Nine hundred miles without petrol coupons

Motor Sport samples the longest regular coach service in the British Isles and unexpectedly encounters adventure in snowbound Scotland

The joke was certainly on us—and on the S.M.T. Ever since war commenced, real long-distance motoring has been out of the question for private owners because of fuel rationing. So MOTOR SPORT decided that it would be instructive to investigate the longest motor coach service operating in this country, because readers having to travel to Scotland for business or pleasure would be likely to prefer road to rail, while it seems probable that not a few enthusiasts, with one and a half days and 50/- to spare, might welcome this means of re-experiencing the joys of long-distance motoring.

The service in question is the Scottish Motor Traction Co. Ltd., London-Edinburgh run; unless the Western S.M.T. London-Glasgow run is a few miles longer. In any case, since war exerted its influence on nearly every phase of ordinary existence, these two services have operated in close liaison, Edinburgh passengers travelling up to Abingdon on the Glasgow coach on week-days, where a special coach takes them on to Edinburgh, the old direct Victoria-Edinburgh route up the East Coast functioning only at week-ends. Accordingly, we approached Mr. W. A. Woodward, whose firm of Travel, Press and Publicity, Ltd., looks after the publicity interests of these two concerns, and were very agreeably granted space for our representative and a photographer on this ambitious service. That we were marooned for nearly a week in Scotland, and finally dispatched with a most imposing chill, certainly was not the fault of the operators, as subsequent events will show.

This London-Scottish coach service has a remarkable record. It was commenced eleven years ago, and we believe that never once, until the fateful weekend when we chose to sample the run, had a service been abandoned on account of weather conditions—it might be icy, snowing, most of the road might be hung with fog; there might be floods ahead, but, though such hazards might delay S.M.T., they could never cancel the start. And in all these years, often with bookings necessitating two or more coaches per service, there has been only one fatal accident—it is, incidentally, a rule of the company that a driver is instantly dismissed after any serious accident without any inquiry into the case. In 1932 the first diesel-engined coach was put on experimentally by S.M.T. It was an A.E.C., for which a special fuel supply had to be arranged en route, and A.E.C. engineers did the entire servicing for six months, until the diesel was proved entirely reliable— naturally A.E.C.s welcomed an opportunity to obtain data under working conditions, on the longest passenger run in the country. When weather conditions are not abnormal, the coaches have a fine reputation for keeping to a very accurate schedule, and many are the stories of locals who set watches and clocks by their passage. Of the drivers who work exclusively on these Scottish runs at least two have little need of the job, doing it largely as a matter of interest. The test which the company imposes before selecting them is both essentially practical and exceptionally stiff, and having had described to us what it entails, we can well imagine it might frequently catch-out even capable sports-car owners. All of which begins to endear this long-distance motor-coaching to your enthusiast. Drivers are given a very free hand in matters of route, stopping places and equipment, and the job is worth £5 15s. 0d. a week, excluding tips. They are all Scots, spending the major portion of their leave period at home and the smaller part at the London end. A spare driver is always carried; he usually contrives to sleep on the rear seat when not driving, but he is amongst the passengers as a useful steward in an emergency.

The coaches used are A.E.C.-diesel on the Edinburgh run and Leyland-diesel on the Glasgow service. They are usually governed, the former to 38 m.p.h. or about 1,500 r.p.m. maximum, and the latter to 43 m.p.h. at 1,800 r.p.m. Both are thirty-five seaters, and the Leylands have toilet accommodation. There is no buffet, nor is such necessary, as on both runs two stops for refreshments are included in the schedule. The schedules are both interesting and remarkable. Only night services are run, presumably because a day service would need to start impossibly early in the a.m. from the viewpoint of travel facilities to the coach stations, if passengers were to be delivered at the terminus at a decent hour. So each service starts alternately from London and Scotland at 7.30 p.m. each evening, excepting the week-end southbound coach from Edinburgh, which departs at 5.30 p.m. The week-end East route is via Hatfield, Stevenage, Biggleswade, Stamford, Grantham, Newark, Tuxford, Bawtry, Doncaster, Wetherby. Boroughbridge, Catterick, Scotch Corner, Darlington, Newcastle, Wooler, Greenlaw, Lauder and Edinburgh. It is scheduled at 15 hrs. 19 mins., including two 20 mins. stops—which is not at all bad motoring, with an overall speed limit of 30 m.p.h. imposed! The Glasgow service goes up to Boroughbridge, and then by the west road via Penrith, Carlisle and Gretna, Edinburgh passengers being met at Abingdon on week-days. We were extremely interested to learn that since war commenced, sufficient fuel for the double journey has been carried, to obviate supplies of rationed fuel at the London terminus. The main tank holds 40 gallons and this is now supplemented by a 35-gallon tank in one of the luggage lockers. The average fuel consumption is approximately 12 m.p.g., or some 33 gallons of oil for the single run. Thus about 7 gallons remain in the main tank to supplement the surplus 2 gallons in the secondary tank, which is cutting things close, but is nevertheless quite adequate. This consumption figure is often bettered under good conditions, and the Leylands appear to be rather more economical than the A.E.C.s. In spite of the fact that the S.M.T. is an immense concern, responsible for Scotland’s local services, so that we believe its weekly fuel ration to be around 48,000 gallons, nevertheless the Government has asked for the strictest economy on this long-distance run. In spite of the extra tankage there is ample interior luggage accommodation, as well as the space for heavy cases under tarpaulins on the roof. Each passenger is provided with two heavy rugs. War restrictions have necessitated blueing-over the windows to the detriment of full passenger visibility, though the forward windows are covered at night only, by blinds. The driver is now confined to a masked headlamp, where formerly two clear headlamps and low-set twin Bosch spotlights were used. Clayton heaters warm the interiors.

