Some thoughts on Public Service Vehicles

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Once a year, as regular readers must know, we depart slightly from the usual order of things and publish something not directly appertaining to fast motor cars. Thus, one Christmas we published a fairy story, and last year described a rather special bicycle ! This time Joseph Lowrey—he of the HRG and BSc—gives you, not a “Cars I Have Owned,” but an “Omnibuses I Have Caught “—quite appropriate, in view of the extensive use most of us have had to make of this alternative form of transport these last five years.—Ed.

This war has done many strange things to motoring enthusiasts, driving them to the use of all the unlovely things which divisional petroleum officers classify as “alternative means of transport.” Five years ago, few would have expected to see adult enthusiasts competing in reliability trials on pedal cycles ! And, when these long-suffering devices or their human power-units are found wanting, resorting to long journeys on assorted public service vehicles.

Yet, to the motoring enthusiast, the humble omnibus is not without its interest, even though five years of war has provided far too many opportunities for study of all varieties of this species.

Since anti-motoring tendencies in this country have been able to influence commercial vehicles almost more than private cars, the most interesting types of public-service vehicles are not to be seen in England. Perhaps someone whose war service has taken him into the appropriate parts of the world will oblige by telling us about the high-speed “Greyhound” coaches of America, or the huge “Nairn” coaches which operate across the Arabian Desert.

Personally, my war-time experience has been more restricted, in that it has not extended beyond the shores of the British Isles. Yet I feel it not inappropriate that, as the war approaches its end, the long and interesting “Cars I have owned” series should be matched by a “Buses I have caught” article.

I cannot claim any special authority on the subject of omnibuses, but I suppose I should start with my first experience of them. Well, I have faint recollections of an old London ‘bus with all the seats down the sides, but my memories really begin with daily journeys to school by the open-top “Generals” on routes 100 and 138. Needless to say, we always used the top deck, be it wet or fine, and sometimes as I look at the hermetically sealed successors of those buses I am inclined to agree with Hitler that the British are decadent.

After that item, my memory has a large blank space so far as omnibus travel is concerned. I recall only sights seen, such as well-kept AECs boiling furiously on the gentlest of climbs through Epping Forest, and “Ribble” Leylands maintaining a surprising speed on the long climb over Cross Fell, There was also an unexpected encounter with a Dennis coach from New Cross, SE, on the top of the Simplon Pass one summer ; the driver strenuously denied having got lost . . . 

War-time, however, brought me back on to omnibuses, as the only alternative to immobility. Since I work in their area, most of my journeys are made by “Aldershot and District,” for long reduced to “and District,” lest any paratroop should discover that he was somewhere within the area, Reading-Horsham-Winchester. I’ve often wondered whether Luftwaffe navigators were really as bad as our Government seemed to assume. .

In the area served by this company, most of the ‘buses are the local product, made in the Dennis works at Guildford. They may be long or short, with one or two storeys, but they seem to be invariably full. The conductress of one 30-seater told me she had 70 on board, and the general internal pressure did not cause me to doubt her word. Yet I have never seen a roadside breakdown„ and the springs seldom bottom audibly !

I think most of the engines used are “oilers,” though. a few vehicles tow gas producers and maintain an astounding standard of unpunctuality. The main feature of these vehicles seems to be a remarkably wide choice of gear ratios, ranging from a bottom gear which permits restarts on real gradients to a preselected overdrive 5th which gives surprisingly effortless travel on open roads.

Since many of these vehicles give visible and audible signs of having had long and hard lives, new vehicles have begun to appear, in the form of Guy austerity models. These may be distinguished by the complete absence of upholstery, and by an amazingly slow and awkward gearchange. Which reminds me that the driver of an overloaded Dennis, restarting up a local incline, once gave me the best demonstration ever of the trials-driving trick of “snatching second.”

As in most districts, there are routes so rural that the big railway-owned company considers them unworthy of notice. The local company which operates over these lanes favours new austerity Bedfords ; short semi-forward-control jobs which usually operate without a conductor—since the driver knows most of the passengers by their Christian names, the latter seems superfluous. As for the ‘buses, they are rather stark but quite lively, with distinct traces of Vauxhall (not “30/98”) ancestry, though with four speeds, of course.

Moving further afield, the typical London AEC is too well known to need much mention. For level routes and heavy traffic conditions it is probably unequalled, though rapid changes on the Wilson gearbox shake standing passengers more than a little. At times, though, these ‘buses seem a shade under-powered, as witness the fact that on the 88 route to Chingford passengers are commonly required to get out and walk up one sharp main-road incline. As an engineer, even though unconnected with omnibus design. such a scene makes me hang my head in shame.

