Volume 13 | Issue 2 | Year 2010

Dan Harvey provides your ticket to ride on a magical bus trip.

Like Captain Ahab, the purposeful Cripe family harnessed atmospheric electrical discharge. The only difference is that the Cripes were less hubristic – much to their subsequent business benefit and success.

Whereas the obsessive Ahab pointed his harpoon to the heavens, drew St. Elmo’s fire to its tip and defied God to circumvent his mad pursuit, the more grounded Cripe family raised a lightning rod for a much more practical purpose, and in more humble fashion.

It all started in a barn and grew into the Independent Protection Company (IPC), a Goshen, Ind.-based business that still manufactures, installs and services lightning rods. But four decades into development, Henry’s son Earnest C. Cripe developed a vehicular rooftop design that led to creation of a well-grounded transit/specialty vehicle business.

Herman Melville might have written that this was the Gods’ reward for the family’s perseverance and humility. Cripe descendents now helm the widely respected enterprise: the Turtle Top division.

That business is headquartered in New Paris, Ind., and it designs, assembles and tests specialty vehicles—i.e., passenger vans, transit vehicles, mid- to full-size buses, tour and limousine coaches and custom units—that meet the industry’s strictest safety standards.

PLACING A ROOF OVERHEAD
Creative and resourceful, Earnest C. Cripe developed the first Turtle Top and Travel Gear Conversion for a cargo van in 1962. An integral element of this conversion was the liftable roof innovation (nicknamed the “Turtle Top”). “Initially, it was used to help IPC installers and distributors transport and store equipment,” says J.T. (Timm) Bledsoe, Turtle Top’s director of sales and marketing.

But as the invention required no maintenance or repair, it attracted significant attention beyond its basic application. In turn, the company perceived the innovation’s potential value in the travel and recreational market. By 1963, the Cripes created its Turtle Top division.

Initially, this division applied the invention to the manufacture of recreational vehicles (RVs), but through the years, and directed by market circumstances, it focused on other transportation solutions. “For more than a decade, the RV market was robust, but in the late 1970s, when the oil embargo occurred, the market segment pretty much went down the tubes. The company wondered what it would do next,” relates Bledsoe.

RESTING ON “TERRA” FIRMA
It didn’t take too long for Turtle Top to determine its next move. “By 1979, we transitioned into shuttle bus design,” Bledsoe reveals.

As Bledsoe indicates, Turtle Top became a bus manufacturer and developed a reputation for producing the industry’s best-built vehicles. It started with the Terra Transit bus, a vehicle that provides convenient, efficient and dependable transportation. Today, the company specializes in manufacturing small to midsized buses and specialty vehicles built on Chevrolet, Ford and Freightliner chassis. Applications are as versatile as the product range. Transportation market segments that Turtle Top services include churches, colleges and schools; health care organizations; public and emergency transit, government and law enforcement agencies, and hotels and resorts.

Today, both IPC and its Turtle Top division remain privately operated, with fourth-generation Cripe family members running the ship. Turtle Top’s 260 employees work within 10 buildings at its New Paris and Goshen facilities, and the division produces about 1,200 vehicles a year.

In developing its broad range of vehicles, Turtle Top begins with leading chassis manufacturers including Ford, Chevrolet and Freightliner. This enables the division to build a vehicle up from the drive train. The assembly process begins with a welded steel roll cage (think of this as a giant human rib cage) that encompasses the exterior. As far as the interior, the floor is also comprised of steel, and the weight is distributed and transferred to the perimeter’s outer wall, which prevents floor sagging. Turtle Top vehicles also provide other valuable elements, as the company incorporates numerous standard vibration controls that ensure smooth and safe ride. Further, vehicles can be fitted for handicapped transportation, and the high-roof design makes it easier for passengers to move about. Also, customers can choose between diesel and gas-powered engines.

Turtle Top also maintains a network that includes more than 35 distributors located throughout the United States and Canada. Further, the distributors operate comprehensive services centers that satisfy customers during and after sale. All combined elements garnered the company a reputation as one of the industry’s best commercial bus builders.

TRANSPORT ALTERNATIVES
Turtle Top’s premiere products include in Van Terra, a 1998 passenger-transporter introduction that integrates features typically found in mid-size buses but at the size and cost of a van. A viable alternative to larger vehicles, the Van Terra comes in various models with up to 15 passenger capacities. Each model can also be equipped with a wheelchair lift to accommodate physically challenged passengers. Other features include the electric single leaf entry door with enclosed steps, stand-up headroom, and an 18-inch walk-through center aisle for easy access boarding. Also, a one-piece aerodynamic roof prevents leaks and provides greater stability and safety when traveling.