We took our places in the Glasgow coach on January 26th, arranging to travel on the West route to Abingdon and change, as, although this was a Friday evening, only one other passenger had booked for Edinburgh, after weeks when this service had run to full capacity, so in the circumstances, the combined Glasgow-Edinburgh service was retained. We drew out of Victoria Coach Station at 7.40 p.m., and were at Stanbridge Fork by 9.11, and at the tricky Buckden Fork by 10.23. Bad ice was encountered uphill near Saltry, one lorry was ditched, and we lost three minutes negotiating a stationary Scammell. Soon, however, the coach was going well, passengers mostly asleep, quite a duel occurring with a Riley saloon which had passed us earlier on. Ditched lorries alone indicated the slippery nature of the road. Stamford was made by 11.39 road at Grantham there was a 31 minutes pause for a refresher, from 12.20 to 12.51. It might be remarked that lots of people travel by road because of the appreciable saving in fare it shows over rail, and Inexpensive cafés are purposely selected as stopping places, so fastidious travellers would do well to bring their own supplies, and remain in the coach. At Newark, reached by 1.19 a.m., lots of cars were seen departing from the scene of a big dance, and the farther North we went the greater seemed the number of private cars in use in the towns.

Changes of driver had been fairly frequent, and another change was made in Doncaster, when the screen was cleaned. Breakfast was taken rather inefficiently at Gretna, and a very pretty run over distinctly snow-filled roads brought us to Abingdon by 10.50 on the Saturday morning. The coach was scheduled at Glasgow by 11.23, but we transferred promptly to the waiting, self-change A.E.C. to go across to Edinburgh. So warm was the interior of this coach in mid-winter that we should have cast the windows down had our lady passenger, the sole paying traveller for Edinburgh, not appeared in full need of it. The Clayton heater was certainly on the job; we shall covet this equipment in private cars after this experience of it. A most interesting run now commenced, for these side roads were well snowed-up in places, and the empty coach took drifts like a battleship ploughing a wild sea. We actually passed one of the local Ford snow-ploughs, which is just a lorry with a wide board set at an angle out in front to push clear the snow. After we had been running about an hour we encountered a model-T Ford lorry with a truly immense radiator muff and chains on its rear wheels, and a 1926 12/50 Alvis two-seater. Edinburgh was made at 12.40. After lunch we caught a local S.M.T. single-decker to Queensferry—these A.E.C. petrol buses are driven very snappily and seem to handle well on slippery going. It was most disappointing that no air raid greeted us at the Firth of Forth, but we amused ourselves, and obtained an excellent close-up of the Forth Bridge, by taking return tickets on the abnormally ancient ferry “Dundee.” On the return trip a very noisy Singer Nine sports occupied by two R.A.F. lads, an Alvis “Firefly” saloon driven by a girl, and an Albion R.A.F. ambulance, were amongst the vehicles on board. The Albion had interesting oil dampers with gaitered shackles at the front, India “competition” tyres all round, and the clock-type thermometer offset on the off side of the top face of the radiator. My friend was more impressed by framed pictures of a life-saving jacket apparently invented by a Mr. Finch in co-operation with my namesake . . . .

Drawn back to matters motoring he drily observed that you see countless Albion commercial vehicles in these parts because they are made near-by, and never manage to get far from their place of origin—a delightful libel, as Albions give yeoman service the world over. Wolseley cars seemed extra popular and we saw two Lancia Aprilias with the new cast-alloy wheels. Edinburgh was crowded with cars, but the number which come in from outlying country places makes comparison with London deceptive. We remade the acquaintance of the city’s 20 h.p. Rolls-Royce taxis—some of the earliest Rolls-Royce Twenties, of which the brakes and gear ratios were never too clever.

