To millions of California children, going to school means riding in a Crown Supercoach, and to a substantial number of western firefighters, doing their jobs involves the use of a Crown Firecoach. Beginning on page 12, Jim Valentine unfolds the story of Crown Coach Corporation, the builder of unique lines of these specialty vehicles. Crown Coach finally closed in 1991, but its recent acquisition by another school bus firm may mean a longer life for its products.
Crown Coach: California’s Specialty Builder
By J. H. Valentine
Carriage and wagon builder Don M. Brockway established Crown Carriage Company in central Los Angeles in 1904. Formed to build truck cabs and bodies, the firm soon had a line of standardized bodies. The first bus body was built in 1915, constructed mainly of wood, on a Federal truck chassis, and in 1917 the first enclosed school bus bodies were made. Both these school bus bodies and enclosed tour and intercity bus bodies rapidly became popular. A larger facility and greater capital were required, so the firm incorporated and built a large plant to the east of downtown Los Angeles at McPherson (now 12th) Street and Santa Fe Avenue. It opened in November 1923.
Crown formed an aircraft division in 1925, building as many as three biplanes per week, which were called the Crown Model B-3, but which were actually a Kinner Airster built under license. The aircraft division was discontinued with the onset of the depression.
The first school bus with dual rear wheels was built in 1927 on a Reo chassis. The body structure was mostly wood, but used metal outer panels and side roll curtains. The firm began building larger school bus bodies on Mack chassis, using steel framing, which carried 43 students. In 1930, the curtains were replaced with drop-sash metal framed windows.
Crown built its first complete bus in 1932, an integrally-constructed, all-metal bodied bus with safety glass side windows. It was rectangular in appearance, its style resembling the early Twin Coach buses. The cost of such units was high for the depression era, so in 1935 Crown again brought out some school bus bodies on commercial truck chassis. These were called Metropolitans, or Metros, and had simple envelope bodies on a commercial chassis, probably provided by Moreland.
The same year a larger, integral design was introduced, more streamlined than the 1932 style, known as the Crown Supercoach. It had air brakes, and carried either 67 high school or 76 elementary students.
Two over night sleeper buses with underfloor engines were built in 1936. This led to the first underfloor-powered school bus in 1937, with seating increased to 79 students, the largest school bus to that time. The engine was moved to the rear in 1940, with altered bodywork allowing two emergency exits and greater headroom. For 1947, the school buses changed back to underfloor engines. In 1950 some body contours were altered to a more rounded shape having added strength, and resulting appearance remaining almost unchanged, except for window sizes, for forty years.
Crown’s first fire truck was a pumper built in 1949, which was used as a demonstrator until production was begun by a newly formed division in 1951. The firm offered only a line of Hall-Scott-powered pumpers at first, soon labelled Crown Firecoach. Their durability and huge brakes made them popular in mountainous areas. A line of larger custom equipment was added later, including ladder trucks, telescoping aerials, and combination ladder-water tower units. These came on 4×2 or 6×4 chassis, with hydraulic outriggers for stability. Fire truck production ended in 1981, except for a few cab-and-chassis units provided to another builder. About 880 Crown Firecoaches appear to have been built.
The first bus with a diesel engine was built in 1954. The following year, a school bus was offered which could carry 91 students, Crown’s first with tandem rear axles. Crown began producing a bus-truck hybrid the same year, which had tandem axles and an underfloor engine. It used a bus body with seating for twenty passengers, and had a twenty-foot cargo area behind, with rear loading doors. Shorter but similar units were produced with a single rear axle and provision for twelve passengers.
Crown was also building highway post office trucks for use by postal contractors. Single- and tandem-axle versions, in 35- and 40-foot lengths, respectively, were built. These had the usual Crown front grafted onto a rectangular body. Another odd truck was a Crown Cargo Coach, with the bus front on a Trailmobile trailer body using a 6×4 Crown chassis. During the 1960s and 1970s Crown provided an assortment of studio, library, and medical trucks, and even heavy-duty wreckers.
After the 1950 structural changes, Crown offered a variety of intercity and sightseeing coaches using modern slanted side windows. Some had a raised main deck to allow greater baggage capacity underneath. There were available in 32-, 35-, or 40-foot lengths, some with tandem rear axles, carrying from 33 to 57 passengers. Most had underfloor engines, but rear engine placement was available on the longest units. Crown’s last intercity coach order was filled in 1980.
Crown Security Coaches were also produced from the early 1950s on, using barred windows. These jail buses came in 35- or 40-foot lengths, and carried from 42 to 64 prisoners, depending on interior style. Fleets as large as 50 existed, and many are still in daily use, though 25 to 30 years old.
Other engines offered after the introduction of diesels, besides the Hall-Scotts, were the underfloor Cummins, and Detroit inlines and Detroit V8s for some rear engine applications. Fire equipment offered Cummins, Detroit, Ford, or International engines. Once Hall-Scott had ceased production, the most common cause for the retirement of a Crown product became the lack of engine parts. Caterpillar, Cummins, or Detroit diesels were available in Crown’s recent years, with additional models of each available for non-California customers.