I have not had occasion to travel far north in war-time, though in other times I have journeyed by “Diamond T” on Europe’s most northerly ‘bus route well inside the Arctic circle. Lately, I have only sampled Edinburgh’s Daimlers ; seeing one deserted by the roadside, I was strongly tempted by the notice on the side reading, “Take a ‘bus, it’s More convenient.”

Further south, one comes into the homeland of Leyland vehicles. I have had little experience of them personally, though their performance in hilly country seems good. A Home Guard colleague who drives a Leyland laden with beer confirms that they can take it.

Manchester is the home of Crossleys, and though they are seldom seen elsewhere nowadays they still abound on the streets of that city. Having journeyed but a very few miles by them, however, I will not express an opinion on these ‘buses. I know more about another local product in very much the same class, that most respectable of aircraft, the Avro “Anson.” Given only an undercarriage, the operation of which does not involve 144 turns hard labour, this machine is the perfect flying motor coach. It is utterly stable, incredibly long suffering, and feels incapable of having an appreciable accident. I have vivid memories of my first trip in one as sole passenger when, investigating the turret, I suddenly found the pilot also had come aft and was divesting himself of a superfluous pullover. There was also one non-standard example of the species with imported engines which had standard performance, but sounded just like two Harvards ! I am becoming side-tracked, however, and must pass on to the vehicles of the Midland Red Services. From a few longish journeys in them, it seems that they perform quite well, but to southern eyes they are quite remarkably ugly, and just what does SOS stand for ? As the owner of a car known by its initials, I seldom get the chance to ask that perennial question.

So far, I seem. to have ignored the most modern type of public service vehicle, the trolleybus. Well, as a motorist, I can only approve the tramcar’s successor, even though it was sometimes helpful to know that at least one vehicle on the road would not swerve when you least expected it ! The modern trolleybus has excellent acceleration, though slow cornering seems necessary, and it is a comfortable vehicle to travel in ; the most common defect is jerky speed-control at low road speeds.

From the omnibus point of view, much interesting country is to be found in the West of England. In peace-time, I think most of the famous hills were climbed regularly by a variety of omnibuses, and a short-chassis Commer or Bedford still makes its slow daily ascents of Porlock and Countisbury hills, scorning the easier grades of the Porlock toll road.

In the extreme tip of Cornwall, the Western National ‘buses provide a surprisingly comprehensive service, even in war-time. For entry to the more tortuous villages, such as Mousehole, Dennis ‘buses of very abbreviated wheelbase are used, with very forward engine mounting, but full-size vehicles are operated over the most unlikely looking lanes. In some of the fishing hamlets, one ‘bus is regularly garaged overnight, the crew journeying to it each morning by motorcycle ; so far as I have seen, the Gardner diesel engines could be depended on to “start on the button” and, after a brief warm-up, tackle the climb up out of the cove.

These 5-cylinder compression-ignition engines gave the single-decker Bristol-built ‘buses an excellent performance in difficult country. The contrast when transferring to an elderly Leyland was most marked, however, the 4-cylinder petrol engine being infinitely smoother running even when at full throttle and negligible rpm.

I have not covered more than a small number of the varieties of ‘buses on the roads of Britain. Perhaps someone else will till in the blanks, covering such things as the side-engined “Q”-type AEC in which one can ride ahead of the front wheels—a strange experience on sharp corners !

Let me relate, in conclusion, an incident on the very rural ‘bus route which occasionally connects Ludlow with Bridgnorth. The “utility” Bedford overtook a car standing with the bonnet open, pulled up, the driver lit a cigarette, and the conductor strolled back up the road. After about ten minutes the car drove on, the conductor returned, and remarked to the driver, “Broken LT distributor lead,” and the ‘bus went on its way. Truly a “public service vehicle”.

 [To which we would add that the towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire are connected by a wide variety of ‘buses, mostly running punctually and rapidly, and being very well patronised indeed. We have noted Leyland, Bristol, AEC, Daimler, Dennis, and Guy, the Gardner-Diesel Bristols often handling, and being handled, like a good sports car. Not so efficient are ‘buses on local services, on which the total fare is often a mere 11/2d, these sometimes not turning up at all at rush hours and, in the ease of elderly Dennis vehicles with Government gas-trailers, scarcely moving up the hills and not daring to stop their hard-tried engines, even when stationary for considerable periods. Smooth tyres, loose wings and missing fuel tank and radiator caps have been seen ; some of these old ‘buses, nevertheless, proudly display a “London 1940-41” plaque as a tribute to their war service. —Ed]