Rare Nash school bus gets new life

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A circa 1948 Nash school bus that made its way from Minnesota to Vintage Motorcars in Westbrook a few weeks ago is one of only two known to exist.

Rich Willard, owner of the vintage-car restoration business, said he began restoring the rare vehicle last month at the request of a Nash collector from France for whom he has worked previously.

"We're going to bring it back to life," Willard said. "It's going to be labor intensive. It's a lot of time."

Willard, who has been known to restore antique and classic cars as well as old fire engines, said this is his first bus project. The restoration likely will take more than 3,000 man hours to complete and easily will cost in the $150,000 range, he said.

The most difficult part, he said, is the initial research to try to figure out how the bus looked when it first came off the assembly line. The vehicle, which was not operational when it came into the shop, has gone through a series of alterations through the years, he said, and may have once been used as a "hippie bus."

Making the restoration more problematic, he said, is that no one has pictures of the original look of the bus, including such specifics as handle and upholstery styles.

"The factory that made the body burned down, and they didn't save the records, so this is going to be difficult," Willard said. "We want it to be authentic and original."

The Nash bus, stored outside of Vintage Motorcars when it first came in, has attracted a lot of interest, Willard said. The bus had been parked for only a day or two when one woman, a bus driver herself, came in to get a closer look.

Women rarely come into his business, he said, because vintage cars are more of a guy thing.

"I have cars in here that are half-million-dollar cars that didn't get such interest," Willard said. "I'm assuming it's because we all remember being on a bus (in the past) and we don't see them (now). No one brings a bus to a car show. There's no bus show."

Nash Motors dates back to 1916, when a former General Motors executive named Charles W. Nash started the company in Kenosha, Wis. The company, later purchased by American Motors Corp., became a success thanks to a guiding philosophy of providing good value as well as a series of innovations that included the first compact, subcompact and muscle car.

Even Nash aficionados, who are most prominent in Wisconsin, were largely unaware that the company had manufactured school buses until the first vehicle was saved from a Minnesota salvage business in 1993.

The Nash bus hauled to Connecticut reportedly was found near a farm in Glyndon, Minn., where it had been used for alcohol-fueled hunting and fishing trips before being abandoned, its windows apparently shattered by gunfire. An Ohio member of the Nash Car Club of America discovered the bus in 2010, shortly before it was to be sold as scrap, and did some initial work on it, including a paint job that covered a previously red exterior with the more traditional yellow.

Willard said the collector who is paying to restore the bus, Thomas Harrington of Paris, intends to bring it to Nash shows and perhaps later to donate it to a museum.

But first the tedious work of dealing with rust and dents, repairing the body and chassis, rebuilding the engine and dealing with a multitude of parts, paint and upholstery issues will have to be completed. Willard figures hundreds of phone calls will be necessary to track down all the parts required to do a faithful restoration of the Nash bus and wind up with a vehicle as close as possible to one that came off the assembly line more than six decades ago.

"We capture dreams for people," Willard said. "We want somebody to be able to look at a photo ... (of) when this bus was new and say, 'Geez, that looks identical.'"

l.howard@theday.com

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