Buses : Happy Birthday to the AEC Routemaster!

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

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The Routemaster 60 gathering in Finsbury Park attracted over 100 fully operational RM vehicles of all classes from the standard bus to the long wheelbase RMLC coach.

 

London – a place that Alan Partridge avoided like the plague, unless being summoned to television centre by his BBC Controller nemesis Tony Hayers. Alan claimed that visitors to our great metropolis would be either “mugged or not appreciated” but whatever your views and opinions about London may be, it’s certainly an influential city.

So what exactly is the most recognisable image when it comes to painting a mental picture of our capital City? Screaming police cars, bumper to bumper traffic queues on the Hanger Lane gyratory or the joys of your head being nestled into a stranger’s sweaty armpit on the Circle line. But keeping to the automotive theme, the typical red London bus has to be what any visitor expects to see while strolling down the Strand (`ave a banana) – and its celebrating a birthday!

The world famous AEC Routemaster celebrates its 60th birthday this year. First introduced way back in 1954, it ushered many radical ideas that nearly all modern buses feature such as automatic transmission, power steering and even fully independent double wishbone front suspension. Your average decker in the provinces still utilised leaf springs, a crash type non synchromesh gearbox and brutal non assisted steering.

Forget the happy jovial world of Stan, Jack and Inspector Blake – driving a bus a few generations ago was a soul destroying, noisy, laborious and poorly paid job. It was difficult to recruit drivers – much as it is today but even more compounded once you take into account the torturous traffic and commuter levels in the major cities such as London, Birmingham and Glasgow. In a similar way as the railways went for diesel traction over steam in the order of modernisation, London Transport (LT) needed to change too.

As part of an extensive programme shared between LT and AEC, the Routemaster (RM) first plodded the streets in prototype form in 1954 with chassis and running gear from Southall based AEC with integral body construction from North West London’s Park Royal Coachworks. Despite the RM offering a higher seating capacity than the class it was replacing – the RT, it weighed 700kg less thanks to extensive weight saving practices – many of which were industry firsts.

For example, the bulk of the bodywork was alloy based and much of the incidental fixtures such as the headlamp fairings and bonnet were constructed of fibreglass or plastic wherever possible. Full scale production as we know them today ran from 1958 to 1968 whereby almost 3000 were produced. Even though it could be sold on the open market to any UK operator, very few were sold outside London – the modern and radical build being too much for traditional operators such as the integral construction and subframes for running gear and suspension components.

The beating heart of the standard Routemaster - The AEC AV590 9.6 litre engine. The Leyland 0.600 or larger AV690 were optional.
The beating heart of the standard Routemaster – The AEC AV590 9.6 litre engine. The Leyland 0.600 or larger AV690 were optional.

Airline carrier BEA bought a small fleet but the only bus operator to buy the RM outside the capital was Tyneside based Northern General, and even then they insisted in using a 0.600 Leyland power unit over the standard AEC 9.6 litre engine. The power steering and fully automatic gearbox allied with a light unladen weight made the buses popular with drivers thanks to decent acceleration and ease of operation – even today; they are still good to drive with a supple ride and its dreamy powertrain soundtrack harking back to halcyon times.

The revolutionary servo hydraulic brakes operated in a progressive car like fashion and a generous friction area promised a long life between lining replacement. As the range expanded with longer wheelbase and coach versions (RML & RMC) a larger engine was specified by fitting a de-rated version of AEC’s AV690 truck engine and a higher final drive ratio. London Country and BEA vehicles in RMC spec would easily cruise along at 70mph back in days of the newly opened M4 towards Heathrow.

The London Transport Aldenham works was the worlds largest bus overhaul facility built at a time before competition in the industry. An RM is seen here going through a mid life rebuild, it closed in 1986.
The London Transport Aldenham works was the worlds largest bus overhaul facility built at a time before competition in the industry. An RM is seen here going through a mid life rebuild. Aldenham closed in late 1986.

