Flxible Clipper Style Busses
As I was investigating the different versions of the Flxible buses out there, I came to learn quite a bit about the changes they made over the years. I’ve compiled the following information for those that might be researching their own purchase of a Flxible bus. Here are the differences that I know of between all the clipper-style bodies:
Overall, there are three types of clipper-style bodies and they are known as the Clipper, Visicoach and Starliner. All three of those versions look very similar, but there are many differences between the models. The biggest difference between the three are that the visicoach has longer windows, more interior headroom and engine compartment room, and the starliner has a torsion bar suspension. Here is a more detailed explanation of the differences between those three Flxible bus models.
The Origin of the Clipper
In 1924, they got into the bus business by releasing a 12 passenger vehicle that looked much like an extended car of the time. Let’s take a quick look at what a Flxible bus looked like before they started the transition to the Clipper body style. Below is a 1930 Flxible bus. I ran into this example while traveling through Canada. It features a wood framed body with wicker seats.
In 1934, Flxible introduced the 17 passenger wooden framed body bus that was known as the Airway. It featured a hooded design complete with front and rear fenders.This bus is where Flxible started using the curved rear that is commonly referred to as the “bullet butt” that is one of the design elements that continued on to help define the shape of the later Clipper models. A total of 378 Airway buses were produced from 1934-1937.
In 1937 Flxible introduced the first Clipper. This 28 foot long, 25 passenger bus featured a front engine layout, rectangular windows and a body supported by a wooden frame. Baggage was stored on the roof via a ladder that ran down the rear of the coach. The windshield was flat and it usually features a simple chrome bumper both front and rear. You can easily identify this model because the bulged front grill area extended down the side of the bus to form a continuous wheel well of sorts (This area can be seen in the image below as the part painted white on the lower portion of the coach) and the front-most window (drivers window) is rectangular just like the rest of the side windows. I only know of one copy of this bus that still exists today.
In 1938 Flxible came out with a new 25 passenger clipper that looked visually very similar to the previous years model, but had significant changes when inspected closely. This was the first model that had an all steel frame that was built as a unit (instead of a body mounted on a frame) and incorporated a rear engine design. This was the first clipper-style bus that featured a flat side wall with no fenders. To compensate for the lack of true fenders, early paint designs usually featured a two-color design to emulated the look of streamlined fenders. You can identify this unit by its flat side walls and a driver’s window with is taller than the rest of the rectangular side windows. In 1939, Flxible increased the seating capacity of the clipper to 29 passengers by adding a seventh side window and extending the coach length (and its wheelbase) by 36 inches.
In 1941, Flxible introduced a new version of the clipper that featured forward-slanting side windows, three bumpers on the front, a small band of stainless steel just below the windows and a scoop in the rear designed to improve engine cooling. This is also when baggage was no longer stored on the roof and the rear-most side window was converted into a vented baggage door on the passenger side. In 1942 and 1943 no buses were produced due to World War II. In 1944 until early 1946, Flxible sold buses that looked identical to their pre-war versions.
The First Modern Clipper
When most people think of a Flxible Clipper, they are thinking of one that was made from late 1946 until 1967. That’s when the trademark “smily face” font end was introduced. It featured a dual headlamp design, curved “panoramic” windshields (a Flxible patented innovation) and a flat dashboard. This is also when the large aluminum Flxible badge just below the windshield identified the brand. The full-length clipper was 34 feet long and featured seven side windows on each side. Shorter versions with only six and five windows were also available… each window accounted for 36″ worth of length. This was the most popular version of the bus, from 1946 until 1950, 2050 copies were produced. This is the type of bus that was featured in the 2006 movie “RV” which starred Robin Williams.
In 1950, Flxible updated the clipper-style bus into a new version that is known as the Visicoach (but many people still refer to as a clipper since it shares the same general body design as the previous model). This revised coach featured three inches of additional interior headroom (you can see this via the extra strip of metal that is found below the side windows and above the Flxible badge on the front of the coach) and twelve inches of additional length in the engine room. The smaller window on the side indicates the location of the driver’s side emergency exit door. A total of 925 visicoaches were produced from 1950-1956.
In 1957, Flxible introduced the Starliner. Visually, this bus looked very similar to the Visicoach, but featured a radically different suspension system that incorporated torsion bars that were known as the Flxilastic suspension which is similar to the system used on Eagle buses. Only 276 Starliners were produced from 1957 until 1967 (after which Flxible stopped producing buses based on the clipper-style body). There are two versions of the Starliner, which I will refer to as the early and late Starliners. All versions of the Starliner have the small side window as the last window down the side and don’t have an emergency exit.
Early Starliners featured a unique eyebrow window on the roof where the coach roof becomes raised by about ten inches and allows for layouts that include a microwave above the refrigerator, but makes it more difficult to install upper cabinets. This rooftop window also allows more light (but that includes heat) into the interior. These buses also featured under floor storage bays and rub rails down the side of the coach. The center portion of the bus was much lower than what was found on Clippers or Visicoachs in order to accommodate the storage bays and the front and rear clearance lights feature large torpedo designs.
Late Starliners: The eyebrow window did not appear to be overly popular, so around 1960, Flxible revised the Starliner to incorporate a flat roof, 3 inch taller side windows (but no change in interior headroom), small clearance lights front and rear and stamped instead of louvered rear baggage vents. The small rear window was also increased in length by 13 inches. Underfloor storage bays are a rare option on flat-roofed Starliners even though the underfloor space is always left clear so bays can easily be retrofitted to coaches that do not have them. Note: The photo below is of the 1963 Starliner that I own and am currently restoring and re-powering.
