Thomas Built Buses

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Thomas Built Buses, Inc.
Industry Automotive Industry
Predecessor Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc.
Founded 1916
Founder Perley A. Thomas
Headquarters High Point, North Carolina, United States
Area served
North America
Key people
Caley Edgerly (President, CEO)
Products School buses
Commercial buses
Specialty Vehicles
Production output
15,000 vehicles/ year[1]
Owner Daimler AG
Number of employees
Parent Daimler Trucks North America

Thomas Built Buses, Inc. (commonly designated Thomas) is an American bus manufacturer. Headquartered in High Point, North Carolina, the company is a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America (the parent company of Freightliner). While best known for its yellow school buses, Thomas also produces, activity buses/MFSAB (Multi-Function School Activity Buses), commercial buses, and bus bodies for aftermarket conversion.

Thomas bus bodies are produced in two facilities in High Point, North Carolina; Thomas also produces the chassis for its Saf-T-Liner/Transit Liner EFX and HDX buses.


The oldest surviving bus manufacturer in North America, Thomas Built Buses was founded in 1916. Trained as a woodworker and engineer, Perley A. Thomas had become unemployed as Southern Car Company had closed its doors; the company was a streetcar manufacturer based in High Point, North Carolina. As the city was (and still remains) a center of furniture manufacturing, many workers found jobs in furniture production; Thomas initially founded a company specializing in fireplace mantles and home furnishings.[2]

In the summer of 1916, Thomas Car Works was founded as Perley Thomas began work in modification of existing streetcars in a car barn in High Point.[2] With a $6,000 loan, Thomas purchased the equipment of Southern Car Works at auction, opening a facility in a former ice manufacturing plant. In 1918, the company began production of new streetcars; 25 were produced, leading the company to build its own factory in High Point.[2] Shortly after the company opened, all-steel streetcar bodies joined production of wooden bodies.

1920s: Streetcars[edit]

Perley A. Thomas 900-Series streetcar in New Orleans (built 1923-1924)

In 1921, the company received its largest order ever, as NOPSI (New Orleans Public Service, Inc.) placed an order for 150 streetcars, to be delivered from 1921 to 1924. As Thomas was unable to fill the order on its own, the company shared a portion of the order with J. G. Brill, based in Philadelphia.[2] In September 1922, after 25 streetcars were delivered, the High Point factory was destroyed by fire.

To keep Thomas Car Works afloat, Perley Thomas secured $100,000 from NOPSI, allowing him to secure parts to build 55 more streetcars, allowing the factory to be rebuilt. By 1928, a third batch of 25 streetcars was delivered, bringing the total produced by the company to 105.[2] While best known from their use in New Orleans, Perley Thomas streetcars would also be utilized by communities across the United States, including Charlotte, NC; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Miami, FL; Mobile, AL; New York City; Philadelphia, PA; Washington, DC, and exported as well, with Havana, Cuba as an user.[2]

In the United States following World War II, the role of streetcars was largely superseded by transit buses. In New Orleans, over 90 years after the construction of the first Perley Thomas 900-series street cars, 35 remain in service (as of 2016) in active daily use in public transportation (on the St. Charles line, the oldest streetcar line in the world).

1930s: Transition to bus construction[edit]

In 1930, Thomas Car Works would receive its final order for streetcars, producing 4 for Mobile, Alabama.[2] Although rail-based streetcars offered higher passenger capacity, automotive-based transit buses became more popular as they offered a greater degree of flexibility in route design. In the early 1930s, the company struggled, with most of its business consisting of automotive refinishing and construction of bus and truck bodies.[2] The recession of the time had hit Thomas Car Works hard, with the company decreased in size from 125 employees to nearly 10 (including Perley Thomas and his three children).[2] Eventually, a company creditor would file for receivership, with its survival largely based on the lack of potential buyers.[2]

As the decade progressed, to better secure its future, Thomas Car Works transitioned mass-transit production away from streetcars. In 1933, the company produced its first trolley bus.[2] While still electric-powered from overhead wires, a trolley bus was bodied the same as a standard automotive-design bus. Moving further away from streetcars, Thomas Car Works produced 10 transit buses for Duke Power of South Carolina.[2]

