Motorcoach

Prevost and industry historian Bill Luke look back at 95 years

Posted on October 28, 2019 by David H. Hubbard

Currently celebrating its 95th year, Prevost offers the X3-45, H3-45m and Volvo 9700 motorcoaches.
Prevost
Currently celebrating its 95th year, Prevost offers the X3-45, H3-45m and Volvo 9700 motorcoaches.Prevost
In the winter of 1924, Eugene Prevost was nine years into his career as a woodcraftsman, building top quality church pews and school furniture from his shop in St Claire, Quebec. He stepped off in a new direction the day his good friend, George Roy, dropped by to share his unique idea for transporting people; challenging Prevost to fashion a fine wooden passenger compartment that would fit onto the Reo Truck chassis he had just purchased.

Prevost had come by his craftsmanship as a young son helping his father, Joseph, finish building the family home. His mechanical aptitude traces back to the motorcycle he owned and the sidecar he built and attached so he could transport his aging father to visit his older sons who had immigrated to Vermont.

Prevost had come by his craftsmanship as a young son helping his father, Joseph, finish building the family home.

Prevost readily grasped Roy’s concept and eagerly accepted the commission to handcraft his first bus body — not thinking of the extensive line of buses and coaches that would follow; nor the North American coach company that would bear his name.

Prevost continued into the 1930s building one wooden bus body each winter alongside his cabinetry business for various truck manufacturers. He eventually went “all in” with his first independent bus factory in 1937. Roy later claimed to have had a hunch his friend would redirect his talent into this new realm of automotive transportation.

Around the same time in 1924, William A. Luke was just getting his bearings as a newborn in Duluth, Minn., and on his way to eventually become the bus industry’s noted publisher, author, and eminent historian.

As Eugene’s bus business was evolving, young Bill was also taking an early interest in buses. Where most boys his age were into cars, he was marveling over the majestic Greyhound buses rolling in and out of the station not too far from the bus lines’ headquarters in Hibbard, Minn.

Reminiscing this past February in the comfort of his retirement village in Spokane, Wash., as his 95th birthday neared, Luke shared snippets from his autobiography he is readying for publication. Much of Bills’ life parallels and connects him to the Prevost organization over the years as both share nearly a century in the bus and coach industry.

“My favorite pastime as kid was hanging around the station and talking to the drivers and ticket agents,” he says. “I worked some at odd jobs and running errands, but the complexities with the scheduling fascinated me in particular, and I knew then my future would have to do with buses.”

A “mesmerizing” bus trip at age 11 with his dad to the Minnesota State Fair aboard an early 719 Yellow Coach set him solidly on his career path.

Prevost was well on his way as the bus industry grew and changed in the 1930s. He transitioned gradually from building all-wood structures to manufacturing buses with wood frames with metal side panels.

Bill Luke participated in the National Association of Motor Bus Owners as chairman of the National Scheduling Subcommittee and helped establish the Bus History Association.
David H. Hubbard
Bill Luke participated in the National Association of Motor Bus Owners as chairman of the National Scheduling Subcommittee and helped establish the Bus History Association.David H. Hubbard

Finding a love for buses

Meantime, Luke had taken a shine to woodworking, carving model replicas of his favorite buses to scale from blocks of wood and hand-painting and lettering the company graphics in exacting detail. He carved and painted over a hundred such models, several of which are still in his possession.

His life in the bus business formally began upon his return from the military following World War II, as did his endearing 62-year marriage to his life partner, Adelene.

Luke served with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and took his place among the Greatest Generation on June 6, 1944 at Omaha Beach and the invasion of Normandy, where his unit cut the roads over the crest that led into France. Arriving home safely, he says his earliest professional pursuits were to own his own bus operation. However, he admits that goal gradually ebbed as opportunities failed to materialize.

Luke served with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and took his place among the Greatest Generation on June 6, 1944 at Omaha Beach and the invasion of Normandy...

“Looking back, I was probably over ambitious,” Luke says. “That aside, the friendships I made while trying were invaluable.”

Relying on his affinity for detail, he settled in with Minneapolis’ Jefferson Lines in 1948, and over the next 21 years perfected his skill in bus route scheduling. He worked another eight years with Empire Lines, Spokane, Wash., where Bill and Adelenes’ honeymoon to the Canadian Rockies had inspired their eventual move to the Northwest.

Luke reported his first siting of a Prevost bus in 1950 on a round-trip bus vacation to Quebec. His first visit to the factory came 17 years later as an author and publisher, where he observed the new Prevost Champion in production — the company’s first product to target U.S. bus operators.

Founded in Quebec in 1924 by cabinet and wooden bus builder, Eugene Prevost, the company is the oldest coach manufacturer in North America.
Prevost
Founded in Quebec in 1924 by cabinet and wooden bus builder, Eugene Prevost, the company is the oldest coach manufacturer in North America.Prevost

Growing the business

Prevost meanwhile was capitalizing on the success of his first wood-and-aluminum bus body; so well-crafted his first customer ordered a second unit in very short order. He was finally “seeing the light” that buses were inevitably his future. He constructed his first standalone bus manufacturing facility in 1937 alongside the cabinetry and furniture business.

