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Carpenter Body Company

Carpenter Industries, Inc.
Industry Vehicle Manufacturing
Fate Dissolved by parent company
Founded 1919
Founder Ralph H. Carpenter
Defunct 2001
Headquarters Mitchell, Indiana (1919-1995)
Richmond, Indiana (1995-2001)
Area served
North America
Products School buses
Transit buses
Step vans
Number of employees
700+ (1997)[1]
Parent Spartan Motors (1998-2001)
Website (archived version)

Carpenter Body Company, also known over the years as the Ralph H. Carpenter Body Company, Carpenter Body Works, Inc., Carpenter Manufacturing Company, Carpenter Industries, Inc., and Crown By Carpenter, was a bus body manufacturer based in Mitchell, Indiana, United States. The majority of Carpenter bodies were used for school buses.

Founded in 1919, Carpenter produced its first bus in 1923. Carpenter's post-World War II success would lead it to become one of the "Big Six" major manufacturers of school buses in North America. After years of declining market share, Carpenter was closed in 2001 by its parent company, Spartan Motors.


  • History 1
    • Foundation 1.1
    • 1950s-1980: Reconstruction and Expansion 1.2
    • 1981-1990: Financial Decline 1.3
    • 1991-2001: Struggle for identity 1.4
      • Crown by Carpenter (1996-1999) 1.4.1
      • Carpenter (2000-2001) 1.4.2
      • Carpenter Chancellor RE 1.4.3
    • Closure 1.5
      • Epilogue: Body Structure Concerns 1.5.1
  • Products 2
  • Carpenter Bus at Smithsonian Institution 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5



Carpenter was founded in Mitchell, Indiana in 1919 by Ralph H. Carpenter, a blacksmith by trade. He began his career building hauling wagons for two cement factories located near his southern Indiana hometown of Bloomington. As his business grew, he began to expand into building horse-drawn "kid hacks" with wooden benches to transport children to school.[2] As horse-drawn wagons became obsolete, he adapted wagon bodies for automobile chassis. Carpenter's first true school bus was built in 1923. A distinguishing feature used by the company was an early form of a school bus stop arm: instead of a stop sign, a clenched fist with a red-painted index finger was used to prop out from the side of the bus.[2] During the late 1920s, all-wood construction, all-wood construction was phased out in favor of a combination of wood reinforced by metal; in 1935, Carpenter built its first all-steel school bus body.[2][3]

In 1937, Carpenter officially incorporated as Carpenter Body Works, expanding into a larger factory in Mitchell in 1939.[2] In 1941, the company became one of the first publicly-owned bus manufacturers. During the World War II moratorium on private-sector vehicle manufacturing, Carpenter became a bus supplier for the US Army and US Navy.[2]

1950s-1980: Reconstruction and Expansion

1955 Carpenter/GMC school bus
1970s Carpenter/Chevrolet conventional in use as a campaign bus

In May 1947, the Carpenter factory in Mitchell, Indiana, was heavily damaged by a fire in the paint shop.[2]

In 1954, Carpenter produced its first transit-style "forward-control" bus. Similar to designs from Blue Bird and Wayne, the company used Marmon-Herrington as its chassis supplier.[2] As with other manufacturers, Carpenter conventional-style buses in the early 1950s were available on a variety of chassis, including Chevrolet/GMC, Ford, Dodge, International Harvester, Mack, REO, Diamond T, Studebaker, and White.

In March 1956, the Carpenter factory was again struck by fire, starting on the body-fitment station. Causing nearly $750,000 in damage, much of the factory was destroyed, except for the warehouse, upholstery shop, and paint shop; approximately two dozen buses were driven away from the fire to safety.[2] With the help of factory workers, the factory was rebuilt and expanded in just 89 days. During the reconstruction, some workers worked without pay until later compensated.

Following the 1963 death of Ralph Carpenter at age 85, leadership of the company transferred to his son-in-law John A. Foddrill.[2]

To the end of the 1960s, Carpenter continued to produce its school bus product line as it had since the 1920s: every vehicle was essentially built one at time without an assembly line and essentially to order. Although one of one of the larger school bus manufacturers, Carpenter allowed for a great deal of specialization and available options for a purchaser.[2]

In 1969, Carpenter became one of the first manufacturers to offer a downsized school bus (25-30 passengers) for smaller-scale operators.[2] Based on the General Motors P-chassis, the Carpenter Cadet CV utilized the roof and the body of the conventional-body Carpenter from the entry door rearward. From the drivers' seat forward, the Cadet was designed similar to the GM "stepvan". The Cadet would spawn a number of similar designs from other manufacturers, remaining in production for 29 years.