Since all three models (Clipper, Visicoach, Starliner) incorporated the same general body design, it can be somewhat difficult to tell the difference between the models. Here’s how I can tell which model of a modern Clipper I’m looking at when inspecting each side of a bus:
Front: Look at the Flxible badge on the front… if there is no gap between the badge and the windshield, then you are looking at a clipper. If there is a 3″ band of metal between the badge and the windshield, then you have a Visicoach. If the large Flxible badge is missing and replaced by a script version of the Flxible logo, then you have a Starliner. All Starliners feature a bumper that has two indented stripes, but some visicoaches and clippers also used this design.
Side: If all the windows down the side of the coach are small and take up less then 36″, then you are looking at a clipper. If the coach features longer windows (one window taking up as much space as two windows from the clipper), has a flat roof and the height of the side windows are shorter than the drivers or co-pilot window, then you’re looking at a visicoach. A coach with the same type of side windows that incorporates an rooftop eyebrow window is an early Starliner. If the roof is flat and the windows are just as tall as the drivers and passengers window, then you have a later Starliner. A lower rubrail is a common feature on Starliners that is not found on Visicoaches or Clippers. Also, the center portion of the bus will be lower (less ground clearance) on a Starliner than a Visicoach or Clipper. If the side windows have hinges above them, then you have a Starliner. If the smaller window is the last window on the side of the bus, then you have a Starliner, if it’s the second to last window, then it’s a Visicoach.
Rear: The rain gutter running down the side of the bus just above the windows can indicate if you are looking at a Starliner. On clippers and Visicoaches, the gutter will follow the curve of the baggage bay vent while on a Starliner, it will extend farther onto the rear of the coach and not match the vent shape. The length of the vent on visicoaches and Starliners are longer than on clippers which is an indication of 12 inches of additional space in the engine/baggage room. Later Starliners have stamped baggage bay vents while early models have louvered vents. Early Starliners will also have more space between the last window and the baggage door vent when compared to late Starliners.
Interior: The clipper featured a flat vertical dashboard whereas many visicoaches and all starliners had an angled dash pod. The Starliners have a tilted steering wheel whereas earlier buses had a straight steering column.
You should always study more than one feature on a bus before feeling confident that you have identified which model of bus you are inspecting. That’s because Flxible was not 100% consistent in how they produced buses and owners often like to customize their rides (replacing the script logo with the large badge logo on Starliners for example).
Years: If the year of the coach is a 1946-1949, then it’s a clipper. If it’s a 1950-56, then it’s a Visicoach, if it’s a 1957-1960, then it’s most likely an early Starliner and 1960-67 is a late Starliner.
Choosing between models: Here are the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the various models from my point of view:
Clipper: Cute as hell, easy to layout the interior since it’s broken down into 36″ blocks based on the window length. Limited re-power options since there’s not a lot of space in the engine compartment. The interior is 3″ shorter than other models, but over 2000 of them were made, so they are relatively easy to find and can be purchased at economical prices. Both Clippers and Visicoaches feature a leaf spring suspension which can give them a somewhat bouncy baby buggy-like ride when compared to a Starliner.
Visicoach: 3 inches of additional headroom inside and a foot of extra length in the engine compartment make Visicoaches and Starliners very desirable buses. The longer windows make layout a little more difficult if you don’t want a wall appearing in the middle of a window.
Starliner: The improved suspension makes this model to be the smoothest driving version. The early model features a eyebrow window which allows for more headroom in the second half of the bus, but also complicates adding upper cabinets since the ceiling is not flat. The later Starliners have three inch taller side windows and a longer small side window.
Other Variations: Flxible converted some of their coaches into motorhomes that they referred to as Land Cruisers. These coaches can usually be identified by unusual chrome-rimmed side windows and often featured a round window in the baggage bay door.
In 1955, Custom Coach bought out Flxible’s motorhome conversion business, these coaches frequently featured a round window about half way down the length of the coach and a “Private Cruiser” badge below the driver or copilot window. In the end, Custom Coach (which is still in business and co-founder Kerwin Elmers still works for) converted about 25 coaches. The interior design of all the Custom Coaches are very similar and can usually be identified by the use of wood grain plastic laminate cabinets and unique cabinet and drawer pulls (as seen in the photo below).
Any coaches that feature a triangular vent on the drivers side rear included air conditioning.
If you see a coach with the entry door on the “wrong side”, then it’s most likely the Australian version, which is known as an Ansair Clipper. Only 131 of these Ansair-Flxible clippers were made.
Sightseer models incorporated windows on the roof. There is a small fleet of these buses currently in operation on Catalina Island in California.
Some coaches had a window in the baggage door instead of a vent to accommodate more passengers by using the baggage bay for passenger seating.
This is by no means an complete guide to the Flxible clipper style body, but it should give you a good overview of the major changes in the various body styles. You should also note that Flxible owners love to customize their rigs which means that this guide will cannot be used to correctly identify every bus, but it should give you a good general guide for how the buses were configured before they were customized.
Much of the historical information featured on this page has been adapted from the excellent book: Flxible: A History of the Bus and the Company by Robert R. Ebert, Ph. D. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for any Flxible enthusiast.
* The origin of many of the photographs used above is unknown. If you are the copyright holder of any of those images and would rather not have them featured on this page, or would like a photo credit and/or link to your web site, then please let me know and I will remove or modify the image immediately.