• ITVI.USA
    12,849.680
    -131.320
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  • OTLT.USA
    3.013
    0.057
    1.9%
  • OTRI.USA
    8.950
    0.010
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  • OTVI.USA
    12,898.900
    -123.630
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  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    3.060
    0.280
    10.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    2.580
    0.190
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  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.920
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  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    2.290
    0.130
    6%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.110
    0.120
    6%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    2.950
    0.070
    2.4%
  • WAIT.USA
    129.000
    3.000
    2.4%
  • ITVI.USA
    12,849.680
    -131.320
    -1%
  • OTLT.USA
    3.013
    0.057
    1.9%
  • OTRI.USA
    8.950
    0.010
    0.1%
  • OTVI.USA
    12,898.900
    -123.630
    -0.9%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    3.060
    0.280
    10.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    2.580
    0.190
    7.9%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.920
    0.120
    6.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    2.290
    0.130
    6%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.110
    0.120
    6%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    2.950
    0.070
    2.4%
  • WAIT.USA
    129.000
    3.000
    2.4%
BusinessFreightWaves ClassicsInsightsNews

FreightWaves Classics: Company built early school and transit buses

Trucks, automobiles, motorcycles and bicycles share the roads and highways with school and city buses in communities across the United States.

School bus pioneer Franklin A. “Patch” Patchett was born in San Miguel, California on this date (January 19) in 1881. In 1900, 19-year-old ‘Patch’ landed a job with Benjamin H. Crow pitching hay and gathering wheat in Crows Landing, a small town located in the hub of California’s dairy cream industry. An intelligent and resourceful young man, Patchett then worked for John Stewart as manager of his creamery. Subsequently Patchett established his own cream separator plant; the liquid was transported by rail to Oakland and points west. Between 1900 and 1911 Patchett worked for five different Stanislaus County creameries.

In 1911, Patchett changed industries; he went into business with two of his brothers and a brother-in-law to manage a Ford Motor Company dealership in Stanislaus County. 

The business continues; Patchetts Ford in Turlock is one of the nation’s longest-tenured Ford Motor Co. dealerships. In 1913, the dealership won a commission to build a motor vehicle to transport students to and from an elementary school in Newman, California.

The 1913 school bus and wagon. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
The 1913 school bus and wagon. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

The first school bus?

Nearly 60 years later (at the age of 91), Patchett told the Associated Press (AP), “That started me in the bus business.” 

A 20-horsepower Ford Model T chassis was used; a $350 1-ton Smith Form-A-Truck frame extension and rear end were attached, making the standard ¼-ton Model T into a truck capable of hauling one ton or more of cargo.

Simple... strip the body from your Ford Model T and then... (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
Simple… strip the body from your Ford Model T and then…
(Photo: coachbuilt.com)
The Smith Form-a-Truck is is how Patchett and Carstensen built a bus from a Ford Model T. (Image: coachbuilt.com)
The Smith Form-a-Truck is is how Patchett and Carstensen built a bus from a Ford Model T. (Image: coachbuilt.com)

The Smith Form-A-Truck kit increased the “vehicle’s wheelbase to 125 inches and included heavy-duty rear springs. The pneumatic rear tires and wooden wheels of the Ford Model T were put on the front axle and replaced by extra heavy wooden wheels fitted with 3.5-inch solid rubber tires at the rear. The standard Ford rear axle was used as a jackshaft; small sprockets connect to the large sprockets on the rear wheels via heavy-duty drive chains.”

In addition, a “wooden platform body with inward-facing bi-lateral bench seats that could hold up to 20 small students” was built by Hans C. Carstensen, who was also the bus driver. “A lightweight roof with a nitrite-coated canvas top was installed over the seats and fitted with rolled-up canvas windows which could be used” in bad weather. Unlike military trucks of the era, the canvas sides of the bus were fitted with clear celluloid panels so the student could see out the sides.

Patchett and his business partners built the bus; while it may or may not have been the first motorized school bus, it was certainly among the earliest to operate. 

Despite the fact that a ride to school was not free back then, the bus was very popular. The 12.5-cent fare went to the owner-operator (Patchetts & Hendy) and was not subsidized by the school district, which was uninvolved in the operation at that time.