In 1970, Carpenter upgraded its transit-style school buses with the introduction of the Corsair; the Marmon-Herrington chassis was replaced by a Hendrickson chassis.[2] In addition, a distinguishing feature of the Corsair was its wraparound curved "fishbowl" windshield. Along with the forward-control Corsair, an all-new rear-engine model made its debut.

In 1970, parts of the factory were expanded further; under a company objective, management sought to source nearly all materials for the construction within Indiana (only carpet had to be sourced out of state)[2]

During much of 1978, production at the Mitchell, Indiana facility was halted by a 6-month long labor strike lasting from February to August.[2]

1981-1990: Financial Decline

A CBW 300 transit-style bus, built in 1984
An early 1990s Carpenter Classic conventional school bus with Ford chassis.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, a critical factor affecting school bus manufacturing was declining student populations; the baby boomer generation that had attended schools for the past 25 years were now on the verge of all completing their secondary education. Overcapacity and lowered demand in an bus manufacturing industry was coupled with the unstable economy of the time. The company unsuccessfully attempted to diversify into the small transit bus market.

In 1981, Carpenter made its first move in expanding beyond its Mitchell, Indiana home. After securing over $1 million in loans, the company opened a machine shop in North Vernon, Indiana. In addition, in moving into the mass-transit market, Carpenter introduced the CBW range. A rear-engine mass-transit bus designed in 30 and 35-feet lengths, the CBW received large orders from Southern California Rapid Transit District (Los Angeles), the Chicago Transit Authority and New Orleans RTA.

In 1983, the forward-control version of the Corsair was replaced by a far more modern Cavalier. Based on an International Harvester chassis, the Cavalier improved driver usability and ergonomics over its predecessor. As it was sold in limited numbers, the rear-engine Corsair remained in production.

In 1984, the Carpenter conventional (now called the Classic) received its most extensive updates in nearly 20 years. After less than 150 buses were sold, sales of the CBW mass-transit line were abandoned.[4]

In 1985, the company opened a chassis-manufacturing plant in Seymour, Indiana, although the plant would close within a year.[2] In an expansion of the model line, Carpenter became one of the last major manufacturers (alongside Ward/AmTran) to introduce a school bus based on a cutaway van as it introduced the Clipper in 1985. The Clipper was a dual rear-wheel design sold primarily on a Chevrolet/GMC chassis.

In 1988, due to escalating costs, the North Vernon machine shop was closed down.[2]

In 1989, the Cavalier was replaced by the Counselor, as the International Harvester chassis was replaced by a GMC chassis. For the last time, the rear-engine Corsair was produced.

In December 1989, with nearly $14 million in unpaid debt, Carpenter Body Works was forced to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy.[2] In 1990, Indianapolis-based businessman Dr. Beurt SerVaas formed a holding company (CBW, Inc) to acquire Carpenter Body Works. Although the company board (consisting primarily of the Foddrill family and supporters) were in favor of the acquisition, the United Auto Workers labor force rejected the proposal, due to massive labor concessions; it would take two weeks for an agreement to take place.[2]

1991-2001: Struggle for identity

1990 Crown Supercoach Series II, a body design acquired by Carpenter in 1991
1994-1995 Carpenter Classic with an International 3800 chassis

As it entered the 1990s, Carpenter was no longer a family-owned company, transitioning into the leadership formed by Dr. SerVaas. During the acquisition, the product line was called "the Cadillac of school buses";[2] as such, the company had high hopes for the future based on its moves early in the 1990s.

In May 1991, Carpenter purchased the tooling, product rights, and intellectual property of Crown Coach, a California-based manufacturer that had closed its doors two months prior.[2] The original intent of the company was to restart production of the Crown Supercoach Series II under the Carpenter name, but the complexity of its unibody construction proved too expensive for mass production (the purchase price of the original Series II was over $125,000 in 1990, nearly twice as high as a competitive Blue Bird or Thomas). Introduced in 1989, the Series II had been the most updated bus from Crown Coach in 40 years. While Carpenter would have to shelve the Supercoach II as a whole, it did not go unnoticed. A number of elements were carried over for the bus that was brought to market in its place.

