by Brian E. Sullivan

Some industry sage once remarked that flexibility is the keynote to success for the independent operator. To support that statement, he could do no better than to choose as an example Cardinal Coach Lines, Ltd. of Calgary, Alberta. In the 23 years of this carrier’s existence, it has dealt variously in rural, industrial, sightseeing, school, commuter and charter services. An index of success is hard to find in the absence of financial data, but if the handy rule of thumb of fleet size were used, an increase from 36 to 65 buses in the past five years might suggest reasonably good performance.

The story begins in Red Deer, a small city in central Alberta, the heart of a prosperous mixed farming and natural gas region. In the spring of 1946, Gordon Sorensen sold one of his bus routes, that running east of the city, to Gerald Weber. Weber called his fledging company Cardinal Coach Lines and with number 1, a red and white Flxible, began daily service over the 150 dusty miles to Veteran. Patronage must have been encouraging, for when the road was graveled that fall to Consort, he added those extra 25 miles.

Expansion was relatively constant in the first few years. In late 1946 or early ’47, a feeder line south of Stettler to Big Valley and Drumheller was added, the daily business being conducted by a 1939 Cadillac La Salle stretch-out acquired from Redcliff Bus Lines of Medicine Hat.

In April of 1947, the firm was incorporated and Jerry’s brother Grant came into the business. Optimism prevailed, for two more runs appeared on the Cardinal route map, one of them representing a purchase, the other a pioneering attempt. The first was the Red Deer–Rimbey–Winfield line, bought from George Wreath and operated with bus 4, a brand new 21-passenger baby Flxible. The other was centered in Caroline from where Western Flyer number 5 ran alternately to Innisfail and Rocky Mountain House.

Adjustments came in 1949. The Sinfield–Red Deer route went to Coachways while Caroline–Rocky and Caroline–Innisfail went to Sorensen (and then to Caroline Bus Lines). But this contraction in mileage was balanced by a very significant addition: Sorensen’s 170-mile Calgary–Three Hills–Stettler run. Cardinal moved its head office to Calgary and tucked four more Clippers (6 through 9) under the roof of a new garage.

Things had begun to stabilize by this time. The Buicks were chugging Loudonville’s finest up and down the hills and coulees of the “Big Country”, performing quite credibly in the gumbo-till mud from Alberta’s glacial past. Like many prairie locals, business was steady, though hardly remarkable. There wasn’t too much opportunity for expansion of scheduled service (at least in any profitable fashion) so the company decided to try its hand at a few industrial and school contracts, using Western Flyer conventionals bought second-hand from Brewster–Rocky Mountain.

These Flyers are particularly interesting as they are the only post-war instance known to the writer of the construction of conventional-pattern coaches by a highway builder. Essentially, Flyer boss John Coval took his regular highway body and mounted it on a truck chassis, resulting in a very tough bus. Although 20 years old, most of these units are still around as baggage vans, “slash crew” (off-highway bush) units, etcetera.

Up until 1958, the only change in certificated routes was the abandonment of the lightly travelled Drumheller–Stettler line. It had changed hands several times, going from the Webers to a Mr. Hachett, to George Wreath and back to Cardinal. The replacement of a slow steam train (competing with the bus on this line) by a fast modern Budd car (courtesy of Canadian National Railways) no doubt helped to hasten the end.

1958 was a significant year, though. The Flxibles had taken a beating with ten years of rough roads and some used Couriers bought to replace them were no help. (They were just as old and apparently just as weary.) This, plus the slow business climate of 1957-58, prompted the sale of Calgary–Stettler and Red Deer–Stettler–Consort back to Sorensen and marked a critical turning point in Cardinal’s history. For now, the industrial and school runs begun a few years earlier would become the company’s bread and butter, as sightseeing and commuter operations (to become important in later years) were just being initiated.

Just before selling the Stettler lines to Sorensen, Grant and Jerry acquired Harvey St. Denis’ Calgary–Turner Valley line. St. Denis owned Caroline Bus Lines which, from 1954, had been running from Calgary up some back roads to Caroline, a distance of about 100 miles. The Turner Valley line originally belonged to Calgary motorbus entrepreneur, Felix Mongdon. After his death, it passed to Moran Transportation who in turn sold it to Caroline. Caroline didn’t have it long though: their Calgary–Caroline line was a financial drain, and the equipment in use on the Valley line was in poor shape. When Cardinal took over, they placed a Clipper on the line, later going to a Motor Coach Industries’ Courier 50. Most importantly, as the result of a bit of elementary market research, they discovered the key to enough traffic for a successful operation: the small towns on the line (Okotoks, Black Diamond and Turner Valley) were changing in nature from agricultural centers to dormitory towns for the city of Calgary. Some rapid mental calculations along with sharp pencil and the line changed in tone from a market bus to a commuter service, with immediately favourable results.

Foothills Sightseeing was purchased in l958, from Mr. Vern Brophy who had set up shop three years previously. Foothills Sightseeing competed for a while with the Calgary Gray Line (jointly owned by Brewster–Rocky Mountain Gray Line of Banff and United Cabs). Brewster suggested a merger and one eventually came off: 50 percent Brewster owned and 50 percent Cardinal. With that, glass-topped Flyer number 33 (in the Foothills Sightseeing–Cardinal numbering scheme) became Calgary Gray Line G1, to be joined soon after by a similar coach, G2. In 1964, the Webers purchased Brewster’s 50 percent.

The company’s ventures have been successful and have accounted for the addition of many conventionals to the fleet. The first one (other than the Flyers mentioned previously) was 27. In the late fifties and early sixties many more were added, some new and some used. Conventionals on industrial service are in the highway livery (red and white) and are often modified with suburban or reclining seats.

In 1960, Cardinal sold the Turner Valley line to Sorensen. He used Courier 95s and Courier 200s on it, and cut back an extension to Longview pioneered by Caroline and kept by Cardinal. There were no commuters living in Longview, and few shoppers.

For two years, Cardinal went without a scheduled run, other than the summer sightseeing. Then, in 1962, Cardinal bought the Valley line back from Sorensen and installed a V-6 (gasoline) powered MCI Courier 85 (number 81) with 41 suburban seats. The line has continued with Cardinal to this day, presently commanding a diesel-powered model 95 Courier numbered 96.

Charters and contract work account for the greatest volume of activity today and will likely do so in the future. If past performance is an indication, however, any changes in the composition of the market for motorbus services will see a quick adjustment on the part of Cardinal.

bus drawings
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