At 5.50 that afternoon we were once again en route for Abingdon to connect with the southbound coach. As the windows were blued-out reading was at a premium, except when the coach swayed and shuddered over snow-drifts of which the genial driver had warned us. The first foretaste of trouble came with a prolonged wait at the Abingdon Hotel where we had once tried unsuccessfully to get breakfast in the early a.m. with the Bentley, the London coach being even then overdue. Personally, it was our second night out of bed and we welcomed the warmth and cheeriness of the lounge. At last the other coach did roll up and we all embarked. A few miles beyond Crawford, however, and we halted. A lorry loaded with live shells for delivery under Government contract had fouled an abandoned van also going south and had wedged immovably, blocking the road. Behind the coach arrived a lorry laden with live sheep for the Ministry of Food. So, in the early hours of the morning, we set out with Jimmy Hunter, our driver, to walk back to Crawford, a journey expedited by clinging to the frozen ballast in the back of a Ford snow-plough which early overtook us. Meanwhile, the crew of a much more imposing plough said the road must be kept open at any cost, by order of the Lanarkshire County Council. So we banged loud and long at the village police-station, to be met with a sleepy retort that the constable didn’t know who to inform, anyhow. Then we repaired to the Merlindale Cafe, warming ourselves before the fire and making short work of a pie, in company with the hungry party of marooned lorry drivers, in the kitchen. Then, with one sandwich for each of the passengers, we set out to walk back. For the first few hundred yards it seemed we could never do it! Half a gale nearly swept us off our feet, sleet whipped round us, and icicles forming on hair and eyebrows made it difficult to pick a path. However, it was the massive Jimmy Hunter who eventually suggested a breather in a disused cottage, and at last we were back at the coach. We found the sheep lorry had got clear and returned, and after a long wait the snow-plough made a way for us to do likewise. The coach was turned after a long reverse, but the plough was mis-firing, and now died altogether and we were once again stranded. The blasting wind as we stood waving the coach back will remain for ever in the writer’s memory. There was nothing for it but to try to sleep, clothes steaming on one from the waist down . . . . When morning came the snow was building up between the stone walls bordering the road and there was seven feet of drift before the abandoned plough. Jimmy slept like a log on the rear seat; the second driver, just recovered from ‘flu, was half-dead out in the cab. Still the engine ran, keeping the interior warm. It was a new unit and must have got beautifully run-in, for it eventually idled for about 24 hours. There was still two-thirds of a tank of oil left when she was switched off. Chafing at the inactivity, Lush and I decided to go in search of help. Across the fields it was heavy going, but the road appeared impassable. By the railway we got momentarily lost in a lane bounded by 6 foot banks and things looked grim. However, another try got us over on to the permanent way, and while a kind railwayman gave us breakfast in his cottage bordering the line, five other passengers, including a wizard blonde, caught up with us. Back at the café we persuaded them to fill half-a-dozen thermos flasks and cut a stack of sandwiches, and we fought our way back once again to the coach with this sustenance. That afternoon, with help, the whole of the occupants were got off and over the fields to the café. Here all was efficiency. Tea with a tot of whisky was doled out, casualties, including a stoker from Australia who collapsed in the extreme cold, were treated, and improvised dry clothing handed out. That evening we had a cosmopolitan meal, lorry-drivers serving, more lorry lads playing a very lively band. Everyone was reluctant to move on to the Crawford Hotel that night. If ever you motor through this Highland village, remember that here is a café where real service is understood. Next morning there was a great influx of stranded rail passengers, R.A.F. and R.A.S.C. included, as vivid reminder that weather conditions were indeed exceptional and the roads were not alone in disgrace. Amongst them was Jill Mannering, who soon sought privacy elsewhere. Of our party, a delightfully vague medical student, a veritable foghorn of a little café proprietor from Fleet, a good-looking Londoner and his blonde wife, a miserable individual we nicknamed “C.J.” (we won’t enlighten you, if you cannot guess!) a lady and her two daughters, one, aged ten, most amusingly dogmatic, the drivers, and our scruffy selves, got on well enough. Rumours of huge snow-ploughs were rife; a caterpillar plough was brought out and ran a big-end in the first hundred yards! There was the party specially arranged one evening at the café by the lorry drivers, who could not unstick the Reo van in which they intended to convey the ladies through the village and who got so “oiled ” that when we got to the café the proprietor had put it strictly out of bounds. There was the subsequent exclusive party in the hotel kitchen, and the stories recounted thereat . . . Yes, the writer was very peeved when ‘flu germs took him off to bed, isolated from all the fun. We were bade to dress hastily on the Wednesday morning and by midday a train had got us to Glasgow. Reporters from local papers took copious notes as we left the platform. In the coach station that evening, waiting for the 7.30 coach home, folk chortled as they came on their names in print – but the reports were actually very inaccurate, and, mercifully, made no mention of the over-rated part we had played. This time, going via Edinburgh and the East route, we stuck only once, when Lush used a tree as a lever to get the axle clear, and the drivers did some immense dicing, getting us to London about 8.30 that night. We had sampled Britain’s longest coach service at a most unfortunate week-end. Those who wish to try this interesting run need have no qualms of like delays. Seats are bookable, 30/-single or 50/- return, individually as for a theatre, from 14, Grand Buildings, Trafalgar Square, W.C.2; WHI 2701 ; or from 45, Princes Street, Edinburgh.

We believe that quite a number of enthusiasts will welcome this means of undertaking some long-distance motoring when the last petrol coupon has been used, and after they have travelled with S.M.T. they will often give more than a passing thought to the men who daily take these coaches out of Victoria Coach Station on the longest, and often by no means easy, run operating in the British Isles.