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.
The early part of the journey was a bit tense for another reason, too. I had to guess how much time to allow for the 45 mile journey, especially in a vehicle that was new to me. Although the OB would happily motor on at 45mph, it wasn’t until I had passed through Shepton Mallet that I could really make progress. With wider and more level roads, the miles passed far more quickly and I reached the village of Rode, between Frome and Trowbridge, with time in hand.
The wedding organisers had thoughtfully reserved a space for the bus at the entrance to a paddock, where the guests were gathering and where the reception was to take place later. I drew up right next to a quaint ‘bus stop’ sign and wandered in to announce myself. I found myself transported back to the 1940s. There were chaps in military uniforms everywhere and all the ladies were smartly dressed in their period outfits. Even the young lads wore waistcoats and trilbys! To top it all, there was a Supermarine Spitfire parked on the grass. A full size replica, but impressive all the same.
A wartime air-raid siren broke the silence and an RAF officer with a clipboard directed the first group of guests towards the bus stop. Our OB only has 29 seats so at least a couple of journeys would be required. Fortunately the church was only a mile or so away in the hamlet of Tellisford. I had already wound all the windows down but it was still stiflingly hot inside so, as soon as we were full, we set off for the church. Most of the journey took us up a narrow lane and this really tested my newly-acquired ‘position on the road’ skills. Quite often the grassy verge was brushing the skirts of the Bedford on both sides. We met the inevitable traffic coming the other way but most pulled helpfully into a passing space for us.
Another one and a half loads later, all the guests were at the church. The vicar paced up and down the pathway outside the church and eventually a bright red Austin A40 Sport arrived, carrying bridesmaids. The paintwork looked spotless and the white leather interior looked as if it had been fitted yesterday. More waiting, then the same car re-appeared with the bride. While they were all inside I spent a long time chatting to the driver/owner of the car. I found that we had a lot in common, including Morris Minors!
It was scorching hot by now so the other driver and I sought the shade while we waited for the bells to ring out. Soon it was time for me to don my cap and usher the guests aboard again. There was no turning space so I had to reverse back to the nearby junction, with one of the guests waving me back. Reverse on a Bedford OB is found by squeezing a signalman’s lever on the gearstick (like the handbrake but smaller) which opens a gate to the reverse gear position. The return journeys were notable for a lack of helpfulness by other drivers we met down the lane. This time there were 2 drivers who refused to reverse and it was left to me to back up a bit to the nearest gateway. Cries of “oh no, surely not!” and “that’s so unfair!” rang out behind me. No harm done, I’m used to reversing in confined spaces.
Before I knew it, the job was done so I parked up, turned the tacho mode switch to ‘rest’ and took a long drink from the bottle in my coolbag. After my 45 minute break I took great care to enjoy the journey back to the depot. After all, I didn’t know how long it would be before I had the chance to drive an OB again. It was odd to see a sharply tapering bonnet extending out in front of me in contrast to the Bristol Lodekkas I’m used to driving. Bowling along at nearly 50mph, I soon reached Shepton Mallet where I parked in a bus bay next to Tescos so that I could buy more bottled water. Driving on a hot summer’s day is thirsty work! That’s when the inevitable bus enthusiast turned up. “I did my apprenticeship on Bedford OBs!” he told me excitedly. “Where have you been? Does it have the 0.300 engine?” Sadly I could only answer the first question.
So, what’s it like to drive a Duple-bodied Bedford OB? Well, I’ve already given you a fair impression. One other oddity is the huge lever next to the handbrake lever. This enables the driver, via a mechanical linkage, to operate the sliding door without leaving his seat. The other noteworthy feature is how you manage the power. When driving a Gardner-powered bus, the engine delivers power at a fairly equal rate right across the rev range. In the OB, the petrol engine delivers maximum power when the revs are relatively high so you can’t really plod up a hill with the revs falling like you can with a Lodekka. Also, 1st gear is really a crawler, meaning that you only use 2nd, 3rd and 4th in normal driving. The ratio between them is quite wide so, when accelerating, you get the best performance when you take the revs quite high before changing up otherwise the engine almost stalls (well, it ‘sneezes’ to let you know that it’s struggling).
So, having become well acquainted with ‘Bosworth’ in one day, I parked it up at the depot and spent another hour and a half in the car driving home. So many miles in one day – is it worth it? You betcha!
A few days later I drove a 1947 Leyland PD2 around my home town on a sightseeing tour route, but that story must wait for another time!