Service 124 to Torquay: 33 years on

The day I’d been hoping and planning for dawned at last, dull and wet. I debated with myself the wisdom of getting up at stupid o’clock to drive up to Bishops Lydeard to pick up an open top bus and drive it in the rain all the way back to Torquay for the Torbay Vintage Bus Running Day. Only the weather forecast, which promised brighter spells later, persuaded me to carry on. I’m so glad I did.

Together with my youngest son, who was to be my conductor, we arrived at the garage to find that two of my colleagues were already at work shunting buses in order to release ex-Western National Bristol Lodekka LDL6G VDV752 from deep in the garage. After welcoming a guest traveller aboard (more from him later) we fitted a temporary destination blind that I’d prepared earlier, especially for the event.

I climbed into the cab with a certain amount of trepidation, not only because I hadn’t driven a bus since May, but because I hadn’t driven this particular bus before on the open road. It is fitted with a 5-speed constant mesh (‘crash’) gearbox which can rear up and bite the unwary. Some people refer to the fifth gear as ‘overdrive’ or ‘super top’ because strictly speaking it only gives you four and a half gears. In other words, the ratio between 4th and 5th is much closer than that between all the other gears. That has an impact on the gear change technique.

The rain had eased off as we set off past the West Somerset Railway station, where staff were busy getting ready for the ‘Late Summer Weekend‘ event. Once out on the main road I soon had the chance to try out 5th gear. It might have been beginner’s luck or perhaps my observations of other drivers (some good, some who struggled) helped, but I didn’t have any trouble with the quicker change between 4th and 5th. I still had to double-declutch but it seemed to go in smoothly.

We passed through several showers of rain while coming down the M5 to Torbay but the weather was slowly improving as the day went on. Once or twice the gear stick gave my leg a whack as it jumped out of gear. This only happened at max revs on a downhill gradient so I guess the transition to ‘coasting’ allowed the gear shafts to slip apart. I found it bizarre to be driving through Torquay – so familiar to me – in a vintage bus and I was conscious of having to allow more space on the road than I would normally. And of course everything happens sooo slowly in a Lodekka compared to a modern car!

Arriving at the car park where the Running Day was to be based, I was directed to the back row of static vehicles so I parked next to an ex-Bournemouth Corporation Leyland Tiger Cub. You can see more of the vehicles that attended by visiting Bob Brimley’s Fotopic site. After wandering round the buses and displays, which oozed with Westcountry omnibus history, I signed in at the Control Bus and met up with several friends.

There was a steady stream of visitors to our bus, one of whom was an elderly gentleman who used to be a driver for Devon General. He remembered seeing our two Bristol LDLs in Newton Road garage. He told me that they were having their roofs removed but I think he’s mistaken as I have photographs which show the buses in service in Cornwall after conversion to open top, before they were transferred to South Devon. He did however ask if the gearbox was fixed yet. It turned out he was being sarcastic, as he’d been asked to drive VDV752 from the garage in Torquay to Totnes but, being more familiar with the Devon General AEC fleet and their synchromesh gearchanges, got completely beaten by the Bristol’s 5-speed crash box. Apparently he found his way into 5th gear and couldn’t get out again, having to complete the journey in the same gear!

I had arranged to meet up with Bob, my photographer friend, at around 3.00pm to recreate the scene in a photograph by Peter D. Scott which showed VDV752 parked up in Palk Street, Torquay while on Service 124 in about 1977. According to the Devon General timetable book for that year, the 124 ‘Open Top Special’ ran from Babbacombe to Brixham via Torquay from May 23rd until 4th September. With Bob’s son and grandson aboard also, together with video cameraman Mike Dan, we set off for the harbour. I had previously obtained written dispensation from the parking people at Torbay Council to position the bus in Palk Street, which is now pedestrianised and has strict parking restrictions. Out of courtesy I had also visited the nearby businesses to let them know what was to happen.

There is very little space to manoeuvre a 30ft bus and my arms felt like jelly after heaving on the wheel to reverse the bus into the end of Palk Street. One of the shops had laid out its wares on tables in the street so my young conductor guided me back safely. In the event we were able to park in almost the exact spot that VDV752 was parked in the old photo. Bob duly took more pictures for posterity and Mike got busy with his video camera. Between them they recorded a most significant moment and the results are online for all to see. Take a look at Bob’s pictures here and see one of the videos that Mike has uploaded to YouTube here:

After thanking the nearby shop proprietors and showing the old photo to some folk sitting outside the café, we returned to the show site. Shedden Hill, where the running day was based, joins the sea front road at a very oblique junction which is impossible to negotiate with a large vehicle except from the Paignton direction. Which meant that we had to drive along to the Grand Hotel where there is a roundabout, passing once more a large crowd of people at a bus stop, waiting for free rides on the vintage buses. I could feel numerous pairs of eyes (not to mention quite a few camera lenses) following us as we rumbled by, not stopping. Maybe next year, eh?

It wasn’t long before it was time to head back up to Somerset. The journey back was uneventful. My only concern was the descent of Telegraph Hill but I had telephoned a driver colleague the previous week who has been driving buses since I was in short trousers. His advice was to change down to third gear at the top of the hill and use the footbrake sparingly. It turned out to be good advice. Engine braking wasn’t quite enough on its own so I added footbrake from time to time to prevent the engine from overspeeding. Too much braking in a higher gear would have heated up the brake drums too much and I didn’t want to risk having ‘brake fade’ and have to suffer the indignity of needing the escape road!

Arriving at the depot at Bishops Lydeard, I bade farewell to my two guests before parking the bus inside, removing the ‘Torquay’ destination blind (which was just on paper, taped lightly to the existing one) and resetting the numbers to ‘400’ ready for the next Exmoor trip. Weary but extremely satisfied with the day’s events, I turned my attention to the 1 hour drive back to Torbay in my car!

I am very grateful to Bob Brimley for taking an excellent set of photographs and to Mike Dan for his company on the trip and for his comprehensive video coverage. Check out ADMIRALS CORNER’s channel on YouTube for the full series.

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One comment on “Service 124 to Torquay: 33 years on

  1. Graeme says:

    Excellent post John – thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Sounds like your day went like clockwork! Thanks again for coming and not giving in to the early morning rain, it would have been awful to have returned home and then seen how nicely the afternoon turned out. Glad you had a good day.

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