Introduced for 1992, the Carpenter Coach RE (Rear Engine) also served as the replacement for the long-running Corsair. Far more modern than its predecessor, the Coach marked the first use of Spartan Motors chassis in a school bus and the beginning of the relationship between Carpenter and Spartan Motors. A minor change was added as the Clipper was renamed the Classmate.

In 1994, after failing to meet expectations, the Coach was replaced by a rear-engined version of the Counselor, while retaining a Spartan Motors chassis. In a joint venture, Carpenter expanded its cutaway-van model line by distributing single rear-wheel buses manufactured by Quebec-based manufacturer Les Enterprises Michel Corbeil (badged as both Carpenter and Corbeil vehicles).

Crown by Carpenter (1996-1999)

Crown by Carpenter Conventional
Crown by Carpenter business logo

As part of the 1991 purchase of the Crown Coach intellectual property, Carpenter inherited the rights to the Crown brand name. While the Crown-influenced Coach RE was not a success (its production lasting from 1992 to 1993), Carpenter used the Crown brand name in the late 1990s in an attempt to re-brand itself. Starting in 1996, all Carpenter buses were sold under the brand "Crown by Carpenter".

In 1996, Carpenter leased the former Wayne plant at Richmond, Indiana, relocating from its aged facilities in Mitchell. During this transition, Carpenter revised the body design of all of its buses. The changes included a new roof design with single-piece roof bows and revised rubrails (full-length upper rubrails). The Wayne Lifeguard would donate some of its parts to the Crown Classic, including its windshield, entry door, and driver's switch panel.

Crown By Carpenter sold a lineup of two Type A buses (Classmate SW/DW), one Type B bus (the Cadet), one Type C bus (the Classic), and two Type D buses (FE/RE, dropping the Counselor name).

At the new location, Carpenter had the advantage of an established team. Both the leadership and workforce based at Richmond included a number of veterans of the former Wayne operations. As such, they brought considerable experience and knowledge of the plant and industry to the effort. In adapting to the equipment at the Richmond plant, a change to the techniques of welding the roof joints from the procedures used before at Mitchell would later prove vital in excluding Crown by Carpenter products from containing a crucial structural flaw. That situation was not envisioned by anyone then and would only become an issue nearly a decade in the future.

One innovation that Carpenter introduced during this period was a change to the design of its "Crown RE", mounted on a Spartan Motors chassis. The Crown RE was the first rear-engine school bus to feature an option of a conventional rear emergency door instead of an emergency exit window typical on rear-engine school buses. To make this possible, the floor was slanted up in the last few rows in order to gain height over the engine compartment. Crown by Carpenter also produced a delivery truck loosely derived from its "Cadet" Type B school bus line.

Carpenter (2000-2001)

In 1998, Carpenter was sold to Spartan Motors, a Michigan-based manufacturer of chassis for fire apparatus and high-end recreational vehicles. Starting in the early 1990s with the Coach RE, Spartan had gained entry into the school bus industry through Carpenter; a prototype built for Wayne Wheeled Vehicles (the RD9000) never saw production. Nevertheless, major outside forces still to be faced were a supply of suitable chassis and the overcapacity of the body industry.

Carpenter bus logo from Carpenter Classic 2000 or Carpenter Chancellor
Final Carpenter logo (late 1999-2001)

After four years, Carpenter had decided to phase out the Crown name in favor of a return to just Carpenter. In a decision to focus its energy on full-size bus production, the aging Cadet and Classmate DRW were discontinued and the joint venture with Corbeil that created the Classmate SRW was ended. In response, the newly rebranded Carpenter introduced an all-new conventional and front-engine transit for 2000.

Dubbed the Classic 2000, the all-new conventional featured a structural redesign distinguished by a fully vertical rear body, enlarged rear emergency doors, entry doors, a redesigned windshield, and an all-new drivers area (sharing nearly all its controls with the Wayne Lifeguard). In place of the Crown FE was the Carpenter Chancellor. Initially introduced as a front-engine transit, the Spartan-chassis Chancellor featured all of the structural changes of the Classic 2000.

