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Distinctive Kenworth PACIFIC school bus was a Northwest favorite

In a normal year, many kids heading back to school this time of year would be getting there aboard a big yellow school bus. And it wasn’t too many years ago that the school bus a good number of those kids would have been on was designed and built right here in the Northwest.

School buses have been around for more than a century, but they really took off after World War II with the Baby Boom, and the move by millions of families to new and growing suburbs, along with the general rise of the “car culture” of teen cruising, shopping malls, drive-in restaurants and drive-in movie theatres of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras.

Many Puget Sound area adults still have memories of riding the school bus, but they probably never noticed and didn’t care what company their particular bus was made by.

But, it is worth noting that a local company – Pacific Car & Foundry, nowadays known better as PACCAR, and their Kenworth division – manufactured a popular school bus from 1949 to 1957, and that many were still in service for local school districts and private schools as late as the 1980s.

This locally made school bus is called a “Kenworth PACIFIC Transit SCHOOLCOACH,” or “Kenworth Model T,” or just a PACIFIC. Generally speaking, these homegrown buses look like any other so-called “flat front” or transit-style school bus of the 20th century – the kind of bus with the engine behind the driver – but they do have a feature that gives them a different appearance than pretty much any other bus you’d ever run into out on the streets of Washington and Oregon.

This distinctive feature is a second set of two large windows mounted on the front of the bus below the front windshield.

“I think the windows underneath were really a safety feature,” said Tom Shafer, vice president of a bus museum in Fremont, California. “You had a flat front, transit-style construction, and that gave a little extra visibility for kids crossing the street.”

“That’s what really made the Kenworth stand out from the crowd,” Shafer said.

PACIFIC school bus sales materials from around the time the bus was first built in 1949 say that with those extra windows, the bus driver could see the roadway as close as 30 inches ahead of the front bumper, rather than a distant 20 feet ahead with a traditional bus design (with the engine compartment sticking out in front). Visibility of the area immediately in front of the bus is always important, but is especially critical when your passengers are tiny little kids.

Those same PACIFIC sales materials also say that the official name for those two sections of glass on the front of the bus are called “safety vision windshields.”

Jeff Howard of Redmond calls them “bifocals.”

Howard is 75, and he worked around school buses for much of the past 70 years. Along the way, he became something of an expert.

“When I was born, my father was designing buses for Kenworth,” Howard told KIRO Radio, and then mentioned a framed drawing of a bus design that his father made for Kenworth management, and which now hangs on Jeff Howard’s office wall.

“And it was dated ‘September 1945,’” Howard said. “Which is about the time I was conceived, so that’s about as close to growing up in the bus business as you can get.”

Jeff Howard’s dad was Sherman Howard. Sherman Howard came to Seattle from Lansing, Michigan, during the war to work for Boeing. Late in the war, he got a job with Pacific Car & Foundry in their Kenworth division – which Pacific Car & Foundry had purchased in 1944 – and in 1945, came up with the initial design of a transit bus that eventually morphed into the PACIFIC school bus.

Sherman Howard left Kenworth in 1949 and became a manufacturer’s representative for Crown Coach Company, one of Kenworth’s school bus competitors from California. In this capacity, Sherman Howard sold new school buses all over Washington and Oregon, and bought, sold, and traded old school buses, too. Sherman Howard passed away in his 80s in 1993.

Jeff Howard did, as he points out, truly grow up in the family school bus business, which his dad ran from the family home just south of Marymoor Park. Jeff Howard says part of the family’s small acreage was even called the “Bus Farm.”

“There was probably a quarter of an acre that my dad had graveled,” Jeff Howard said, “and so anytime he had a new bus coming in – or sometimes three or four of them at a time that were on their way to being delivered to a school district somewhere in Washington – we had half a dozen buses here, sometimes some old clunker, pre-war trade-ins and stuff like that.”

“I had a chance to run these old jalopies and the new ones and all that kind of stuff,” Howard continued. “And I just had a wonderful time when I was a 16-year-old kid with a driver’s license, because [my dad] put me on a DC-3 of West Coast Airlines and sent me to Wenatchee to [drive] an old Mack back here. I just enjoyed that very much.”

Howard agrees that the PACIFIC is a bus worth commemorating, but it doesn’t appear that it’s ever been part of some “Northwest Transportation Hall of Fame” that would also include the Boeing 707, the Seattle World’s Fair Monorail, and the Kalakala.

But it sure seems like it ought to be.

One reason why it’s worth commemorating is something else that Jeff Howard told KIRO Radio: School buses, he says, were built differently and better on the West Coast by three main manufacturers – Kenworth in Seattle, and Crown and Gillig in California –  than anywhere else in the United States.

