• DTS.USA
    5.765
    -0.008
    -0.1%
  • NTI.USA
    2.910
    0.000
    0%
  • NTID.USA
    2.900
    -0.090
    -3%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.010
    -0.090
    -4.3%
  • OTRI.USA
    7.190
    -0.220
    -3%
  • OTVI.USA
    11,406.010
    -45.940
    -0.4%
  • DTS.USA
    5.765
    -0.008
    -0.1%
  • NTI.USA
    2.910
    0.000
    0%
  • NTID.USA
    2.900
    -0.090
    -3%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.010
    -0.090
    -4.3%
  • OTRI.USA
    7.190
    -0.220
    -3%
  • OTVI.USA
    11,406.010
    -45.940
    -0.4%
BusinessEquipmentFreightWaves ClassicsInsightsNewsTrucking

FreightWaves Classics: Bus and truck pioneer impacted transportation

Truckers should like buses, because they take cars off the streets and highways.

One man who made his mark on the bus and truck industries was Harry Alphonse FitzJohn, who played a key role in the production of both bus and truck bodies. He was born in Toledo, Ohio, on this date (June 21) in 1889. 

Early life and career

Harry A. FitzJohn in 1919. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
Harry A. FitzJohn in 1919. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

At the age of 15 FitzJohn began working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau as a messenger. He stayed in that job for about two years, but in 1907 he moved to Detroit to work as a clerk for the Cadillac Motor Car Company. For the next 10 years, he held a variety of other jobs in the automotive industry, including: production manager for the Continental Motors Corporation; Detroit purchasing agent for the Springfield Body Corporation; and purchasing agent for the Hayes-Ionia Auto Parts Manufacturing Company.

World War I and the 1920s 

Although World War I began in the fall of 1914, the U.S. did not enter the war until 1917. At that time, FitzJohn assumed a new position in the transportation industry, serving as production manager at the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in Dayton, Ohio. He helped oversee the development and construction of aircraft for the U.S. Army’s Air Corps. During the war, Dayton-Wright manufactured about 3,000 DeHavilland DH-4 bombers and 400 Standard SJ-1 trainers. FitzJohn stayed at Dayton-Wright for a few months after the war ended, having gained considerable experience in manufacturing. 

With Thomas H. Hume and Walter C. Powell (officers and directors of a clothing business) and engineer Lewis B. Erwin, FitzJohn founded a new automobile manufacturing company in the fall of 1919. The company was named the FitzJohn-Erwin Manufacturing Company.

A 1922 company advertisement. (Image: coachbuilt.com)
A 1922 company advertisement. (Image: coachbuilt.com)

The company (known as “Fitz-Er” within the industry) began by building truck cabs and truck and bus bodies for REO Motor Car Company. Often Fitz-Er would ship unassembled truck and bus bodies to REO dealers as a way to save on delivery and storage costs. Fitz-Er also began manufacturing chassis for the Ford Motor Company.

Erwin left the company in 1921, and the business was renamed the FitzJohn Manufacturing Company. Over the next several years, the company grew its sales, revenue and reputation.

Beginning on January 1, 1929, the FitzJohn Manufacturing Company stopped selling its bus and truck bodies to chassis manufacturers and automobile dealers; it began selling directly to customers. Shortly thereafter, the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record highlighted the company’s overall industry significance, stating “The FitzJohn Manufacturing Company is one of the pioneers to engage in bus body building and manufactures exclusively bus, moving van, and panel bodies. In addition to being a pioneer in bus body building, the FitzJohn Company was particularly active in advancing the standardization of parts.”

One of the FitzJohn trucks saw interesting duty! (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
One of the FitzJohn trucks saw interesting duty!
(Photo: coachbuilt.com)

The Great Depression and life after FitzJohn Manufacturing

Like thousands of businesses of all types, the Great Depression severely impacted FitzJohn Manufacturing. Its sales fell significantly in 1930, and 1931 was even worse. The company entered receivership and, as part of the reorganization process, Harry FitzJohn was forced out of the company that he helped form a dozen years earlier and which bore his name. (The company would continue to bear his name until closing in the late 1950s.)

After being forced out of FitzJohn Manufacturing, FitzJohn worked with Paul O. Dittmar to design a 12-15 passenger parlor coach known as the Autocoach for Safe Way Lines, a small bus line that served the Chicago to New York market. Ten Autocoach buses were built by REO for the bus company.

While not many of the Autocoach design were built, FitzJohn reconnected with former colleagues at REO. Shortly thereafter, the manufacturer announced a new bus division. As reported in the January 1933 edition of Automotive Industries, “New REO Bus Head – Harry A. FitzJohn, organizer and former head of the FitzJohn Mfg. Co., has been named head of the newly formed bus division of the REO Motor Car Co.”

An advertisement for REO school buses from 1934-35. (Photo: autopaper.com)
An advertisement for REO school buses from 1934-35. (Photo: autopaper.com)

FitzJohn then took a position with General Motors Truck Co. in 1936 as the sales engineer of the company’s Yellow Coach division. The Metropolitan reported, “Harry A. FitzJohn, formerly president of the FitzJohn Body Company, will represent General Motors Truck Company, Yellow Coach division, as sales engineer. He will maintain headquarters at Pontiac, Michigan.”

Then in 1940, FitzJohn returned to bus manufacturing (although on a smaller scale), taking the position of sales manager with the newly formed General American Aerocoach Co. of Chicago. The company was begun after the General American Transportation Corp., a builder and lessor of railcars, purchased the bus manufacturing assets of Gar Wood Industries in 1939.

General American Aerocoach built 29- and 33-passenger buses using its predecessor’s welded tube framework, and its early buses were nearly identical to the last Gar Wood motor coaches. An all-new and larger bus debuted in 1940 and until production ended in 1943 (because of World War II), the company sold about 250 Aerocoaches based on the original design and 300 of the larger type. When production began again in 1944 only the larger bus was offered. From then until 1950 an additional 2,350 buses were built by the company. 

A 1946 model Aerocoach. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
A 1946 model Aerocoach. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

The 1950s

By the early 1950s General Motors sold the vast majority of buses manufactured in the United States. Because General American Aerocoach could not effectively compete with General Motors, most Aerocoaches constructed between 1950-1952 were sold to customers in Mexico and South and Central America. 

Harry A. FitzJohn remained in the Chicago area after he retired, passing away on January 8, 1967 at the age of 77.

An advertisement from 1948 for Aerocoach buses. (Image: coachbuilt.com)
An advertisement from 1948 for Aerocoach buses.
(Image: coachbuilt.com)

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.

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