When Gary O’Brien was a first-grade student in Plymouth, N.C., he never imagined his life-long interest and career would be sparked by the bus he was riding every day to school. When the old, leaky bus he rode was replaced with a new Thomas Built, his inspiration grew into a lifelong passion, fueled over time by driving buses for his own alma mater and later by a personal visit from John Thomas Jr., former president of the company. Now owner and operator of O’Brien Bus Service in Beltsville, Md., O’Brien spends much of his time figuring out how to find and preserve vintage Thomas buses like the ones he rode as a kid.
“Thomas has played a large role in the course of my life,” said Gary O’Brien. “The tradition of the Thomas name in my childhood is something that has stayed with me, and I’m proud to continue that legacy in the work I do as an adult.”
In 2008, O’Brien and some of his bus-loving friends and colleagues came together on a project to restore a 1978 Ford Thomas, the same one that carried O’Brien’s high school marching band.
“We found it completely overgrown on a farm, just sitting in disrepair,” said O’Brien. “I thought for a minute about what I was getting myself into, but I knew this labor of love would be well worth the effort.”
Working with Arnold Automotive in Lexington, N.C., O’Brien’s team, which included several Thomas employees, used 95 percent recycled Thomas parts to rebuild the bus to look and run like new. Arnold Automotive employs people with more than 190 combined years of experience working on Thomas buses, and this was their third full restoration of a Thomas. The first was a 1940 model now housed in the North Carolina Transportation Museum.
“A lot of heart went into this bus,” continued O’Brien. “In fact, we realized that the electrician doing the restoration was the same guy who did the original wiring. He recognized his own signature work inside the bus! It’s just fitting to have that kind of connection to this bus.”
Striving to achieve the nostalgic look of the 1978 design paired with the safety and durability of newer parts, the restoration team brought the old activity bus through inspection and into operation. After the blue and gold paint was dry, O’Brien drove it on a tour to share the finished project with everyone who had a hand in it, including Thomas Built friends and employees in High Point, as well as the director and students from his own Plymouth High School band.
“I’m not the only one who’s passionate about Thomas buses,” said O’Brien. “The people who worked on this bus all shared a connection to Thomas in some way, and I’d encourage other bus enthusiasts out there to enjoy the rewards of taking on similar projects.”