Vintage buses roll onto movie screens, and museums cash in

In a touching scene from the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump,” Forrest’s girlfriend Jenny is looking out the back window of a 1959 GM TDM 4515 bus, waving and flashing the peace sign at Forrest, who is dressed in his military uniform.

That yellow and green bus also can be seen at The Museum of Bus Transportation in Hershey, Pennsylvania, which rented the vintage vehicle to the production company that filmed “Forrest Gump.” It is one of the more popular buses at the museum, with visitors eager to recreate Jenny’s scene.

The “Gump Bus” is owned by The Museum of Bus Transportation.

The “Gump Bus,” as it is known at the museum, is one of several vintage buses owned by museums and private collectors that serve as on-screen transportation for characters in films and television shows broadcast on network TV, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, and shown in theaters.

The Museum of Bus Transportation gets a large percentage of that movie business.

“Prior to 2020, we did maybe one or two movies a year,” said Randy Wilcox, who oversees the museum’s fleet of vintage buses. “But this past spring we started getting a ton of phone calls from production companies. With the movie industry opening up (after a pandemic-induced production slowdown), it has been a fantastic year for us.”

A Yellow Coach was featured in “The Waltons: Homecoming,” a TV movie that aired on CW Thanksgiving weekend.

A welcome source of income

Wilcox said that in early December, 10 of the museum’s buses were being used in film and TV productions, including a Netflix movie, although he was unable to provide details because companies don’t release information about films still in production.

The most recently completed project featuring a museum bus was “The Waltons: Homecoming,” a TV movie that aired on CW Thanksgiving weekend. A 1929 Yellow Coach on loan to the museum from Fullington Bus served as transportation for John Walton Sr.’s trip home for Christmas.

“The bus was a big part of the story,” Wilcox said. “I was a little worried when they told me it was going to be involved in a crash (on screen), but it came back in one piece.”

He said that besides paying for use of the buses, which helps bolster the museum’s finances, production companies often also repair them. When Netflix needed a short yellow school bus for a film, the museum had one but it had a bad brake master cylinder, so the filmmaker installed a new one. Others have performed tune-ups, and one company repainted a museum bus.

“That’s been a benefit, because they help us maintain the buses,” Wilcox said. He said that any bus leaving the museum grounds for a film project is transported on a flatbed truck for safety reasons.

Tom McCaughey, owner of Flagship Trailways in Rhode Island, often drives his vintage buses in films.

Behind the wheel on screen

That’s not always the case with Tom McCaughey’s collection of vintage buses, which he often drives to movie locations and sometimes even serves as the onscreen bus driver.

For example, on episodes of “Castle Rock,” a former Hulu show inspired by stories created by Stephen King, McCaughey was the on-camera driver of his 1975 Silver Eagle 05. McCaughey, owner of Flagship Trailways in Rhode Island, also owns 1953 and 1958 GM TDH 5106s and a 1964 GM Fishbowl, which are transported on flatbeds to movie locations. 

Other past and future films and shows featuring McCaughey’s buses include the Hulu show “Only Murders in the Building” starring Steve Martin, “Julia,” a documentary about chef Julia Child, and “Black Mass,” a Johnny Depp film based on the life of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger.

Tom McCaughey was the on-camera driver of his 1975 Silver Eagle 05 in an episode of “Castle Rock.”

In the Midwest, Richfield Bus Company owners Stan and Dan Holter are the go-to vintage bus owners for movie makers. The Holters own the Bus Boys Collection of more than 100 vintage buses, many of which are featured in films and on TV. 

Stan Holter said their buses have appeared in several Netflix productions and even a zombie movie. Most recently they sent a 1971 and a 1972 Eagle Model 5 to North Carolina for a production.

“I don’t really pay attention to the movie stuff. I just give them what they want,” Holter said, adding that the film business helps bring in additional money, which has been important since the pandemic all but dried up the charter and tour bus business. “You’ve got to get creative.”

Unexpected jump into movie business

Across the country in the heart of the movie industry, Frank Gonzalez of Stardust Tours in Montebello, California, kind of fell into the business of renting buses to filmmakers. “At first they called us to service their buses,” Gonzalez said. “Then they asked us, ‘You don’t have vintage buses, do you?’ Before we knew it, we were in the bus movie business, and it just blew up from there.”

He said he can make more than $120,000 a year renting his buses to production companies for use in films, TV shows, commercials and videos. Because he is close to most Hollywood studios, his buses are usually driven to the sets. If they have to go more than 25 miles, he trucks them.

Tom McCaughey was the on-camera driver of his 1975 Silver Eagle 05 in an episode of “Castle Rock.”

Gonzalez said that last year, during the pandemic slowdown, he was contacted by the company behind the Marvel comic book movies, which was moving production of a film to Europe. They bought his four 2004 Gillig transit buses, upgraded them to appear more futuristic and shipped them overseas.

“We were going to get rid of those buses anyway, so when they called, I jumped for joy,” Gonzalez said.

All of the museums and collectors who supply vintage buses for movies are known by the so-called “picture car guys” who search for vehicles needed for specific productions. And if they don’t have the vehicles the filmmakers are looking for, they refer them to other collectors. 

“They tell us what they need and we help them find what fits, or we refer them to someone else who has those vehicles,” Holter said. “Whether we get the contract or not, we try to get them the right equipment. Vintage buses are our hobby, our passion – and they have become our obsession. We’re trying to preserve our industry’s heritage.”


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