Buses: The Bristol VRT & VRL – 1967 to 1981

Mike Humble:


The Bristol VRT in its most common guise with ECW bodywork

One of the many companies within the old British Leyland empire involved with public transport, was Bristol Commercial Vehicles with its headquarters in the suburb of Brislington, slightly south west of Bristol city centre. Some relaxation in Government policy regarding free market competition resulted in Leyland Motors Ltd buying a majority shareholding in both Bristol and their associated bodywork plant Eastern Coach Works (ECW) in the mid 60’s. Bristol were then seen as a builder of reliable conventional & yet somewhat unexciting truck and bus products.

Leyland had been gathering speed with the introduction of the Atlantean chassis, which then featured a revolutionary transverse rear mounted engine with air operated semi automatic gearbox. Shortly before the Leyland take over, Bristol had been working on their own design of rear engined bus chassis in the form of the VR (vertical rear) and RE (rear engine) designs. Upon seeing this, Leyland agreed to sanction a fully operational protoype with ECW body for the 1966 Commercial vehicle show in Earls Court.

Traditional half cab conductor operated buses were falling out of favour by this time and the one man operated (OMO) bus was fast becoming the accepted method. Following the creation of the National Bus Company (NBC) in 1968, the VR entered full scale production with completed chassis travelling by road to Suffolk where they would be bodied by ECW in Lowestoft. The standard power unit was the Gardner 6LW or the more powerful 6LX, with Leyland options of the tried & tested 0.600 or the all new high speed 0.500 series.

The early production VR was not without its problems in service, the mechanical linkage for the throttle cable gave engineering concerns and ventilation of the engine compartment was found to be poor during intensive operation causing overheating and failure of the power unit. Weaknesses in the gearbox output drive known as the mitre box caused stress on the bearings and soon the VR became known as a problematic vehicle. Bristol & Leyland engineers went back to the drawing board with a view to ironing out the creases.

The Bristol VRL was intended to cater for long distance coaching – dogged with poor reliability the long wheelbase Bristol VRL was quietly dropped.

Initially there had been two versions of the VR at launch. The VRL was a long wheelbase decker intended for coaching operations with its engine mounted in line fitted towards the offside to create more luggage space, VRL standing for vertical rear long. The VRT was the bus version with its engine mounted across the back in an east west fashion (vertical rear transverse). The VRL never sold in huge numbers and were constantly dogged with driveline and overheating problems owing to the boxed off engine. The VRL was killed off with all engineering efforts and sales drives concentrating on the VRT.

By 1970, the VRT series 2 saw the issues of the first examples mainly cured. A new air operated throttle, engine bay fan and extraction system and improved tolerances in the final drive along with standard power steering turned the VR into a reliable and hard working bus, especially when fitted with a Gardner engine. Very quickly, the VR with ECW bodywork became the standard vehicle for the NBC with even the dye in the wool conventional Scottish groups placing big orders. As the 70`s progressed, the two biggest selling decker buses were the VR and Leyland Atlantean.

Minor changes were made in the mid 70`s following the introduction of the series 3 which mainly involved specification improvements. The main technical update was the option of a fully automatic transmission though only a handful of operators went for this option. The VR was mainly sold into NBC fleets but a few municipal operators placed orders of note, Cardif – Northampton & Tayside all built up large numbers with Northampton`s three batches from 1977 – 78 & 81 all being fully automatic and dual door spec.

Northampton were an operator who built up large numbers of municipal VR`s – this is one of the last ones to be built in 1981.

The series 3 VR became renown for it being a rugged and reliable bus in every sense, Bristol avoided the frills of turbocharged engines following the deletion of the 0.500 option and towards the end of production only Gardner engines were on the menu. Due to Bristol`s expertise in chassis building, work got underway on its replacement which was to feature the high power Leyland TL11 engine and air suspension. The experimental prototype was code named the B45 and Bristol subsequently commenced production of what became known as the Leyland Olympian.

