The Thomas Saf-T-Liner is the name of the transit-style (Type D) school bus product line produced by Thomas Built Buses. Introduced in 1978, the Saf-T-Liner marked the transition to in-house chassis production by Thomas. In addition to school bus applications, variations of the Saf-T-Liner have been produced as activity buses, specialty vehicles, and commercial/transit buses.
Prior to its reorganization as Thomas Built Buses in 1972, Thomas Car Works produced both front and rear-engined transit-style school buses to compete with other manufacturers. As was the common practice during the era, the chassis was outsourced to another manufacturer. Thomas offered its transit-style buses on a wide variety of chassis in comparison to other manufacturers (changing between Dodge, Ford, GMC, International Harvester, and Volvo). In contrast, Blue Bird, then the largest school bus manufacturer in the United States, manufactured its own chassis (as did West Coast manufacturer Gillig). In 1978, coinciding with an updated body design necessitated by federal school bus safety regulations, Thomas became its own chassis manufacturer with the launch of the Saf-T-Liner EF and ER (EF=Engine Front, ER=Engine Rear).
In 2001, Thomas introduced a replacement for the Saf-T-Liner ER and the rare WestcoastER, naming it the Thomas Saf-T-Liner HD (HD=Heavy Duty). From the rear and the sides, the HD looked much the same as its predecessor, but from the front, the changes were far more extensive. The 4-piece windshield shared by the ER, the MVP ER, and the WestcoastER was replaced by a larger 2-piece curved unit. Other changes reflected the company's late 1990s acquisition by Freightliner. The halogen headlights were replaced by units sourced from the Century Class Class 8 conventional, while the instrument panel was used in Freightliner and Sterling trucks. The drivers' compartment was redesigned, featuring a center-mounted instrument panel in order to improve forward sightlines. A distinguishing feature of the HD's redesign was the design of the mirrors. Both sets of sideview mirrors (flat and convex) as well as the blind-zone crossview mirrors were integrated into a single set, mounted from a high-mounted bracket. This improved the aerodynamics of the bus; as well as eliminated the problem of looking around mirror mounting systems in blind zones. Other changes were intended for the HD to accommodate a wide variety of bus drivers. The HD included a fully adjustable driver's seat, a tilt/telescoping steering column, and an optional adjustable pedal cluster.
In the fall of 2011, the Thomas Saf-T-Liner EF was given its most extensive redesign since 1991. As part of the redesign, it was re-branded the EFX, bringing its naming in line with the rear-engine HDX model. The EFX and the HDX also share the same roof cap design; a large 2-piece curved windshield replaced the 4-pane flat glass unit used previously. Aside from the front grille, the EFX is also distinguished by its use of separate crossview mirrors instead of the integrated units seen on the HDX. Inside, the interior is sourced from the 2010 update of the EF; the gauge cluster (sourced from Freightliner) is now offset towards the center of the bus.
Introduced in 1978, this model underwent minor redesigns during the 1980s that reduced its chrome trim. In 1984, it received rectangular headlights. However, as lower-cost front-engine transits came onto the market in the late 1980s and early 1980s, this model was gradually replaced by the All Star EF and the Saf-T-Liner MVP EF. Today, the Saf-T-Liner EF name lives on as the MVP-series EF lost its prefix in 2007.
Standing for Maneuverability, Visibility, and Protection, the MVP series of the Saf-T-Liner represented their first substantial update. Introduced as new series for 1991, the MVP represented Thomas's entry into lower-cost Type D school buses, a segment created by the Blue Bird TC/2000 and Wayne Lifestar. From the outside, the MVP EF and ER had much larger windshields, and updated drivers compartments. To distinguish them from the Saf-T-Liner ER, the MVP series had dual headlights instead of quad headlights. In 2004, the MVP ER was discontinued as Thomas replaced it and the Saf-T-Liner HD with the HDX. The MVP EF, with minor updates in 2007 and 2010, was produced until it was replaced by the EFX, introduced in 2011.
Introduced in 1978, the ER was produced through the 1980s with relatively few detail changes. In 1984, the headlights and front turn signals were switched from round to rectangular units. In 1991, the driver's compartment was redesigned, with a much larger windshield. During the late 1990s, this model was distinguished from MVP-series ERs by its optional black plastic headlight trim.
Shortly after the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner ER, this variant was introduced by Thomas for West Coast markets (primarily California and Washington State). To better compete with the Crown Supercoaches and Gillig Transit Coaches that had long dominated West Coast school bus sales, Thomas upgraded the Saf-T-Liner ER with heavier duty components; this upgrade was not done to the EF. Additionally, on 90-passenger models, a second rear axle was an option. As it was a regionally-focused model, the WestCoastER did not sell in large numbers. However, as Crown Coach and Gillig both exited the school bus industry in the early 1990s, Thomas gained significant ground on the West Coast.