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Before the New Looks

A Brief History of the TTC Bus Fleet Before 1959

by James Bow

See Also

92 Years of Buying Buses

In October 2012, the TTC arranged to purchase 27 articulated buses from NovaBus. It was the first bus purchase the TTC made since 1999 that hadn’t been with Daimler Bus North America or its predecessor, Orion Bus Industries. Since 2002, the bulk of the TTC’s bus purchases has been with a single manufacturer with almost half being of a single model, the Orion VII “Next Gen”. This has given the TTC bus fleet a fairly consistent and modern look, but for some fans, it has made the system less interesting.

The history of the TTC’s bus fleet has seen cycles of diversity and consolidation. In the 1980s and the 1990s, a number of companies from Flyer to Nova to Ontario Bus Industries (later known as Orion) vied for bus contracts throughout North America. Before that, from 1959 to the 1980s, the bus market was dominated by a single player. General Motor’s “New Look” bus model was so common, it was the look of public transportation across North America, and in Toronto.

The histories of public transportation sometimes overlook the contribution buses have made. Through the history of Toronto, they sometimes overlook the contributions of buses that operated before the New Look standardized the appearance of the TTC.

This article attempts to describe the history of Toronto’s bus fleet up to the launch of GM’s “New Look” model. This is a history spanning 38 years, describing the emergence of a new technology and its gradual increase from obscurity to become the backbone of Toronto’s transit fleet.

The First Buses

In 2013, the TTC agreed to purchase over 150 articulated buses to add to the original order of 27. Since 2005, the TTC has made annual purchases of 100 buses buses or more on most years. With such a brisk business in buses, it’s strange to think that the TTC’s first year buying buses netted them just five vehicles. In that year, 1921, streetcars outnumbered buses by over 100 to 1.

In some ways, buses are an older concept than streetcars. Horse-drawn wheeled vehicles, like stagecoaches, started carrying passengers as early as 1662 in France, and they helped open up the American west. However, the primitive wheels (often solid rubber tires on wood) and the lack of smooth roads made for bumpy and uncomfortable rides.

Toronto’s first public transit operation was a stagecoach line set up by a cabinet maker named Burt Williams. In 1849, he built a type of stagecoach he called an omnibus that could sit four passengers in comfort. Horses pulled these omnibuses between St. Lawrence Market and the Village of Yorkville via Yonge and King Streets.

But in spite of everything Williams did to aid the comfort of his passengers, he couldn’t control the road conditions in Toronto. The streets of Toronto were paved either in cobblestone or not paved at all. There were ruts and deep potholes that jounced passengers going at any speed. When competing business interests convinced the City of Toronto to grant a 30 year franchise for the Toronto Street Railway company to build streetcar routes throughout the city, the fact that horse-drawn streetcars could smooth out these rides through the use of rails gave them a competitive advantage. In 1862, one year after the TSR started operating, Williams sold off his omnibus service and returned to cabinet making.

The pairing of streetcars with electric operations gave streetcars another competitive advantage at the turn of the 20th century. However, the invention of the internal combustion engine and refinements to the design would prove to be the buses’ greatest ally in the long term. With the invention of the Model T automobile by Ford Motor company in 1908, the automobile started to become an affordable luxury. The increased demand for improved roads across North America made rides smoother for cars and buses alike. The improved engine technology gave buses better pulling power. The competitive advantage that streetcars enjoyed over buses started to be reduced.

The Toronto Transportation Commission Turns to Rubber

The predecessor to the Toronto Transportation Commission, the Toronto Railway Company, had never operated buses. In September 1921, when the TTC took over operations from the TRC, the TTC was charged with not only unifying transit operations within Toronto’s city limits, but also replacing the dilapidated tracks and properties, and increasing service to underused areas. As a result, within three weeks of the start of the TTC’s mandate, TTC buses started to operate.

And while the TTC pushed out its streetcar network to the edges of the new City of Toronto, some areas of the city were unsuitable for streetcar expansion. The Rosedale neighbourhood, for instance, lacked the riders to justify a full streetcar route, had old bridges that could not handle new tracks and, in any event, opposed the construction of tracks into its neighbourhood. In the West Toronto Junction, the old single-tracked CRESCENT streetcar route operated by the Toronto Suburban Railway was lightly patronized. Although the TTC planned to build a streetcar line along Humberside and Annette between Dundas and Jane, other areas of the city needed attention, and so the streetcar line was delayed. To bring service to the area in the short term, the TTC turned to rubber tire buses.