Despite having an intended lifespan of 17 years, the RM class went on to out-live many of the newer models that were intended to replace them. The fuel efficiency and cost of operation just couldn’t be beaten and the standard of maintenance from the regional depots and the vast Aldenham and Chiswick works ensured the RM gave a very long and generally trouble free life in some of the most intense and arduous operational environments in the world. Aldenham was by far the worlds largest self contained bus workshop. So thorough was the quality of workmanship that it’s generally accepted that the long service life of the RM was attributed to this facility.

In full swing Aldenham could overhaul and refurbish 50 buses a week and nothing was left out – seats, panels, wiring, driveline and shot blasting of the chassis were just the tip of the engineering iceberg which took place, on average, every five years on the RM regardless of visual condition. The RM suited London perfectly with the famous hop on and off rear platform and subsequent replacement buses from Daimler, Leyland and an unlikely and unsuccessful joint project with MCW-Scania failed to capture the hearts of the travelling public.

The experimental FRM was a front entrance rear engined version of the Routemaster. LT dropped the idea in favour of "off the peg" rear engined buses from British Leyland and MCW.
The experimental FRM was a front entrance rear engined version of the Routemaster. LT dropped the idea in favour of “off the peg” rear engined buses from British Leyland and MCW.

 

Funding cutbacks and the popularity of the motor car started to bite LT. Even though the RM was amazingly frugal and cheap to run, the staffing costs were high and one man operation (OMO) was becoming commonplace – was it was the end of the clippie? But a conductor meant the bus could collect passengers far quicker and he / she also did wonders for public relations. Regardless, LT looked long and hard into OMO buses and set up a feasibility study with a view to cutting back labour costs. LT was eventually to learn that the RM was pretty much perfect for London working but not before some costly mistakes had been made.

Daimler and Leyland had pretty much perfected a rear engined OMO bus with the Fleetline and Atlantean, LT also saw potential. A front entrance rear engined Routemaster (FRM) was developed and despite the fact it was modern and well made using many proven components, it was too costly and over complicated.  AEC and LT dropped the idea but the prototype continued on in service and ended its PSV days on sightseeing duties. All subsequent double deck buses for London after 1968 would be from outside manufacturers -notably Daimler who developed a revised Fleetline for LT known as the DMS. The Daimler was intended to fully replace the RM… it was not to be, the DMS proved to be a problem child.

The RM became romantically tied with everyday London life and the early `90s witnessed a massive re-engineering programme to re-power the buses with modern low emission engines from Cummins, Iveco and Scania. While most other UK operators half cab double deck buses had been banished to the breakers, the preservation scene or become a road-side cafe, the RM continued to ply its trade. As modern equivalents started to eventually oust the RM from London, other operators snapped them up for use in local competition bus services or for wedding hire and chauffeur businesses.

Of almost 3000 in total built almost 1300 still survive in existence to this day in all four corners of the world too! Despite the unquestionable success of the RM in the capital, it cost a fortune to initially develop and build the RM and the massive overhaul works at Aldenham and Chiswick. Both of which sadly became surplus to requirements and were closed when the bus market contracted and opened up to competition leaving regional depots to untertake all heavy period and scheduled work. It had its doubters of advanced technology too with one well known and influential chief engineer saying on record “it was so brilliant that no-one else beyond London wanted it”

The Routemaster 60 gathering at Finsbury Park London saw over 100 running class members on display. This example is one of the early prototype vehicles from 1954.
The Routemaster 60 gathering at Finsbury Park London saw over 100 running class members on display. This example is one of the early prototype vehicles from 1954.

The current climates of emissions, health and safety along with disability regulations eventually called time on the RM a few years back but the RM continued to influence new designs. The NBFL or Boris-master as its better known takes the RM theme into the 21st century with hybrid power and more than obvious cues from the RM in terms of body styling, seat trim pattern and of course the… classic rear platform area. Will it still be tramping the roads of London sixty years from now is open to debate!