In the early postwar years, Crown was a distributor for the small Ford transit buses, and was a dealer for the Texas-built Coachette city buses in the 1961-62 era. The firm became regional distributors for the attractive Quebec-built Prevost intercity coaches in 1969, an arrangement which they discontinued in 1983.
Crown did not build integral transit buses until recently. In 1979 an agreement was struck between Crown and Ikarus Coach and Vehicle Works, of Budapest, Hungary, for Crown to build and market articulated transit buses in the US. Hungarian technology and bodies were used with local interiors and running gear. Crown did find customers for these units, and 243 Crown-Ikarus 286 buses were assembled between 1981 and 1986. They were 102 inches wide and 60 feet long, the largest Crowns ever built. They had three well-spaced axle positions, with the flexible body joint behind the second axle. Several Cummins underfloor diesels were available, and seating arrangements ranged from 61 to 76 passengers, plus 37 standees.
Crown went through various name changes until the Brockway family sold Crown Coach Corporation to the newly-formed Crown Coach International in 1980. The new firm purchased a factory thirty miles to the east in Chino, California, in 1984, moving most assembly work there. The Lost Angeles plant was used as well, until it was sold at the end of 1986. The firm was passed into receivership, and the plant, equipment, and stock were sold at auction, on April 23, 1987, to GE Railcar Services, a unit of the General Electric Company. A new subsidiary, Crown Coach, Incorporated, was formed, and the plant reopened in July.
The 1989 Crown school bus lineup included 35-, 38-, and 40-foot lengths, carrying from 78 to 90 students. Axle layouts were 4×2, 6×2, 6×4, and a 40-foot bus could be built on a 4×2 chassis. Both mid-engine and rear-engine positions were available, with three-fourths of sales being the underfloor version. Manual transmissions were offered, but three-fourths of sales used Allison automatics. Leaf springs on air-ride suspension were offered. Most buses were sold with retarders to augment the braking system.
Frame rails and crossmembers were built from nested channel steel, welded together. Double-walled steel bodies were welded to outriggers on the main chassis rails, a basic construction technique unaltered since 1950. Windshields were a choice of two-piece curved or four-piece flat glass. A 90-passenger 6×4 with manual transmission weighed about 25,000 pounds empty. These buses were guaranteed for twenty years or 150,000 miles, and cost from $90,000 to $135,000. Production capacity of the Chino plant was fifteen buses per week, but actual production was often less than that. This was offset by building rear-engined running chassis for a motor home builder, and a small transit bus manufacturer.
Crown built a methanol-fueled demonstrator school bus which was on the road in early 1989, using a version of the Detroit 6V92, the only California-legal methanol engine. This vee-layout engine was too wide to fit in the rear position of a standard Crown 4×2 bus structure, so they designed a new, flatter rear end-cap for the body which allowed space to reposition the engine mounting. A matching front end-cap was produced, resulting in the first noticeable change to the school bus appearance in forty years. At least ten of these units were sold, and by 1990 some conventionally-powered buses used the new style as well.
Demand was low for the durable and large Crown school buses, designed to the requirements of the western states only. Replacement needs were minimal, due to the durability of existing, older Crowns, which structurally met more recent safety requirements. Most fleets were buying the smaller, lighter, cheaper units produced elsewhere in the special “western” versions which met the local smog, noise, and lighting requirements. General Electric found the operation unprofitable, and, after unsuccessfully seeking a buyer during 1990, closed the factory doors on March 31st, 1991. On May 21st, their machinery and equipment was sold at auction.
This may not have been the last gasp of the Crown Coach, for Carpenter Body Works, Inc., of Mitchell, Indiana, purchased most of the assets, including the machine tools and the Crown name. Carpenter, also a school bus manufacturer, was, according to a report in the Winter 1991-92 Bus World Magazine, intending to produce Crown’s rear-engine chassis with their own bodies. Apparently, reintroduction of Crown’s large integral-body school bus was under consideration, as was work on a new Supercoach, a fiberglass-fronted design on which Crown Coach was working when operations ceased.
Crown bus production appears to have averaged perhaps 100 units a year in the early postwar years, increasing to possibly 150 by the early 1960s. Their peak production was during recent years, with from 350 to 500 units per year between 1975 and 1985. Fire trucks, Crown-Ikarus transit buses, and chassis for other builders are not included in these estimates.
When you think about calamities in California, depending on your age, you might think of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s declaration of a budget crisis, the Hells Angels rampages of the 1960s, or perhaps ABC Sports’ Al Michaels yelling, “We’re having an earthquake!” from the broadcast booth at Candlestick Park during the 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. Most people savvy about emergency management in California, however, would probably first think fondly of the unique custom fire apparatus built by Crown Coach Corp. of Los Angeles, which, due in no small part to its exposure through television and movies, remained America’s most immediately recognizable brand of fire truck for decades.