First off, they were flat front, like city transit buses – so they didn’t have that long snout ahead of the driver –  and, says Howard, school buses were just built tougher on the West Coast.

“When you get a transit type bus, like a Crown, or a Gillig, or a Kenworth, outriggers for that body are welded to the frame and the crossmembers are welded to the frame and it becomes a ‘unit construction,’ basically, built from the ground up,” Jeff Howard said. “They start with two frame rails on some stands, and then they build the bus body on it, and it’s one piece.”

“With those East Coast buses” – which are just a bus body mounted on a truck chassis, says Howard – “they can get into a nasty wreck, and that body could actually shift on that chassis and crush up toward the front or the back or the side, or shift off to the side, with a large impact.”

“With a bus that’s put together all in one piece, they don’t do that,” Howard said. “They’re much safer in an impact collision.”

Safety isn’t the only reason for tougher West Coast school bus construction; the climate here also means it just makes fiscal sense to build them to last longer. Because of the salt used on icy roads in the Midwest and East Coast, buses built for those markets were considered almost disposable – you might get 10 years out of one before it rusts out, says Jeff Howard – while on the West Coast, with basic maintenance, you might easily get 30 years out of a classic PACIFIC, Gillig, or Crown from the post-war period.

Sherman Howard, says his son Jeff, had a pejorative description for those not-so-tough East Coast buses.

“My dad called them a ‘hay truck with a bus body,’” Howard said.

Along with the unit construction, Jeff Howard says one additional distinctive element of PACIFIC production was that it took place in a sequence that required two separate and distant sites: the Kenworth plant along the Duwamish (that had previously been a Ford assembly facility), and Pacific Car & Foundry’s factory in Renton.

And how did they do that? Jeff Howard says all it took was a creative and straightforward way to stretch the assembly line the several miles between East Marginal Way South and downtown Renton – by using local roadways.

“Kenworth built the chassis over in Seattle, then they strapped a couple of big heavy duty oak beams to them with U-bolts” – so the frames wouldn’t get damaged crossing railroad tracks or driving through potholes – “and then they drove them over to the Pacific Car & Foundry shops in Renton,” Howard said. “And then they’d put the bodies on them, [and] they built them up.”

“And I’m sure they must have done something to make them [street legal],” Howard continued, describing how the unfinished buses were driven from one factory to another. “Must have put some taillights on it, and stuff like that. Maybe put a little fake windshield up. There’s no pictures I’ve ever seen, it’s just my dad described how they did it.”

Kenworth (and parent company Pacific Car & Foundry) got out of the school bus market in 1957 – because the liability associated with school buses was too high, Jeff Howard says – and they sold that part of their otherwise growing truck business to competitor Gillig in California. Gillig was likely more than happy to eliminate that competition, Howard says; Tom Shafer believes Gillig may have integrated some PACIFIC design elements into Gillig buses.

During the eight years of production for the PACIFIC bus before the sale to Gillig, it’s unclear how many buses were actually produced in Seattle and Renton. Kenworth spokesperson Jeff Parietti told KIRO Radio in an email that the company doesn’t have those records.

However many were built, there aren’t too many PACIFIC buses left in 2021. There’s one parked at the Triple-X Drive-In in Issaquah, made up to look as if it carried Buddy Holly and The Crickets and other 1950s rock and roll stars on tour. There’s one rusting away in Eastern Washington that shows up on Instagram and other photo sharing sites. There’s a slightly different version that’s been restored and is on display in Whitefish, Montana.

Jeff Howard says that one bus that’s gone missing after many decades isn’t a PACIFIC, but was instead something of a testament to how much certain people loved the locally made Kenworth school bus – and especially its distinctive windows.

“There was a cantankerous old guy down there at the Lake Washington Bus Shop,” said Jeff Howard, referring to the school district facility in Redmond where school buses were stored and maintained. “He was sort of like I am now – sort of a, you know, irascible old b—— – and he just loved those Kenworths.”

“Superior, which made some really cheapy looking transit buses back east,” Howard said, “underbid Kenworth and Gillig and Crown, and [the Lake Washington School District] bought one [school bus from] Superior. And it didn’t have windows in the front, like the Kenworths.”

The “cantankerous old guy” at the bus shop, Howard said, “would not accept it until they took it to [local truck builder] Heiser and had the front end sawed opened and put two of those little bi-focal windows in that Superior.”

“And it was the only one in the whole wide world that was like that,” Howard said, chuckling.

Special thanks to Elizabeth Stewart at the Renton History Museum for images and other research assistance with this story.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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