Because of the popularity of the bus, a companion bench-seat equipped trailer was soon required – girls rode in the Model T bus and boys in the trailer. However, the roads in the area were still largely unimproved dirt trails; a particularly bumpy stretch once flipped the boys’ trailer on its side. In his 1972 interview Patchett recalled: “Nobody got hurt, but the next day we got letters from the boys saying they refused to ride in the trailer anymore. We built another bus right away and it took care of that.”

A new business

In August 1914 World War I began in Europe. At the same time, Patchett bought out his brothers and other business partners and went into business with Carstensen, forming Patchetts & Carstensen. Lloyd Hendy (Franklin’s wife’s brother) retained an interest in the new company, as did Franklin’s wife. 

In July 1919, in the town of Newman, construction began on a 22,500-square foot building for Patchetts & Carstensen. Completed on December 1, 1919, the reinforced concrete building had an asbestos roof, making it thoroughly fireproof (which lowered the cost of insurance). At that time, the building was the largest and best-equipped Ford dealership/garage in California. The showroom was equipped with “8-foot-high plate glass windows at street level with a well-lit interior and office complex.” 

An advertisement for the Ford dealership. (Image: coachbuilt.com)
An advertisement for the Ford dealership. (Image: coachbuilt.com)

As well as their Ford dealership/garage and school bus operations, Patchett and Carstensen operated an early “drive it yourself” Model T rental business and they also distributed Fordson tractors and Atwater Kent radio receivers. Another Smith Form-A-Truck was used to build a Model T fire engine for the Newman Fire Department, which was housed in the Ford dealership’s garage until the city built its own fire station.

More buses

During the late 1910s the company also built additional school buses for other central California school districts. Five school buses were sold to the Dos Palos School District and six more were sold to the Turlock School District. Each bus was priced at $500. Patchetts & Carstensen also built school buses for Newman’s Orestimba Union High School, as well as providing bus service to other school districts in neighboring communities and counties.

In the early 1920s demand for additional school buses increased. In 1923 the company was “recapitalized as a $150,000 stock company, becoming Patchetts & Carstensen, Inc.” 

In March 1923, Motor West reported, “Patchetts & Carstensen have incorporated for $150,000 to do a general automobile and accessory sales business.”

To illustrate the strength of its all-steel bodies, Patchett & Carstensen workers sit on the roof of this bus in 1935. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
To illustrate the strength of its all-steel bodies, Patchetts & Carstensen workers sit on the roof of this bus in 1935. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

Transit buses too

Although the company focused primarily on school buses, several fleets of transit and intercity coaches were manufactured by Patchetts & Carstensen in the mid-1920s. For example, a fleet of “20 luxurious intercity coaches were built for Dave Walsinger, one of the early members of the Santa Fe Trails bus system” based in Los Angeles. The city of Phoenix, Arizona, purchased eight transit coaches from the company. In 1924 two of the company’s buses were shipped to a customer in Japan. An order of transit buses for the City of Oakland was highlighted in the July 10, 1928 edition of the Modesto News Herald: “Eight gasoline-driven street cars were ordered from Patchetts and Carstensen this week for operation on the streets of Oakland and another order for as many more is promised soon. The Oakland cars will carry 10 passengers and are similar in type to those built last year for the Monterey Grove service.”

In addition to manufacturing school buses and transit buses for a number of school districts and cities in California, in 1933 Patchetts & Carstensen shipped a fleet of sightseeing coaches to Oahu, Hawaii, which were used to transport visitors in and around Honolulu and Waikiki Beach.

Playing on their "kinship," Patchett & Carstensen also sold buses through other Ford dealers. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
Playing on their “kinship,” Patchett & Carstensen also sold buses through other Ford dealers. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

Continued success, but death as well

The company’s Ford dealership continued to prosper even during the Depression. “The Dealers’ column” of a 1934 issue of Ford News reported, “What is said to have been an all-time record for dealers in northern California in communities of 1,100 population was established by Patchetts & Carstensen in Newman, where they delivered 40 Ford cars to retail purchasers within 30 days.” 

A 1934 Ford V-8 coupe. (Photo: carlogos.com)
A 1934 Ford V-8 coupe. (Photo: carlogos.com)

Patchett’s brother-in-law Lloyd Hendley died of pneumonia unexpectedly in 1931, and Carstensen passed away on October 23, 1934 at the age of 58. As difficult as these losses were, the business continued to flourish.