Crown was founded as a carriage- and wagon-maker in 1904, but began building buses by 1915. The largest segment of Crown’s market over the next several decades was school buses, with engines either amidships or mounted in the rear. Since the school bus business tended to be seasonal, Crown executives decided to adapt the midship-engine chassis for firefighting use, and call the resulting vehicle the Firecoach. The very first Crown Firecoach triple-combination pumper, with an open cab, was delivered to West Covina, California, and followed a technical formula that would be repeated hundreds of times henceforth: power from a gasoline-fueled, 935-cu.in. Hall-Scott straight-six engine, manual transmission, and a 1,250-gpm centrifugal pump.
Most sales were to departments in Southern California, and for years, Crown apparatus made up almost the entire fleet of the Los Angeles City and Los Angeles County fire departments, the region’s largest. An open-cab Firecoach served as the original Engine 51 on the 1970s TV hit, Emergency! But other Crowns found homes in locales as distant as New Jersey, Hawaii and even Kuwait. All could be spotted at once by their rounded, forward-leaning cab fronts and vertically stacked headlamps and fog-lamps.
The only major running changes made to Firecoaches during their history was the widespread adoption of diesel engines and automatic transmissions, and the introduction of a widebody cab in 1977. By that time, Crown’s school bus sales had trailed off considerably and the Firecoach market was no longer large enough to be profitable. Crown attempted an alliance with FMC Corp., which owns Van Pelt, another California fire-truck manufacturer, but the effort failed and the final Crown-Van Pelt pumper was delivered to Santa Monica, California, in 1985.
Today, the distinctive “devil wind fire wagons” still live in the hands of the Crown Firecoach Enthusiasts (www.crownfirecoachenthusiasts.org), a chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America (SPAAMFA) whose members own some 80 Crowns. One of the more unusual rigs is this 1976 Firecoach tractor-drawn aerial owned by Mike McDonald. Tillered aerials were seldom produced by Crown, which generally sold either midship- or rear-mounted ladders on three-axle chassis, or Snorkel and Squirt booms in a variety of lengths. McDonald’s rig is a rare bicoastal hybrid: Its 100-foot aerial ladder was produced by Maxim Motors of Middleboro, Massachusetts, another regional builder that folded around the same time as Crown. This ladder truck originally served San Diego.
This article originally appeared in the MAY 1, 2006 issue of Hemmings Motor News.
The Dentist Who Built Buses and Fire Engines
by Ed Hass
(more books by this author located at Amazon here. )
If you grew up in California, Oregon, or Washington between 1950 and 1990, chances are pretty good that you rode to school in a school bus made by the Crown Coach Corporation of Los Angeles, California. And chances are also pretty good that if there was a fire, medical emergency, or auto accident in your neighborhood, the fire engine that responded to that emergency was also made by the Crown Coach Corporation.
Crown was an unusual company in many respects. First, it was run by three generations of the same family: founder, son, and grandson. Second, the management and every employee took a fierce pride in quality of workmanship and dedication to customer service. In this era of cheap plastic products that break the day after the warranty expires, and when today’s customer service starts with “For English, Press 1” and ends with being parked on hold for 30 minutes to annoying elevator music, or being directed to a completely useless FAQ web page, words like quality and customer service sometimes seem like a foreign language now. At Crown, these weren’t just words, but a way of life.
On November 10, 1997, I conducted a telephone interview I had pre-arranged with Bob Brockway, the 75-year-old former President of the Crown Coach Corporation. He graciously told me the story behind the Crown Corporation, for a book I was writing about that company, and gave me the names of other former Crown employees, whose story were also told, along with Bob’s story, when I published the 200-page, hard-cover Crown Firecoach History (ISBN 0-9611166-4-1).
Bob’s grandfather, Don Brockway, founded the company in 1904. Don’s son took over the helm in 1945, and his grandson ran Crown from 1962 to 1979, so Bob had a lot of interesting stories to tell me, spanning three generations and three-quarters of the 20th century.
Bob Brockway’s wife, Merle, has a terrific memory for dates and details, and talking on an extension phone, she nudged Bob’s memory on several points during the interview.
The Brockways were an old New England family, who settled in Connecticut in the colonial era. The citizens of Connecticut sent one of the Brockways former state senator John Hall Brockway of Ellington (1801-1870) to Washington, D.C., as a congressman in 1839, and re-elected him to a second two-year term that ended in 1843.
Despite this long prestigious history, and despite their connection to the bus and fire engine industry, to the best of Bob and Merle’s knowledge, their family has no connection with Brockway Tucks of Cortland (near Syracuse), NY, a highly successful truck manufacturer which became part of Mack Trucks in 1956, and built its last truck in 1977.
In the 1880s and 1890s, many a young man headed west to seek adventure. Bob’s grandfather, Don M. Brockway, was one such adventurer, heading west to hunt buffalo for a railroad company. It seems buffalo liked to wander onto the tracks, causing expensive delays for passenger and freight trains, so the railroads hired young men to kill the buffalo. Besides, the hunted buffalo could then be used as meat to feed, and hides to clothe, the crews who were laying the track for America’s westward expansion.
