Owning and restoring a classic car is as Canadian as maple syrup and hockey. But for Canadian gearheads who love buses, the options for owning and obtaining insurance for a classic bus are extremely limited.
It had been my dream to own a GM New Look bus (also known as the Fishbowl) since I was in high school. Growing up in Toronto, I rode the Bathurst Street bus every day from the age of nine, so I have many good memories tied to the vintage feel of the New Look and the distinctive whine of its GM 6V-71 diesel engine.
In 2016 I made the dream of owning a bus a reality by purchasing a GM TDH-5303 model that was used by Calgary Transit. This is an eight-foot-six-inch wide, 40-foot-long bus with a seating capacity of 53 that was built in 1967. My aim was to paint it the vintage Toronto Transit Commission colours of maroon and cream and bring it to the Toronto area.
Purchasing the bus was no problem as the owner was quite eager to see it go to a good home and he only charged me $1,000 for it. For a well-maintained New Look, that was a phenomenal deal. The owner of a Calgary coach shop was more than happy to take on the job of repairing the body from top to bottom: finding missing parts, replacing the gaskets and batteries and repainting it in the TTC colours. Those costs were many times the price of the bus, but the repairman put a lot of love into the project and also gave me all of his spare GM parts as he was retiring from the business.
Here’s where it began to get difficult. To drive a bus in Ontario you must obtain a bus licence, as well as certification for driving a vehicle with air brakes. The cost of this training was more than $1,500 and took several weeks to complete. I was happy to take this on as I’ve always wanted to drive a bus. In the U.K., where bus preservation is hugely popular, you can drive a bus with up to seven passengers on a standard G-equivalent licence.
When I tried to get the bus insured, I ran into a brick wall. No insurance broker would speak to me unless I would promise only to take immediate family on board and only to drive it on “sunny Sundays.” I also couldn’t use the bus for any promotional purposes. In contrast, in the U.K. you can purchase inexpensive classic bus insurance that allows you drive your bus any time and take passengers on private charters.
It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. The enthusiast community in the U.K. is large, so there are insurance options. Because there are insurance options, the enthusiast community has grown even larger. The notion of classic bus insurance in Britain is a totally foreign idea in Canada. In the U.K. there are classic bus rallies, classic bus charters and classic bus tours. The barriers to owning a classic bus in Canada are so enormous that few people would even consider it.
I finally found an insurance broker willing to take me on and allow me to take my employees and friends on the bus. The premium for a year is $7,000, but with that insurance I cannot charter the bus, nor can I have anyone apart from employees, friends and family on board. So, I can’t recoup my costs by hiring out the bus for events or tours.
Licensing the bus was an additional nightmare. ServiceOntario just doesn’t know how to issue a licence for a classic bus. A fellow classic bus owner got the Ministry of Transportation involved to get his bus licensed and it took several months. After numerous ServiceOntario clerks told me I couldn’t license my bus, I finally reached an understanding employee who looked up my friend’s bus and copied his permit method.
I’ve been driving my classic bus around Toronto for five years now and I absolutely love the enthusiastic response I get – especially from TTC drivers. But when you consider that my insurance cost alone over those five years has been $35,000, it makes owning a classic bus a non-starter for most people.
Classic bus ownership is a tiny niche within the wider gearhead community. Making it easier to obtain insurance for a classic bus would encourage more bus lovers to follow their passion and purchase or restore one. I doubt this will change any time soon, but one can dream.
Jason Shron Special to Wheels