The Passing of a Formidable Transit Entrepreneur

April 28, 1958 

Perley Albert Thomas, a transportation entrepreneur who had a significant impact on the streetcar and bus industries in the United States, died in Jacksonville, Florida. Thomas was born in 1874 and grew up on a farm in Ontario, Canada. With a background in machinery and woodworking, he moved to Detroit in 1901 and initially designed yacht hulls for a living.

Thomas eventually began working instead as a design engineer for the streetcar division of the Detroit United Railroad. His career in streetcars construction steadily advanced, and he eventually left Detroit to serve as chief engineer for the Kuhlman Car Company in Cleveland.

A 1920 advertisement for Perley A. Thomas Car Works

In 1909, Thomas became chief engineer of the Southern Car Company in High Point, North Carolina. That company folded in 1914, and about three years later, Thomas founded his own streetcars manufacturing business in High Point. Over the next several years, Perley A. Thomas Car Works enjoyed a strong and enviable reputation for stylish streetcars that were used in many major cities throughout the Western Hemisphere. It was estimated that, by 1924, Thomas Car Works was the fourth largest streetcar manufacturer in the United States.

As streetcars declined in use during the 1930s, Thomas shifted his company’s focus to another type of transportation. In 1936, Thomas Car Works ceased manufacturing streetcars altogether and introduced its first school bus. Thomas’s key innovations for school buses included safety doors that swung outward and all-steel bodies. These breakthroughs in design helped make Thomas Car Works, which ultimately was reorganized as Thomas Built Buses, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of large school buses.

A 1954 advertisement for Thomas Built Buses.

Thomas gradually turned over day-to-day management of the company to his children during the 1940s, but he maintained his involvement as a design consultant until his death. He was inducted into the North Carolina Transportation Hall of Fame in 2004.

Photo Credits:, Inc.

For more information on Perley A. Thomas, please check out and

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