Los Angeles’ First Diesel Buses: A Look Back At The Fleet & The 1943 Birth Of Smog

One of the first diesel buses in Los Angeles, part of an order for 72 coaches in 1940-41.

Today, the Los Angeles County Metrpolitan Transportation Authority retired its last diesel bus from its fleet of over 2,200 vehicles.

This historic day marks Metro’s claim to be the first major transit agency in the world to operate only alternative-fuel clean-energy buses.

When one considers that Metro’s bus fleet rolls through nearly 1.5 billion miles per year, it becomes apparent that our transportation agency has contributed to substantially cleaner air for everyone.

We wanted to take a look back at the birth of the Diesel Era in L.A.  The first diesel buses arrived in Los Angeles in 1940.  At that time, the purchase of 72 new coaches comprised the largest single order by a transit agency in history.

According to the May, 1940 issue of Two Bells, the Los Angeles Railway employee newsmagazine:

Seating 45 passengers, the first of a fleet of diesel hydraulic motor coaches have arrived for service on Los Angeles Motor Coach Company lines (a subsidiary of Los Angeles Railway and Pacific Electric).

Equipped with a six cylinder, two cycle diesel engine and torque converter, these coaches offer a new degree of smooth acceleration with no vibration or uneven motion.

At a speed of 20 miles an hour the hydraulic transmission is cut and the rear wheels of the coach become directly connected to the engine.

Attractive interiors boast mohair upholstered seats, stainless steel fittings, spacious aisles and wide windows.

These coaches will represent the first consignment of a million dollar new equipment program.

The May, 1940 issue of Two Bells tells the story of Los Angeles' first diesel buses

The Transportation Library proudly announced that it had purchased its first diesel engine maintenance manuals for employees and offered up a brief review.

However, the dawn of diesel didn’t bode well for Los Angeles.

Just a couple of years later, Angelenos began noticing something else around town besides their new fleet of buses with mohair upholstery.  On July 26, 1943, L.A. suffered through its first day of “smog.”

The thick fog that made residents’ eyes sting and noses run was a new phenomenon.  With World War II raging in the Pacific, some speculated that the Japanese had attacked with chemical warfare.

Whatever it was, Los Angeles Mayor Fetcher Bowron had vowed that there would be “an entire elimination” of the problem within four months.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that scientists identified automobile tailpipes as the source of the problem, and a decades-long battle to clean up transportation and the air was underway.

CalTech chemist Arie Haagen-Smit recognized ozone as the primary source of smog.  When Southland residents finally wrapped their heads around what was happening, they blamed the automobile industry for creating and producing a defective product, rather than themselves for (over)using it.

Nearly 60 years later, California’s air quality legislation has set the standard for the nation, our skies are relatively clean once again, and today, our last diesel bus has been hauled away.

Members of the Highland Park Optimist Club wear smog-gas masks at banquet, ca. 1954. Image courtesy UCLA Library

This collection of photographs from the UCLA Library documents our struggle against smog from the 1940s through the 1960s. 

From the hazy horizons to gas mask solutions and “smog-out shelters,” it’s worth a visit.