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.
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.
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.
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 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!