Thomas Built Buses

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Thomas Built Buses, Inc.
Industry Automotive
Predecessor Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc.
Founded 1972
Headquarters High Point, North Carolina, United States
Area served
North America
Key people
Kelley Platt
President and 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, USA and a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America, the parent company of Freightliner. Thomas produces school buses, activity buses/MFSAB (Multi-Function School Activity Buses), and commercial buses; both small and full-size buses are produced.[1]

Thomas traces its roots to 1916, when it was incorporated as the Perley A. Thomas Car Works in High Point, North Carolina. Thomas Car Works initially specialized in the production of electric streetcars; a few still exist today. As buses largely superseded streetcars as a mode of public transportation during the 1930s, the company shifted to buses with most production dedicated to school buses. By the 1970s, Thomas Car Works had become one of the dominant school bus manufacturers in North America. In 1972, the company reorganized, adopting its current name, Thomas Built Buses.


Perley A. Thomas: streetcar and bus pioneer

Perley A. Thomas (1874–1958) was a native of Canada and a millwright (specifically in woodworking), by trade. He worked for a subsidiary of the famous streetcar manufacturer J. G. Brill and Company, in Cleveland, Ohio, early in the 20th century, and attended night school courses in structural engineering at Case Institute of Technology then moved south to work for another streetcar builder at its High Point, N.C., location in 1910. Thomas became chief engineer, draftsman and designer for the company, using both his mechanical skills and his experience as a skilled woodworker. When the streetcar industry began to turn from wooden to steel construction, Thomas was able to make the switch, but his employer, Southern Car Company went out of business in 1916.

Perley A. Thomas Car Works

Perley A. Thomas 900-Series streetcar

Thomas founded Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc. in 1916[1] as his own streetcar building company, using the former facilities and many employees of the Southern Car Company. During the next 20 years, Perley A. Thomas streetcars were built and delivered to communities all across the United States, including New Orleans, where they operated on the Desire line made famous by Tennessee Williams' 1947 Broadway play and later film of the same name, A Streetcar Named Desire. New Orleans is one of the only cities where Perley A. Thomas streetcars can still be found in active service as public transportation vehicles (as opposed to museum pieces and novelty rides).

A transition to buses: the 1930s

The national trend in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s was toward use of personal automobiles rather than riding public transportation. As streetcar ridership decreased, less costly buses were often used in substitution by the companies operating the service. Orders for new streetcars and renovations began falling off.

Just as he had made the transition from wooden to steel streetcar building, Thomas and his workers at High Point also made the transition to building buses successfully. In 1934, Duke Power of South Carolina had Thomas build 10 transit buses. In 1936, Thomas ceased production of streetcars and launched a new product: the school bus. The same year, the company built 200 wooden-bodied school buses for the state of North Carolina, beginning a long tradition with that state which continues to the present day.[1]

In the early days of the school bus, Perley Thomas and his company's reputation for design innovation and quality manufacturing helped transform the industry. In the United States, many school buses in the 1930s were nothing more than flatbed truck chassis with wooden sides and a canvas roof, and had few or no safety devices.[2]

In 1938, the company introduced the first welded all-steel bus body. In 1939, Dr. Frank W. Cyr of New York, who became known as "The Father of the Yellow School Bus", hosted a 7 day long national conference of industry and school leaders which established 44 important safety standards and the yellow color for school buses all across the United States.

1961 Thomas school bus on an International Harvester chassis.

The company became a major school bus body builder in the post-World War II period. By 1980, it was one of the big six school bus body companies in the United States, competing with Blue Bird Body Company, Carpenter Body Works, Superior Coach Company, Ward Body Works, and Wayne Corporation.

1972-1998: Thomas as an independent company

Thomas Built Buses, Inc. was incorporated in 1972 as the successor to Perley A. Thomas Car Works.[1] In 1978, Thomas introduced its first company-designed bus chassis for its popular Saf-T-Liner transit-style bus; the Saf-T-Liner was sold for both for school and commercial use. In the past, Thomas was previously dependent upon truck chassis made by other companies for its transit-style school bus bodies (particularly Ford, Dodge, GMC, International Harvester and even Volvo), much like the majority of other school bus manufacturers. Thomas was the first school bus manufacturer to design its own chassis for both its front and rear-engine models, beating competitor Blue Bird by a decade (California manufacturers Crown Coach and Gillig Corporation did not manufacture a front-engine model that competed with Thomas).