The U.S. Government had its own dark reasons for encouraging buffalo hunting. Like the track crews, American Indians depended heavily on buffalo for meat and clothing. So driving the buffalo to near extinction would starve and freeze the tribes into submission, moving them peacefully off the lands desired for new communities, and into government reservations. Buffalo hunting thinned the herds from 40 million before the Civil War, to about 1200 by the time the practice was finally abolished and outlawed in 1894.
With no more Buffalo left to hunt, Don Brockway’s western adventures next brought him to the new city of Los Angeles. The city had been founded in 1781 and incorporated in 1850, but it didn’t really begin to develop until after the Civil War. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department was organized in 1869, and the Los Angeles Fire Department wasn’t founded until 1887. A breakwater for a growing shipping port was constructed in 1899. A symphony orchestra was established in 1898, and a stock exchange in 1899. An electric street railway was established in 1901, and William Randolph Hearst started the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper in 1903. So when Don Brockway arrived in the 1890s, Los Angeles was still small, but already starting to grow toward the sprawling city it is today.
Soon after his arrival in this new young city of 50,000, Don Brockway took a job at Ernst and Rucker, the city’s first (and at that time only) hardware store. He married, and his son Murillo M. Brockway was born June 11, 1900.
Don Brockway wasn’t really happy selling bolts, door hinges, and cabinet door handles for pennies and nickels. He had a great passion for wagons and carriages, and like many young men heading into the dawn of the 20th century, he liked to tinker. So after finding a business partner and a handful of investors, in 1904 Don Brockway established the Crown Carriage Company, in a small wooden shed. A larger and sturdier brick factory was built at 6th and Los Angeles Streets in 1910. Both of the company’s first two factories bore the simple but catchy marketing slogan “Business Wagons for Business Men” on the front wall of the building. In those days, the power source of choice was still the humble horse.
There aren’t a lot of those early horse-drawn Crown business wagons surviving today. One of the oldest is a Crown stage coach that’s now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Bob Brockway saw it there, and proudly pointed out to museum officials that his grandfather’s company built it.
Bob Brockway did find one other early horse-drawn Crown surviving. It was an old peddler’s wagon, with roll-up canvas sides to display pots and pans and other household wares, and was parked in a field near Bakersfield, CA. In better days, a single horse had pulled this wagon 110 miles each way, a good day’s journey one way, over dirt and gravel trails between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. This was long before Interstate 5 allowed trucks to make the same journey in 90 minutes, at 75 miles per hour. Bob tried unsuccessfully to buy the peddler’s wagon, but the farmer was unmoved by Bob’s tales of how his grandfather had built it, and would not sell. Bob wryly and somewhat bitterly commented that it’s probably still rotting in that same farmer’s field.
A large portion of Crown’s business in those early years was horse-drawn mail packets for the U.S. Post Office, but Bob has yet to find any of these surviving.
Around 1910, motor trucks began to replace horses as the preferred motive power for heavy hauling. Don Brockway reluctantly began making truck bodies to mount on motor truck chassis, but he somewhat stubbornly refused to believe that the horse could ever really be replaced.
In 1916, Crown began building transit buses with open-air wood bodies, mounted on the then-popular Federal truck chassis. But horse-drawn business wagons continued to be the main focus of Don Brockway’s manufacturing efforts.
That began to change after the end of World War I in November, 1918. Soon after, Don’s son, Murillo Brockway, returned from Navy service. By year’s end, Crown had built enclosed-body school buses for two California school districts: Visalia High School and Tustin Union High.
In 1919, another event occurred in Los Angeles that would later prove important in Crown’s story. In that year, the Kinner Airplane and Motor Corporation was founded, with its factory at Tweedy and Long Beach Blvd. in Los Angeles. In 1920, Kinner introduced its Airster biplane, with a 28-foot wingspan, 21’4” length, and a 60-horsepower engine (which was increased in 1927 to 100 horsepower). The Airster could carry a load up to 450 pounds, and had a 420-mile flight range. The prototype Airster biplane crashed, but the second Kinner Airster, named The Canary, was sold for $2,500 to Amelia Earhart.
In 1921, Murillo Brockway officially joined his father’s carriage and truck-body firm. Murillo could see what his father couldn’t, that gasoline motors were the future. Murillo persuaded his dad there was a good market for making gasoline-powered buses. Don Brockway could hardly deny how increasingly common the sight of motor buses was in Los Angeles streets. Especially school buses carrying children to the increasing number of public and private schools being built in the growing city and its suburbs.
And so Murillo Brockway developed and oversaw a project to build Crown school-bus bodies, and to mount them on the popular Reo and Diamond T truck chassis, plus the locally-built Moreland truck chassis, which had been in production in a Burbank factory since 1911. Moreland Trucks would later become an important part of the Crown Company’s history, too.