The question was, where would they get the buses from?

Many Manufacturers

The first four TTC buses were gas powered “Class A” double decker buses built by the Fifth Avenue Bus Company of New York City. These buses were numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4. This was followed by bus #5 from Leyland, a British manufacturer. There may have been problems with this vehicle, however, as notes indicate that it was not accepted by the TTC.

The first four buses arrived in time to serve the new HUMBERSIDE (route #1) bus route, which launched September 20, 1921. On December 24, 1921, gas powered vehicles were needed to serve MOUNT PLEASANT (route #2) until that route was converted to trolley bus operation on June 19, 1922. ROSEDALE (route #3) started operation on April 26, 1922, and continues to this day as route 82 — the longest continuously operated bus route in Toronto. To service this small but growing network, the TTC ordered three more double decker buses, numbered 6, 7 and 8, from Veteran, Associated Equipment Company and Tilling-Stevens, respectively

These would be the last double-decker buses the TTC would buy. The open air top deck was seen as too chilly for Toronto’s climate. Buses #9 and 10, built by the Fifth Avenue Bus Company and which arrived in April 1922, were single level vehicles, as were buses #11 (built by Pierce-Arrow company of Buffalo, NY) and buses #12-15 (also built by Fifth Avenue).

The First Million Miles

The buses of the 1920s were very different from the buses of today. The buses the TTC bought were all gasoline powered, using an internal combustion engine like an automobile. The engine was often placed in a hood that stuck out the front of a bus. The tires were often made of solid rubber, which sometimes produced a jarring ride. But the technology was improving. Engines were getting more powerful, and the buses were getting bigger, and able to handle bigger loads.

The growth of the TTC’s bus network was slow, at first. A number of routes appeared and vanished, as temporary services while streetcar lines were built, or experiments that didn’t pan out. But by December 31, 1926, the TTC’s had eight bus routes in regular operation. These were:

  • ROSEDALE (route #3) - From Rosedale loop at the end of the CHURCH streetcar on Sherbourne to Summerhill Avenue.
  • WINCHESTER (?) - Along Winchester Avenue from Parliament to Riverdale Zoo.
  • ASHBRIDGE (?) - Operating into the Portlands from King and St. Lawrence streets.
  • LANSDOWNE (?) - A night bus service replacing streetcars on Lansdowne Avenue between College and St. Clair.
  • OAKWOOD (route #6) - A short shuttle service operating from Davenport and Oakwood to St. Clair.
  • JANE (route #7) - A service replacing the original HUMBERSIDE route, operating on Jane, Annette and Runnymede streets from Bloor to Dundas.
  • RUNNYMEDE (?) - A service replacing another portion of the old HUMBERSIDE route, operating on Runnymede and Annette from Bloor to Dundas
  • FOREST HILL (?) - A service operating north from St. Clair into the village of Forest Hill.

It wouldn’t be until 1927 that bus operations passed the million mile mark, but the TTC was ordering more buses. Some came from the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio (#16-18 & #24-26). Four more (#20-23) from Packard. The TTC’s orders really picked up in 1927 when the TTC established Gray Coach. This agency would provide intercity bus service throughout southern Ontario until sold off by the TTC in the late 1980s. As the TTC’s city bus operations grew, there was some switching between companies, with formerly gray-bodied vehicles painted to the TTC’s “city” red colours, and vice versa.

Pre-1940 Bus Models Image Archive

The Depression Halts Streetcar Expansion

The Great Depression brought a sea chance to the Toronto Transportation Commission. Until the late 1920s, the TTC planned to continue to expand its streetcar network, and even replace a number of bus routes with streetcar extensions. The RUNNYMEDE and JANE routes, for instance, serving Annette Street, were to be replaced by an extension of the DUPONT streetcar. However, the Great Depression took its toll on ridership, and the TTC found that it no longer had the money to pay for such extensions of track. Especially in areas of lower ridership, the rubber tired buses had the advantage of being installed without track construction.