In 1936, Thomas produced its first school bus. As part of an order for North Carolina, the company produced 200 wood-bodied school buses for $195-$225 (depending on size[2]), beginning a long tradition with that state that continues to the present day.[1] In 1938, Thomas made a major change to its design as it introduced its first bus body made completely of steel.[2] Although not the first manfucturer to construct an all-steel body, an innovation of the company would later become adopted by all school bus manufacturers. Thomas used roof bows stamped from a single piece of metal (rather than several pieces welded to one another); essentially, the design of the bus allowed the roof to be supported by several internal roll bars welded to each side of the floor.[2] In practice, while the design has been updated for added strength, single-piece roof bows are in use in all school buses manufactured in North America today.

In April 1939, the design of the school bus changed forever as an industry conference led to the adoption of 44 industry-wide safety standards; most of the standards concerned aisle width and seating, but the most notable result of the conference would be the development of school bus yellow as a universal color for school buses in the United States.

1940s: Wartime production[edit]

In 1940, day-to-day operation of Thomas Car Works was turned over from Perley Thomas (who remained company president) to his three children. John W. Thomas managed company operations along with sales, along with James Thomas handling the High Point factory.[2] Following the outbreak of World War II, as with its competitors, Thomas bus production was shifted towards the armed forces. In a contract shared with Ward Body Works, Thomas also produced various bodies for the GMC CCKW truck.[2]

While the war had brought school bus production to a halt, the High Point factory remained utilized in civilian capacity. To supplement its armed forces production, Thomas Car Works was put to use by refurbishing streetcars. As rationing had led to increased demands on public transportation, the upkeep of existing equipment was considered a priority.[2]

Following World War II, with a rise in student populations, Thomas Car Works began to expand its sales market beyond the South, opening dealerships across the eastern half of the United States.[2] To better weatherproof its entry door, the company developed a reinforced rubber-covered door hinge; the rubber also covered the gap between the two door panels as the closed.[2]

After World War II, a third generation of the family joined the company, with John W. Thomas, Jr. and Perley (Pat) Thomas II, with the former becoming director of sales and the latter taking over control of government contracts.[2]

1950s: First Saf-T-Liner[edit]

During the mid-1950s, Thomas Car Works introduced the Thomas Saf-T-Liner name as it developed a new windshield design for its bus bodies.[2] During the decade, Thomas would become an internationally based company, establishing manufacturing facilities in Ecuador and Peru; Thomas would ship bodies from North Carolina in CKD form to be constructed on locally sourced chassis.[2]

In 1958, company founder Perley Thomas died at the age of 84, with sons John W. Thomas and James Thomas continuing the operations of the company.

1960s: A move towards safety[edit]

1961 Thomas school bus on an International Harvester chassis.

In 1962, Thomas Car Works officially expanded its production beyond High Point as it established a factory in Woodstock, Ontario.[2] At the time, the company became the third-largest producer of school buses in the United States.[2]

In what would be a demonstration repeated several times, to demonstrate the strength of its roof bows, in 1964, Thomas stacked a full-size school bus on the roof of another using a crane.[2]

For 1967, to reduce blind spots in front of the bus, Thomas developed a convex blind-spot mirror that became mandated in North Carolina.[2] Allowing a 150-degree field of vision directly in front of the bus, the feature became adopted by 16 other states in only two years.[2] In various forms, blind-spot mirrors are currently required on all school buses in North America.