Crown employees assigned to the motor bus division found the first name of their new boss, Murillo Brockway, difficult to remember and pronounce, so they nicknamed him “Brock.” The second-generation Brockway at Crown would be fondly known as “Brock” to his dying day, and retired Crown employees I spoke with still call him “Brock” today.
Brock’s decision to enter the motor bus business, specializing in school buses, turned out to be the correct one. In 1923, to meet growing demand for buses, Crown moved into its third factory, a much larger structure on San Julian Street in Los Angeles, which was named the “Brockway Building.” Production switched entirely to bodies for commercial motor trucks, plus school buses and transit buses.
With this move, horse-drawn vehicles were dropped from the company’s product line, and the company motto on the building changed from “Business Wagons for Business Men” to “Business Bodies for Business Men.” Despite this shift, the company name was still Crown Carriage Company. The new factory was on its own railroad siding, so new Crown trucks and buses could be shipped to customers all over the western U.S.
Just before the move to the new factory, and the change in product focus from horse-drawn to motor vehicles, Murillo Brockway’s son, Robert M. “Bob” Brockway was born on November 21, 1922.
In 1925, Kinner Airplane began making monoplanes (single-wing aircraft), and Crown obtained exclusive rights to manufacture and sell Kinner Airster biplanes.
In 1927, Crown built the world’s first school bus with dual rear wheels, an important step toward larger passenger capacities. Mounted on a Reo truck chassis, its windows were roll-down canvas curtains, not window glass. The first of these new school buses was sold to Compton Union High School in Compton, California.
Also in 1927, Crown Carriage Company became Crown Motor Carriage Company, Inc. This new name was more reflective of its product line, which now included “auto trucks, commercial deliveries, auto truck cabs and bodies, paint shop, commercial designing and lettering, auto blacksmithing, forgings, and repair.”
1929 saw a big change in the aircraft division at Crown. For the first time, the Kinner Airster biplanes sported the Crown brand name, and were designated Crown Model B-3. But then the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, hurling the nation into the Great Depression, where one-third of all Americans became unemployed. The stock-market crash sent Kinner Airplanes into a tail-spin, jeopardizing Crown’s licensing agreement with Kinner. You can’t license from a company that no longer exists!
Kinner Airplane was recapitalized in 1930 by Holley Carburetor of Detroit, temporarily saving Crown’s airplane division. In 1933, Kinner became Security-National Aircraft Corporation, with a new factory in Downey, CA. The licensing agreement with Crown was canceled, and after 8 years, Crown was out of the airplane business forever.
In 1930, Crown introduced a 43-passenger school bus mounted on Mack Truck chassis. For the first time, Crown buses had metal instead of wood bodies, and the framing was aero steelprobably obtained from Kinner Airplanes. The windows were all-metal, drop-sash type, eliminating the antiquated roll-up curtains.
In 1932, M.M. “Brock” Brockway took over day-to-day operations at Crown, although his father, Don Brockway, continued to be the president until 1945. Brock wasted no time introducing big changes.
That year, Crown unveiled the nation’s first school bus with all-steel body and “integral” designmeaning that the body and chassis were welded into one unit, for greater strength and improved safety of the student passengers. Another innovation was “protex” safety glass, with wire mesh molded into the center of the glass panel, for greater resistance to shattering.
The first Crown cab-forward school bus, built in 1932 and still surviving today. (couretsy Bob Brockway)
The driver’s cab was mounted over the engine and radiator, for improved visibility. The first of these new school buses was built in 1932 for the Compton School District in Compton, CA. When this bus was retired in the 1950s, after more than 20 years of service, Bob Brockway bought this first-ever Crown “cab forward” school bus. Bob reports that its current owner stores this historic bus in a southern California repair shop, awaiting restoration.
In 1933, the corporate name changed to Crown Body and Coach Corporation.
Crown’s last venture into conventional front-engine school buses was a fleet of a dozen “Metro” school buses on Reo truck chassis for the Los Angeles City School District in 1935. Although they had steel bodies, they did not have the integral body/chassis design, and the engine was forward and to the right of the driver, reducing visibility and producing a tremendous amount of heat in the driver’s cab.
Also in 1935, Crown introduced its “Super Coach” school bus, with integral body and chassis, all-steel construction, air brakes on all wheels, and forward cab. Their 11 rows of forward-facing seats could carry 67 high-school or 78 elementary-school students. The first of these went to California’s El Monte Union High School.
In 1936, Crown made its first-ever fire engine, mounted on a White Trucks chassis, for the Los Angeles National Forest. It would be another 15 years before fire engines would become a significant part of the Crown product line.
1937 improvements to the Super Coach school bus included using a midship-mounted Hall-Scott engine carried under the school-bus floor, and an increase in capacity to an unprecedented 79 students.
The new Super Coach was such a hit that demand soon outstripped the production capacity of the San Julian Street factory.