Carpenter Chancellor RE

Intended as the flagship of the new Carpenter product lineup, the 2001 Chancellor RE rear-engine Type D (transit-style) school bus was built on a Spartan Motors chassis. Its chassis featured full air-ride suspension and double frame rails for a ride similar to a motorcoach; a flat floor inside the bus was created from the double frame as well as from the fitment of smaller-diameter wheels (19" vs. the standard 22.5"). Unlike its Crown RE predecessor, the Chancellor RE did not feature an option for a rear emergency door, opting instead for a window emergency exit traditionally seen on rear-engine school buses.

The combination of the Spartan Motors chassis with the Carpenter Chancellor body resembled (in some aspects) the massive workhorses built in California by Crown and Gillig in years past, many of which stayed in served for 25 years or longer. Only a single prototype was completed with a second bare chassis intended for display purposes. From all reports, the Chancellor was well-received, incorporating many components and features long desired by school bus operating and maintenance personnel.

In the context of the school bus industry, the Spartan Motors chassis was in reality a premium option, incorporating many of the features long sought in a school bus. However, there were several downsides to this approach which proved fatal to the effort. As one might reasonably anticipate, the extra durability came with added cost. Also, Spartan had been serving lower quantity and higher margin markets for similar products used for high-end Class A motor homes as well as fire and rescue apparatus. Although Spartan had entered the school bus market through supplying Carpenter (for nearly a decade), their production facilities were not geared up to produce a large volume under low pricing pressures, even though their products would have proved more durable in the long run. As such, Carpenter was no longer able to compete with AmTran, Blue Bird, or Thomas on price.

This was a familiar dilemma, the same one which earlier had helped seal the fate of the Crown and Gillig coaches on the West Coast, as well as the entry of competitor Blue Bird into the mass-transit market during the 1970s. It was also similar to the situation which faced HARSCO BMY (parent company of Wayne Wheeled Vehicles) operation some years earlier, where a lesser quantity of higher quality products (at a correspondingly higher price) had also been the plant's historical output.


A Carpenter "Classic 2000" conventional school bus viewed close up

Carpenter had been struggling for almost 20 years when it ended school bus production in 2001. During the economic times around the millennium, lower initial capital costs seemed to trump longevity as a selling factor. When it was time for purchasing decisions, financially pressed districts and contractors tended to select lower-cost products with shorter life cycles. Spartan Motors, by then the owner of the company, did not see a solution to the market dilemma and felt the projected continued losses would exceed the value to their business plan, voted to end its venture.[5]

Epilogue: Body Structure Concerns

A late 1980s Carpenter school bus on an International chassis, now in use as a church bus.

On March 20, 2003 in Alachua County, Florida, an 83-passenger Carpenter school bus rolled over onto its roof, causing the roof to collapse down to the seat level.[6] At the time, no passengers were on board and the driver survived the accident. Later inspection of the vehicle revealed numerous broken and defective welds in the roof and pillar structure.

Inspections of Carpenter school buses in various parts of the country revealed cracked and broken welds in the roof structures. The problem was not confined to Florida where it was first found. It was determined that the defective welds could cause the roof to collapse in the event of a rollover. Not all Carpenter buses had the broken or cracked welds. The problem was confined to buses built at the Mitchell plant prior to its closing in late 1995.[6]

Normally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would have conducted a full-scale investigation and if a defect determination were made, would have ordered the manufacturer to conduct a safety recall. However, since Carpenter was no longer in business, there was no one that NHTSA could hold accountable to develop a remedy for this problem.[6]

However, NHTSA was concerned about this problem, and issued several advisories regarding certain Carpenter buses. NHTSA has indicated that virtually all of the production of Carpenter and Crown branded products from the Mitchell plant could potentially have the same flaw. Due to differences in construction techniques, Crown by Carpenter and Carpenter buses built at the Richmond plant from 1996 to 2001 were not included in several advisories issued. The School Bus Information Council offered additional information about Carpenter buses and the NHSTA advisory.[6]


Carpenter produced a product lineup of both small and full-size buses. Like other school bus manufacturers, the company also produced commercial, shuttle, and transit bus derivatives of their school bus designs. The Carpenter Cadet, introduced in 1969, was one of the first Type B school buses; during the Crown by Carpenter era, a modified version of the Cadet was marketed as a delivery van.