1970s: Thomas Built Buses[edit]

In the early 1970s, Thomas underwent a number of major transitions in company leadership and market positioning. In 1972, company president John W. Thomas died, giving leadership to his brother James Thomas, who retired within a year. As the company had moved away from construction of streetcars following World War II, in 1972, company leaders chose a new name for the company tied closer to its current product lines: Perley A. Thomas Car Works became Thomas Built Buses, Inc (a name used in its emblems since the 1950s).[1][2] A third generation of the Thomas family assumed control of the company leadership, with John Thomas, Jr. (President) and Perley Thomas II (VP, international operations).[2]

In the 1970s, Thomas Built Buses began to expand its product lineup beyond the Saf-T-Liner cowled-chassis bus. As an alternative to the Blue Bird All American, Thomas developed the Thomas Saf-T-Liner ER (Engine Rear). As with a number of other manufacturers (Carpenter, Superior, Ward, Wayne), Thomas was dependent on a chassis supplied by another manufacturer for its transit-style school bus (using Ford, Dodge, GMC, International Harvester and Volvo). In 1978, as part of an update to the Saf-T-Liner ER, Thomas made a major change to its design: the introduction of a company-sourced chassis for the ER as well as a front-engine EF (Engine Front) counterpart. Thomas would become the first school bus manufacturer to source chassis for both front and rear-engine models, ahead of Blue Bird by a decade (California manufacturers Crown Coach and Gillig Corporation did not manufacture a front-engine model that competed with Thomas).

1980s: Product diversification[edit]

The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period of struggle for all school bus manufacturers. Coupled with the slow economy, manufacturers could no longer count on the factor that had driven school bus sales for the past two decades: the entirety of the baby-boom generation had finished school; it would be years before student populations would create sufficient demand again. During this time, a number of manufacturers either encountered financial difficulty or closed their doors altogether. Thomas diversified its product lineup, entering the small school bus market, creating unique products, and redesigning its transit-style buses to compete with newly introduced competitors.

In the late 1970s, Thomas created its first small bus with the development of the Mighty Mite, a bus paired with the Chevrolet/GMC P30 stripped chassis. Designed as a competitor for the Carpenter Cadet and Blue Bird Mini Bird, the Mighty Mite name was first used as a narrow-body variant of the Saf-T-Liner conventional. In 1980, the Thomas Minotour was introduced. A cutaway-chassis bus, the Minotour was produced on both Ford and General Motors chassis.[2]

The 1980s saw an expansion of the Saf-T-Liner model line, as Thomas introduced the WestCoastER, a heavy-duty variant marketed against Crown and Gillig school buses; in addition to heavier-duty driveline and suspension components, the WestCoastER was also available with tandem rear axles on certain versions. In the late 1980s, the Saf-T-Liner product line adopted the MVP suffix (which stood for Maneuverability, Visibility, and Protection).[citation needed]

In 1989, the Thomas Vista was introduced, adding a second conventional to the Thomas model line. In contrast to the standard Saf-T-Liner conventional, the design of the Vista featured a number of modifications to optimize forward sightlines for drivers. As with a front-engine transit-style bus, the engine was placed next to the driver instead of in front of the driver, shortening the hood length and repositioning the driver seat forward.

Alongside its product changes, during the late 1980s, the corporate structure of the company saw change as well. In order to better compete with other manufacturers, Thomas Built Buses sought to reorganize its management in order to raise capital without having to form partnerships with its own competitors. To do so, the board of directors brought in an investment group (the Odyssey Group) to buy out several shareholders as well as provide the needed capital.[2]

1990s: Acquisition[edit]

In 1991, the Saf-T-Liner ER saw its first redesign since 1978, with major improvements on forward visibility. To compete with the Blue Bird TC/2000 and Ward Senator (later AmTran Genesis), Thomas introduced the All Star as a replacement for the Saf-T-Liner EF; the All Star would become the Saf-T-Liner MVP EF/ER in 1994. In 1992, Thomas Built Buses would become operated by a fourth generation of the Thomas family.[2]

In 1996, the company would open a third facility, in Monterrey, Mexico; the same year, Thomas became the largest school bus manufacturer in the United States (by market share).[2]

In 1997, the Thomas Saf-T-Liner FS-65 was introduced, marking the debut of the Freightliner FS-65 chassis.[2] Based on the Freightliner FL60/FL70 medium-duty trucks introduced in 1995, the chassis required several modifications to the Thomas body, including the addition of a 4-piece windshield. With the first completely new bus chassis since 1980, the entry of Freightliner marked the first new chassis producer since Chrysler ended production of Dodge school bus chassis in 1977.