In 1939, Crown acquired the chassis department of Moreland , which had been building trucks in Burbank, CA, since 1911. Moreland had supplied a few chassis on some of Crown’s early buses, but by 1939 the financial strain of the Great Depression had sent Moreland, like many small manufacturers, into oblivion. The combined Crown and Moreland operation now moved into a new factory at 2500 MacPherson Street, later renamed East 12th Street. This factory would be Crown’s home until 1984.
More improvements to the Crown Super Coach were made in 1940. Based on the long experience of Moreland in the truck chassis business, many improvements were made to the Crown school bus chassis. In addition, the engine moved to the rear, an escape window was added at the rear, and an emergency exit door on the right. The headroom at the seats and in the center aisle was increased.
Also in 1940, Crown introduced what may have been America’s first stretch limo. A 1940 Ford was stretched out to have four rows of plush padded bench seats, with arm rests on all seats, and 8 doors, the rear two doors being rear-opening “suicide doors.”
World War II1941 to 1945were very slow years for Crown. Government regulations restricted vehicle manufacturers like Crown from making vehicles for most non-government customers. Unlike better-known vehicle manufacturers such as Ford, Dodge, and GMC, government orders at Crown were scarce. For example, the army asked Crown to build a few fire engines, which were mounted on Ford/Marmon-Herrington chassis.
During World War II, Bob Brockwaygrandson of Crown founder and president Don Brockwayattended dental school, graduating about the time the war ended. Before Bob could establish his dental practice, grandpa Don died in 1945, and Bob’s father, “Brock” Brockway took over as president of Crown Coach. Bob soon found himself working in the engineering department of his father’s company.
Many soldiers who served in World War II were stationed in southern California at some time during their service, either for training or to be shipped off to various Pacific island battles. Many liked the area so well that, on returning from service, they settled in Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties with their wives and families. Many new suburban communities arose, and these sprawling new communities needed buses to transport all of the “baby boomer” children to all the new schools. So business at Crown, painfully light during the war years, suddenly boomed in the postwar prosperity. Bob Brockway and his father were kept pretty busy.
Besides their staple school-bus business, Crown had also branched out to make city transit buses, inter-city buses, and specialized buses, including “mail-packet” buses. Postal clerks sorted mail in these buses, while traveling between cities, much as they had done aboard horse-drawn Crown mail-packet wagons two generations earlier.
In 1946, Bob recalled, Crown built a combination 12-passenger, mail, and freight bus for Bangor & Aroostook Railroad in far-off Maine. This was an unusual vehicle, and it was a great source of pride for Bob that the Crown reputation for quality had spread to the opposite end of the country.
In 1947, Crown once more ventured into the fire engine business, with a pumper on International Harvester (IH) chassis for Monterey, CA. But unlike buses, fire engines were still an insignificant factor in Crown’s bottom line.
In 1949, Roy Hardy, an executive at the Mack Tucks plant in Los Angeles was growing increasingly unhappy with working for Mack, and he negotiated with “Brock” Brockway to join the Crown Coach team.
Two years earlier, the American-LaFrance Fire Engine Company of Elmira, NY, had introduced its “700 Series” fire engines, the first cab-ahead-of-engine fire engines to be manufactured in any significant volume. Roy Hardy, the new kid at Crown, had an idea that Crown could compete with American-LaFrance in the fire engine business, at least in southern California, by adapting the cab-forward Crown school bus cab and chassis to a fire engine, but with the same standards of high quality for which the Crown name had long been known. At the time, American-LaFrance (ALF) had a reputation for low quality, in line with its low prices (ALF .was generally the low bidder in municipal fire apparatus sales). Roy Hardy thought that building a cab-forward fire engine, similar to the popular ALF 700 Series but with very high standards of quality, could open up a new market for the Crown Corporation, and Brock agreed. With Brock’s blessing, Hardy and several Crown craftsmen began work on a prototype.
While Crown was developing its new fire engine division, things weren’t exactly stagnant in the bus business, either. In 1950, Crown rounded the front, rear, and sides of its popular Super Coach school bus. The new design looked better and was safer. The high-crowned roof provided an impressive 76 inches of center-aisle head roomnot many elementary and high school students are 7’4” tall …in 1950, or today! Downey, California, bought the first of thousands upon thousands of these rounded-front Crown school buses, which would be built over the next 40 years.
First of the rounded-front school buses that would become familiar to west coast school children for decades, was built in 1950 for the school district in Downey, CA. (courtesy Bob Brockway)
This is the type of school bus nearly every California school child of the 1960s and 1970s fondly recalls today, and whole fleets of them still serve many west coast school districts. For example, Porterville (near Bakersfield) still uses 28 of them, many over 30 years old!
Also in 1950, Bob Brockway met and married Canadian-born Merle.
In 1951, Bob Brockway, not yet 29 and newly married, was drafted into the Army. The Korean War was already well underway, and would last until 1953. Bob was given the rank of Lieutenant, but his two years of duty weren’t in Koreahe was sent to serve as an Army dentist in France.
