The Titanosaur

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This is a big one, everybody. The biggest Forgotten Metal vehicle we’ve ever had here. By a pretty wide margin, I’d reckon. If people still reckoned, that is. Do people still do that? There are a couple reasons for all this big-ness. First is the fact that this is a bus- a big ol’ bus. But this story is much- ahem, larger than that. Backroom industrial conspiracies, radically practical technological innovations, and fishbowls are all ahead. This is a 1960 GMC TDH-5301.

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But let’s slaughter a sacred cow first, shall we? This bus is made by GMC, which is a company owned by General Motors. GMC is technically an anagram for “Grabowsky Motor Vehicle Company,” not “General Motors Company,” as many assume. GMC is one of the older names in the automotive industry, having been started by Max and Morris Grabowsky. They decided that they could put the skills that they cultivated in their locksmithing business to use making trucks. I’m not sure I necessarily follow their logic there, but in any event after building their first (one cylinder!) truck, they founded Rapid Motor Vehicle Company in 1902, which was bought by General Motors in 1909. GM then mixed them with a few other recently acquired car companies, added some garnish, and viola! In 1912, the first officially branded GMC trucks appeared at the New York International Auto Show. And as we know, crazy stuff happens at the NYIAS.

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Anywho: the bus. I’m sure that extremely complicated series of numbers and letters that make up this particular bus’ official designation actually means something to someone somewhere. Presumably. But from here on in I’m going use the name “New Look,” because I am the master of this domain and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Also it’s easier to type. “New Look” is the more general name used for this particular generation of GMC bus. It’s also a helpful name in that it distinguishes itself from the “Old Look” buses of the 40s and 50s. The New Look was first introduced in 1959, and to say it was a revolution in some crazy, industry-shattering way would be a hyperbolic lie. Revolutionary is for cars. Evolutionary is for buses. For the most part, the New Look benefited from many of the advantages that the Old Look pioneered: namely its use of the Allison V-Series automatic transmission. I know I have a tendency to go on about how manual transmissions are what God created on the Eighth Day and how automatic transmissions are as boring as the Olympic Parade once you’ve sat through more than two hours of it, but the reality is this: automatics have their place. And that place, as it turns out, is in buses. In the words of Paul Niedermeyer, author of the excellent car website Curbside Classic, “the Allison was the greatest thing that ever happened to transit bus drivers.” You can trust him on that, too. He used to drive New Look buses in Iowa City.

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The interesting thing about the Allison V-Drive  is that it had, effectively, one gear. That meant that driving the bus took some getting used to. Setting off from a standstill required flooring the throttle, and then the whole affair topped out at around 60 miles per hour (but that was only really for the “S” series of suburban buses. This is part of the “T” series for transit). It also meant that the bus had only three gear options: forward, neutral, and reverse (“Park” was taken care of by the air brakes). The New Look buses were also available with a four speed, non-synchronized manual transmission, but as we’ve discussed, actively choosing the manual here is the sign of either a masochist or a moron. Another fun fact about the New Look is that it made use of a “stressed skin construction,” which sounds like an overpriced dermatological procedure undertaken by rich housewives, but is actually a very early form of the unibody. Power came from a diesel V6 mounted transversely- just like a Mini, in fact. This bus is pretty much exactly like a Mini, is what I’m trying to say. But the New Look’s party piece was its windshield. You can kind of see it in the picture above, the windshield curves in below the driver. This dramatically increased visibility when compared to the Old Look’s “submarine” windows. It also gave the New Look the decidedly less-official nickname of “fishbowl.”

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Okay, conspiracy time. Back when automobiles were first becoming popular, General Motors owned a company called National City Lines. They started buying up local light rail and tram companies. Before long, those little companies were shut down and replaced by- you guessed it- GM buses. Now, it’s easy to point at GM and shout “monopolistic tendencies!” and many do. But the truth is likely much less nefarious. Alongside the rise of the automobile came the rise of the suburb, and it was expensive to build rail and tram lines further out into the urban (and now suburban) sprawl. Bus lines were cheaper to start up and cheaper to run. Sure, GM got in on the ground level and dominated the market for many years, but economically it made sense.

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The New Look was replaced in 1977 by the GMC RTS (Rapid Transit Series). That bus had a whole host of issues, and eventually GM sold the design off to another company. Before long, they were out of the bus making business altogether. The Canadians, interestingly enough, liked the New Look so much that they continued building it until 1986. And I think that’s the real takeaway from old fishbowl. The New Look was a bus- something designed to fade into the background- and yet it still managed to be memorable. Forget your Corvettes and your Cadillac El Dorados. In terms of how long it was in production and how widespread its use was, I’d say this, the GMC New Look, was one of GM’s most influential creations.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I have no substantive backing for this, but I came across a rumor while researching this piece that said one of the Grabowskys (my money’s on Max. He seemed the type) stipulated to GM that they had to use the GMC name if they were going to continue making their trucks. A real “say my name” kinda guy, he was.
  • The floors in the bus were made of a high tech, totally natural and environmentally friendly material called “wood.”
  • Fans of Keanu Reeves (and frankly, who isn’t?) will recognize the New Look from one of his more iconic works.
  • When New York was using the New Look for its bus lines, early models were painted green, then blue, and finally, before they were phased out, white with a blue panel.
  • New Yorkers and New York enthusiasts will have spotted the American Museum of Natural History in the background of these photos. Go see the Titanosaur if you’re ever in the neighborhood. It’s one of the biggest freakin’ dinosaur skeletons you’ll ever clap your puny little human eyes on. It’s awesome. And the museum is pay as you wish, which is basically the same as free!
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