Following World War II and fully on board with buses by this time, he phased out cabinetry to concentrate on manufacturing highway motorcoaches. He erected a facility he called Les Ateliers Prevost — The Prevost Workshops. Over the next 12 years, Prevost buses evolved steadily from all-wood construction to become the first motorcoach with an all-metal body over an all-metal skeleton.

In 1957 at age 59, Prevost elected to sell his company to industrialist Paul Normand, who renamed the operations Prevost Car Inc.

The Prevost Workshops expanded to 40,000 square feet to accommodate metal and woodworking, die-casting, and plating, as well as a foundry. The customer list grew to include the Canadian Government and Department of National Defense.

In 1957 at age 59, Prevost elected to sell his company to industrialist Paul Normand, who renamed the operations Prevost Car Inc. The silver-sided Le Normand with a diesel engine and pneumatic suspension was the first model on his watch.

Thomas B. Harbison and William G. Campbell, later joined as partners in 1967 with then Prevost Car president, André Normand, and became sole owners nearly 30 years later in 1996.

Scores of special guests including past and present employees, government officials, and people from the community attended Prevost's 95th anniversary celebration earlier this year.
Prevost
Scores of special guests including past and present employees, government officials, and people from the community attended Prevost's 95th anniversary celebration earlier this year. Prevost

Giving back to the industry

If Bill Luke ever had an undisputable AHA! moment, it was the day he envisioned Bus Ride Magazine, which he and Adelene launched in 1965.

Luke had participated in the National Association of Motor Bus Owners as chairman of the National Scheduling Subcommittee and helped establish the Bus History Association. Fellow committee members fueled Luke’s insatiable interest in bus history with historical accounts and photos of their companies and early equipment — all which awakened his calling as an author, publisher, and ex-officio bus industry ambassador.

“We created Bus Ride under our company name, Friendship Publications,” Luke says. “We wanted our new business to cover the bus industry; and reflect the kindness and respect people in the bus business show to one another.”

On the launch of his company, Eugene Prevost noted that above building buses, the mission would be to bring greater comfort to people and improve their lives.

On the launch of his company, Eugene Prevost noted that above building buses, the mission would be to bring greater comfort to people and improve their lives. Even at that, some scoffed at these new business models from two industry pioneers.

“People would say, ‘Good luck with that,’ for which we had one response: ‘Frankly, there isn’t an easier way to do business.’ We grow and survive through our friendships.”

Prevost Car, Inc. signed on as an inaugural advertiser in Bus Ride. The lasting business relationship that ensued included many visits to the factory in Quebec for the debut rollouts of each new Prevost model. Luke wrote continuously on Prevost and photographed each new model and later assembled a photographic archive of the older historic products, as well as the fleets of Prevost customers.

Eugene Prevost passed away at age 66, around the time Luke launched the magazine.

“My close relationships with the Prevost organization was always very special to me,” says Luke. “I had the good fortune to meet and visit with many of the people in the Prevost organization who became lasting friends.”

Prevost will continue to celebrate its milestone throughout the year.
Prevost
Prevost will continue to celebrate its milestone throughout the year.Prevost

Looking ahead

Luke has since published 16 books on historic buses and bus operators that illuminate the evolution of the bus coach industry in North America. His archival materials and vintage photographs lie entrusted with the Northwestern University Transportation Center in Evanston, Ill., and The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich.

In 1999, when then Prevost Car President/CEO George Bourelle was formulating tributes to the company’s pioneers for the 75th anniversary of Prevost, he had the good fortune of meeting William A. “Bill” Luke for the first time.

Writing the Forward for Luke’s book on Prevost published in 2002, Prevost Buses; 1924-2002 Photo Archive, Bourelle noted Bill’s willingness and enthusiasm in helping him preserve company memories and “show the younger people in the business what it was way back when.”

Bourelle writes in part, “I was amazed by Bill’s knowledge of our company … and I wish to thank him for his personal initiative and dedication in putting together this magnificent archive.”

Fast forward to January 2019. On the eve of Prevost’s 95th year, VP/GM Francois Trembley is at the Prevost podium during UMA EXPO, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., extolling the rollout of the adventuresome redesign of the 2020 Prevost X3-45 coach, as well as a host of elegant innovations that send the flagship H3-45 rolling into the next 95 years.

At the same time, his 95th birthday a month away, Bill Luke huddles at his PC and laptop, cellphone in hand taking calls; affirming he is well and very much in the game. He is busy refining his autobiography, highlighting the contributions he and his late wife, Adelene, made to the North American bus industry; and above all, continuing to share his story and maintain friendships he savored personally and professionally.

The upshot: At age 95, both Prevost and Bill Luke are Moving Ahead.

David Hubbard is a Phoenix-based contributor

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