1964 World’s Fair people mover restored

07/27/2013 12:14 AM

07/27/2013 6:16 AM

The long black Cadillac came to a stop in the middle of the street across from Philip Smith’s house and the woman inside rolled down a window. “What is that thing?” she hollered, indicating the strange looking vehicle parked on his driveway.

“It’s a 1964 New York World’s Fair Greyhound Escorter,” he hollered back. That brought her out of her car, smart phone in hand, for an impromptu photo session.

“It was built in 1963 for the 1964 World’s Fair for Greyhound, which was in charge of transportation at the fair,” Smith explained. “There were 150 of them made and there are only three known survivors.”

Smith had literally just finished restoring the Escorter, which looks something like a bus stop bench on wheels. It was a long, involved process that began when he drove to Houston, where the abandoned machine had languished for years in an overgrown lot full of old car hulks.

“I purchased this 10 years ago from my uncle’s estate,” Smith said.” He (Bernard Calkins) was the owner of Wichita Rapid Transit Lines and he owned a local bus company in Houston, too.”

Sometime shortly after the 1964 World’s Fair closed, Calkins had gone to New York to bid on used buses for his companies. In the process, he ended up buying four of the 3-wheeled people transporters from the Greyhound company. “Three of them got away from him, or I would have a fleet of these things,” Smith said. He figures the others were probably sold off for parts or scrapped out.

“A lot of them were repainted and used on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City,” he said. The

Escorter’s modernistic fiberglass body was designed by General Motors’ legendary chief stylist Harley Earl. But the Escorter wasn’t built to last 50 years, Smith added.

He brought his find home to Wichita and began disassembling it, planning to restore it to running condition. But job and family considerations made the project a low priority, so it sat in one bay of his garage without much progress being made on the restoration.

“There is just no reference material on these things,” Smith said, noting that only a handful of original photos provided visual clues. “I had to search and search for parts.”

Most of the parts were there and in surprisingly good condition. Greyhound had contracted with the Kalamazoo Mfg. Co. to build the fleet of Escorters. They were constructed using rectangular steel tubing for a frame. Power was supplied by an Onan 2-cylinder gasoline engine that drove a hydraulic pump that turned two hydraulic motors, one mounted to each of the front wheels.

The driver sat on a swivel seat above a dolly wheel in the back, with up to four passengers across the front, and chauffeured them around the Worlds Fair. The restored Rockwell Taxi Meter shows that fair-goers could ride for $9 an hour for a couple, with each additional rider being charged a dollar.

“That was a lot of money back then,” Smith observed. They rode in shaded comfort, though, thanks to the tall roof mounted on a pair of pillars. It was a pretty stylish way to get around the futuristic-themed park.

When Smith retired from Spirit AeroSystems last February, he decided it was time to get back to work on the project. He had the engine rebuilt by Cummins Onan of Park City, with Bob Schroff of Repairman Jack handling the hydraulic issues and the Brake Shop revitalizing the twin front disc brakes.

The frame was blasted and painted by K Doll Coatings of Conway Springs. The original mufflers were saved and reused, with X-Treme Automotive fabricating new exhaust pipes. Starflite Custom Manufacturing modified the gas tank to better fit under the body.

The chipped and cracked fiberglass body panels were restored by A1 Fiberglass. They even managed to save the two original reflectorized 1964 Worlds Fair emblems mounted on either side of the Escorter. One of them had been installed upside-down and Smith was intent on preserving it just that way.

Signs and Design was able to replicate the original graphics digitally and apply them to the body. One of the few pieces that couldn’t be saved was the front grille.

But Rigidized Metals in Buffalo, N.Y., the company that had supplied the stainless steel for the iconic Unisphere, which came to symbolize the ’64 World’s Fair, was more than happy to crank out a pair of grilles for the Escorter. RPPG of Arkansas City laser-cut the ribbed panel to fit the front of the machine.

Smith was able to track down a set of new, old-stock headlights from a collector online. He also found perhaps the rarest part he needed through the internet, a DuKane musical horn manufactured specifically for the Escorter. It was set up to play the jingle about leaving the driving to Greyhound.

“I found that horn on eBay and bought it for five bucks,” grinned Smith. “It says `Escorter’ right on the side of the box.”

One of the finishing touches was the 1960s GM Gold vinyl upholstery crafted by Rick Fisher Upholstery of Augusta. Both the wide front bench seat and the driver’s two-piece seat were covered in that material.

“Everything on it is either restored, original, or new, old stock,” Smith said.

In the process of tracking down the various components, Smith learned of the two other Escorters still in existence. To his surprise, he was contacted by Disney Studios about using his vehicle in an upcoming movie starring George Clooney and Hugh Laurie titled “Tomorrowland.” It’s expected to be released around Christmas next year.

Smith’s Escorter, in fact, is scheduled to be loaded up Saturday and transported to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the movie will be shot. Smith and his wife, Susan, are considering traveling there to watch the film being made. “I would really like to see all three of them lined up together,” he said.

“This has been a total seat-of-the-pants restoration,” says Smith, who had virtually no previous mechanical experience.

He is justifiably proud of his accomplishment.

“It’s got historical value, nostalgia value and rarity value,” he says of his 50-year-old Escorter.

“This is a piece of New York history right here in Doo-Dah,” he noted. “But I really hope that some day it will find a home back in New York.”

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