This post might seem out of place on a blog that’s almost exclusively devoted to buses which are more than 40 years old. It’s here because it is part of my bus driving story.
I’ve been job hunting recently and the good folk at Crosville Motor Services kindly offered me a few extra duties to help me out. One of these was a modern coach duty and I agreed to take it because I knew it would broaden my experience, apart from anything else. As it happens, what I learned on this day would come in very handy just a few days later.
I arrived at the depot to find three coaches, in Crosville’s white coaching livery, lined up in the sunshine. We were to provide these three coaches as part of a 16-coach hire to Millfield School, Street, Somerset. I had been allocated a ‘mentor’ to help me through my first duty with a modern coach and we worked through the walkaround checks together because there are more items to check than on a heritage bus. Seat belts, for instance.
Soon it was time to set off and initially I regretted saying that I knew the route into the school as I had done a ‘dry run’ at home with Google Maps. The other drivers saw this as their chance to get an easy drive and said “OK then, you can lead!” I’d had a guided tour of my new ‘office’, with all its dials and switches so I gingerly led the way out of the depot. The coach allocated to me was a Scania L94IB with 53-seat Van Hool bodywork. It has an automatic gearbox which is controlled by a series of push buttons located in a panel on the driver’s right, along with the air-operated parking brake. The journey out of Weston-super-Mare and along to the motorway junction at Brent Knoll was a bit hairy, as I hadn’t driven a coach of this size since the day I passed my test. In fact this one was larger than the one in which I took my test and I had to work hard to adapt my driving technique to cope with the longer wheelbase. I did nudge one curb on the way out of Weston but I think that, under the circumstances, that’s allowed!
A few days ago I was able to add 2 more buses to my list of those driven. City of Exeter Guy Arab IV TFJ808 and Bournemouth Corporation Leyland PS2/3 JLJ403 had been on loan to Crosville Motor Services from a private collection and I was given the chance to help drive them back to their home depot.
My driving partner for the day was a chap called Paul, a regular visitor to this blog and at one time a driver for Hants & Dorset. We decided that, as we wanted to experience driving both vehicles, we would swap over part way to Devon. These 2 buses come from the West of England Transport Collection at Winkleigh, so we had quite a long drive ahead of us. This shot of the Guy at the depot might appear to show repairs in progress but actually shows the ever resourceful workshop manager estimating how full the cylindrical fuel tank was before we set out!
I elected to drive the Leyland single decker first so, after all checks had been done, we set off for the filling station. The PS2 is a relatively easy bus to drive, having a gearbox with synchromesh on all but first gear. While at Crosville it had never been used in service as quite a number of restoration and repair jobs needed to be done to bring it up to service standards so it appeared to be rather ‘tired’ in places. On this very hot day, I might have benefitted from more ventilation in the cab but the front window hinges were seized solid! The full-front body not only seals the driver into the same confined space as the engine, it also gives him the full aural benefit of it too! I would not have liked to have been cooped up in that cab all day when the coach (as it was configured then) was operating the Town Circular Tour for Bournemouth Corporation.
We had decided that, as neither bus was suited to motorway driving, we would stick to A-roads as much as we could. So, having topped up the fuel tanks, we set off southwards in stately convoy. We paused on the outskirts of Highbridge to check that we hadn’t sprung any leaks or lost any wheels. Despite its rather run-down appearance, the PS2 drove beautifully. The steering is light (for a bus of this era), with no wobble or play. The synchromesh works as advertised, meaning that I didn’t need to double-declutch as I would do in a Bristol Lodekka. In fact the experience was very similar to driving the Southport PD2 in Torquay recently (see previous post). And so it should, they were built within 2 years of each other and feature the same engine/gearbox combination.
I recently had the unexpected pleasure of sampling a recent arrival in Torbay, a Leyland Titan PD2/3. This 1947-built bus carries Leyland bodywork (open top since 1962) and has been acquired by English Riviera Sightseeing Tours.
Calling in by chance on my way home from Teignmouth, I got into a long conversation with Anthony, the proprietor. He is looking for a suitable driver to take the bus on tours around the three towns of the Bay – I wondered if I might be the chap he was looking for? It would have been very opportune, as I had been made redundant from my job as a designer that same day.
The PD2 looked very eye-catching, wearing its freshly-applied custom livery. I had a guided tour of the newly-refurbished inside and top deck as well, the fine handiwork of the chaps at Mardens of Benfleet I believe. We talked about the history of the vehicle and about my experiences driving heritage buses for weddings. This led to a further opportunity a few days later.
