Management

From Buggies to Buses: 135 Years in Transportation

Thomas McMahon
Posted on June 28, 2011
Richard Wolfington Sr. (right) is pictured with son Richard Wolfington Jr. and daughter Eganne Wolfington McGowan in front of a restored 1898 Wolfington Brougham carriage.

Richard Wolfington Sr. (right) is pictured with son Richard Wolfington Jr. and daughter Eganne Wolfington McGowan in front of a restored 1898 Wolfington Brougham carriage.

Wolfington Body Co. has been a bus distributor for nearly 80 years, but the company’s history stretches back much further — to 1876.

In that year, young British immigrant Alexander J. Wolfington began building horse-drawn carriages in a converted feed store in Philadelphia.

Wolfington’s wooden buggies gained a reputation for their durability, particularly among doctors who used them heavily in traveling their rounds.

In the 1890s, Wolfington started making the Brougham, which was a four-wheeled, closed carriage that was drawn by a single horse and driven by a coachman.

“It was a very fancy, elegant carriage,” says Richard Wolfington Sr., who is the current president of Wolfington Body Co. “It was used for going out to dinner or to the opera.”

The company, which is celebrating its 135th anniversary this year, now sells school and commercial buses and provides contracted school transportation services. But it still uses the Wolfington Brougham as its symbol to reflect the company’s roots.

Car creations
Around the turn of the century, Wolfington began manufacturing wooden bodies for motorized car chassis, since the first car manufacturers made just a chassis with an engine attached.

In addition to building the bodies, Alex Wolfington and his son Harry J. Wolfington added touches like rolldown windows, heaters and reclining seats. For their wealthier customers, they provided customizations such as golden hubcaps and door handles, and they would even reproduce a favorite leather armchair for the driver’s seat.

Richard Sr. says that the company also made an early version of the convertible. They would build two bodies for the same chassis — one closed, one open. Before the summer and before the winter, the car would be brought back to Wolfington to have the bodies switched.

In the early 20th century, Wolfington manufactured bodies for motorized car chassis. Pictured is a 1929 Duesenberg Model J-214 Phaeton Royale that was built by Wolfington.
In the early 20th century, Wolfington manufactured bodies for motorized car chassis. Pictured is a 1929 Duesenberg Model J-214 Phaeton Royale that was built by Wolfington.

Once most car manufacturers had begun producing their own bodies to go on their chassis, Wolfington shifted into building bus bodies in the 1920s. Initially, the company’s key customers were hotels, which would use the buses to transport guests.

In 1926, Wolfington built its first wooden school buses, for Philadelphia-area schools. But within a few years, a turning point came about for the company with the convergence of three key factors: the rise of mass production, the shift to steel bodies and the Great Depression.

“It wiped us out of the manufacturing business,” Richard Sr. says. “So we became a school bus distributor.”

Bus upbringing
Richard Sr. was “born and raised” in the school bus business.

“Since I was 6 years old, I was talking about school buses with my father at the dining room table,” he recalls.

He started washing buses at the dealership when he was in high school. During college, he drove a parts truck for the company, making visits to bus yards.

“I would pretend to see if they needed any parts, but the real reason was to see if they needed any school buses,” Richard Sr. says.

After graduating from college, he served for two years in the Marine Corps. Then, in 1964, he started working full time for the family business.

The company eventually became a bus distributor, but it still uses the Wolfington Brougham as its symbol. The luxury carriage was drawn by a single horse and driven by a coachman.
The company eventually became a bus distributor, but it still uses the Wolfington Brougham as its symbol. The luxury carriage was drawn by a single horse and driven by a coachman.

Developing business
More than half a century after it became a bus distributor, Wolfington ventured into school bus contracting in 1987.

“It was a diversification that we decided to do,” Richard Sr. says. “The operating side of the company and the sales side go well together.”

Wolfington now runs about 250 school buses, transporting students for school districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Another significant change for the company came about 15 years ago, when it took on the responsibility of being a school bus chassis dealer in addition to being a body dealer.

“The shops that the body dealers ran 15 to 20 years ago didn’t have to have the sophistication that we have today,” Richard Sr. says. “So we had to upgrade our shops to bring them to the 21st century.”

He credits IC Bus for its support in that transition. The manufacturer, for which Wolfington Body Co. is a dealer, provides training for mechanics and sales people.

“They’re a very service-oriented manufacturer,” Richard Sr. says. “It’s done wonders for us. Because of this, we are a much bigger, stronger company than we were 15 years ago.”

One of Wolfington’s innovative offerings is its accelerated school bus replacement program for school districts.

“Instead of buying a bus and keeping it for 10 to 15 years — and having to build a shop, hire mechanics and do all that — we’ll replace the bus every two or three years with a brand-new bus,” Richard Sr. explains. “The bus is always under warranty, so the district never has to do any heavy maintenance to it.”

After the districts run the buses for two or three years, Wolfington offers them for sale to the private sector. Richard Sr. says that the program, which began nearly 50 years ago, has been beneficial for the company and for its customers.

Family company
Wolfington Body Co. currently has three locations, in Exton and New Buffalo, Pa., and Mt. Holly, N.J. In addition to IC Bus units, Wolfington distributes Type A buses from Collins Bus Corp. and a variety of commercial buses.

Richard Sr. is head of the overall company. Son Richard Jr. is general manager, while daughter Eganne Wolfington McGowan runs the transportation services operation.

In all, Wolfington Body Co. has about 100 full-time employees and about 300 part-time employees.

In April, the company held an open house to celebrate its 135th anniversary. On display were new buses as well as a restored 1898 Wolfington Brougham carriage.

When asked what has kept the company going so long, Richard Sr. thinks for a moment.

“Just the fact that we’re born and raised salespeople,” he says. “You never stop selling.”

Related Topics: history, school bus replacement

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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