During the late 1990s, to expand its production into segments outside of highway trucks, Freightliner made several acquisitions, including American LaFrance, the chassis products of Oshkosh Corporation, and the rights to the heavy-truck range of Ford Motor Company. In 1998, Freightliner acquired Thomas Built Buses from the Thomas family and the Odyssey Group,[2] marking the third acquisition of a school bus manufacturer acquired by an associated supplier (along with AmTran and Carpenter); the company was the last school bus manufacturer under family control.

2000s: New-generation buses[edit]

In 2001, following the closure of Carpenter Industries, Thomas became one of only three builders of full-size school bus bodies in the United States. The same year, its two rear-engine school buses were consolidated into a single product line, marking the debut of the Saf-T-Liner HD (later the HDX). Distinguished by its large mirror assemblies (integrating side-view, convex, and cross-view into a single unit), the HD/HDX visibly utilized Freightliner components in its construction,tincluding its instrument panel and headlights. The corporate alignment between Freightliner and Thomas grew, as the Saf-T-Liner Conventional adopted the FS-65 chassis exclusively for 2003.

In 2004, Perley A. Thomas, founder of the Thomas streetcar and bus building companies, who died in 1958, was among the first inductees into the Raleigh-based North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame.

A radical change came in 2004 as Thomas marked the introduction of the Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2, based on the Freightliner M2. Designed to mate as a common unit, the C2 marked the first changes to the Thomas full-size bus body in over 30 years. Along with its overall body construction, the Saf-T-Liner C2 was the first conventional-style school bus to adopt the entire dashboard of its donor chassis vehicle. Initially produced alongside the Saf-T-Liner Conventional, the C2 would serve as its replacement. On December 13, 2006, the final Saf-T-Liner FS-65 was produced and delivered to O'Brien Bus Service, Inc. of Maryland.[3]

In 2007, the Saf-T-Liner C2e was introduced, marking the debut of the first hybrid-electric school bus.

In 2009, Thomas launched a second small bus product line. Geared towards the small bus segment,[4] the MyBus uses a modified version of the Minotour body based on Chevrolet/GMC chassis.[5]

2010s: Second century[edit]

In 2011, Thomas marked the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner EFX, its first all-new front-engine bus since 1994. Using similar design features as the Saf-T-Liner HDX (its windshield and upper bodywork), the EFX also utilized a center-mounted Freightliner instrument panel.

Although the C2e hybrid was met with little success and was discontinued in 2013, in the early 2010s, Thomas would introduce a number of alternative-fuel vehicles, including CNG and propane variants of the Minotour, and propane and CNG variants of the C2. Since the 1990s, the Saf-T-Liner HDX (as the Saf-T-Liner ER) has been produced with CNG fuel engines as an option.

In the production of its vehicles, during the 2000s and 2010s, Thomas has cleaned the environment, with the company achieving Zero-Waste-to-Landfill status in 2011. For 2012, Thomas was designated a North Carolina Environmental Steward because of its superior environmental performance, commitment to continued reduction of its environmental impact, and demonstrated commitment to exceed compliance regulations.

In 2016, Thomas Built Buses became the first bus body manufactuer to celebrate 100 years of production in North America.


Thomas Built Buses is a leading manufacturer of Type A, C and D school buses. Thomas Built also produces activity buses,commercial buses, specialty buses and child-care buses derived from the Minotour, Mybus, C2, EFX, and HDX lines.

School Buses[edit]

Current Product Line
Model Name Thomas Minotour Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2 Thomas Saf-T-Liner (EFX, HDX)
Photo Fire Island School Bus @ Captree State Park-2.jpg Thomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner C2 School Bus.jpg Thomas HDX CNG.jpg
Year Introduced
  • Minotour: 1980
  • MyBus: 2009
  • EFX: 2012
  • HDX: 2001 (as Saf-T-Liner HD)
Assembly High Point, North Carolina

Type A (cutaway van)

  • Minotour: single rear wheel, dual rear wheel
  • MyBus: single rear wheel, dual rear wheel
Type C (conventional)

Type D (transit-style)

