Southern National Bristol RELL goes north

Following on swiftly from my long trek north with a Bristol K6A I delivered another bus to be repainted last week.


This was not such an arduous journey, for two reasons. This 1967-built Bristol RELL is a faster bus and, secondly, my destination was not so far away from the Crosville depot. Southern National 2700 (HDV626E) is reasonably presentable but, as the plan is for it to join the heritage fleet for private hire at some point, it really needs some tidying up and a new paint job.

2700 has had a succession of private owners since it left Western National service (it was transferred from Southern National in 1969) and has been seen frequently at running days and rallies. In fact she was at the Crosville depot in 2012, when her most recent owner brought her along to the Crosville Running Day.

My task was to deliver the bus to Reliance Bus Works, who are to carry out work to the brakes and chassis before re-applying her Tilling Green and Cream livery. After shunting a Bristol KSW out of the way, I checked the oil and started her up. The Gardner 6HLX engine filled the garage with its throaty sound, along with a haze of blue smoke which soon cleared as the engine warmed up. As before, much of the preparation had been done beforehand but I drove the bus outside and completed my walkaround checks as usual just for my own peace of mind. A full tank of fuel was required for the journey up to Stoke-on-Trent and, once this was done, I set off.


Like all but the earliest Bristol REs, this has a semi-automatic gearchange and, in that respect, is very similar to a Bristol VRT to drive. There’s a crawler gear and four more forward gears plus reverse. The RE differs from the VRT in two major ways; there’s no power steering and no air-operated parking brake. The latter is applied with a mechanical lever as in earlier buses. In my picture, the lever is doubling up as a hat stand!

My technique for going up through the gears is to start in second (except on a gradient). Footbrake on, engage gear with the column-mounted control, mirrors, indicator, parking brake off and apply power. The fluid flywheel does the work of a clutch and takes up the drive. When it’s time to change into third, I flick the little gearchange lever into neutral and, a moment later, lift off the throttle. As the revs die away, I engage third and apply power again. It’s a simple as that! Changing down is almost the reverse except that I give the throttle a little blip to raise the revs before the lower gear is engaged. Of course it is possible to whack it straight through from second to third (and so on) without stopping in neutral and without lifting your foot from the throttle. Anyone who used to travel as a passenger on REs and VRs in service will have experienced this. However, it’s bad practice and causes premature wear in the gearbox. So I don’t do it. This YouTube clip of a slightly later RE shows a good driver at work.

HDV626E-interiorInternally this bus is pretty much as withdrawn and, as far as I know, will probably stay that way except perhaps for a lick of paint in the cab area. The Tilling moquette is in good condition for an early RE. Of course, the seats may have been re-trimmed at some point and the moquette may not even be the original style. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, this RE has a flat front with the early, shallower screen.

I was delighted to find that, on the motorway in top gear, I was able to keep pace with much of the traffic. Particularly the lorries, which are limited to 56mph. In fact this brought a new dimension to my heritage bus driving. Whereas I’m normally content to sit tight in lane one and let everything on the road pass me by, today I was slightly faster than some of the lorries which meant having to overtake some of them. I only had an advantage of about 4 or 5mph but it still made me chuckle!


It was a very cold day and, despite having the radiator nearby (although a rear-engined bus, the rad is still at the front), I needed to stay wrapped up against the wintery weather. I stopped at Frankley Services just over half way and, during my break, it started to sleet. A while later, as I approached the Stafford area, the weather turned to full-on snow which wasn’t nice and I dropped my speed because of the lower visibility. I didn’t want to miss any vital road signs!

Eventually I left the M6 and was soon trundling through the suburbs of Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme. The route to Reliance Bus Works was fairly straightforward and I found the RBW yard easily. I parked the bus next to a Routemaster, turned everything off and went in search of human habitation. The place seemed to be deserted and I wandered from workshop to store until I heard the sound of a radio. Following the sound, I found Martyn and his staff on their teabreak in a busman’s version of Aladdin’s Cave. This inner sanctum was lined with shelves, groaning under the weight of countless parts salvaged from long departed buses and coaches. I was offered a steaming mug of tea so sat down with them and talked shop.

Teabreak over, I gathered my belongings from the RE and joined Martyn and one of his staff on their trip into Stoke-on-Trent to pick up some paint. The railway station was on the way and Martyn had kindly offered to drop me off there. Compared with my earlier trip to Cobus with the K6A, this was a short trip and I soon boarded the 14:07 to Birmingham, heading for home.

In the pipeline for Crosville are another two deliveries to RBW and of course I may well be called upon to bring all the repainted buses back again! In my next post I’ll take a look ahead and mention some of the other driving jobs I’m likely to be doing in 2015.

5 comments on “Southern National Bristol RELL goes north

  1. Don McKeown says:

    John, the semi-automatic gearbox on the Bristol RE was not introduced until 1967, so all earlier RE’s had a manual gearbox. The semi-automatic gearbox was fitted experimentally to two 1966 RELL6G’s, West Yorkshire SRG 23 and United BR61. Both of these had the original ECW body design with rounded domes, narrow entrance and wrap around windscreens similar to those on contemporary ECW coach bodies.

    Are you sure this bus had a four speed gearbox? The Tilling group standardised on the five speed box and your photo of the controls appears to have the five-speed lever. With the four speed gearbox the knob to prevent accidental engagement of reverse would be positioned at the top of the gear change gate, not at the side.

    I only drove RE’s occasionally, but whenever I got the chance I thoroughly enjoyed it. The variety of sounds in different gears was a treat to listen to. If only modern buses nowadays had half as much character.

  2. busmanjohn says:

    Thank you for your comments, Don. I didn’t realise that the very first REs had manual boxes although, now that you mention it, I do recall my friend Dave Moore writing about having struggled with one! Anyway, I’ve edited the post now.

    You’re right about the five-speed box, I obviously can’t count. I blame the cold weather!

  3. Andre Burbidge says:

    I always liked the RELL with ECW bus body as a passenger. Interior was light and airy and the sloping floor arrangement gave a better view out than the split level found on some other rear engined designs.

    Some operators specified the 4 speed gearbox, but with a door interlock. The selector for this had six slots and looked almost identical to the 5 speed, the difference being that moving the selector to the position next to reverse opened the door. With dual door buses, the centre door was often on an interlock, with orthodox controls for the front.

    Thanks for an interesting account, must be good not to be stuck in the inside lane.


  4. Chris James says:

    Hi John.
    Love those old Bristol Buses. Wonderful sounding engines! I’ve one anorakish question to ask regarding the gear change selector. I’ve noticed that in some photos that when the lever is in neutral, it’s sometimes far right (between 4th and 5th), suggesting it’s spring loaded. Other times, the lever is in the middle position between 2nd and 3rd? Can the lever only be changed sequentially up and down the gears, with a mechanism preventing wrong selection and potential gearbox meltdown? Thanks for the interesting read!

    • busmanjohn says:

      Yes, the selector is spring loaded and there’s a floating plate underneath the selector slots that probably prevents an out-of-sequence gear being selected. However, I’ve not tested that theory!

Leave a Reply to Andre Burbidge Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s