Not too shabby for a vintage motorcoach!
It could be argued that most sports teams, whether professional or recreational, prefer to travel to their games in style. More often than not, they want a vehicle that has the latest amenities, including Wi-Fi, television, and superb stereo systems. But do these things really matter in the long run? Shouldn’t it be the spirit of the game that propels players to want to give it their all?
Tom Murphy, a mechanic and volunteer with the Philadelphia Youth Organization, seems to understand this better than anyone. In fact, he wanted to give the organization’s team, the Anderson Monarchs, an experience as close to how players like Jackie Robinson used to travel — in a vintage 1947 Flxible Clipper 29 passenger motorcoach.
Our story begins with the discovery of the classic motorcoach. In 1997, a mutual friend mentioned to Murphy that Steve Bandura, coach of the Anderson Monarchs, was planning a Baseball Barnstorming Tour in tribute to the 50th anniversary of Robinson signing with Major League Baseball. They were going to charter a bus for the tour, and this got Murphy thinking. He eventually came across the Flxible motorcoach in a three year-old issue of a national publication. He called the owner, and it turned out he still had it.
“The bus was an amazing time capsule at 50 years old — even with six flat tires,” Murphy says. If they wanted to borrow it, they’d have to put in the elbow grease needed to get it running again, the owner said. That same summer, the team put 5,000 miles on it. Unfortunately, the organization did not have enough money to actually purchase the motorcoach at that time. Fast forward to 2004, and they were finally able to buy it from the new owner thanks to a donation from a local benefactor to the youth group — Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co.The owner had driven it off the Warner Bros. Studios backlot in Burbank, Calif. in the early 1970s, and parked it in his barn in Connecticut. It had not been moved or started in 25 years.
The basic bus shell and suspension are very sound. It originally had an inline 8 cylinder Buick engine from the factory, but was replaced by Warner Bros. in 1970 with a GMC Million Mile 6 engine, which turns 50 this year and has about 450,000+ miles on it.
The biggest issue they’ve come across is trying to find replacement parts, Murphy says. The coach’s original four speed stick shift transmission needed parts that could no longer be found, so the transmission was replaced in 2015 with an Allison 1000 automatic overdrive transmission. This required a lot of custom parts and relocating the engine in the chassis in order for it to fit properly. Murphy’s friend, Howard McGoldrick, was able to wire the 2006 computerized transmission into the bus. This conversion was made possible by a donation from the Tri-State Chevy Dealers Association and CBS Eco Media.
As cliché as it sounds, renovating the motorcoach has been a labor of love. With no air conditioning or power steering, it still has a ways to go. “The goal here is to eventually make this a modern version of a 1947 Flxible Clipper,” Murphy says. “I’m spending time over the winter updating all of the exterior and interior lighting with modern LEDs and adding lights where they weren't required in 1947…as well as a dozen other things that didn't get done in 2015.”
Making a Difference
Why would someone put in all of this effort just to make an old motorcoach run? It’s all about what’s in it for the kids. “Jackie Robinson is someone they have studied and are well aware of what a pivotal person he is in history; he’s their role model. He rode buses like this in his career as a Negro League player. They are very aware their American experience is better for what he and others before went through to make it happen,” Murphy says.
Since the original Barnstorming tour in 1997, the team has gone on to do three more: one in ‘04, ‘12, and ‘15 (click here for video). And these kids can really play ball. Seven of them played on the Taney team that went to the Little League World Series in 2014. Mo’ne Davis — the then 13 year-old girl with the 70mph fastball — has been all over the news.
“These kids come from an environment where there is typically very little sports opportunity… I think the organization is a national treasure of sorts. The bus itself is probably the smallest part of it all.”