(front engine, rear engine)

Chassis Manufacturer

Ford Motor Company

General Motors

Daimler Trucks North America LLC

Thomas Built Buses
  • Front-engine Type D chassis
  • Rear-engine Type D chassis
Fuel Type(s)


  • Gasoline
  • Diesel
  • Propane
  • Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)


  • Gasoline
  • Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)
  • Diesel
  • Propane


  • Diesel
  • Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)


  • Diesel
  • Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)
Passenger Capacity 14-30 up to 81 up to 90
Other Notes


  • Produced as school bus and MFSAB


  • Based on Minotour, produced only as MFSAB on Chevrolet/GMC chassis
  • Produced as school bus, commercial bus, and MFSAB/activity bus
  • Based on Freightliner C2, derived from Freightliner M2 106 Business Class medium-duty truck
  • Replaced Saf-T-Liner Conventional and Saf-T-Liner FS-65
  • Produced as diesel-electric hybrid from 2007 to 2013
  • Propane version released in 2013
  • CNG Version released in 2016


  • Produced as school bus, commercial bus, and MFSAB/activity bus
  • Replaced Thomas Saf-T-Liner EF in 2011
  • Shares some front bodywork and windshield with HDX.


  • Produced as school bus, commercial bus, and MFSAB/activity bus
  • Introduced in 2001 as the Saf-T-Liner HD; replaced the Saf-T-Liner ER and Saf-T-Liner MVP ER.
  • Distinguished by large front mirror units, which mount the side-view, wide-angle, and cross-view mirrors into a single unit.
Former Product Lines
Model Name Years Produced Configuration Chassis Supplier Notes
Mighty Mite TBBMightyMite.jpg mid 1980s-early 1990s Type B (integrated)

General Motors

  • Chevrolet P-30
  • Also the name of the lowest-capacity versions of Thomas Conventionals before the 1970s.
  • Also used for base for para-transit buses in Toronto
Saf-T-Liner Conventional 1980sThomasFordSheffield.jpg 1962-2002 Type C (Conventional)

Chrysler Corporation

  • Dodge D-300 (to 1977)

Ford Motor Company

General Motors

International Harvester Company/Navistar International

  • Introduced in 1962 by Perley A. Thomas Car Works school bus division.
  • Distinguished by windshield wipers mounted above windshield (2-piece flat glass)
Saf-T-Liner FS-65

Thomas FS65 NYC.jpg

1995–2007 Type C (Conventional)


  • Saf-T-Liner FS-65 is one product of the Freightliner purchase of Thomas in 1998.
    • All FS-65 chassis wore Thomas bodies after 2001.
  • Distinguished by the Saf-T-Liner Conventional by its four-piece windshield.

Thomas Vista.jpg


Type C (Semi-forward control conventional)

General Motors (1989-1991)

Navistar International (1992-1998)

  • To aid forward visibility, the Vista mounted the driver's seat alongside the engine rather than behind it, similar to a Type D bus.
  • Produced on a Thomas-badged Chevrolet/GMC chassis from 1989-1991 and an International chassis from 1992-1998.
  • 1994 update gained additional windshield and side windshield glass.
Thomas Saf-T-Liner (EF, ER, WestCoastER)

ThomasEF.jpg TBBWestcoastER.jpg

  • Saf-T-Liner EF
  • 1978-1990
  • 2007-2011
  • Saf-T-Liner ER
  • WestCoastER
  • 1978-2000
Type D (transit-style)
  • Saf-T-Liner EF
  • front engine
  • Saf-T-Liner ER
  • WestCoastER
  • rear engine
Thomas Built Buses

Saf-T-Liner EF

  • Introduced in 1978 as Thomas began production on own chassis.
  • Replaced by MVP EF in 1991.
  • Name reintroduced in 2007 as part of MVP redesign, replaced by EFX.

Saf-T-Liner ER

  • Introduced in 1978 as Thomas began production on own chassis.
  • Replaced by Saf-T-Liner HD (later HDX) for 2001.


