The Crazy Bi-Level Buses of The North Coast Lines

note - this is a very photo-heavy essay, so please forgive the bandwidth. most images link to higher resolution versions.

I have been doing research based pretty heavily in the 20’s and 30’s as of late, and recently I stumbled across this very low-resolution photo of our local Bus Depot, in about 1920something.

no larger resolution available

You can barely see, but poking out of the garage are two very unique buses, of a style that was apparently only produced here in the Pacific Northwest. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of cool buses (yes buses are cool), I want to take a second to tell you about the state of the road system in the United States in this era. Check out this photo from 1912:

According the internet, the U.S. had about 2 million miles of “Auto Trails” at this time, but only about 8% were “improved” with surfaces such as gravel or brick. That leaves 92% of the trails prone to looking like the above photo. Scroll back up and look at it again. Then pretend you and I are in 1914 and planning to take your auto-mo-car for a jaunt to Shelton or Chehalis or wherever. I hope you packed a lunch. And dinner. And a shovel. And maybe camping gear. And possibly weapons of self defense because the woods around Oly were very much an unregulated “wild west” affair until some decades later. For a really great summary of the getting-shot-at-in-the-woods era of Olympia, find the book “How the West Was Once” at the Timberland Regional Library. Compiled by an eighth grade class in the 1970s, it interviews the older generation who lived in these woods during the 10s and 20s. Crazy stories, and all mostly true. 

The NW had, as far as “roads” go, very limited access from the rest of the country. Dominant forms of transit were boat and rail. Rail and water were more or less the standard, but it was also a time of great industrial growth and experimentation. New ideas and concepts were tried all the time. Here is a pretty fancy “Bus” from the Hotel Seattle, in 1905.

Now in other parts of the country, a bus service called the Pickwick lines had gained traction (ha ha) with their totally over the top travel buses throughout the 1920s. A really cool essay about the Pickwick line can be found here.

Needless to say, Pickwick set a standard of coach travel, including stewards and meals. Then again, this is a period of time when 45 MPH was pretty dang fast. 

Here is a cut-away drawing showing the luxurious affair that the Pickwick was:

The Pickwick buses, for all of their charm and scale, really kind of look like overgrown early model Fords. The universals of design are all there - flat front facing cab, engine under a cowl…very familiar affair. 

The world was thinking big though, in terms of where this new radical “bus” technology might take us. Here is a Popular Mechanics drawing detailing a mega bus with a runway for side trip airplanes. 

Probably due to innovations in airplane and train design and the success of “Art Deco” in the era, streamlining became all the rage. 

Enter the Paccar-Kenworth Bi-Level Bus, the "W-1". 

Look at how pretty it is. 

It was built at the PACCAR plant in Renton, designed in part by Kenworth, and hobbled together on site. Or at least that is my best interpretation of the records and anecdotes online. These things were built at a time when a manufacturer would routinely farm components from other manufacturers, who would contribute bodies, engines...whatever was needed. 

You can see several of these being built along the right wall.

Here is a link to a great history and background of PACCAR, and here is a cool wiki tractor page on Paccar and the Paccar plant. 

Maybe I am crazy, but I am really in love with these things. They seemed to really be pushing the envelope of what they could do with rivets. 

: : : 

I ran across an advertisement for “all metal school buses” that are “fire proof”. I was kind of confused until I found this photo of a Renton school bus in 1921:

Talk about blind spots. It looks like driving a china cabinet. Also it seems to be mostly made out of wood. I am busting on it for being ludicrous yet it was cutting edge at a time. 

These two buses, the wooden and deco, were on the road only about 10 years apart. Kind of insane when you think about that level of rapid change. They could have passed each other on the road. 


Here is a photo from the Paccar plant, where they would actually make the steel parts for the buses right there in house. Notice the extensive and ubiquitous safety gear and precaution. 