Turtle Top’s bus models also include the Terra Transport. With its large passenger section, the model represents yet another alternative to traditional large passenger vans. Featuring an accommodating passenger section integrated with an advanced General Motors chassis, the Terra Transport provides increased comfort and safety without sacrificing maneuverability.

GROWTH ODYSSEY
Both Van Terra and Terra Transport, with their less crowded passenger capacity, are geared to shuttle bus transport, yet they provide van-like handling as they come without the bulk of a traditional shuttle.

But there’s more, as Bledsoe describes: “The Van Terra and Terra Transport are the smallest vehicles we build and are designed for 15 passengers, but we also manufacture larger units suchas the Odyssey and Odyssey XL, which are larger and longer shuttle buses that can comfortably carry more passengers without compromising safety.”

Both are built on a stiffer and heavier duty cycle truck chassis: The Turtle Top Odyssey is built on the Chevy G-cut 4500 or Ford E-450 for up to 25 passengers, while the Turtle Top Odyssey XL is built on the Ford F550 or Freightliner M-2 26000 GVD for up to 37 passengers.

“We also make the Turtle Top Odyssey XLT, which is built on the Freightliner M-2 31000 GVW Business chassis that accommodates a larger passenger count of up to 47 people,” says Bledsoe.

Turtle Top vehicles are not only noted for their exterior design and safety. Their interiors provide comfort levels that go above and beyond similar vehicles. “Amenities include elements typically found in limousines, such as flat-screen TVs, stereo systems, wraparound seating and solid-wood bars,” says Bledsoe. “But our interiors have a more sophisticated, less garish look and feel. While we provide the latest technology and comfort amenities, our interiors have a plush, corporate-style look, as opposed to the ‘disco’ atmosphere you find within similar products.”

MULTI PURPOSE PRODUCTS
Turtle Top also specializes in MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) units. “These vehicles have been used for prisoner transport and for many medical purposes,” describes Bledsoe.

For prisoner transport, these highly customizable and secure vehicles offer seating, isolation cells and even guard offices – all built upon a rugged, highly maneuverable chassis.

But the vehicles can be designed to meet many specific needs. The possibilities are endless, the company comments. Customers can choose from several floor plans, adapt one to meet specifications, or create their own. Specialized equipment can be installed along with customer lettering and logos. They’ve proved especially useful in the medical arena. Turtle Top’s multi-purpose medical units are versatile, diverse and innovative. The same FMVSS compliant uni-body steel cage construction used in Turtle Top’s buses provide the foundation for mobile medical units. The vehicles have been used a mobile dental and blood donor units, mobile doctors’ offices and veterinary clinics, drug testing clinics, first responder emergency units, eye clinics, exam units and surgical instrument sharpening units. But those applications only represent a few of the many different possibilities.

Turtle Top’s MPV units have also served as mobile sales offices, bookmobiles and command posts. “But whatever the need, we can custom build a safe, secure and versatile vehicle,” says Bledsoe.

FOCUS AREAS
That point emphasizes one of Turtle Top’s main differentiators: The company has always placed customer service as a top priority and is justifiably proud of the reputation that it developed within the automotive industry for quality, service, longevity and integrity. But its vision encompasses greater distances. Specifically, the company is concerned with the environmental impact caused by fossil fuels. As such, it invests considerable time and money into researching the value of alternative power and fuel. Indeed, it seeks to set new standards in these areas.

While its vehicles are, by their nature, already fuel efficient due to passenger capacity, Turtle top recognizes its customer’s alternative energy source requirements. Many customers are being compelled, by legislation, to comply with new anti-idle and fuel efficiency standards and regulations. As such Turtle Top has been aggressive in developing hybrid/alternative fuel vehicles that utilize compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane and electric/gas-powered engine hybrids.

Bledsoe comments on the larger picture: “Fuel costs are the primary driver of this hybrid scenario,” he says. “But people have also become more concerned about pollution.”

Turtle Top is also actively addressing another significant concern about transport, specifically related to the medical arena. “While alternative energy sources is one major industry trend, people are also concerned about transmission of communicable diseases. To address that issue, we’re utilizing Nanocide Antibacterial technology,” says Bledsoe.

Nanocide Antibacterial deployment – not only applicable for hospitals and other healthcare customers, but also for assisted living facilities, hotels, restaurants, public area stadiums and auditoriums, mass transit and sports and fitness facilities – destroys mutated super-bugs, hard-to-kill bacteria, viruses and spores that may find a fertile environment upon upholstery materials. Turtle Top is the only manufacturer that offers a substantial range of clean options.

So, Turtle Top has advanced a long way from its initial “roof ” innovation. It provides innovative solutions for different market segments. But it hasn’t finished yet. Its travel manifest includes the destination: “Further.”

But spell that with an additional “r” – Furrther!

But don’t leave out “faster.” Competition is the complacent hare that finishes far behind this smarter tortoise.