Shortly after Bob Brockway was shipped off to France, Roy Hardy finally finished the prototype fire engine with the Crown school bus cab and chassis. It had been in development for two years!
The new fire engine line, dubbed Crown Firecoach, would be in production for 34 years. In addition to sales all over California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada, Crown Firecoach fire engines would see service in New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Mexico, and even Kuwait! After retirement, Crown Firecoaches would find new homes with private collectors in nearly every U.S. state, and even as far away as Scotland and New Zealand.
The prototype Crown Firecoach fire engine, completed in 1951 and designated serial number F-1001(F for Firecoach) remained at the Crown factory for another two years, before it was finally sold to West Covina, California. Today, this historic first Crown Firecoach is privately owned by a collector of antique fire engines in Oregon City, Oregon.
Crown built over 1800 Firecoach fire engines between 1951 and 1985. This typical example was built for Atwater, CA, in 1958. (Ed Hass photo)
In 1953, Crown built two Firecoach fire engines that both had the serial number F-1002. The first was sold to Vernon, CA, and now belongs to the Fire Authority of Orange County, CA. The second F-1002 was the first of hundreds of Crown Firecoach fire engines sold to the City of Los Angeles, and today belongs to Dennis Carreiro of Watsonville, CA.
Also in 1953, Freedom, CA, bought a Crown fire engine on IH chassis, the last Crown fire engine that was not part of the Firecoach product line. It, too, still survives in the hands of a private collector.
With the Crown Firecoach line gearing up for quantity production in 1953, Richard Kearny Willmoreknown as “Red” for his hair colorwas promoted from head of school bus sales, where he had been since 1943. His new title was Manager of the Crown Firecoach Division. Roy Hardy, who had designed the Firecoach fire engine, reported to Red Willmore, who in return reported directly to Brock Brockway.
When Bob and Merle Brockway returned from his Army Dentist duty in France in 1953, Bob’s dad gave him a choice: either establish his own dental practice, or go back to work at Crown. So in 1954, Bob became Executive Vice President of Crown Coach Corporation. Crown already was top-heavy with vice presidents of engineering, marketing, sales, etc., but Bob was the top vice president over all of them.
In 1954, Crown built the first-ever diesel-powered, transit-type school bus. Powered by a horizontal, under-the-floor Cummins diesel engine, it was sold to Lakeside Elementary School in Bakersfield, CA. Less than a year later, Crown followed-up with the first-ever 91-passenger school bus (recall that 20 years earlier, a seating capacity over 60 was considered huge).
1956 saw the introduction of 10-inch brakes, for an unprecedented 1555-square-inch braking surface. Again, unlike today, quality and safety were more important considerations than costs and profits. These brakes became standard on all Crown buses and fire engines built after 1958.
In 1957, Bob oversaw the engineering and production of four special Firecoach fire engines that were shipped to Kuwait. Among other unique features of these fire engines were special stainless-steel water tanks that allowed them to pump salt water from the Persian Gulf. With the exception of one damaged in the 1990 Persian Gulf war, all four were in continuous firefighting service for over 40 years.
1957 was also the first and only time that Crown merged its fire engine and bus-building experience, building a special small (only 33 passenger) bus for the Los Angles City Fire Departmentthe only Crown bus ever to sport the Firecoach brand name. This unique bus/fire engine was restored in 2000 and is privately owned.
A Crown Firecoach fire engine, built for Honolulu, Hawaii, in front of the Crown factory on East 12th Street, Los Angeles, in 1961 (Warren Bowen photo)
In 1962, “Brock” Brockway died, and Bob followed in his father’s footsteps, to become president of the company his grandfather had founded in 1904.
After the 1965 riot in the Watts section of Los Angeles, new federal laws and regulations mandated busing school children to integrate schools. As a result of these laws, Crown school bus sales skyrocketed. School bus demand quickly outstripped the factory’s production capacity, and Crown began buying up every building in the neighborhood, until the factory occupied the entire city block. The fire engine production was moved into its own section of the growing factory, at 2428 East 12th Street, while the bus division remained at 2500 East 12th. The bus and fire engine divisions now had separate marketing and manufacturing staff, separate offices, and separate assembly lines.
In the Watts riots, angry citizens could see only uniforms, and often made no distinction between police officers and firefighters. Many a shot was fired at uniformed firefighters, and heavy objects were often thrown from rooftops onto the open-cab fire engines. After the riot, most new Crown Firecoach fire engines were ordered with fully-enclosed cabs to better protect the firefighters from violence. The extra sheet metal for a cab added to the cost of building fire engines, but also added to the company’s profits. Add-on cab roofs were ordered for many earlier open-cab Crown fie engines, yet another way Crown profited from the many societal changes after the Watts riots.
All through the 1960s and 1970s, Crown school bus capacity ranged from 78 to 91 students. But in the 1970s, Crown began to receive more and more requests for smaller-capacity school buses, in the 40-passenger range. Not wanting to have to expand to make a new product line, Crown decided instead to become southern California distributors for smaller-capacity school buses built by other manufacturers, on Ford and IH chassis. Crown’s first distributor arrangement was with Wayne buses, then with Blue Bird, and finally with Thomas-Built Buses.
