C.N. Johnston Shops - 1920s-1930s - Bakersfield, California
CN Johnston Shops – Bakersfield, CA – School Bus bodies SIA #148 pp42-43
Custom Bus Bodies: How They Got To School Back Then - by Richard Kelley SIA #148 Jul-Aug 1995 pp42-45
The classic era was a high point in automobile coachbuilding. Murphy and Rollston and Derham were busy clothing Duesenberg, Rolls-Royce and Packard chassis with some of the handsomest bodies ever seen. But during that same period of the 1920s and 1930s dozens of unknown firms throughout the land were also turning out bodies, not for automobiles but for school buses.
At this time few auto and truck manufacturers produced complete buses. That field was left to the aftermarket builders and these entrepreneurs, mostly in rural areas, developed a minor market that lasted into the thirties. Depending on the finances of the school districts involved, bodies ranged from simple boxes on wheels to lush coaches. They were designed with seating for from 12 to 40 eager students.
The chassis used ran the gamut from beefed-up passenger car underpinnings to heavy-duty Mack and White running gear. Most were delivered with only hood and firewall on a bare frame. The shop would then design a body tailored to the needs of the schools involved.
One of the busier outfits turning out such bus bodies during the 1920s and 1930s was the firm of the C.N. Johnston Shops of Bakersfield, California. Johnston started as a blacksmith shop and the company moved from merely doing repair work to building wagons-to-order soon after its founding in 1874. By the turn of the century the emphasis had turned to automobiles - one of the early invoices is for a "running board" for the Western Auto Stage company, a pioneering bus line in the area. In 1910 Johnston built the body for what was then the largest bus in the central valley. Unfortunately no photos remain of the vehicle. Oddly, Johnston never built a custom body for an automobile.
As the First World War ended, unified school districts began turning to buses to transport students from far-flung farms and ranches. At the start, complete units were purchased in Los Angeles and were driven over the narrow and twisting Ridge Route for delivery in Bakersfield, a trip that battered many of the new buses so badly that repairs and general reinforcement of the bodies was immediately necessary. Johnson saw a market for purpose-built bodies, and went to work.
The popular chassis for the larger units included General Motors, White, Mack and Fageol. International and Graham provided the footing for the smaller units. Durability was a necessity - these buses traveled hundreds of miles over pot-holed county roads - but styling was important, too, and Johnston spent a great deal of effort on aesthetics.
Johnston used construction methods that were fairly common for the era. A beefy sub-frame was first welded to the truck's frame rails to support the floor. Atop this was a body framing of hardwood to which aluminum body panels were screwed. Since bodies were essentially boxes with mostly flat surfaces, few compound curves were called for. The firm had its own body men, painters and upholsterers, and quality control was rigid. For example, Johnston usually finished off seams with a decorative half-round aluminum strip; the slots in the screws that held the half-round decorative aluminum trim were always left in a line parallel to the trim line.
The company files have photos of dozens of buses in many different styles, but some features were standard. Since temperatures in the area top 100 degrees throughout half the year, each vehicle had windows which could be opened for, ventilation. These varied from simple snap-on isinglass curtains to regulator-operated wind-down glass windows. Many bodies had a series of doors down the side, rather than a single entry at the front. For extra style, many had upscale hardware, handles and latches that echoed the equipment used on high-priced automobiles of the day.
One series of almost identical Mack-based rigs of the late twenties featured seven full-width leather-cushioned seats, with a door on the right side of the bus for each row. One of this series, a vehicle which carried the school band on concert tours throughout the state as well as being used for normal daily school runs, included an outside closed luggage compartment at the rear, topped by a chromed rack, for the band instruments.
Johnston's bus building business lasted into the late 1930s. By this time, major manufacturers were turning out their own buses and' firms like Grumman were building large series of bus bodies, and Johnston could no longer compete. Its last bus was delivered in 1939.
The company has always had a large auto body repair business, and for 'a time had an upholstery department for furniture. During the immediate postwar period, Johnston developed a five-passenger "crew cab" for pickup trucks which was popular with oil-field firms in the area. The staff also designed an enclosed cabin for cotton picker operators. These later were equipped with air conditioners.
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