Just to recap, this post continues my account of some free driving lessons I managed to wangle out of Devon General in 1985.
The purpose of driving down to a quiet part of the Marsh Barton trading estate of course was so that my first attempts at driving would not pose too much of a hazard to other drivers. Bill Porter, DG’s Senior Instructor, climbed down into the saloon through the space behind the driver’s cab that was once a window. “There you are, it’s all yours!” he said cheerily.
Once in the driving seat I immediately felt two emotions. First, elation at finally being allowed behind the wheel of one of my favourite buses. Second, a feeling of dread at what I was about to attempt. The second one was soon to eclipse the first as I pulled gingerly away from the kerb. I was struck by the enormous width of the vehicle compared to the cars I had been used to driving. Then there was the heavy steering. I began to regret not doing some bicep exercises previously! As the first morning’s lesson wore on, I began to appreciate Bill’s advice “…everything happens slowly in a Lodekka”.
I was quietly confident that I would be able to master the double declutch technique needed for the crash gearbox, having spent hours and hours in my childhood kneeling on the bench seat at the front of Wilts & Dorset Lodekkas in Salisbury. I was fascinated by the drivers’ skills, some greater than others it has to be said, with the unforgiving gearbox.
By the end of my first lesson I was indeed fairly proficient and my gearchanges were getting quieter. Hardest of course, was changing down. I struggled to rev the heavy Gardner 6LW engine enough to allow the gears to mesh neatly, but I was improving all the time.
We ended the morning back at Exeter Coach Station a couple of hours later. Bill was very encouraging in his remarks and we agreed to meet again the following Saturday. Before leaving, I asked him why Devon General used such an ancient vehicle to train its drivers, particularly as most of them would only be driving minibuses. “I look at it this way,” he replied, “if they can drive this old thing, they can drive anything!”
My memories of the remaining lessons with Bill have merged into one, due to the passage of time! One moment I shall never forget was on the approach to a yellow box junction. I had slowed down but neglected to give way to traffic also approaching the box from my right. As my front wheels touched the yellow lines I heard an almighty bang from behind me and the bus lurched to a stop. Bill had seen my mistake (and an imminent collision) and had hauled on the emergency brake lever beside his seat. After briefly reprimanding me, we continued down Western Way towards Exe Bridges.
Soon after carrying out the reversing manoever pictured above, Bill (seen on the platform checking my accuracy) asked me to pull up at a bus stop that was a little further down the road. I slowed down in plenty of time and drew gently to a stop. “Open your nearside window,” Bill directed from behind me. As I pulled the sliding window back, Bill got off the bus and stood at the bus stop, pretending to be a passenger. “That’s no good,” he told me, “I want to get on your bus but the door’s back there!” Stupidly, I had stopped with the bus stop beside the cab, not the rear platform!
At one point we drove a short distance on the A30 dual carriageway to the south of Exeter. “Go on, put your foot down,” Bill shouted as I trundled along feebly at about 30mph. I did as asked and put the pedal to the metal. The decibels from the Gardner engine beside me rose but the speedo only crept up to about 38mph, the bus only being fitted with a 4-speed box.
Back on the city streets and feeling more confident, I began to be aware of other bus drivers coming the other way, some of whom waved. Getting into the swing of things, I dutifully waved back. A little later, after again practicing my busman’s wave, Bill said “OK, you concentrate on your driving. I’ll do the waving”. I didn’t return any waves after that, realising that the other drivers were probably waving to Bill anyway.
Those of you who know the Exe Bridges roundabout well will recall that there are four lanes to choose from when approaching the city. I had been told to head up Western Way back towards the Coach Station to finish the lesson. Unfortunately I chose the wrong lane and realised my mistake too late. “Sorry Bill, I’m in the wrong lane,” I shouted to Bill. “Don’t worry, you’re committed now. Stay in this lane.” I was now facing Fore Street Hill with speed falling away quickly. Changing down to second gear and keen not to hinder the city centre traffic any more than necessary, I gave it maximum revs and we bellowed up the hill. I remember feeling a strange tingle of delight as I drove up through the High Street, mixing it with Harry Blundred’s bread vans!
All too soon my fourth lesson came to an end and I walked back to my car expecting to be back the next week. But it was not to be. Bill was soon moved to a desk job and his successor was not so keen to offer free lessons on his day off. I soon realised that my chances of passing my PSV driving test were slim, as I certainly didn’t have the funds to pay for lessons and a test just for fun.
Not long after this, Devon General disposed of its old Lodekka training vehicles and it’s only recently that I’ve come across a picture showing the sad remains of OTT8, a hand-me-down Lodekka that ended its days as a tree lopper. I fully expected that TV2 would also make the sad journey to Torquay’s Newton Road depot to be demolished but I was surprised to see it one day in the bus depot at Exmouth. Not believing my own eyes, I drove through the depot in my car, stopping briefly to verify that it was in fact TV2 (5675EL, original fleet number 1448 with Hants & Dorset). The front cowl was missing and it appeared to be having some work done to the cooling system. Why this was being done in Exmouth I have no idea but I’ve since learned that the bus soon moved to a new home in preservation in Woking. I haven’t heard any news of it since 2003 – I wonder if it’s still there?
After these delightful episodes, I never expected to see anymore Lodekkas in service but now, 25 years later, I’m conducting on them and may well be driving them later this year!