Buses : Coaching into Top Gear

The sun comes out in Surrey along with some old buses and coaches…

Words and Photographs: Mike Humble

My entry last year was this Leyland Tiger with Plaxton Supreme coachwork

The Sunday of the second week in April has, for many years, been the day for one of the biggest bus and coach rallies in the UK. The Cobham Rally has, until this year, been held on Wisley Airfield in Surrey just off the A3 / M25 junction. Sadly, the once thriving RAF base and runway is to be sold off for development in the very near future and, at one point, the future of this happy gathering of old and new buses and coaches hung in the balance.

This year’s event therefore saw an important change of venue and was held at Dunsfold Aerodrome near Cranleigh which nestles in an eerily silent part of Surrey midway between Guildford and my town of Horsham. For the benefit of readers who don’t own a TV set or have yet to discover BBC2, Dunsfold, which also used to be an RAF base, is nowadays more well known as being the home of Top Gear. Part of the perimeter road and runway is used as the Top Gear Test Track and the remaining parts of the site and hangars are given over to an industrial estate and a corporate hosptiality facility for McLaren.

However, last weekend, the usual sound of howling Porsche flat sixes  or wailing Ferrari V8s was replaced with melow sounding diesels and the melodic whine from the gearboxes of vintage/heritage buses and coaches as thousands of people attended the rally to enjoy a taste of times gone by, the sunshine and the cloudless blue sky. Even though cars has always been my true love, old buses and coaches strike a chord for me too –  Keith Adams found that out for himself when he drove my old Leyland National single decker last summer as a special treat before he headed for home in his SD1.

This event is mainly a heritage day, but operators also like to show off their new acquisitions. That’s why, taking full advantage of the turn up and display free entry, I opted to display my new employer’s latest demonstrator vehicle, the King Long XMQ6127 coach.This recently launched 12 metre coach is assembled in China and imported to the UK but does, in fact, have 40% of its overall build sourced from this country. The engines come  from Cummins and the remaining driveline from ZF so that makes this import a patriotic purchase. However, before I hear cries of “advert alert”, I mourn the passing of great chassis names from England such as AEC , Daimler or Leyland and bodywork from fading names like Duple, Harrington and MCW but I only opted to sell these vehicles on the grounds of their UK content. Interest was very high on the day and the brochure collectors were out in force.

British Coachways - a brave but doomed concern!

Some of my friends from the world of preservation were in attendance including Julian Price and Nicholas Pope. The weather was stunning, the crowd were brilliant and some of the vehicles shown were simply immaculate – some were in even better condition than the day they were new. What did impress me were the vehicles from the more recent past in the 1970s and 1980s including one vehicle from a company which only existed for little over a year, but which many still remember, British Coachways – the once heralded, yet doomed competitor to National Express.

I drove this in service many moons ago - a 1976 but re-registered Leyland Leopard

Vehicles from the “Firm” or, should I say, Leyland were out in force with exhibits such as a stunning Alder Valley Leyland Olympian coach, various ex-London Leyland Titans, many Bristol VRTs and countless half-cab Leyland PDs from the 1950s and 1960s. One vehicle that did catch my eye was an Edward Thomas Leyland Tiger with Plaxton Paramount body dating from 1983 – this vehicle was for sale and, boy, could I be tempted. Thanks to the company’s operation being based in Ewell, which is inside the LEZ (London Emission Zone), this one time sole Leyland operator has been forced to sell off the remaining eight Leylands in its fleet before the end of this year which is when the next level of criteria (Euro4) comes into force.

Leyland Tiger TL11 - this cat needs a new home - can YOU help?

The day was thoroughly enjoyed by all and, even though no-one quite knows what to expect when any event moves to a new venue, Dunsfold ticked all the boxes. It’s easy to get to, steeped in history and, of course, if buses or cars are not your gig, there is a decent collection of old aeroplanes to have a look at as well.

The best part of the day for me? Well, that was stopping on the straight of the Top Gear Test Track and stealing a quick photograph just for the memory!

Some say... this was the King Long XMQ6127 on the Top Gear Test Track
Mike Humble


  1. A mate of mine owns an ex-Edward Thomas Tiger which is now in National Holidays livery and was new to Southern Vectis – it’s a nice motor. Go on, you know you want to buy one…

  2. Leyland may not be quite dead – Ashok Leyland Limited is aiming to be in the Top Five bus makers (and Top Ten truck makers) globally within ten years. See: Ashok Leyland aims to be among global Top 10 truck makers, The Economic Times, 4 April 2011 and also have a look at Ashok Leyland’s own website – make sure you have sound enabled!

    Anyone reading Mike Humble’s recent articles in AROnline’s Blogs section will also know that BMC buses from Turkey are still around.

  3. Ashok Leyland Limited bought a stake in Optare plc in July 2010. See the Press Release at this link.

    The Optare business was established in 1985 out of the former Leyland Bus business, Charles H Roe Limited, following that company’s closure the previous year.

  4. Duple and Plaxton, the backbone of hundreds of British coach companies in the seventies and no doubt most readers on here have been on one of their coaches in the past. Sadly better equipped and more modern foreign coaches started to dominate the market from the mid eighties onwards

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