A Patchetts & Carstensen bus was included in a Ford Motor Co. promotional tour of the West Coast. The May 2, 1935 edition of the San Mateo Times reported, “A Ford commercial and industrial caravan is making a demonstration tour of the territory under the Ford Motor Company’s Richmond [California] branch – Northern California, Southern Oregon and Western Nevada. On this Ford V-8 merchandising trek, the equipment in the caravan will be demonstrated before thousands of people in some 52 cities and towns of the vast region, according to Don Stewart of El Camino Motors, local Ford dealers.

“There are 12 units in the transportation parade, including light delivery equipment, heavy-duty trucks and a large school bus. Among the Ford products in this automotive ‘road show’ is a 157-inch, closed cab, stake body truck, carrying a completely cut-away Ford V-8 truck chassis. There is also one closed cab platform truck carrying a comprehensive Ford parts display.

“Manufacturers of equipment of various types are represented in the caravan. The school bus is by Patchetts & Carstensen. The Ford Motor company’s equipment includes a closed cab pickup, 112-inch panel delivery, 112- inch sedan delivery and 131 1/2-inch panel job.”

The September 3, 1936 edition of the Placerville Mountain Democrat explained that Patchetts & Carstensen was producing all-steel school buses. “School bells ring Monday morning at El Dorado County high school, Placerville grammar school, and at Georgetown, Camino, Pleasant Valley and Buckeye district schools… “The high school on Friday evening received a new 48-passenger bus built on a GMC chassis. It is a Patchetts and Carstensen all-steel body and will be assigned to the Cammo-Placerville route.”

In March 1937, Phoenix added five 26-passenger Patchetts & Carstensen motor buses to its existing fleet.

In September 1937, Patchett sold the company’s bus manufacturing operations to Gillig Brothers of San Francisco. The December 14, 1937 issue of the Hayward Daily Review reported, “Four months ago Gillig Brothers bought out their only western competitor, Patchetts and Carstensen, of Newman. The business built buses for schools located all over western America.”

The sale of the company to Gillig Brothers did not include Patchetts and Carstensen’s lucrative school bus transportation business, which continued. Patchett reorganized the company into Patchett’s Bus and Transportation Company. He no longer built buses; instead the company worked with a number of school districts to acquire buses from other manufacturers. 

A 1963 advertisement celebrates the company's 50th anniversary. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
A 1963 advertisement celebrates the company’s 50th anniversary. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

In the AP interview, Patchett estimated that Patchetts & Carstensen had constructed 700 to 800 buses between 1914 and 1937. Gillig Brothers continues in business as a subsidiary of Chicago’s CCI Industries, Inc., the same company that controls Great Dane trailers.

Only a single Patchetts & Carstensen coach is still around. It is a 1937 Studebaker in “remarkably good shape, which was recently offered for sale on eBay and sold for around $27,000. The bus saw service in Arizona, Los Angeles, and eventually ended up in the collection of two Indiana museums. The semi-forward-control coach includes a Studebaker horse collar grill, fender mounted headlights, and big split windshield.”

A side/rear view of a 1937 bus built on a Studebaker frame.
(Photo: coachbuilt.com)

The end

After more than 50 years in the school bus business, Patchett’s Bus and Transportation Co. was sold to a larger operator in 1968. At that time Patchett was providing 42 central California school districts in 16 counties with bus transportation using a fleet of 221 buses, most of which carried 66 passengers.

The AP interview of Patchett was carried by many of the leading newspapers in the United States on or after May 24, 1972. The article was entitled, “America’s 1st School Bus.” 

In September 1914 about 20 children climbed aboard a converted Model T Ford that its designer said was “the first motorized school bus in the United States. Until then, students got to school on their own, either by walking, on bicycle, horseback, wagon or a lift in the family car.”

That lone bus “developed into a fleet of 220 leased to 42 California school districts,” Patchett said.

Franklin A. Patchett died on June 22, 1975, three years after the AP interview. He was 94 years old and enjoyed a full and productive life.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Coachbuilt, which provided information and photos for this article.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.