Where Have All The Cool Buses Gone?

Once again early futurist designer Norman Bel Geddes appears on this page. His proposal for an ultra modern, long distance passenger coach appeared at a time when the form of a vehicle was less of a statement of marketing intention and more an affirmation of engineering creativity.

In the 1930s railways were reasonably fast and reliable, but locomotives were noisy and dirty, steam powered and prodigious users of only the finest quality coal. The long distance motor coach was seen as a modern alternative. With the building of high-speed autoroutes in Europe and America, designers put strong emphasis on effective aerodynamics and futuristic looks, in this way some great vehicles were created. Vertical rear fins became both a symbol that linked the motor coach to aircraft design, and an aid to straight-line stability at speed.

In the late 1930s and early 40s the famous Greyhound Bus Line in America created a design language that they still used until not long ago to imply the efficiency of a ‘machine for long distance travel’. The look was quite different from that of a tourist bus, bright aluminum corrugations on the exterior surfaces enhanced the streamlined design, the small windows were raked forward to suggest speed, and large front corner radii with exaggerated plan shape completed the futuristic appearance. Greyhound enhanced this modern message with the design of their coach stations, building them in the ‘Streamline Moderne’ style developed by architects such as Gilbert Rohde, Alfred Shaw and Howard Lydecker.

In Germany, Mercedes and Büssing were two manufactures that built dramatic looking autobahn cruising vehicles, in the UK Duple was also a trendsetter. Futurist designers in the US presented fantastic schemes for dramatic trans-continental buses most of which were never going to reach production but challenged contemporary car design.

Today cheap economy class seats on American airlines are called ‘Coach’; this is probably a reflection on how coach or bus travel is now seen in the US — something for the less well of who will not complain too much! Why don’t bus companies offer high quality travel for those who dislike flying or don’t need to save every minute of traveling time?

It is the same with local tourist coaches; darkened windows, double-glazing, and air conditioning, all conspire to separate the traveler from the outside world. You get none of the sights, sounds or smells of the trip, it is only the final destination that seems to matter, not the journey.

Some years ago I worked on a couple of conceptual vehicle designs with good friend Rakesh Chavda. One was for all of the transportation for a resort island near Singapore. We were able to propose all of the infrastructure as well as the vehicles, this felt like a complete design project where environment and hardware were integrated. The other was for a radically different tourist bus, a ‘Mobile Lounge’ that would immerse the passengers in the local culture and environment in a very different way from being cocooned inside a Volvo.


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