In October 1998, the company was taken over by Freightliner, which since 1981 had been part of the DaimlerChrysler Group. At the time of the takeover, a new plant in High Point, where the Minotour is now produced, had almost been completed. Its new status as part of a worldwide group opened up new opportunities for Thomas Built Buses, although from now on it was to focus solely on its core business as a school bus manufacturer. The plant in Ontario, Canada, which was also the location of Orion, another bus building company owned by DaimlerChrysler, closed down at the end of 2001. In place of the Canadian operation, Thomas announced plans to build yet another state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in High Point, solely dedicated to production of the latest model of the Saf-T-Liner, the C2.
Meanwhile, a joint venture was set up in 1999 between Thomas Built Buses and the British manufacturer Dennis, at that time owned by the Mayflower group. The aim was to develop a low-floor city bus for the American market. The Dennis Dart became the model for the SLF, the first Thomas low-floor bus. This was followed by further variants, sold under the Orion brand since 2003 by Daimler Chrysler Commercial Buses North America (DCCBNA), based at Greensboro, North Carolina. At the same time, Setra again started making inroads into the American market with the TopClass bus. Daimler Chrysler purchased all Dennis’s shares, in order to coordinate all coach and bus activities under the Dodge, Orion, and Setra brands under the umbrella of DCCBNA.
Focus on core business: School buses with leading-edge technology
Today, the name Thomas Built Buses is again synonymous with safe, reliable, state-of-the-art buses made in High Point, North Carolina. In November 2003, Thomas launched its new Saf-T-Liner C2 model, in production since August 2004 at the new ISO 14001-certified plant in High Point. The company has invested a total of $39.7 million in this plant, designed to produce 22 units a day in the first instance, with provision for expansion to twice that figure. On a 1.2-kilometer automated conveyer line, the bus passes through 75 stations, from the assembly line to the robot-operated paint shop and the finishing line to complete the process. The production operation features the use of leading-edge technology, including the combination of adhesive and self-piercing rivet joints.
The Saf-T-Liner C2 is very different from earlier school bus models, even in terms of its outward appearance. Enhanced visibility is provided by a very large, undivided front windshield (trucks in the U.S. often still have a divided windshield) and a steeply sloped, clearly rounded hood. The 55-degree steering lock and modern, clearly laid-out driver workstation with non-reflective fittings make the driver’s job easier. The combined rivet and adhesive joint system has been tested as twice as durable a rivet-only joint. The onboard diagnosis system simplifies servicing and repair operations.
The economical Mercedes-Benz MBE 906 engine is characterized by low emissions (complying with the US standard EPA 2004) and high torque, delivering up to 250 hp. As an option, the Saf-T-Liner C2 can also be supplied with a Cummins ISB engine. Along with the Saf-T-Liner C2, on a Freightliner chassis, and the Minotour, Thomas still sells an older cab-behind-engine model on an FS-65 chassis (the last order for the FS-65 was taken in May 2006; production ended in October 2006) and the modern cab-over-engine Saf-T-Liner HDX model, which replaced the older Saf-T-Liner ER and HD models in 2002. The HDX is also available with a Mercedes-Benz MBE 906 engine, delivering up to 280 hp, a Caterpillar diesel engine with a maximum power rating of 300 hp, or a John Deere natural gas engine.