In August, 1979, Bob Brockway was 57, and he was ready to retire and sell the business his family had run for 75 years. Three years earlier, a Peterbilt Truck dealership had opened across the street from the Crown factory. Owner and manager of that dealership was Jack Courtemanche, a former Mack Tucks dealer who had served as campaign finance manager for Governor Ronald Reagan. In a separate interview with Courtemanche, also in 1997, Jack told me that he had always been impressed with the quality of Crown buses and fire engines, and he negotiated with Bob Brockway to buy the Crown Coach Corporation.
One of the terms of the sale was that Bob Brockway would be retained as a consultant to Crown. But although Bob worked at the plant 2 to 3 days a week, he recalled that Courtemanche rarely consulted him about anything.
Wanting to protect the name and reputation of his family’s company, Bob Brockway also made as a condition of the sale that, if Courtemanche should ever sell the company, Bob had to approve of the buyer.
In January, 1983, Jack Courtemanche’s old fiend Governor Ronald Reagannow president Ronald Reganinvited Jack to Washington, D.C., as an assistant to the President, and later as First Lady Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. Before he left for D.C., Courtemanche found a corporate buyer for the Crown corporation, and Bob Brockway approved of the buyer.
After the deal was approved, this new corporate owner appointed Lew Werner, formerly a member of California governor Jerry Brown’s staff, as president at Crown. In 1984, operations moved to a new factory in Chino, CA.
Bob Brockway stated that had he known the buyer would put Werner in charge, and had he know the character of the company’s new president, he would never have approved the sale of his family’s proud old company. Like many of today’s CEOs, Werner’s top priority wasn’t quality or customer satisfaction, but cutting costs, so as to increase profits and drive up the stock price.
Almost immediately, Bob recalls, Werner began cutting corners on quality to save money. For example, Crown had always prided itself on using 5/8-inch marine-grade plywood for its school bus floors. But this high-grade lumber was expensive, so Werner switched to using particle board at half the thickness and a tiny fraction of the cost. These cheap (in cost and quality) new floors did not stand up to daily washings at school-bus maintenance garages. And this was just one of many, many cost-cutting and quality-cutting measures at Crown. Crown’s decades-old reputation for quality quickly eroded, and sales fell off.
At the Firecoach division, things were so dismal that fire engine production was completely discontinued in 1985, after more than 1800 Firecoach fire engines were built in 34 years of production. Citizens of many cities wouldn’t accept lower quality in transporting their kids safely to and from school. And they for sure didn’t tolerate reduced quality in protecting their lives and property against fire! Santa Monica, CA, received the last new Crown fire engine off the line; a Firecoach started for Clovis, New Mexico, was never completed.
As it so often does for modern CEOs, the attempt to dive-up stock prices by cutting quality back-fired: as sales plummeted, so did stock prices! Soon, Crown could not pay its bills, and the company’s biggest creditor, General Electric, took over in 1987.
The Crown/General Electric bus operation hobbled along in Chino for another 4 years, until the last Crown bus rolled off the line on April 5, 1991. Rival school-bus manufacturer Carpenter bought the rights to the once-revered Crown name, and introduced a line of school buses with the Crown-Carpenter name. There were two models: one could seat 84 students, the other seated 90. But the damage to the Crown name seemed irreversible, and sales of the Crown-Carpenter line were bleak. I witnessed delivery of two of the last Crown-Carpenter school buses to Monterey, CA, in 1998. In 1999 Carpenter announced it was dropping the Crown name. After 95 years, there was no remaining direct corporate descendant of former buffalo-hunter Don Brockway’s 1904 carriage works.
The remaining inventory of spare parts for Crown buses and Firecoach fire engines was sold in 1991 to West Coach, a bus dealer and service agency, founded by former Crown employees. Until the supply of spare parts runs out, they are the best source of parts and repair service to keep aging Crown buses and fire engines running, and the last remaining link at all to the once-proud Crown corporation.
Bob Brockway misses his days at Crown, and he regrets that he has lost touch with many of his former colleagues and employees. One of his friends and closest associates was not directly a Crown employee: he was a professional photographer named Warren Bowen. For many years, Bowen had photographed every new school bus and fire engine that Crown made, but by the time I interviewed Bob Brockway in 1997, Bowen had long since passed away.
Brockway is proud of all he accomplished, proud of his family’s 75 years building quality vehicles, and proud that so many Crown buses and fire engines are still serving school districts, transit companies, and fire departments from New England to Mexico, from Florida to Washington State, from Tijuana to Hawaii. He has no regrets that he chose a career in his family’s business over his dentistry practice. He’s proud that there’s a collector’s club just for Crown school buses, and another just for Crown Firecoach fire engines. And he’s proud to count himself a member of both organizations, and a friend to many of the members of both Crown collectors clubs.