Today, a small handful of RM’s still operate on tourist routes in the capital although the requirement is soon to be reduced to just one. Transport for London (TFL) is celebrating 100 years of the bus in London as well as 60 years of the RM and a recent event held over a July weekend featured a gathering of over 100 varying classes of London’s legendary RM. AROnline visited the Routemaster 60 gathering and we can confirm that the love and affection for the worlds most recognisable bus from passengers and drivers is as strong as ever.

Happy Birthday to the AEC Routemaster!

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

15 Comments

  1. Excellent story and fascinating how they used to rebuilt them every 5 years, I’ve only ever been on a couple while visiting London and I traveled to Niagara falls on one, because they have one or two for tourist in Niagara.

    They are a British icon for sure and a huge tourist attraction for the capital, such a shame they had to be retired, only time will tell if the new Boris buses will have the same stamina and attraction.

  2. The Routemaster survived so long in London because they were the last open platform bus London bought (until the NBFL). I remember how much quicker the RMs were than the Ms and Ts, as drivers on those buses struggled with cash payments and change, and being able to hop off when you like is one of life’s little (dangerous) pleasures!

  3. Also worth mentioning that after de-regulation ex-London RMs were used in many cities on competitive routes. Glasgow in particular was full of them for a while when Kelvin Scottish and Stagecoach used them. The biggest concentration in the UK at the moment (as far as I know) is with Lothian Buses, who operate a fleet of open-top long wheelbase RMs within their Edinburgh Tours operation. The Lothian RMs are worthy of an article in themselves as they must be the most rebuilt PSVs still in use (open top conversion, lengthened by cut & shut, new drive train and platform doors).

  4. A curious and perhaps intersting (to some) practice carried out by LT on RMs and most other types until the early 80s with the blessing of the Department of Transport – legalised ringing!

    The works at Aldenham, near Watford, carried out the body & structure overhaul work (Chiswick did engines and gearboxes, fluid flywheels and brakes) and LT practiced the, I think, unique practice of switching identities between vehicles, using what was known as the “works float”.

    Such was the almost total interchangeability of components that the original identities of the vehicles became thoroughly mixed. The only constant identities were the bodies, front subframe (A) and the rear subframe (B). Ignoring the prototypes, the buses were built such that RM5, numerically the first production bus originally had body No5, front A frame A5 and rear subframe B5.

    When the first overhaul programme started in around 1962, a number of buses disappeared off the road to provide the works float i.e. they were stripped down to provide the pool of spares for the incoming vehicles, now existing only on paper. The works float vehicles were passed through the overhaul process and thus were ready for the fleet to start passing through the factory.

    Say RM25 appears in for overhaul carrying body 25, subframe A25 and B25, the bus was cleaned, and then the bus body was lifted and placed in a cradle for body attention. The front and rear sub-frames were sent off for suspension and brake attention and painting. Suspension took less time to work on than the bodies and so to avoid the parts cluttering up the works, they were married up with the next ready body, probably a different one to that which it came in with.

    The bus would be completed, tested and painted and would take the identity of the bus that had just entered works. The fleet numbers would swap places and the tax disc would be transferred to the departing vehicle. This transfer of identities meant that the buses in works were not road licenced, and the transfer of identities resulted in a considerable saving in road tax.

    Thus, the works float was effectively the work in progress – the vehicles undergoing work.

    Taking our example of RM25 entering Aldenham works in the morning, another RM25 would leave the works in the afternoon, but a completely different bus with a new identity, while the original RM25 was being stripped down to its parts. By the time this type of overhaul ended in 1982 when the accountants started running down Aldenham, most buses would have swapped identities three of four times.

    A bus garage could send a vehicle off to Aldenham for overhaul and could receive another bus from Aldenham the same day, to replace it with the same fleet number, fresh from works, perhaps even delivered by the same driver!

    A few “celebrity” vehicles kept their own bodies – the last one, RML2760, never changed, but virtually every one else did.

