Ah… the good old days. The first bus I drove—in 1965, at age 18—was a Brill built the year after I was born… no power steering, no lav, dysfunctional air conditioning, crashbox transmission and virtual brakes. Air suspension was seven years in the future.
My dream was to drive a modern bus, like the shiny new MCI MC5s Greyhound was introducing to the U.S. highways.
Careful what you wish for. The dream came true this week (albeit 56 years late) when I drove a pristine 1964 MC5 from Patterson, New York, to Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Ira Steinberg, a beloved Northeast operator and former partner at Coach Tours of Danbury, Connecticut, was in the process of donating the coach to the Museum of Bus Transportation in Hershey when he passed away. His daughters, Alison and Lauren, followed through. After it was prepped mechanically by the Coach Tours staff, I sortied southward.
Ira was a great supporter of the museum and used to drive a coach full of enthusiasts from New York to the annual Spring Fling. The arrival of Ira’s gang was a highlight of the event.
To the best of my knowledge, this MC5 was never restored, just lovingly maintained for nearly six decades. CoachUSA/Megabus was generous enough to lend a service vehicle to trail the bus and catch anything that fell off or make any repairs needed.
Apparently the mere presence of Michael Hepler, CoachUSA technician and museum volunteer, was sufficient to ward off the Bus Troll… and the trip went smoothly… a tribute to thoughtful maintenance and MCI’s rugged design.
That said, I re-learned a number of lessons. Back in the day bus drivers were manly-men. There were few women drivers because… women are smarter.
The power steering worked fine, but apparently in 1964 caster hadn’t been discovered. For the uninitiated, caster is NOT a friendly ghost, but the steering geometry that centers the wheel. Each turn required whipping the bus back into the appropriate lane.
The turning radius was… LARGE. Holy cow, you’d a thunk a 35’ bus wouldn’t need much space, but you had to plan turns with this jewel like you were piloting a tanker through a harbor.
The two-stroke 8V71 that seemed gutsy in ye olden days required beaucoup shifting on hills, and worse, you had to give THOUGHT to passing and lane changes. Driving back then required too much thinking.
The air suspension was interesting. While better than springs, it was not nearly as smooth as modern coaches. Remember the princess who could feel a pea through a thick mattress? My bum remembers 229 miles worth of expansion cracks and potholes.
Modern coaches handle almost like a car, and we assume those yellow speed signs on curves and ramps are suggestions. Trust me… an MC5 takes them VERY seriously. Refer back a paragraph and recognize that bus suspension has come a long way.
Brakes were OK, but it wasn’t until 1974 that regulations required stopping power sufficient to REALLY launch standees down the aisle.
Practical motorcoach automatic transmissions were still 10 years in the future, and the unsynchronized Spicer 8844 required double clutching. The good news is that stomping the clutch is aerobic exercise… The bad news is that it’s HARD.
Drive one of these suckers long enough and you develop a giant left leg and tend to waddle in circles.
The best part of the drive was that it made clear how far coaches have come (pun intended). If you get the chance, visit Ira’s MC5 in Hershey, where it lives in retirement with its bussy brethren ranging from a 1908 White to a modern battery-powered Proterra.