The Olympian was originally developed to be fully assembled at Bristol and VR production ceased in 1981 taking the Bristol name with it, at the same time BL announced that the Daimler Fleetline chassis was also to end.  Following internal problems within British Leyland, all tooling and machinery was moved to Lancashire in 1983 with the Brislington plant closing down as a consequence. Initially, operators protested against this by purchasing the Leyland Atlantean over the more modern Olympian design and to many, the Olympian will always be regarded as a Bristol Product.

Mike Humble


  1. Mike I have quite a few decent VR shots, including shots of a fully restored Standerwick VRL 🙂
    Also you didn’t mention what really ended the VRL’s front line career, when one overturned at speed on the motorway. There were fatalities sadly. The VRL sold fairly well to South Africa though, with a locally built body

  2. These buses were the mainstay of the bus fleets of my childhood, first in Bath, later Cheltenham and Gloucester. I thought that they were a pretty dull design, but they were good buses and rarely seen on a tow hook (unlike the wretched Cummins engined Dennis and Plaxton single deckers now operated by Stagecoach). I always preferred riding on a VR rather than a National (quite often both operated interchangably on the same route).

    They didn’t last long into the Stagecoach era, although they were seen until fairly recently on private operator school services.

  3. It’s interesting that the VRT recovered so well from from it’s early difficulties to become such a success for Bristol, particularly given what happened with the Scottish Bus Group (SBG). When their first Series 1 models were handed to them, to replace their beloved Bristol FLF’s, they were so disliked they were quickly swapped with National Bus Company on what is reported to be a a one-for-one basis for more FLF’s.

    However SBG was a very conservative operator, believing simpler buses saved money and was still ordering manual gearbox Leyland Leopards with no power steering well into the mid-70’s, giving its drivers arms like Arnie. Had SBG persevered with the VRT, it might never have encouraged Volvo to enter into the market with the Ailsa…

  4. Another interesting read which answers “what Happened to Bristol Buses”, Northern General had loads of these along with the National which were eventually replaced by the Olympian and Lynx, Have many memories of these with that tiny gear stick, they also appeared to be quite a reliable workhorse?

    In the price range were these above or below the Atlanteans? And didnt know Bristol built lorry’s…

  5. It is interesting you mention about the end of Bristol production in 1981 as I remember in this year a local coach operator based in East Devon took delivery of a brand new 33-seater Plaxton-bodied coach featuring the same engine as found in the Bristol LH bus.

    Devon General took delivery of a number of late examples of the Bristol VR which were registered on LFJ…W registrations. Stagecoach Devon may well have one or two kicking about still for heritage/promotional/seasonal use.

  6. I recall many Bristol VRs in the North East operated by NORTHERN buses and others. Never thought they looked as good as Leyland Atlanteans and they sounded very noisy on the inside and outside.

  7. When I was a young lad living in Bath I’d quite often see Bristol chassis- completely bare apart from basic lights, driver’s console with a seat, and (of course) the engine at the back being driven to the coachworks in Lowestoft. They looked to me like an absolutely enormous racing car, with the driver in leathers and a crash helmet. They actually looked quite racy…

    Big fan of the Bristol RE single decker. They were pretty damn quick- hence they were retained in the very steep Stroud Valleys in preference to the National. Couple of years ago I was following a preserved one from Stroud to Cirencester- and it was really motoring, in fact, I think the only thing stopping it going faster was that there was a car in front! Almost nowhere to overtake on that road.

  8. Southdown and Later Brighton & Hove loved Bristol VRT’s. I travelled for Miles on their 5 and 5a service. Once I fell down the stairs arse over tit, spilling my carrier bag full of Fine Fare goodies.

