A private hire driving job to Frenchay, Bristol

My second driving duty took me into Bristol once again, with the Hants & Dorset Bristol FLF, DEL893C. Arriving in good time at the depot in Weston-super-mare, I was glad to see that I was not alone. Also being prepared by their crews were Leyland Olympian F357WSC, which was due out on Service 100 to Sand Bay wearing a fresh coat of NBC Leaf Green, and ex-Southern Vectis Bristol FS YDL318, which was on it’s 6th consecutive day of service on the Service 145 to Burnham -on-sea.

My bus, like the majority of Bristol FLFs, is fitted with the Cave-Brown-Cave cooling system. There is no radiator in the traditional position behind the grille but there are two smaller radiators on either side of the destination blind. This system has a reputation for being troublesome, with stories of overheating and even engine seizures following the type into preservation. However, as long as the system is kept free from sludge and is filled properly, it gives good service. It even serves the double purpose of providing heat via vents in the upper saloon! Help was on hand at the garage to help me top up the header tank. While I started the engine and held the throttle open, an assistant watched the coolant level drop as the water was pumped up into the radiators. He topped up the tank while I kept the revs up. Job done!

My pickup point was a residential road in Ashley Down, Bristol so I set off up the M5. This time I had no conductor (last time one was provided in honour of my first driving turn) so today I was ‘going solo’. After following the Gloucester Road through Filton and Horfield I turned off and found the street where the wedding guests were waiting. Once again, Google Maps was my friend. I know certain parts of Bristol quite well but I still spent an hour or two the previous week studying the best route for the day.

With some help from a couple of guests who held up the traffic for me, I reversed the FLF into the small side road where the bride’s house was. About 20 family and friends boarded, after various photos had been taken.

Continuing southwards, we headed through the city centre and pulled up near the Bristol Registry Office in Corn Street. The lack of conductor isn’t a problem on an FLF because the electrically powered doors are operated from a panel in the driver’s cab.

Having decanted my passengers onto the pavement to await their ‘slot’ at the Registry Office, I drove the bus past the Broadmead shopping area and on to Temple Meads station where I parked up in a nearby street to wait until the ceremony was over. When on duty with a bus of this era it’s very common to hear cries of “I ‘ate you, Butler!” or similar. But as I sat inside waiting, I heard a new one. Three teenaged boys cycled past (on the pavement, of course) and one shouted to the others, “Hey, it’s the Harry Potter bus!” The fact that it wasn’t purple and only had two decks seemed to have eluded him.

On pulling away to collect my passengers I noticed that I seemed to have difficulty putting the bus into gear quietly. Hmm, must be something wrong with my technique. The bus was well filled this time, with extra guests having joined the party at the Registry Office. I put extra effort into giving them a smooth ride while at the same time noting that the bus felt a lot heavier. The brakes are particularly good on this FLF, having had new linings fitted not long ago. But even so, I found that I had to use more effort on the brake pedal than before. Pulling up at traffic lights and roundabouts was still puzzling me though, as selecting 2nd gear ready to move off again was a noisy affair. I tried leaving the clutch down for a little longer to allow the input shaft to spin down before engaging the gears but it still crunched loudly. I winced as I knew it would be even worse back in the interior of the bus!

We soon left the city and rumbled sedately up the M32. With a sense of ‘Déjà vu‘, I turned off towards the Ring Road but, instead of heading towards Winterbourne as I had done 2 weeks previously, I went the other way towards Frenchay. We soon arrived at the tiny Frenchay Village Hall and, as we rolled gently to a halt beside it, I noted that I had to almost wrench the gearstick into neutral. I was beginning to suspect that the clutch was needing adjustment because changing gear while on the move didn’t seem to be a problem but engaging or disengaging gears while stationary was getting harder.

I stood to one side as the passengers alighted but assisted with some of their boxes and bags which had been stored in the space under the stairs. Once more the bridal party and their guests posed beside the bus for photographs. They even roped me in for one shot with the bride and groom.

With the job done and everyone heading for the reception, I climbed once more into the cab and drove a short distance to take a rest with my parents-in-law, who happen to live not far away. Reversing into their cul-de-sac, I noted that engaging reverse or first gear made the bus jump as well as making a nasty noise. My clutch problem was getting steadily worse and I now suspected that the friction disc wasn’t separating properly from the flywheel.

The FLF looked very incongruous, parked outside my in-laws’ house! Those with keen eyes will note a dark patch under the front of the bus. The coolant filler cap was dribbing a bit – I had noticed this as I waited outside the reception venue, probably the result of our short blast up the M32 with a full load. On returning to the same house later in the day, I discovered the reason for all my clutch troubles. Not only was there a puddle of water in the road but also, further back, an ominous patch of hydraulic fluid. [Edit: that wasn’t hydraulic fluid but engine oil. On dismantling later, they found the clutch friction disc had almost worn away to nothing].

After a rest and a bite to eat, I set off back to the garage. Curtains twitched as neighbours heard the gears crunch before watching a familiar shape from several decades ago glide past the end of their suburban gardens. Going through the gears, double-declutching all the way of course, I now noticed that there was a lot of free play in the clutch pedal and it only seemed to be doing any real work as it approached the floor! Once or twice, when changing down, I missed the gears altogether and had to rev the engine again to get the gears to mesh. I was beginning to feel that the clutch was becoming superfluous and that I was having to judge the engine revs very precisely in order to get into gear. Not only that, but when I came to a halt at lights I had to wrestle with the gearstick to get it to come out of gear. The engine was trying to pull the bus along, even with my left foot firmly on the floor. Would I make it back to base?

I breathed a sigh of relief as I went up the slip road onto the M32 and engaged overdrive on joining the M4. Apart from the climb up from Avonmouth, I would stay in that gear until I reached Weston. Still operating the clutch as normal (and hoping that there was enough fluid in the system to partly separate the transmission) I continued through the junctions, hoping for green lights all the way. Sadly it was not to be but I discovered that I could get 2nd gear quite easily if I slipped it in while still moving, even if I had to press a bit harder on the brake to stop the bus pulling away again on its own.

At last I nursed the bus the last few yards into the depot, but forgot to pull it out of gear before we stopped. Now, all the wrestling in the world wasn’t going to move it out of gear and the engine was beginning to labour as it idled. I let the bus roll forward another foot or two and managed to pull it out of gear. The boss appeared and I explained about my trouble with the clutch. He climbed up into the cab and proclaimed “No clutch, it’s gone completely!” With loud grinding noises coming from the poor gearbox, he tried in vain but couldn’t select any gear at all. “I’m surprised you managed to get here at all!”

I was glad not to have needed the recovery truck, arriving just in the nick of time. I was even more glad that my clutch troubles didn’t affect my ability to deliver my passengers to their destination. I just hope this isn’t an omen! No, I’m not superstitious so I’ll look forward to a trouble-free outing next time!

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3 comments on “A private hire driving job to Frenchay, Bristol

  1. Andy says:

    Nice one John. Keep the posts coming. I wonder how often this kind of thing happened ‘back in the day’ when the FLF was in service?

    • busmanjohn says:

      Thanks, Andy. It probably happened near the end of their service lives, when maintenance wasn’t as thorough as it could have been. Master cylinder seals don’t last for ever!

  2. Mike Dan says:

    An interesting but scary story John! Its enough to put off all but the keenest new drivers! Its a good job you did there in delivering the bus back without assistance back to its garage.Well done!

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