With the exception of "Classic", its Type C conventional and "Coach", its Type D rear-engine transit style (influenced by Crown Coach), most Carpenter school buses derived their model names from themes in education (Classmate, Cadet, Counselor, Chancellor) while many transit-style Carpenters derived their model names from common team names (Corsair, Cavalier).

Carpenter/Crown by Carpenter Model LineupCarpenter logo used on some late '80s and early '90s buses.
Model Name Production Years Type/Configuration Chassis Supplier Notes
Carpenter Clipper
Carpenter/Crown by Carpenter Classmate
  • Clipper: c.1985-1991
  • Classmate: 1992-1998
Type A (cutaway van)
  • General Motors Corporation
  • Ford Motor Company
  • During a minor update for 1992, the Clipper was renamed the Classmate.
  • Sold only in dual-rear wheel configuration.
Carpenter Cadet
Crown by Carpenter Cadet
  • P30 chassis: 1969-1998
  • Spartan chassis: 1997-1998
Type B (integrated-stripped chassis)
  • General Motors
  • Chevrolet/GMC P30
  • Spartan Motors
  • For 1996-1998, larger versions of the Cadet were sold based upon a Spartan Motors chassis.
  • Crown by Carpenter produced delivery vans loosely based on the Cadet bus.
Carpenter Classic
Crown by Carpenter Classic
Carpenter Classic 2000

  • Carpenter Classic: to 1995
  • Crown by Carpenter Classic: 1996-early 1999
  • Classic 2000: late 1999-2001
Type C (cowled chassis-conventional)
  • Chrysler Corporation
  • Dodge S-Series (to 1977)
  • Ford Motor Company
  • Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation
  • General Motors Corporation
  • International Harvester/Navistar International
Carpenter Corsair
  • Front-engine: to 1983
  • Rear-engine: to 1991
Type D (transit-style)
  • front engine
  • rear engine
  • Corsair FE
  • Oshkosh
  • International Harvester
  • Hendrickson
  • Corsair RE
  • Hendrickson
Carpenter Cavalier 1983-1988 Type D (transit-style)
  • front engine
  • International Harvester
Carpenter Coach RE 1992-1993 Type D (transit-style)
  • rear engine
  • Spartan Motors
  • Crane Carrier Corporation
Carpenter Counselor
Crown by Carpenter FE/RE
  • Front-engine: 1989-1999
  • Rear-engine: 1994-1999
Type D (transit-style)
  • front engine
  • rear engine
  • General Motors
  • Chevrolet/GMC S7 (FE)
  • Navistar International
  • International 3900 (FE)
  • Spartan Motors (FE and RE)
  • During its production by Crown by Carpenter, the Crown RE became the first rear-engine school bus with a full-size emergency door (in place of the rear emergency window)
Carpenter Chancellor FE 2000-2001 Type D (transit-style)
  • front engine
Spartan Motors

Carpenter Bus at Smithsonian Institution

A 1939 Carpenter school bus, built on a Dodge chassis, on display at the National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC has a thirty-six passenger school bus built by Carpenter Body Works in 1936 on a chassis made by Dodge in 1939. The bus carried students to the grade school in Martinsburg, Indiana from 1940 to 1946, and was owned and driven by Russell Bishop during that period. It was later used as a traveling grocery store until 1962.

The bus has a streamlined steel body painted double-deep or "Omaha" orange with black trim. It was restored by Carpenter in the early 1980s under the supervision of Ollie Eager, who was Carpenter's plant manager in 1936, and John Foddrill, who worked in the Carpenter plant in 1936. The bus has replacement seats that do not match the originals exactly. The originals were black upholstery.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "Carpenter Schools Buses, Ralph H. Carpenter Body Co., Carpenter Body Works, Carpenter Mfg. Co., Mitchell Indiana, Richmond Indiana, North Vernon, Seymour, Carpenter Industries, Inc. div of Spartan Industries,Crown By Carpenter -". Retrieved 2015-08-23. 
  3. ^ School Bus History, Carpenter Buses online here.
  4. ^ Stauss, Ed (1988). The Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses. Stauss Publications. p. 25.  
  5. ^ "Carpenter Buses" School Bus Explorer Archives, retrieved on 2009-11-06.
  6. ^ a b c d "Statement by the School Bus Information Council Carpenter School Buses July 1, 200". Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  • - Carpenter history on

External links

  • David Miller Article on closure of Carpenter Bus plant
  • Wayne County Historical Museum - main page
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