The Wayne Lifestar is a front-engine transit-style school bus produced by Wayne Corporation and its successor Wayne Wheeled Vehicles. It was introduced in 1986 and production continued until the demise of Wayne Wheeled Vehicles in 1995.
The school bus industry of the 1980s was a time of relative turmoil: along with the struggling economy, fewer Americans were school-age than in years past. Several manufacturers would either file for bankruptcy or close their doors by the end of the decade. Innovation and low cost were key to attracting school bus orders. By the mid-1980s, Wayne's best hopes lay in its newest product, a transit-style (Type D) school bus named the Lifestar. Like the Lifeguard conventional (Type C) bus, it featured the continuous longitudinal interior and exterior panels for the sides and roofs.
Prior to 1973, Wayne produced a rear-engined model (on a Chevrolet chassis that year), but after that time, production of transit-style models had been shifted to military and GSA (federal government) orders. These were comparatively expensive, special order units. In a departure from the past, Lifestar was targeted for school bus customers; however, Wayne did not have the manufacturing equipment or capacity to build the chassis in-house. Therefore, identification of an appropriate chassis from an outside supplier to meet engineering, volume, and cost considerations was essential to the project and the future of Lifestar. In the prototype stage, Wayne developed both front- and rear-engine versions of the Lifestar, as the majority of manufacturers (with the exception of Ward, Crown Coach, and Gillig) offered both configurations.
Wayne developed a rear-engine prototype which was built at the Welles plant in Canada, where many Wayne experimental projects had been done over the years. The final decision was to produce the Lifestar only in the front-engine body style, primarily for cost considerations.
A rear-engine model would have been more costly than a front-engine model, and likely would have achieved lower production volumes. Competitors in that market were the Thomas Saf-T-Liner ER and Blue Bird All American RE. Each bus was a premium product; although Thomas built its own chassis for the Saf-T-Liner ER at the time the Lifestar was introduced, production volume for the All American RE was low enough that Blue Bird outsourced its rear-engine chassis until 1988.
The front-engine bus program proved more successful than rear-engine development efforts, and saw production with several different chassis. The initial production run of Lifestars were of a front engine (FE) design; production began in 1986.
General Motors Chassis (1986-1989)
At first, the Lifestar was totally dependent upon the S-7 chassis developed by General Motors, and offered through Chevrolet and GMC dealers.
Initially, the S-7 chassis was not available in large numbers, and in 1989, Wayne suffered a setback when GM announced discontinuation of the unprofitable S-7 product line. Although it was initially utilized by several other body manufacturers (Carpenter and Ward/AmTran), the GM chassis ended production after no other body companies indicated that they would also produce bodies for it.
Asia-Smith Chassis (1988-1989)
One of the larger Wayne bus dealers, Milton H. Smith, a truck and bus dealer and school bus contractor based in Plaistow, New Hampshire, imported chassis for Lifestar bodies. Imported from South Korea with U.S.-manufactured components, the chassis were branded "Asia-Smith"; however, it was not well received in U.S. markets and many sat at Wayne's Indiana plant for an extended time awaiting body orders. Due to the supply issues of the GM S-7, some surplus Asia-Smith chassis ended up with bodies from Ward/AmTran (the Ward President) and from short-lived startup New Bus Company from Oklahoma (the New Bus Chickasha FE).
As General Motors had ceased Type D chassis production and the Asia-Smith chassis was not well-received, Wayne was desperate to find a reliable source of chassis for the Lifestar. In late 1989, a solution was found when Navistar International introduced the 3900, its new-generation Type D front-engine chassis. Although this chassis was shared with several other body manufacturers, the 3900 did not have the supply issues of the GM S-7. The 3900 chassis required modifications to the Lifestar's bodywork; the most visible changes were a 4-piece wrap-around windshield, quad headlights, and a change in the placement of the entry door.
Wayne Lifestar production on the International 3900 chassis began in 1990 and continued until 1992, when Richmond Transportation Corporation, then the parent company of Wayne, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Wayne vs. AmTran
Other body manufacturers also expressed interest in the 3900, and AmTran (still selling buses bearing the Ward brand name) developed a product based upon it, the Ward Senator (which later evolved as the AmTran Genesis); however, AmTran was also working on a rear-engined model using the 3900 components to be fully assembled at its Conway, Arkansas plant utilizing Navistar mechanical components; this saw production as the 1996 AmTran RE. The rear-engine concept promised substantially lower costs than chassis assembled at the Navistar plant at Springfield, Ohio, and in comparison, would put the Wayne Lifestar with the Springfield chassis at a significant price bidding disadvantage in the marketplace.
Crane Carrier Chassis (1993-1995)
After Richmond Transportation Corporation's bankruptcy filing and liquidation in 1992, Wayne was sold to Harsco Corporation and began to do business as Wayne Wheeled Vehicles (WWV). After relocation to Marysville, Ohio, Lifestar production resumed at the end of 1992. One major change to the Lifestar that happened during this transition was the change of chassis supplier from Navistar to Crane Carrier Corporation. Unlike the previous supplier change, few changes were made to the Lifestar's body inside or out; aside from the removal of the Navistar-supplied components, it is difficult to distinguish a 1990-1992 Lifestar from a post-1992 version.
Competition: overcapacity for bodies, lack of in-house chassis
For the 1988 model year, competitor Blue Bird introduced its TC/2000, a Type D model much less costly than its famous All American, which had always been marketed as a premium product offered with front engine and rear engine models. AmTran officials projected that by middle of the 1990 model year, the TC/2000 alone was projected to capture a full 10% of the U.S. school bus market.
Wayne continued to struggle for market share in 1990. In mid-June 1990, the Welles plant in Canada was closed.
In early 1991, Navistar International announced that it had purchased a one third of AmTran, the manufacturer of Ward school bus bodies, and one of Wayne's long-time competitors. This was seen by many industry observers as an ominous sign for Wayne's future, as Navistar was its largest supplier of both conventional and Type D chassis. Wayne had no major alliance to guarantee a source of chassis, nor any in-house capacity to do so.
In August 1992, Richmond Transportation Corporation (RTC) was forced to declare bankruptcy. Assets were sold by a federal bankruptcy judge at auction that fall. Wayne, essentially in name only, lived on as Wayne Wheeled Vehicles until 1995 under different ownership.