FreightWaves Classics: The pioneer of buses and trucks made an impact on transportation

Truckers should like buses because they take cars off the streets and highways.

Harry Alphonse FitzJohn, who played a key role in the production of bus and truck bodies, left his mark on the bus and truck industry. He was born in Toledo, Ohio on this date (June 21) in 1889.

Youth and career

Harry A. FitzJohn in 1919. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
Harry A. FitzJohn in 1919. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

At age 15, FitzJohn began working for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau as a courier. He remained in this job for about two years, but in 1907 he moved to Detroit to work as a clerk for the Cadillac Motor Car Company. Over the next 10 years, he held various other positions in the automotive industry, including: production manager for the Continental Motors Corporation; Detroit purchasing agent for the Springfield Body Corporation; and purchasing agent for the Hayes-Ionia Auto Parts Manufacturing Company.

World War I and the 1920s

Although World War I began in the fall of 1914, the United States did not enter the war until 1917. Around this time, FitzJohn took on a new position in the transportation industry, as production manager at the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company in Dayton, Ohio. . He helped oversee the development and construction of aircraft for the US Army Air Corps. During the war, Dayton-Wright manufactured approximately 3,000 DeHavilland DH-4 bombers and 400 Standard SJ-1 trainers. FitzJohn remained in Dayton-Wright for a few months after the war ended, having gained considerable manufacturing experience.

Together with Thomas H. Hume and Walter C. Powell (executives and directors of a clothing company) and engineer Lewis B. Erwin, FitzJohn founded a new automobile manufacturing company in the fall of 1919. The business was named FitzJohn-Erwin Manufacturing Company.

A 1922 company advertisement. (Image: coachbuilt.com)
A 1922 company advertisement. (Image: coachbuilt.com)

The company (known as “Fitz-Er” in the industry) began by building truck cabs and truck and bus bodies for REO Motor Car Company. Often, Fitz-Er would ship unassembled truck and bus bodies to REO dealerships to save on shipping and storage costs. Fitz-Er also began making chassis for the Ford Motor Company.

Erwin left the company in 1921 and the company was renamed the FitzJohn Manufacturing Company. Over the next few years, the company increased its sales, revenue and reputation.

Effective January 1, 1929, the FitzJohn Manufacturing Company ceased selling its bus and truck bodies to frame manufacturers and automobile dealerships; he started selling directly to customers. Shortly after, the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record underscored the overall industry significance of the company, stating, “The FitzJohn Manufacturing Company is one of the pioneers to engage in the construction of bus bodies and exclusively manufactures bus bodies, moving vans and signs. In addition to being a pioneer in the construction of bus bodies, the FitzJohn company was particularly active in advancing the standardization of parts.

One of the FitzJohn trucks saw an interesting assignment!  (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
One of the FitzJohn trucks saw an interesting assignment!
(Photo: coachbuilt.com)

The Great Depression and life after FitzJohn Manufacturing

Like thousands of businesses of all types, the Great Depression severely affected FitzJohn Manufacturing. Its sales dropped significantly in 1930, and 1931 was even worse. The company went into receivership, and as part of the reorganization process, Harry FitzJohn was forced out of the company he helped create a dozen years earlier and which bears his name. (The company would continue to carry his name until it closed in the late 1950s.)

After being kicked out of FitzJohn Manufacturing, FitzJohn worked with Paul O. Dittmar to design a 12–15 passenger parlor coach known as the Autocoach for Safe Way Lines, a small bus line that served the Chicago market At New York. Ten Autocoach buses were built by REO for the bus company.

Although few Autocoach models were built, FitzJohn reconnected with former REO colleagues. Soon after, the manufacturer announced a new bus division. As reported in the January 1933 edition of automotive industry, “New REO Bus Chief – Harry A. FitzJohn, organizer and former chief of FitzJohn Mfg. Co., has been named head of the new bus division of REO Motor Car Co.”

An advertisement for REO school buses from 1934-35.  (Photo: autopaper.com)
An advertisement for REO school buses from 1934-35. (Photo: autopaper.com)

FitzJohn then took a position with General Motors Truck Co. in 1936 as a sales engineer for the company’s Yellow Coach division. The Metropolitan reported, “Harry A. FitzJohn, former President of FitzJohn Body Company, will represent General Motors Truck Company, Yellow Coach Division, as Sales Engineer. It will maintain its headquarters in Pontiac, Michigan.

Then, in 1940, FitzJohn returned to bus manufacturing (albeit on a smaller scale), taking the position of sales manager with the new General American Aerocoach Co. of Chicago. The company was created after General American Transportation Corp., a railcar builder and lessor, purchased the bus manufacturing assets of Gar Wood Industries in 1939.

General American Aerocoach built 29 and 33 passenger buses using the welded tube frame of its predecessor, and its early buses were almost identical to later Gar Wood coaches. An all new larger bus debuted in 1940 and until production ended in 1943 (due to World War II) the company sold around 250 Aerocoaches based on the original design and 300 of the larger type big. When production resumed in 1944, only the larger bus was offered. From then until 1950 an additional 2,350 buses were built by the company.

A 1946 model Aerocoach. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)
A 1946 model Aerocoach. (Photo: coachbuilt.com)

The 1950s

By the early 1950s, General Motors was selling the vast majority of buses made in the United States. Because General American Aerocoach could not compete effectively with General Motors, most Aerocoaches built between 1950 and 1952 were sold to customers in Mexico and South and Central America.

Harry A. FitzJohn remained in the Chicago area after his retirement and died on January 8, 1967 at the age of 77.

A 1948 advertisement for Aerocoach buses.  (Picture: coachbuilt.com)
A 1948 advertisement for Aerocoach buses.
(Picture: coachbuilt.com)

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