Checking out the inside of the Bi-Level, you can note that the whole darn thing was metal and glass. The luggage racks, which look like magnets for my injury-prone noggin, are just big pieces of metal with the sharp edges rounded away so as to be friendlier. This is before plastic really took off as the medium of industrial choice. Metal was king. 


Here are some cool glamour shots of the buses being built at Paccar.


Here a couple of Bi-Level buses are stopped at the old bus depot in Chehalis, which was torn down at some point some time ago. 

no higher resolution available


So what major changes did away with this wonderful Deco bus? The first thing that happened was our highways progressed from mud roads to gravel to concrete and then to superslab. It became more cost effective to make 500 buses in Detroit or Indianapolis and ship them over here than to forge all the parts and hand build the buses here. With ease of transport comes ease of communication, and what is “hip” or “stylish” flourishes where it can reach. So we can assume that this design also just fell out of favor. 

According to this extremely informative website it had to do with the 3 - 4 miles per gallon fuel consumption of the bus. 

Too long. Too low. Too much metal. Who knows.


What other events took place that may have impacted the evolution of the Bi-Level Bus?


Oh sh-t. Oh. 


The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter the U.S. entered the Second World War. 


The first rational, well thought out, and cool headed decision [sarcasm] the U.S. made was to round up most of the Japanese people we knew and put them in camps…. The United States did not have the knowledge of the Concentration Camps in WWII to scare the population away from such knee-jerk stupidity. So we rounded up a bunch of people who were more than probably innocent Americans. 

Here is a photo of our cool Deco Bi-Level buses dropping people off at Camp Harmony, which was a Japanese Camp in Puyallup, on the current fair grounds. 

Here is a bus of a different style [but story-appropriate] bus picking up internees. 

Kind of off the topic of buses but here is a shot of the food line at the camp.

Even though the camp was only open less than a year, it seems the population did not necessarily know what their futures looked like. Here is an internee next to a garden he is working on. He probably assumed he would be there to eat it. 

This camp was right up the road in Puyallup, and really worth contemplation and perhaps a visit. 

You might take a second and read “Life in Camp Harmony”, from Nisei Daughter by Monica Itoi Sone. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979. 

I also heartily endorse scrolling through this page about Japanese Internment.

Here is a final shot of the Bi-Level buses working the Internment camp route:


The buses didn’t just go to war on the home front by rounding up citizens - the whole Paccar plant seems to have converted to making engines of war. Photos dated up to about 1939 show that they were still producing Buses. By 1943 we start to find photos of tanks being built. 


Here is a classic photo of a Rosie working on a tank. You go sister!


My personal favorite from PACCAR (if one can have a favorite machine of death and war lol) would be the M-25 Dragon Wagon. Here is a wiki article about the M-25.


Here is a photo of a recently auctioned, almost mint condition Dragon Wagon:

The Dragon Wagon was designed and built as a collaboration between a California outfit and Paccar in Renton. 

The Dragon Wagon is an impressive piece of machinery. I have no evidence of this other than the two being built in the same place but the Dragon Wagon seems to me like a “weaponized” version of the same streamlined deco bus. Compare the two to each other:


low-resolution image only

The Dragon Wagon also looks like an AT-AT


They both (the bus and the wagon, not the AT-AT) also had Hall-Scott motors, sourced out of Berkeley. Here is a wiki link about Hall-Scott, in case you are super interested in engines. 

Here is a video of a restored/surviving Dragon Wagon, doing its thang. Dragging a wagon. 

Check out this LIFE photo of a Dragon Wagon doing some kind of public works in post-war France. 


There were apparently some 2100 of these made, and quite a few seem to have survived after the war in altered forms with different “recabs” for various civilian uses. To save you the bandwidth and to keep this essay somewhat on topic, let me just give you a couple photos of altered post war Dragon Wagons, and a link to a really cool forum discussion with a lot of similar but different photos.  


spot the dragon wagon. also: space

Then again, these two vehicles could just be distant cousins and in no way “similar”. I am kind of a noob when it comes to 1930's buses and world war II hardware.