    The works closed in 1986 but was shown at the beginning of the Cliff Richard Film “Summer Holiday”, shot during the summer shutdown in 1962 and on the film “Overhaul” (which is on Youtube). The attention to detail of the process was the main reason that London buses often had service lives of over 40 years.

  5. Great article & @Alasdair, thank you for the extra info & video link. For anyone looking for it on YouTube; copy the following; aldenham works routemaster london transport

    That will take you to the video, which is about 14 minutes long 🙂

  6. No problem. The Aldenham concept was very ambitious, and could only have worked in a city like London where there were vast fleets of almost identical vehicles – something like 7500 buses when Aldenham opened in 1956. The RT family that preceded the Routemasters numbered over 4500 on its own.

    It was a very efficient use of vehicles as they were turned round very quickly due to the works float system and as mentioned, a bus into works would be replaced on the road with a freshly rebuilt one almost immediately.

    The RT and Routemaster fitted perfectly into the Aldenham concept – indeed the factory was designed around their maintenance requirements. As LT were directed to buy “off the Peg” vehicles with the coming of the Government backed “Bus Grant”, the variety of the fleet grew with many more types of bus in smaller fleets not suited to the flow line concept of work.

    Another blow was the split of the LT Country division (green) from the LT Central area (red) in 1970, becoming a division of the National Bus Company, dramatically reduced the fleet size and the workload for the workshops.

    The standard vehicles purchased after the Routemaster were generally not suited to the Aldenham concept – indeed many did not last long enough in service to recieve an overhaul. Consequently, with decreasing work and the very existence of LT being questioned, the operation of this huge works became uneconomic, leading to its inevitable closure in 1986.

  7. To myself, living outside London, the Routemaster is an enigma. On one hand, the design probably represented the ultimate on traditional front-engined half-cab design. Indeed, due to its longevity, to many people it has become the generic term for that design of bus in the same way that Hoover has for vacuum cleaners and Transit for vans. On the other it was probably responsible for wrongly influencing the decision makers of London Transport (LT) and led to, in no small part, indirectly to the demise of British Leyland itself. Indeed, it’s due to London’s rose-tinted fondness for the Routemaster that it’s still influencing its transport needs now. That being demonstrated by the decision to name those silly Borismasters as ‘New Routemaster’.

    That the Routemaster was a technical achievement is beyond reproach. However, by the time it was launched, it was clear, despite its high technical standards, that this was not the way forward. Leyland was experimenting with rear-engines in buses as early as the mid-fifties, around the same time as the Routemaster was being developed. This led to the Lowloader prototypes – think a half-cab bus with a small Leyland engine built into the rear-entrance and lots of emptiness under the front bonnet. This led to the Atlantean and the rest is history. Daimler then joined the fray with the Fleetline and it was clear that future double-deckers would not be front-engined. Well – if you exclude the Guy Wulfrian. Or the Volvo Ailsa…..

    However a sense of the ‘Not invented here’ syndrome befuddled LT at the time and it continued to order Routemasters. That 2,760 were built is by any standard no mean achievement but it has to be set against it only being bought by three customers. Indeed, it was really only two as the BEA services were operated by LT. On the basis of customers that bought it, the Foden NC was more successful. And it sold a grand total of seven. However, the Routemaster and London were a perfect match. The Routemaster’s ability to be separated from its body suited LT’s over-the-top maintenance style and London’s arduous conditions suited the Routemaster.

    However, the clear acceptance by many operators of the Atlantean and the Fleetline left AEC realising that it couldn’t carry on producing a bus which clearly was only desired by one customer, no matter how powerful that customer was. This became more essential with the introduction of the Bus Grant where the Government paid 25% of the cost where the vehicle was suitable for one-person-operation. So it took standard Routemaster components, and re-arranged them into a rear-engined vehicle – the FRM. This was developed at the bequest of LT who had tried – and instantly disliked – trial batches of Atlanteans and Fleetlines. Again, shades of not invented here. These were the XA and XF class.

