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The Orion I Bus

Orion diagram

Click on the diagram to see a full diagram of the Orion I bus.

Text by James Bow and Robert Lubinski

See Also

When it emerged on the scene, the Orion I bus offered a distinctive, almost cute, appearance compared to the more common and angular General Motors New Look. That appearance belies its many innovations. The Orion I was the first public transit bus to be built by an Ontario manufacturing company in decades (General Motors was a multi-national). It aggressively pursued niches in the marketplace, to provide better service and better fuel economy to the municipal transit agencies of the day. That upstart attitude exemplified by the Orion I eventually helped the company capture a third of the North American market.

A New Bus Company Thinks Small

In the early 1970s, Arnold Wollschlaeger owned and operated Ontario Truck and Bus Industries. He had been building and repairing large vehicles for over two decades when he received a contract from the Government of Ontario to assemble and retrofit a bunch of vehicles for the government’s experimental Dial-a-Bus service. The Government of Ontario hoped to tackle the problem of providing economical public transit in low density neighbourhoods by using smaller, more fuel-efficient buses on flexible routes.

The Dial-a-Bus vehicles were fibreglass-bodied, diesel-powered Rek-Vees, which were originally designed to be camper vans. They proved unsuitable for tough transit conditions, and Arnold Wollschlaeger was unhappy with how unreliable the vehicles proved to be. The experience, however, inspired him to build a heavy-duty medium-sized bus of his own, that could serve smaller scale public transportation operations, and be easy to maintain and service.

In 1975, with a team of seasoned and loyal tradespeople, Arnold Wollschlaeger set about hand-building the prototype of what would eventually become the Orion I. The bus was thirty feet long, but had parts that were interchangeable with an inventory of forty-foot buses. The Orion I featured a single sealed swing door in the front, thermo windows, tubular construction, and a number of features that made maintenance and repair easier, including an outside electrical access panel, “satin steel panels” for easier repair, and large roof hatches. The vehicle was powered by a Detroit Diesel V6 engine, and boasted a sleek, modern look.

In theory, the shorter footprint of the Orion I allowed it to address a marketplace that General Motors and Flyer Industries had studiously ignored, serving up a forty-foot bus standard. The thirty-foot Orion I weighed less and could burn less fuel while still serving the needs of the community. It was a gamble. The Toronto Transit Commission hadn’t purchased a bus shorter than 40-feet since the early 1960s. However, the OPEC oil crisis was fresh on the minds of many, so as the production models of the Orion I rolled off the line in 1978, publicc transit agencies in Ontario started to buy.

The sales didn’t come quite quickly enough. Ontario Bus Industries, as Wollschlaeger had renamed his company, was under-financed, and it was eventually forced to sell the American and rest-of-the-world manufacturing rights to Greyhound Bus Lines (TMC manufacturing). TMC renamed the Orion I “the City Cruiser” for the American market. However, in 1979, Arnold Wollschlaeger passed away. Donald Sheardown bought Ontario Bus Industries from Arnold’s family and, with greater financial backing, bought back the American and world manufacturing rights for the Orion I, and set about expanding production.

The TTC Tests the Orion I

When delivered, the TTC’s first batch Orion I’s (numbered 8370-8378) were painted in the commission’s older red and cream paint scheme. At the time, the TTC was updating its look to the current red, white and black scheme, and the commission required that all subsequent deliveries be in the new colour scheme. The first Orion I’s, when delivered, were divided between Eglinton and Davenport divisions where they were placed in lightly-travelled residential routes such as 78 ST. ANDREWS and 115 SILVER HILLS routes, as well as routes struggling with low ridership, such as as 19 CHURCH, 101 EDWARDS GARDENS and 1 ARMOUR HEIGHTS. In later years they could be seen on the 97 YONGE route (particularly the 97B Steeles to Front branch) and on the 142 PREMIUM EXPRESS via AVENUE RD. route when it was inaugurated, interlined with 1 ARMOUR HEIGHTS.

In 1982 an additional 10 Orion I buses were delivered (numbered 8730-8739). These were assigned to Davenport division. These buses operated on 7E BATHURST (the St. Clair West Station to Wilson Station branch, when it operated seven days a week), 33 FOREST HILL (where they encountered crush load problems when school let out), 82 ROSEDALE and 127 DAVENPORT routes.

Despite their promise, the Orion Is cost savings did not materialize. As fuel prices dropped in the early 1980s, the TTC discovered that most expensive part of a bus was its driver. The Orion I’s continued to operate until the early 1990s when they were retired from TTC service and sold to other transit properties and private operators.

Although the TTC did not purchase more than a handful of these vehicles, they were picked up by dozens of transit agencies across North America, especially in smaller towns which saw the need for smaller, lighter equipment rather than standard, 40-foot buses. In that respect, the Orion I bus was a very successful model for Ontario Bus Industries, and more than sufficient for the company to continue.

The TTC Orion I Roster

Class

Fleet Numbers

Delivered

Retired

Length

Power

Notes

Orion I

8315

1979

????

30 feet

diesel

Prototype 

Orion I

8370-8378

1981

????

30 feet

diesel

#8370,2,4&6 sold to Metro Transit (1990) 

Orion I

8730-8739

1982

????

30 feet

diesel

 

Orion I

9360-9361

1989

1989

30 feet

diesel

CNG Demonstrators; demoed as GO Transit 1713/14 


Orion I Image Archive


References

  • Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses, Stauss Publications, Woodland Hills (California), 1988.
  • Diesel City Bus, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 1991.
  • Orion International.” - CPTDB Wiki. Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 21 July 2014.