: : : 

After the War, the remaining smaller coach lines were gobbled up in a rousing game of Hungry Hungry Capitalists. With centralization of ownership came centralization of style and centralized purchasing departments requisitioning vehicles from centralized manufacturers. It was no longer a matter of casting steel and bolting together something unique, the buses could all come from central place; thus cheaper to order in bulk, and cheaper to maintain with quasi-universal spare parts and mechanical systems. The dominant type became what we still more or less recognize as an iconic “bus” today, mostly built by GM.


One has to wonder what happened to the Bi-Levels? The PACCAR plant made Sherman tanks as well, and about 50,000 of them were in total produced across a dozen or so factories. I don’t know how many of these Bi-level buses there were but it seems like the plant could turn out product if it wanted to. In a photo of the PACCAR factory dated in 1938 you can see 3 being built, and by 1935 there were already several operating, so I would wager at least 10. 

Turns out, according to this site there were a total of 25. Pretty cool. 

So where did they go? Melted down for steel? Shipped elsewhere after being proven unsafe in the U.S.? Or are they just sitting in a field somewhere?

At least one has turned up, with these photos posted all over the web:

Here is a short video I found of this old one, it does not tell us too much but it is worth watching. 


As a final note, 1976 saw the movie “The Big Bus”, a screwball disaster comedy about a giant nuke-powered bus. They built a giant bus for the movie, and golly darn it was huge. Watch this scene, in which they reveal The Big Bus:


The Bus featured a giant “cyclops” eye on the front. This is worthy of because our Deco Bi-Levels all shared a distinctive “third eye” lamp above the windshield. Some memories from the past only make it to the current generation after multiple pastiches of pastiches. Perhaps this movie was the result of old memories from the crazy bus era of the 1930s. 

: : :


This is one of those essays that is hard to end. What can I say, other than “look at these cool buses and witness our history, good and bad”? I could rant about the Cascadian spirit being exemplified in these wack-ass people movers, and the destructive power of centralized economics. Or I could refocus us on the atrocities committed with our cool Deco buses during the war period. Maybe I could talk about how "progress" in chemical engineering, metalurgy, civic planning and road design collaborated to make the space bus obsolete. 

I think the proper thing to do, is to close with that third or fourth picture above, the glamour shot of the Bi-Level bus.

Maybe just look at it and think about what was, and would could have been had the war not broken the line of succession in the factory and replaced our focus on transit with a focus on siege. 


if you liked this, please comment.



very nice.  Thanks so much.

Additional information...

From today's inbox:

Good Afternoon:

I have no idea whom I should direct this to, but I discovered at least one glaring inaccuracy in the article about “Crazy Bi-level Busses”.

I know the author wrote and posted that interesting article in good faith, with the best and most accurate information he or she could research. However repeatedly labeling a Heiser Body Company bus as a Kenworth “W-1” is totally inaccurate. Kenworth and Heiser cooperated on some of that design, and some were referred to as Kenworths. The photo of the factory floor appears to be a Heiser facility as well.  My father was a bus designer at Kenworth starting in 1945 and was tasked with designing the body for the W-1 intercity coach. That same basic body, with various chassis, front and rear end caps, became trackless trolleys in Portland, suburban busses in Seattle, intercity types in the northwest US, and thousands of Kenworth Pacific school busses manufactured up until 1957.

Below is a photo of a true Kenworth K-9 which was the only one built with overhead windows for Mt. Rainier Park Co. It is basically a W-1 on a lighter chassis with a smaller engine. This unit is currently in storage, in lousy condition at LeMay’s in Spanaway. The other photo is an actual W-1.


This KW Demonstrator photo was a professional factory publicity shot taken at the west end of the original Lacy V. Morrow floating bridge. The side sign says “Kenworth XW-1


Best wishes,