  9. I have very fond memories of the Bristol VRT’s run by Eastern Counties in Norwich. I was 16 years old at the time(1991) and used to catch the 58 or X58 for the 20 mile trip from Cromer to Norwich city. I remember the sound it was Quite unique and if you were unlucky enough to sit at the rear seat of the lower deck you would be overcome with engine fumes, But my god they were very fast. It is sad that we no longer have them and even sadder that so many of them were sent for scrap when they could have provided many more years of good service. Modern buses don’t seem to have the same characteristics as the VRT’s and will be sorely missed by those that used them.

  10. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I arrived in Norfolk in 1980 to find the place crawling with these awful VR contraptions. Underpowered, uncomfortable, noisy, and according to the engineers hugely unreliable. A far cry from the Fleetlines (and Leopards) I had been driving for Midland Red. Thank goodness they’ve all gone now !

  11. The Bristol VR’s you rode on or drove must have been maintained badly if you say they were underpowered NO, Unreliable NO,but possibly if badly maintained & abused by lazy bus drivers who leave them hunting in gear whilst stationary taking fares as the gardner 6LXB engine.

    Which had legendary bomb proof reliability & robust seimi auto pre-select gearbox configuration is ultra reliable too as it is also the power plant & gearbox that was fitted to some Daimler fleetlines too.

    I have been on a Daimler fleetlines many times whilst in service with southdown such as TCD 374J some of which were ex-BH&D fleetlines & were just as reliable as the Bristol VR’s but then that’s hardly surprising given they were maintained by the legendary southdown motor services.

    As for noisy no way who could say a Bristol VR was noisy with their lovely engine music especially when fitted the big long stroke turbo charged Leyland diesel engine now that is music to the ears travelling on a VR climbing a hill with flint walls either side of the road what a great sound that was.

    Southdown even specified this big Leyland engine for their batches of Bristol RE’s & RELLS to cope with the hilly area’s of brighton & what an exhaust note they had.

    Because unlike the foreign modern injection plastic Tupperware dustbin interior eco warrior buses of today the Bristol VR’s & the fleetlines had bespoke coachwork bus bodies & interiors fitted by skilled craftsman.

    As for the Leyland national MK1 & MK2 they were a very good capable single bus design once the fixed head Leyland engine teething troubles were sorted out I had many happy rides onboard Leyland national MK1’s & MK2’s.

    Who could forget the unforgettable clatter of the Leyland nationals fixed head Leyland diesel engine pure magic I even drove these in service along with VR’s even the seats in VR’S & nationals well any bus of yesteryear had very comfy seating compared with todays plastic moulded seats with very little padding in for ones buttock’s on a log journey.

    And at least people want to preserve Bristol VR’s & Leyland nationals unlike the foreign modern characterless plastic Tupperware dustbin eco buses of today with engines that sound like jet aircraft with absolutely no exhaust note i’d rather travel or drive a Bristol VR anytime than todays modern plastic dustbins that drive around our cities today who could possibly want to preserve one these modern characterless plastic dustbins we all know as the modern bus of today.

  12. I think Hants and Dorset kept their VRTs going well into the 21st century, choosing to practically rebuild them from the ground up rather than replace the fleet with modern stuff.

  13. Bristol VRs were the main stay of Cumberland Motor Services double decker fleet from the late seventies, when they replaced the old half cab buses, until the mid nineties when they were taken over by Stagecoach. Indeed CMS fleet was a mixture of Bristol and Leyland products in the seventies and eighties, as the Leyland National was made in Workington, they were obliged to buy them when the Bristol REs needed to be replaced.

  14. Do I spot a fellow Northamptonian? You don’t see many published photos of buses in the dear old town. I used to work at the rather rubbish 1960’s station (featured in the photos of the UCOC and NT examples) that they are now pulling down. Lasted slightly longer than the even more awful Greyfriars Bus Station! You know you’re getting old when they knock down buildings that you watched being built! I was suprised to see one of the NT VR’s still in NT livery, in Eastern Counties service in Norwich in the early ’90’s following First Group take over of both organisations. It’s got to be ECW coachwork for me though!