    I actually saw the FRM when it visited Greenock as part of an open day at Clydeside Scottish’s depot there – the furthest it had visited outside London. What struck me was how old fashioned it looked compared to say an equivalent Alexander bodied Atlantean of the time. The FRM never stood a chance. It’s primary customer was going through a short-lived infatuation with buses like the Merlin and Swift, it was seen as too specialist for other customers and you got the impression that BL, of which AEC had become, was perfectly happy to quietly forget the bus and let it be filed under interesting one-offs.

    By the time LT decided that double-deckers had a future, it stocked up on Daimler/Leyland Fleetlines. Like most Fleetlines they were fine buses – once all the London foibles had been removed – but it yearned for a bus like an updated Routemaster. BL unwisely allowed LT to influence too much the specification of its new double-decker which eventually arrived as the Leyland Titan. Again operators outside London took one look and said no thanks despite the millions ploughed into its development. A fine bus wasted.

    With deregulation the Routemaster found a second life outside London as many operators in this brave new world figured conductors may speed up boarding times, offering a competitive advantage. However that needs to be set aside as really, the Routemaster was the only such bus available for conductor use in any quantity.

    So was the Routemaster a success or failure? The ones left in London have had so much spent on them they’ve become the equivalent of Concorde in that they only make sense in subsidy-rich London. In the same way as the New Routemaster will only be ordered by TfL. However as a style-icon they’ve become a symbol of United Kingdom, such as Beefeaters, Red Phone Boxes and Big Ben. So for that reason, if any, they deserve recognition. Happy birthday Routemaster.

  8. Aldenham, was the works originally intended for the overhaul of tube train stock? The Northern line extension which was constructed in the 1930s but abandoned due to WW2, the economy too poor to complete the construction project despite being more than 50% near complete.

  9. Aldenham was almost ready to be used as a railway stock depot when the war broke out (track was being laid). It was hastily refitted as a factory for producing Handley Page Halifax bombers as part of the London Aircraft Production consortium (LT, Duple Coachwork, Park Royal Vehicles and Handley Page). The major assemblies were transported by road to HPs airfield at Radlett for final assembly and test flight.

    The site was used temporarily as a bus works to deal with the war weary fleet before becoming the permanent body works for the LT empire in 1956.

  10. West Midlands PTE did buy a small number of Titans in 1979, to run alongside their large fleets of Daimler Fleetlines and Metrobuses. London Buses bought this small fleet of Titans in May 1984, WDA 1T to WDA 5T, gaining fleet numbers T1126-30. They were used on special services or as trainers and were never fully integrated with the general fleet.

    They were mechanically similar to the London examples but were single door unlike the London vehicles.

    One of the issues that put off potential buyers was the fact that the Titan was an integral structure with no separate chassis and couldn’t be bodied by other builders, unlike the Olympian that followed.

    Production issues plagued Titan production, particularly the earlier examples built at Park Royal. The factory along with AEC at Southall was threatened with closure and industrial relations were consequently poor, leading to extensive delays in deliveries. Production then moved to Lilleyhall and then to Workington and the Leyland National Factory.

    The website you mention is very good, but I have noticed a number of broken web links in recent times.

  11. Richard / Alasdair…

    The cancelled orders ran into the hundreds. It wasn’t just nationwide orders that got cancelled but LT orders too. MCW made great leaps thanks to the production debacle with the Titan.

    A little known fact is that both C.H Roe and E.C.W were also earmarked for Titan production but turned it away because of build complications and extra money being demanded by the union led workers.

    The main reason for other operators shying away was twofold:

    A – It was too fancy in construction with items like the bespoke wiring and diagnostic systems
    B – There was only one height option (no low bridge option)
    C – Atlantean’s and VR’s were all the rural operators wanted – it was about 3 years ahead of its time.
    D – Nothing was learnt by the Routemaster and DMS (Fleetline) …. operators outside London didn’t (and still don’t) want to know about buses specced up for LT with bespoke braking systems, fully auto boxes, air suspension et al.

