1933

Ed Strauss & Karen Strauss - The Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses

Donald F. Wood - American Buses

Denis Miller - The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trucks and Buses

Susan Meikle Mandell - A Historical Survey of Transit Buses in the United States

David Jacobs - American Buses, Greyhound, Trailways and Urban Transportation

William A. Luke & Linda L. Metler - Highway Buses of the 20th Century: A Photo Gallery

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