In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, the bulk of the TTC’s bus fleet was built by Mack Trucks Inc, White Motor Company and Yellow Coach, although other companies were getting orders as well. Just as the automobile industry had yet to really consolidate into a “big 3”, the TTC had many options. Although the vehicles were improving, getting larger, faster and more comfortable, they were likely unfamiliar to most passengers today. Consider the style and make of cars from the 1920s versus cars in the 1950s, and you can understand how buses underwent a similar change.

The Second World War, Gasoline and Rubber Rationing

Bus expansion came to a halt in 1939 with the start of the Second World War. With the government of Canada taking control of production and requiring more rubber and oil for the war effort, a number of bus routes were cut back where streetcars could provide the service. Examples included the LANSDOWNE and NORTH TORONTO night bus operations. The TTC had tried to replace the aging streetcars of SHERBOURNE with buses on evenings and weekends, but were forced to return to streetcar operation by federal edict.

A number of buses were bought during the war years, however, to serve Gray Coach and some suburban routes in and around Toronto where streetcars could not go. Companies included Ford Motor Company of Windsor, which had plenty of experience building motor vehicles, and Twin Coach Company of Kent or Fort Erie, Ontario. These buses lasted into the 1950s and saw the early part of the TTC’s modern era.

The first diesel-powered buses start to appear in the early 1940s as well. Previously, buses relied on gasoline, just like other cars. Diesel offered better mileage, albeit at the expense of a more complicated engine. Diesel also offered more power, albeit at less speed. It was well suited for larger, heavy vehicles like trucks or buses, while most cars stuck with gasoline.

During and after the war, the TTC ordered diesel buses from Mack Trucks Ltd, Twin Coach Company, the Canadian Car & Foundry company (which had produced many of the TTC’s streetcars and trolley buses), and a name that would become familiar to Toronto bus fans in the years to come: General Motors Corporation (GMC).

GMC had bought a majority stake in Yellow Coach company in 1925 and operated it as a subsidiary until 1943, when it bought the company outright and merged it with the GM Truck Division. In 1940, Yellow Coach Company introduced the TG-3201, a streamlined vehicle resembling the curved shape of the Presidents Conference Committee streetcar introduced two years earlier. Versions included 25, 28, 30, 35 and 40 foot long models. Over 38,000 of these models were built between 1940 and 1969. The TTC bought over 140. In 1959, when GM introduced its wildly popular modern “New Look” bus, it rechristened the older models, the “Old Look”.

On the Verge of a Rubber Tire Boom.

As the forties ended, the balance had shifted away from streetcars towards buses. The streetcar networks across North America emerged from World War Two battered from lack of maintenance, and the companies that ran them were in financial difficulties due to competition from the private automobile. Toronto was no different. Most of its resources were being poured into the construction of the Yonge subway, and the streetcar network was starting to contract, even as urban sprawl pushed demand for transit service further and further from downtown.

In 1953, the TTC’s bus network accounted for less than 10% of the commission’s total operated mileage. Between 1953 and 1955, however, the TTC’s total annual bus mileage increased from 3,351.673 to 12,243,168. The TTC’s buses were worlds ahead of the slow, cramped, solid-rubber-tired vehicles the commission had invested in in the 1920s. The new buses had powerful, efficient engines, and modern rubber tires that produced a comfortable ride on Toronto’s now-smooth roads. The Twin Coach Company and General Motors were battling for the Toronto market, now (although Canadian Car & Foundry and Flxible Company managed to sell 20 or so buses in the late 1940s). But through the 1950s, most designs harkened back to the previous decade, with rounded edges and small windows similar to the wartime PCC streetcars.

The time had come for a more modern vehicle and, in 1959, General Motors introduced it. The /bus/8523.shtml was sleek, bright and fast, and it would become the mainstay of the TTC’s bus fleet into the sixties and the seventies. The annual mileage operated by Toronto’s buses would pass that of Toronto’s streetcars in 1964 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Canadian Car Image Archive

Ford Image Archive

Twin Coach Image Archive

GM Old Look Image Archive

Other Post-1940 Bus Models Image Archive


  • Pursley, Louis H. The Toronto Trolley Car Story, 1921-1961. Los Angeles: I.L. Swett, 1961. Print.
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