    But in fairness, the Titan was a damn good bus that drove well and lasted a very long time, what really buggered it up was by the time full B15 production got underway, Olympian was being developed. By that time, LT had awoken, got a good whiff of the Kenco and realised their buying, design and maintenance policies were a waste of time, money and effort.

    There was nothing wrong with traditional local depot servicing levels and chassis / bodies bought pretty much off the peg like the Olympian, Volvo Citybus, Metrobus and so on. London Transport truly thought they were in a bubble and were unique to anyone and everyone else with an “our way or no way” attitude.

    Hmmn…. hang on a mo… that sounds like Leyland’s style in later years!

  12. Richard/Alasdair

    Another aspect of the Titan that’s generally not known is that British Leyland (BL) realised fairly early on in its development that the integral construction and lack of a low-height option would be a significant barrier to sales, particular where the state owned fleets were concerned of the National Bus Company (NBC) and the Scottish Bus Group (SBG). On top if that, many of the large Passenger Transport Executive (PTE) fleets preferred a specific bodybuilder.

    So it entered into tentative discussions with Northern Counties Motor Engineering of Wigan who was a significant supplier to Greater Manchester Transport amongst others and Walter Alexander & Sons Limited of Falkirk, who practically had a monopoly in Scotland and Northern Ireland at the time as well as being a significant supplier to the PTE fleets of Newcastle, Liverpool and South Yorkshire. These discussions surrounded Leyland allowing both bodybuilders to build the Titan under licence for their respective customers.

    The exact details of what this licence was are unclear. Whether the Titan would be assembled Completely Knocked Down (CKD) or whether the bodybuilders would have been able to assemble their own bodywork – however personally the thought of an Alexander R-type bodied Titan is mouthwatering. The talks eventually came to nothing. The bodybuilders may have felt the CKD buses were not for their workforce. Of course it could have been the case that BL got wind that Norghern Counties was developing a rival for the Titan in the Foden-NC. Likewise Alexander was also pursuing a rival which eventually appeared as the Volvo Ailsa. Both bodybuilders had encouraged development of these buses with a view to protecting their businesses had Leyland launched its integral Titan. Likewise MCW was developing the Metrobus and the other major builder, East Lancs, was involved with Dennis, who were developing the Dominator (great name for a bus).

    On top of the buses that arrived for Manchester and West Midlands, Greater Glasgow PTE had ordered five Titans and Leyland went as far as to show TItan Protype number 02 in GGPTE livery at the 1977 Scottish Motor Show. Alas, these were never delivered. There was also a similar number of Titans on order for SBG fleet Fife Scottish, which was unusual in SBG fleets in not having a need for low-height buses. However both orders were cancelled as BL encouraged customers to wait for the Olympian, which had ironically been developed as a low-height version of the Titan. In the end, Fife received some Ailsas.

    So the farthest north the Titan made it for new deliveries was Manchester. However, a Titan demonstrater was built which eventually ended up in the fleet of Ian Glass of Haddington. This company was bought over by former SBG fleet Lowland Omnibuses. So eventually – and in a rounabout way – SBG got a Titan.

    I had the pleasure of a ride on a Titan in Glasgow when Stagecoach used some on competitive services in Glasgow against Firstbus. Despite their age – the buses were nudging 20 years old at this point – they were superb vehicles. You felt this was a fabulous bus – a Concorde of the road. Smooth, spacious and a delight to be on. However it was mixed emotions. Had London not unwisely influenced the bus it would have sold better – but it was these aspects that made it such a good bus.

    It could also be argued that history is repeating itself now with the New Routemaster (Borismaster). Is it really that much better than a Gemini 3 or new style Enviro 400. Questionable, especially compared to the Enviro. But London buys those Borismasters….because it can.

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