At last I can reveal the start of my next driving adventure and it involves this stunning 1929 Maudslay motorbus.
After many years spent lying dormant and away from public gaze, FJ6154 has been painstakingly restored and made its public debut at the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) Rally at Westpoint last Sunday. Its long history is fascinating and the story of how it came within a hair’s breadth of being scrapped will have to wait for another time.
I’d had the WHOTT rally in my diary for some time and had offered my services as a driver – or indeed any task – for the day. Little did I know that, a few weeks afterwards, I would be given a job I would never have dreamed of in a million years.
Namely, I was invited to become the Maudslay’s official driver.
It seems that my experience with vintage buses of various sorts, especially those with crash gearboxes, over the past 2 years has not gone unnoticed. Two other factors came into the WHOTT Trustees’ decision; I have a current PCV licence and I’m a nimble, reasonably small person. The latter becomes an obvious benefit as soon as you open the cab door!
I had been following the progress of the Maudslay’s 2-year restoration within the pages of the WHOTT newsletter, as I prepare the artwork for this publication every quarter. No expense has been spared and the bus appears exactly as it would have done when it was new. Authenticity has been paramount and, in pursuit of this, I had even prepared a period advert for the interior, based on a newspaper advert which appeared in the Express & Echo the same week that the bus was delivered to Exeter Corporation.
Although I had seen photographs, I had not seen the bus ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, until last week. I travelled up to the WHOTT restoration base to take the Maudslay on its first tentative road run just two days after work on the engine had been completed. Before that, it hadn’t moved under its own power for nearly 40 years! That first run was very momentous and the significance of it was not lost on me.
After familiarising myself with the small and very spartan cab I shunted up and down in the yard to get a feel for the clutch and the behaviour of the engine. The bus has remarkably survived complete with its original Maudslay 4-cylinder petrol engine and coping with this alone is an adventure! Then, with the Chairman of WHOTT aboard, along with a Trustee and one of the restoration volunteers, I drove the 85 year old veteran up the farm track to the main road. Drawing heavily on my experience with crash box buses and interpreting the feedback I was getting from the bus, I managed to change successfully up to 3rd gear. After climbing uphill for a while we reached level ground and I changed up to 4th gear at which point emotion nearly got the better of me as the enormity of what I was doing hit me.
We turned the bus and stopped for a couple of photos before I brought the Maudslay back to the farm where it will continue to live for the time being. I will not forget that first journey for a very long time.
During the course of the day of the rally itself I drove four of the buses in the WHOTT collection, initially bringing Western National 3307 (a 1979 Bristol LH/Plaxton coach) down from the outstation to the rally site at Westpoint, Exeter. Once there I watched as other vehicles arrived, including the Maudslay which was brought on a low-loader.
Not long afterwards I took it on a test run along the perimeter road, part of the Westpoint internal road system which we were to use while giving rides on the Maudslay. It served as an opportunity to familiarise myself with the behaviour of the bus before I had passengers aboard! The route included a stiff climb, which I managed in 3rd gear while empty.
During the morning I joined another driver while he took the trust’s Bristol LH coach on a mystery tour, because I was due to do the same route later in the day.
By the time we got back there was a sizeable crowd gathered around the Maudslay, with a good number already aboard for the first loaded trip. Tannoy announcements had directed people make their way over to the bus while we’d been out. WHOTT had found me a conductor, an old chap who had been a conductor for Exeter Corporation. How appropriate! I had met Nick before, during an Exeter Twilight event a few years ago and he looked resplendent in his Corporation unif0rm. Sadly, I had to make do with my Tilling winter uniform but that was better than casual clothes which seemed to be the norm on all the other vehicles.
And so the time came for me to take out the first full load of passengers since the Maudslay’s restoration. In fact it may not have carried a full load since it was withdrawn from Exeter Corporation service in 1938! Nick gave me two bells and I replied with two honks on the delightfully antique bulb horn mounted on the front bulkhead. With a rush of air hissing through the Zenith carburretor, the old bus lurched into action. There’s not much ‘throw’ in the cone clutch – it’s either in or out with very little control in between!
Cameras clicked and flashed all around as we crawled over the gravel towards the perimeter road. Slowly but surely we gathered pace and I took her up through the gears, double-declutching in between each, of course. Knowing the feeble efforts of the braking system, I changed down before descending the gradient to the main gate. With Nick’s help we turned the bus and proceeded in stately fashion back up to the rally site. Passing the arena entrance, we carried on to the end of the road in 4th gear. Apparently the Maudslay looked amazing as she forged purposefully along the level section.
After turning at the end we were requested to stop for photos, which is when the photo at the top of this post was taken. From there it was a short drive back to the arena, where I parked the bus right in the middle facing the sun in order to position her for photography. The photo on the right was sent in to me by Alan Felt and appears here with his permission. I was very pleased with the way the Maudslay had performed with a full load, which is remarkable when you consider how little time we’ve had to iron out any wrinkles and become accustomed to her driving characteristics. There’s a lot more progress to be made in that department but I think my first outing with passengers was acceptable. WHOTT’s Chairman and a couple of Trustees I spoke to seemed very pleased anyway.
A lunchbreak was next, after which I took out a Mystery Tour in a Royal Blue coach, Southern National 1299 (OTT98), which is a 1953 Bristol LS6G. It was a half-hour trip, taking in parts of Exeter, Topsham and Clyst St George. This coach has very heavy steering and it was very hot inside so sweaty palms were not helpful!
Shortly after returning, another trip in the Maudslay was scheduled so I took another full load around the same route as before. I’d like to think that it was a better ride, with fewer gear crunches! By the time we returned, the rally was beginning to wind down although the half-hourly shuttle buses were still busy taking visitors back to Exeter Bus Station. George and Ringo, the two powerful horses which had been hauling the 1860 horse bus all day, were being hosed down before retiring to their transport back to Cornwall.
After the show had closed, I drove a Leyland Panther single deck bus back to base. This was delivered to the City of Exeter fleet just before its absorption into Devon General, by then part of the NBC. I arrived back just as the Maudslay was being prepared for offloading from the low-loader which had taken it back from Westpoint. I sat in the cab while the bus was carefully winched down onto the road and then drove it back down the farm track to its shed.
What a momentous day! I have been assured that there will be other driving dates with the old Maudslay and the London to Brighton Run has even been mentioned. Gulp!
Coming up; three more wedding duties for Crosville in October, the Sightseeing Bus season ends and, if you’re going to Bridgwater Carnival, you’ll see me in a most unusual bus.