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Carpenter Industries, Inc.
Fate Dissolved
Founded 1919
Founder(s) Ralph H. Carpenter
Defunct 2001

Mitchell, Indiana (1919-1995)

Richmond, Indiana (1995-2001)
Industry Transportation
Products school buses
transit buses
delivery trucks
Parent Spartan Motors (1998-2001)

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 that started building buses in 1923. Years later, Carpenter purchased the rights to build Crown Coach buses, and in the late 1990s, relocated to the former Wayne Corporation plant in Richmond, Indiana. After relocating to the Wayne plant, Carpenter began to incorporate certain features of the Wayne Lifeguard design. In 2001, Carpenter's parent company, Spartan Motors, closed the Richmond plant and ended production of Carpenter products.

In 2003, a serious problem with roof welds in some of the units produced at Mitchell was discovered following a roof failure during a rollover accident in Florida. Owners of Mitchell-manufactured buses were urged to check for NHTSA safety alerts for more information, since a recall campaign by a defunct manufacturer could not be made. Late model units made by Carpenter at the Richmond plant were not involved with the potential flaw.


Founded by Ralph H. Carpenter

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, Indiana.

As his business grew, he began to expand into building horse-drawn "kid hacks" with wooden benches to transport children to school. As wagons became obsolete, he adapted his bodies for automobiles.

Carpenter's first true school bus was built in 1923. The first stop arms used on these buses were in the shape of a clenched fist with the index finger painted red. A combination of steel and wood replaced all-wood construction, and in 1935, a change to all-steel construction was made.[1]

Carpenter school bus at 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 artinsburg, Indiana] from 1940-1946, 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.

1956: Fire destroys plant, workers rebuild

On March 12, 1956, a fire broke out inside Carpenter's Mitchell manufacturing plant. The plant was mostly destroyed. With the help of factory workers—some worked for no pay until later compensated—the factory was rebuilt and expanded in just 89 days.

Throughout the next twenty years, the business prospered and Carpenter became one of the "big six" major school bus body builders in the United States, competing directly against Blue Bird, Superior, Thomas Built, Ward, and Wayne.

1980s Bankruptcy and Dr. Beurt SerVaas

In the early 1980s, there was a downturn in U.S. public school enrollments as the baby boom generation became older than school-age. U.S. school bus sales declined, a situation compounded by over-capacity in the bus body industry. The company unsuccessfully attempted to diversify into the small transit bus market. Carpenter was forced to enter bankruptcy in the mid-1980s.

Salvation came to Mitchell in the form of an Indianapolis-based industrialist, Dr. Beurt SerVaas, who led a refinancing and revitalization program to attempt to restore the company's role in the national school bus market. The company's unionized workers made major concessions, and production of school buses continued.

Crown by Carpenter (1996-1999)

Crown by Carpenter
Fate Re-named Carpenter Industries, Inc by Spartan Motors in 1999
Predecessor Carpenter Manufacturing Company
Successor Carpenter Industries, Inc.
Founded 1996
Defunct 1999
Headquarters Richmond, Indiana
Area served North America
Industry transportation
Products school buses
commercial buses
delivery vans
Parent Spartan Motors (1998-2000)

In May of 1991, Carpenter purchased the tooling and product rights of Crown Coach, a defunct U.S. bus builder in California. Around 1996, Carpenter leased the former Wayne plant at Richmond, and moved from its aged facilities in Mitchell. At the Richmond plant, the company began producing Crown by Carpenter buses. Crown by Carpenter also produced a delivery truck loosely derived from its "Cadet" school bus line.

The "Crown" design included a new roof design, utilizing one-piece roof bows, as well as a redesigned driver's area, and slight changes to the exterior, including different rubrail mounting.

One interesting design that came during the "Crown" model years was the Crown by Carpenter Counselor RE (rear engine), which was mounted on a Spartan chassis. This bus had the option of a rear emergency door instead of an emergency window. To place the door in the rear, the floor was slanted up in the last few rows, in order to gain height over the engine compartment.

Carpenter Classic 2000

In late 1999, Carpenter unveiled a new model series to their line called Classic 2000. The Classic 2000 series featured an overall body redesign, including an entirely new driver's area (based on the Wayne Lifeguard), as well as new rubrail mounts, a flat rear section, and new roof caps. Conventionals and FEs received larger rear emergency doors.

The 2000 Carpenter Chancellor RE rear-engine Type D school buses were built on Spartan chassis, featuring full air ride suspension, smaller wheels, and a double height frame for a ride similar to a motorcoach, as well as a flat floor inside the bus. The Chancellor series no longer included an option for a rear emergency door.

By 2000, Spartan Motors, primarily a specialty chassis manufacturer, owned the majority of Carpenter Industries. Despite the improved sales Carpenter had attained over the last few years, profitability continued to elude the body builder in the highly competitive U.S. and Canadian school bus markets. The body company was closed in mid-2001, ending a huge history in the bus business.

2003: Structural product flaws in Mitchell production discovered

In 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. Luckily, only the driver was on board at the time, and 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.

Normally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would conduct a full-scale investigation and if a defect determination were made, would order 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.

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, Carpenter and Crown by Carpenter buses built at the Richmond plant were not included in several advisories issued.

The School Bus Information Council offered additional information about Carpenter buses and the NHSTA advisory.[2]

Carpenter/Crown by Carpenter Bus Models

Model name Years Produced Chassis
Type A Buses
Classmate General Motors
Type B Buses
Cadet Chevrolet P30
Type C Buses
Classic until 2001 Dodge
General Motors
International Harvester
Navistar International
Type D Buses
Corsair pre-1983 (front-engine)
pre-1992 (rear-engine)
Cavalier FE 1983-1988
Coach RE 1992-1993 Spartan Motors
Coach RE 1992-1993 Spartan Motors
Counselor 1989-1999 (FE)
1994-1999 (RE)
Navistar International (FE)
Spartan Motors (FE and RE)
Chancellor FE 2001 Spartan Motors
Carpenter Chancellor RE prototype

The Carpenter Chancellor RE was a prototype rear-engine school bus designed as a replacement for the 1990s Counselor line. It showcased features such as a double frame and a completely flat floor. Only one complete prototype and one rolling chassis were completed before Spartan Motors closed down Carpenter Body Company in March 2001.

External links


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