  15. I think the VR was a little disappointing overall.

    Most of them, from the mid 70s had 5 speed semi automatic gear boxes, which resulted in them being able to cover the ground quickly. However the ride quality was not great and the integrated engine compartment seemed to keep more of the noise inside the bus.
    To drive they were responsive. However the accelerator and brake pedals were too close together, leading to the odd mishap and the pedestal that needed to be fitted by the accelerator to keep the driver’s foot at the right height suggested poor design. Then there was the tendency to lose gears.
    Finally the later ECW bodies suffered from accountant directed engineering leading to weaknesses especially around the back axle.

  16. We had these on the school runs, Hedinghams omni-heaps. On the flat they weren’t that bad, but they didn’t like hills, and of course the first village stop was halfway up..
    Had the little joystick gear lever.
    Still the ride was fairly good and they were better than trying to cram kids in three to a seat on the even more clapped out single deckers. If modern health and safety had seen us they’d have thrown a fit, and god knows what would have happened in any sort of accident..
    Those were the days, when if you weren’t bright enough to close the car door properly it spat you out on the first bend and took you out of the gene pool, ironic that all the ppl who did that later & got away with it all seem to be driving instructors (it explains a lot round my area, like the 2-second rule (traffic jam)).
    PS never call someone who drives a coach a bus driver, you will probably make an enemy for life..

  17. Hi
    I have a friend in Italy who recently purchased a Leyland Bristol VRT3 bus and has converted it for catering use. He is desperate to find a stamped chassis number.
    On the chassis itself. We have found the VIN plate but I’m assuming as with most vehicles there will be an additional number stamped into the body somewhere.
    Thanks in advance

  18. The Bristol VR proved itself as a reliable double decker on CMS’s Whitehaven to Carlisle service, and buses ordered in the late seventies were still running in the mid nineties. Also the Bristol single deckers CMS acquired in the early seventies were running as late as 1990 as they were more reliable than the Nationals of this era and easier to maintain.

  19. I’ve seen a lot of Bristol VRT double decker buses with Eastern Coach Works bodies down the years. I remember seeing a Bristol VRT carrying National Bus Company leaf green livery in Brighton many years ago.

    • Midland Fox in Leicester acquired a number of ECW bodied Bristol VRs in the late 80s and ran them for a few years. They came from various operators including Alder Valley, Devon General, South Midland amongst others and carried P to X registrations. They worked my local routes quite regularly so I was able to travel on them a fair bit. Brilliant buses but as they had low height bodies, headroom particularly upstairs was a slight issue for me being over 6ft tall. We even had what I believe was the last one built. UVT 49X complete with it’s coach style seating.

  20. In my opinion Leyland AN68 was far better than the VRT We had VRT in Carlisle from 1971 replacing PD2 and 3 . Fitters did not like them after the impeccable reliability of the Titan

  21. Greater Manchester Transport had some using the same Northern Counties bodies as they had fitted to Leyland Atlanteans & Titans, Daimler Fleetlines and Metrobuses. They didn’t seem to be fussy about which double decker buses they bought.

  22. As someone who grew up just outside London in Kent, so used to seeing London buses like DMSs and Ts, or London Country Nationals and AN68s, it seemed really weird when in the early days of private tendering Eastern National won some routes in East London and operated them with Bristol VRTs!

    They made a chance for the enthusiast, but did seem rather out of place, with their single door, and old fashioned looking (low height) bodywork

  23. Series 2 vrt had heavy hydraulic throttles and not air ones until series 3. I’m surprised you don’t know that.!

  24. CMS, prior to ordering VRs in the late seventies, used the Bristol Lodekka half cab, familiar to viewers of On The Buses, although these were later examples with the door next to the cab. These buses managed to give 18 years reliable service before the last ones were withdrawn in 1980 to be replaced by one of the last runs of Bristol VRs. Also the end of the Lodekkas meant the end of conductors on CMS as the bus company no longer had a role for them.

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