At the end of Blue Bird Corp.’s assembly line in Fort Valley, Ga. (pop. 9,815), workers put the finishing touches on a dozen bright yellow school buses bound for California, Maine and Missouri. While one employee adjusts headlights, another inspects the rear emergency doors on the company’s Vision model, named for the sloped hood that allows drivers to view children walking in front of the bus.
“If a child drops a book, the driver is still going to be able to see the child,” says Rusty Mitchell, 47, Blue Bird’s product management director.
Such attention to detail has been a company hallmark since 1927, when a customer asked Albert Luce Sr., a Fort Valley Ford dealer, if he could design an alternative to the easily crushed, fire-prone wooden school buses of the era. Luce responded by building an all-steel model, and eight years later, he opened a bus factory in the peach-growing community.
During the last 85 years, Blue Bird has built nearly a half-million buses that have hauled students to school, class trips and sporting events. The company remains one of the nation’s largest bus manufacturers and the only one devoted solely to school buses.
In keeping with its hands-on tradition, Blue Bird fabricates its own steel parts, from brackets to bumpers. Welders and other specialists begin by assembling the chassis. Other employees drop in cherry-red engines, attach shiny new exhaust systems, and install transmissions, axles and brake systems.
Along the assembly line, workers bolt primer-coated side panels to each vehicle, add ceiling insulation and floors, and scuff the surfaces prior to painting. Blue Bird’s 1,200-member workforce can build a bus in about four days and produces 5,000 vehicles annually.
“There is no automation in this plant,” says Mark Mattingly, 49, a Blue Bird employee for 32 years who oversees bus body assembly. “You don’t see that in today’s manufacturing.”
Just like in the early days, each Blue Bird bus is built to meet local, county and state specifications. One California school system, for example, requires removable seats on tracks to accommodate children in wheelchairs. Buses made for an Alaska school system are equipped with extra-bright headlights so kids can see better in the dark.
“The unofficial reason” for the stronger headlights, Mitchell says, “is so the driver can scare the bears away before the kids cross.”
Despite its humble origins, Blue Bird is an industry leader in alternative fuel technology. The company introduced the first compressed natural gas model in 1991 and now offers the only large propane-powered school bus, which costs $5,000 to $10,000 more than its diesel counterpart and reduces fuel costs by half.
In addition to the Vision—the company’s most popular vehicle—Blue Bird also manufactures forward- and rear-engine models and smaller activity buses. The average Blue Bird bus seats 72 to 84 students and costs about $75,000.
Built to log at least 10,000 miles annually and to last up to 15 years, Blue Bird buses often are in operation much longer. “We have buses running that are 30 years old,” says Phil Horlock, 55, company president and CEO. “More than half [of Blue Bird buses made since 1927] are on the road today in some form or another. It might be used for some touring rock band, or it might be a church bus.”
Andrew Mathis, 72, has driven Blue Bird buses for the Peach County (Ga.) school system since 1978. His first one was a 1960s model, the oldest in the fleet. “We managed to get to school and back home every day with that bus,” Mathis says. “That’s how reliable Blue Bird buses are. I would trust them anywhere.”
Although the Luce family sold the company in 1987—it’s now owned by New York-based Cerberus Capital Management—what hasn’t changed is Blue Bird’s focus on one type of product. “We live and breathe school buses,” Horlock says.