When I was just a slip of a young man, I got completely fed up with working on cars in a dealership Monday to Friday 8.30 to 5.30 with the odd Saturday morning thrown in for good measure. A fellow apprentice had recently left, but we kept in touch socially and one night down the pub he told me they were looking for some more bodies at his new firm. After telling me the earning potential and job spec, it seemed the only downside was involving shift work but it sounded exciting so I gave them a call to find out the craik. A couple of weeks later I was attached to the Engineering Department of a local bus and coach operator and my money had gone from £95 to £145 per week plus overtime plus shift allowance.
After spending half a day with the company’s Driving Instructor, the road tests took on a slightly different form – whereas once it involved driving anything from Fiestas to Transits round the town, it now became single or double deck buses or coaches on longer tests and, when you have just turned eighteen, this is seriously fun stuff. Working on the night shift usually involved heavy fitting of rebuilt engines or gearboxes with the aim of getting the vehicles out for the next day’s services – you earned your money at night, but the time flew by. The Operations Department also ran various programmes for National Express and we, along with other depots in the Midland, would offer out of hours support to the handful of coaches still plying their trade in the small hours.
If you were lucky, it would be a quiet night where everything would be completed by the early hours and we would pile onto a bus allegedly for road-test purposes to: a) go out for fish and chips and b) drive around town tooting the horn and gauping at the young ladies coming out of the night clubs. I believe that our good lads in the Fire Service still uphold this fine tradition… and so they should … they deserve a bit of light-hearted fun. One evening around 10.00pm were sitting in the upstairs tea room on a break when the most feared sound echoed around the expansive depot and workshops – the break-down ‘phone bell was summoning our attention.
If a normal telephone call came through, it would ring a large round bell on the wall in the same manner that the handset would ring – two short rings and a pause. Should National Express be summoning International Rescue the ‘phone would give intermittent two second rings on the bell. At this point from somewhere inside the depot, a fitter would acknowledge the call by shouting “Oh For ****s Sake” or something that loosely rhymes with Horlicks before answering the ‘phone in the Foreman’s office downstairs. The call was answered and a fitter clanked and clonked his way up the staircase to break the bad news to a room full of men with worried, expectant faces.
Well, it was not as bad as it could have been in all fairness. One of our own coaches had been heading north out of London on the M1 earlier in the evening, barely got as far as what was then called Scratchwood Services (it still is in my view… London Gateway, indeed) before having its windscreen damaged to the point where it couldn’t continue. A duplicate vehicle had been sent out from Victoria and everyone had been slung onto the new coach and continued onwards bound for Milton Keynes. But for some odd reason, the coach had been left at the services and we were asked if we could collect it as soon as possible – nice and simple!
Any other time when a breakdown came through, we would hide in dustbins, filing cabinets, toilet cubicles or the oven to avoid what normally involved a right old rigmarole and eardrum splitting jaunt in an ageing AEC breakdown truck armed with 10 gallons of oil, antifreeze and tools. But this job brought such enthusiasm that if it hadn’t been for the Foreman hand-picking two of us to jump in the company van, we would have had to resort to having an OK Corral type of fight for supremacy. Myself and one other were volunteered and all we had to do was meet the Glass Fitter and, once the screen was fitted, bring the coach back home.
By the time we got there, the Glass Fitters were re-fitting the windscreen wipers and, in those pre- mobile ‘phone or vehicle GPS tracker days, we decided to hang the job out a little bit by going into the services for a bite to eat. Two all day breakfasts later (we got them for free by chatting up the girl on the counter) one of us flicked two bob into a call-box and ‘phoned back to say we were on our way home. The Senior Fitter I was with point blank refused to drive the coach back on the grounds that it didn’t have a wireless and opted for the relative comfort of the Bedford Astra diesel van. Personally, I was pleased with this as it’s not often an eighteen year old lad gets to drive a coach along the motorway.
Sitting there in the vehicle park looking as neglected as a pork pie at a bar mitzvah was fleet number 114 – A114 TRP, a Plaxton Paramount 3500 Leyland Tiger. The bloke I was there with said something like “last one back is a fairy” and he was off, so I fired up the engine, slotted the joystick -type gear lever of the semi-automatic hydra-cyclic gearbox into a forward ratio and ploughed on into the night. National Express coaches had a very evocative smell in those days of engine fumes and chemical toilet – a smell I can actually remember vividly as I am writing this. Anyway, the lack of a radio was not a problem as the melodic whine of the 260bhp horizontal Leyland TL11 engine more than made up for the lack of Annie Nightingale.
Going back then, it was also a time where coaches could travel in the outside lane and were not fitted with speed limiters so 70mph was easily possible to achieve and, of course by 11.00pm, there was virtually nothing on the road. Hertfordshire soon became Bedfordshire and on the billiard table flat part of the M1 between Toddington Services and Junction 13 my adventurous young side of me opened up the taps to see what these coaches could do. These coaches tended to be fitted with what Leyland used to call a wide ratio gearbox, they had a high top gear and rear axle ratio to give relaxed cruising and use less fuel. They were a bit flat around town but, boy could they fly along the black top.
Anyone who has driven a Leyland Tiger coach will know that, when you are really moving, the front end starts to bob up and down like a fisherman’s float on a calm river and the engine note takes on a more urgent humming tone. Looking down at the tachograph (speedo) the needle went past 70 and steadily climbed towards 80 and, after a minute or so, was sitting at 120kph or in old money – 85 miles an hour. After a short while of flying along, I was about to pull out to overtake a lorry and after a precautionary glance out of the cab side window, the world almost fell out of my bottom. There alongside me was a Police Vauxhall Senator, with a burly looking traffic officer with regulation thick moustache staring right at me flicking a finger to beckon me onto the hard shoulder.
As you can guess, there was a funny smell in the cab as I trundled to a halt on the side of the M1. Sitting there awaiting my fate the officer gets out of the car and walks towards me. With a press of the button and a hiss of air, the front door opens he steps on board and looks me slowly up and down like Arnie when he walks into the bar at the start of Terminator 2. Thankfully, and much to my relief, he didn’t ask me for my clothes, boots or motorcycle – just where I had come from and where I was going – all answered politely. Nor was I asked to give my name which was odd but when dealing with traffic police I’ve always favoured the speak when spoken to rule. Trust me… yes Sir no Sir three bags full Sir, is the only way forward.
Obviously, he could see I was engineering staff and he beckoned me to the near side rear of the vehicle to point out that the light cluster had no tail lamps working whatsoever. A wire connector had come loose so after crimping the spade terminal with my teeth and with a small shower of sparks, the four tail light bulbs came back on. He then bode me a good evening and asked me to build my speed up as I re-joined the motorway but as I entered the coach he followed two steps behind me. “Oh, you won’t be running with a card will you” he said, pointing to the tacho and I shook my head. Leaning over towards me with a gap of about 6 inches to spare, he tapped his finger three times on the tachograph, smiled, winked and said “keep an eye on that Son“. With that he about turned and went.
They do a grand job our boys in blue, don’t they?