The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period of struggle for 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 1980, the company began to manufacture a smaller school bus on a cutaway van chassis, the Thomas Minotour, which is still in production (as of 2010). Also in the 1980s, the company entered the commercial public transit bus market. In 1989, Thomas introduced the Thomas Vista school bus, a modified conventional design providing improved front-end visibility for drivers. Early in the 1990s, Thomas introduced the MVP (which stood for Maneuverability, Visibility, and Protection);[citation needed] a transit-style school bus, available in front and rear-engine models, the MVP was a lower-cost version of the standard Saf-T-Liner intended to boost sales. The front-engine MVP was still sold in 2010 as the Saf-T-Liner EF.

By the end of the 20th century, Thomas (along with Blue Bird and Ward successor AmTran) was one of only three principal builders of large school buses in the United States. It is still based in High Point, and in 1998, was acquired by the Freightliner Group of Daimler AG. Currently, Thomas employs over 1,600 people worldwide.

1998–present: division of Freightliner

2005 Freightliner FS-65

In the 1990s, the school bus industry was changed by a number of acquisitions and mergers. Several of the acquiring firms were either truck manufacturers or custom chassis builders. In the case of Thomas, they were acquired in 1998 by the Freightliner division of Daimler AG (then DaimlerChrysler).

The purchase of Thomas came soon after Freightliner's entry into school bus chassis production. In 1997, Freightliner had launched the FS-65 conventional school bus chassis based on its FL-Series medium duty truck; Freightliner was the first new chassis producer since Chrysler stopped production of Dodge school bus chassis in 1977. The purchase of Thomas allowed Freightliner to offer the FS-65 through a single body manufacturer, and the gamble worked. Throughout its production run, the FS-65 was used throughout many districts around the US. The last FS-65 was produced and delivered on December 13, 2006, to O'Brien Bus Service, Inc. of Maryland.[3]

From 2001 to 2011, the Thomas full-size bus lineup underwent a series of revisions. In 2001, the Saf-T-Liner HD (later the HDX) was introduced to replace both the Saf-T-Liner and MVP ER models. While distinguished by its large mirrors (integrating side-view, convex, and cross-view into a single unit), the HD also showed the increased use of Freightliner components on Thomas buses (headlights and instrument panel). In 2003, all Thomas Conventionals became based on the FS-65 chassis. A much larger change came in 2004 with the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner C2. Intended as the replacement for the FS-65 Conventional, the C2 was based on the Freightliner M2 Business Class. Wearing an all-new body, the C2 differs from previous buses in its body construction; it also uses the M2 dashboard in its entirety. In 2009, Thomas launched a new Type A design called the MyBus; while not a replacement for the Minotour, the MyBus is geared specifically towards the activity bus market.[4] It is available in three sizes on a GM chassis.[5] In 2011, the Saf-T-Liner EFX was introduced to replace the Saf-T-Liner EF; featuring the windshield from the HDX, the EFX is the first new front-engine Thomas bus since 1991.

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.


In addition to school buses, Thomas also offers activity buses,commercial buses, specialty busses and child-care buses derived from the Minotour, Mybus, C2, EFX, and HDX lines. For custom-built vehicles based on its school buses (applications such as bloodmobiles and mobile command centers), Thomas collaborates with Matthews Specialty Vehicles, Inc.

School Buses

Current Product Line
Model Name Thomas Minotour/MyBus Saf-T-Liner C2 Thomas Saf-T-Liner (EFX, HDX)
Photo Fire Island School Bus @ Captree State Park-2.jpg Kanadischer Schulbus.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 & Ford Transit van 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


  • 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

1997–2007 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

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 - transit bus jointly developed with Dennis Specialist Vehicles, based on Dennis Dart SLF
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
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


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 "About Us--Quick Facts". Thomas Built Buses website. Retrieved 2010-04-30.
  2. See School bus: early years.
  3. "Thomas retires the FS-65". 2006-12-13. Retrieved 2010-02-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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. Retrieved 2014-01-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "comtl96". 2000-04-23. Retrieved 2014-01-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links