  • Heavy-Duty derivative of Saf-T-Liner ER sold to West Coast customers
  • Built with 84 and 90 passenger bodies; tandem rear axles were an option on 90-passenger version
Saf-T-Liner MVP EF/ER, All-Star

90s Thomas EF Florida.jpg

  • All-Star
  • 1991-1994
  • Saf-T-Liner MVP EF
  • 1994-2007
  • Saf-T-Liner MVP ER
  • 1995-2004

Type D (transit-style)

  • All-Star
  • front engine
  • Saf-T-Liner MVP EF
  • front engine
  • Saf-T-Liner MVP ER
  • rear engine
  • All-Star
  • Oshkosh Corporation
  • Saf-T-Liner MVP EF
  • Thomas Built Buses
  • Saf-T-Liner MVP ER
  • Thomas Built Buses


  • Front-engine chassis built by Oshkosh Corporation; built from 1991-1994 as a competitor to Blue Bird TC/2000.
  • Distinguished from MVP EF by having Thomas emblem above grille (rather than centered).
  • Distinguished by previous Saf-T-Liner EF by much larger windshield and dual headlights (rather than four)

Saf-T-Liner MVP EF

  • Replaced All-Star in 1995; built on Thomas chassis.
  • MVP= Maneuverability, Visibility, and Protection.
  • Changed to Saf-T-Liner EF in 2007 as part of an update and replaced by EFX for 2012.

Saf-T-Liner MVP ER

  • Built on Thomas chassis
  • MVP= Maneuverability, Visibility, and Protection.
  • Replaced by Saf-T-Liner HDX for 2004.

Other Buses[edit]

Thomas sold commercial derivatives of the Minotour, Conventional, Vista, along with the following:[6]

Thomas/Dennis SLF200
  • Transit Liner MVP EF/ER- commercial derivative of Saf-T-Liner MVP school bus
  • TL960 - rear-engine transit bus derived from Saf-T-Liner ER[7]
  • Chartour- rear-engine transit bus
  • CL960 - rear-engine transit bus
  • SLF200 (Super Low Floor) series - badge engineered transit bus built under license from Dennis Specialist Vehicles, based on the Alexander ALX200. It had a Dennis Dart SLF chassis.
Thomas Built Buses, Inc. Timeline
Bus Type 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s
'72 '73 '74 '75 '76 '77 '78 '79 '80 '81 '82 '83 '84 '85 '86 '87 '88 '89 '90 '91 '92 '93 '94 '95 '96 '97 '98 '99 '00 '01 '02 '03 '04 '05 '06 '07 '08 '09 '10 '11 '12 '13 '14 '15 '16 '17
Type A Minotour
Type B Mighty Mite
Type C Conventional
Thomas/Freightliner FS-65
Saf-T-Liner C2
Vista Vista
Type D Saf-T-Liner EF/ER Saf-T-Liner ER
Saf-T-Liner MVP EF/Saf-T-Liner EF Saf-T-Liner EFX
Saf-T-Liner MVP ER
Saf-T-Liner HD Saf-T-Liner HDX
All Star EF


Thomas Saf-T-Liner (transit bus) 
Canadian-market Thomas Conventional (Ford chassis) 
Thomas Conventional (Navistar chassis) 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "About Us--Quick Facts". Thomas Built Buses website. Retrieved 2010-04-30.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj "Thomas school bus history,Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Thomas Built Buses, Thomas Built Buses div. of Freightliner, Thomas Built Buses div. of Daimler Trucks, High Point, N.C. -". Retrieved 2016-04-21. 
  3. ^ "Thomas retires the FS-65". 2006-12-13. Retrieved 2010-02-20. 
  4. ^ "Thomas Built Introduces New Activity Bus". Thomas Built Buses (June 3, 2009). Press release about MyBus. Retrieved 2010-04-30
  5. ^ "Our Buses". MyBus website. Retrieved 2010-04-30
  6. ^ "Archived Thomas website". 1997-04-01. Archived from the original on April 1, 1997. Retrieved 2014-01-04. 
  7. ^ "comtl96". 2000-04-23. Archived from the original on April 23, 2000. Retrieved 2014-01-04. 

External links[edit]