Thomas Built Buses’ founder Perley A. Thomas and the Wright Brothers were among transportation innovators inducted into the North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame in November. John Thomas Jr., grandson of Perley Thomas, accepted the award on behalf of the Thomas family making school bus history.
“In these first inductees, we were looking for people who made significant inroads into the development of transportation in the state,” said David Robinson, CEO and co-founder of the North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame, a non-profit organization formed in 2003.
“Perley stood out because of his work ethic, his dedication, his ability to overcome obstacles and the fact that his company remains a major manufacturer in North Carolina. We felt he was a natural to be in the Hall of Fame.” Other inductees included pioneers in air, rail and auto transportation, and individuals who advanced the state highway system.
“We set a very high standard for these first inductees,” said Robinson. “And, because education is very important to our mission, we were looking for role models, as well. Most of these inductees didn’t start out with much, but they were skilled at what they did and major businesses resulted from their efforts.”
Because the Transportation Hall of Fame does not yet have a building, the Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, will display an exhibit honoring the inductees this spring. Perley Thomas began his career in the early 1900s, working for Southern Car Works, a major streetcar manufacturer based in High Point, North Carolina. In 1916, hard times created by World War I forced the closure of the plant.
Later that year, the Southern Public Utilities Company asked Thomas to put together a crew to renovate several streetcars he had designed for his former employer. Within weeks, he hired many of his former coworkers, purchased a building in downtown High Point and opened Perley A. Thomas Car Works.
Thomas’ company renovated and built high-quality streetcars throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1936, the company ceased production of streetcars and launched a new product: school buses. In 1938, the company introduced the first welded all-steel bus body and pioneered a number of other safety features and design improvements. In the 1940s, Thomas turned over day-to-day operations to his children but continued to provide design expertise. Thomas actively served as a design consultant to the business until his death in 1958 at the age of 84.