I was invited to take the PD2 out for a multi-purpose test drive. I say that because I would be assessed as to my suitability, I would be assessing the capabilities of the bus and Anthony would be looking to see whether the bus could cope with the route. So I turned up at the stabling point next to Torquay’s Railway Station and became acquainted with the spartan cab. I could almost number its components on the fingers of one hand. Steering wheel, gearstick, pedals, handbrake and 3 dials (speedo, vacuum and oil pressure).
On starting the 0.600 diesel engine the first thing I noticed was that the idle speed was unusally fast. I asked about this when we were under way (there’s a sliding window in the bulkhead behind the driver so I was able to have a conversation with Anthony while we were en route) and apparently the tickover speed had been raised to eliminate the tendency of the engine to ‘hunt’ when idling. This rising and falling of the revs at idle is a characteristic of Leyland diesels and I thought it was a shame that it had been adjusted out. All Leylands of that era do it, don’t they? While it made for even running when stationary, it did have an impact on driving technique. Whenever we came to a halt I had to dip the clutch earlier than I would normally, otherwise the engine would carry the bus forward by itself. Although we didn’t discuss it further, I later thought of 2 more disadvantages: it could cause more wear to the brake shoes due to being unable to use engine braking at low revs and it could affect the fuel consumption too.
It may have been a last minute substitution for a vintage double deck bus, but ‘Bosworth’ the Bedford OB coach was the perfect replacement.
Saturday was a glorious day and I eagerly stepped aboard ex-Crosville SL71 (MFM39). This was the first time I had experienced an OB, either as a driver or a passenger, so I prepared myself for a steep learning curve. My first problem was that everything appeared to be dead so, having checked all the fluid levels, I started looking for the master switch. Nobody I spoke to knew where it was but I found it eventually, lurking underneath one of the seats. Back in the driving seat, I turned the ignition key and the engine burst into life with a little bit of choke. It soon settled down to the wonderful 6-in-a-bar burble that only a straight-6 petrol engine can make.
Armed with a fuel card I edged out of the depot, gathering mental data all the time. I topped up the fuel tank and headed out of Weston-super-Mare towards the village of Banwell. This delightful coach is actually owned by Trevor Smallwood but was hired on this occasion to Crosville Motor Services. It shares the garage with the Crosville fleet full time and is looked after by their staff. Like the majority of its brethren, this 1950-built OB wears the elegant bodywork of Duple. The rounded body and sweeping curves of the detailing are typical of this pre-war design. Many years earlier, when it was first restored, Bosworth was owned by Terry Jones who, at the time, was only 20 and didn’t have a driving licence! Coincidentally, I photographed Bosworth in 1988 in Torquay when Terry had first licenced it for commercial service. I didn’t know then that I would be driving it in service 25 years later!
The sun shone down and warmed up the interior as I drove on towards Wells so I opened the windscreen, which is hinged at the top on the driver’s side. The cooling breeze felt good! I didn’t seem to be having much trouble with the crash gearbox but my position on the road was a problem. I knew that the driving seat was positioned more towards the centre of the vehicle than most of the buses I’d driven before but I was surprised at the difference it made to one’s perception of the width of the bus. Using my mirrors often, I noticed that the offside wheels were often running on the white line in the centre of the road while I had a clear 2ft gap on the nearside! It actually took me most of the day to really get used to this.
I don’t often do weekday driving duties but, for reasons that I’ll come to later, I did one yesterday. Once more it involved a long empty journey and a short (in mileage anyway) loaded trip. But, if the customer is happy to pay the price, who am I to complain?
The bus allocated to me for this trip was ex-Bristol Omnibus C5055 (later Badgerline 8622) Bristol VRT LEU263P. I hadn’t driven this bus before so the first few miles served as ‘type familiarisation’. It was altogether less strenuous than driving a Lodekka. For a start, you enter the bus via the same door as the passengers and walk straight into the cab through a little door beside the entrance gangway, much the same as most modern buses. Fitted with power steering and a semi-automatic gearbox, there’s virtually nothing left for the driver to do except point the thing in the right direction!
I soon had the hang of the semi-automatic gearbox. Pausing between gears, even though there’s no clutch to operate, produced the smoothest changes. In service many drivers used to flick the little gear selector straight from one to the next gear. It worked, but the bands in the gearbox had to absorb a huge amount of energy as the engine revs dropped almost instantly to the new ratio. This caused an uncomfortable lurch, not to mention frequent visits to the workshop when the ‘box wore out.