Exeter Corporation No 5 (FJ6154) was already obsolete when Conductor Wooldridge climbed into its cab to take a driving lesson. The year was 1938 and within 12 months the bus would be withdrawn from service and sold to a local scrap merchant.
We can only wonder what Conductor Wooldridge thought of the primitive controls in the cab. Fortunately I can tell you what they’re like because the bus survived its visit to the scrapyard and is still with us today, thanks to the efforts of Mr Arden (a local farmer), the late Colin Shears, York’s Coaches (Northampton) and the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT).
I mentioned in my last post that this 1929-built Maudslay ML3 bus is due to convey the Lord Mayor of Exeter to one of his final public engagements on Saturday May 2nd and, in preparation for this, we took the bus out for the first of two shakedown runs. She had not moved from the spot where I had parked her last September at the conclusion of her debut appearance at the WHOTT Rally at Westpoint. By the time I arrived on Tuesday last week the Maudslay’s battery had been charged. WHOTT’s chairman Robert Crawley prepared to start the engine by turning on the fuel supply tap beneath the autovac and setting the choke. This is done by pulling a rod which is sited underneath the radiator. After ‘tickling’ the carburretor to make sure the float chamber was full, he climbed into the tiny cab and turned the electric starter switch. Amazingly, the original 4-cylinder Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life after only a couple of revolutions. Nick, a WHOTT member who was to share the driving with me, closed the choke once the engine was running normally.
The bus was gently eased out into the April sunshine and driven around the side of the storage shed. There was a pause in proceedings at this point because a van and two Devon General AEC Regents were partly blocking our exit. It was while we waited that the Maudslay’s clutch decided to seize. Although our exit was now clear the octogenarian No 5 couldn’t be moved because none of the gears could be engaged. There followed some strenuous efforts involving blocks of wood, a crowbar and a hydraulic jack.
While waiting, I brought my Morris Minor round from where I had parked it to meet ‘Maud’. As you can see from the photo, the Maudslay has a large starting handle, which was standard on vehicles of this era. None of us have been brave enough to try using it yet!
Eventually the clutch was freed off and ‘Maud’ was declared fit for the road. By that time I was in the cab, helping to free the clutch so I stayed there and drove the bus up the farm lane and out into the lanes of mid Devon.
It took me a while to get myself back into ‘Maudslay Mode’ and there was some crunching of gears until I got the timing right. With very little traffic about I took the opportunity to go up and down the ‘box several times to become more proficient. Gradually my gear changes became more smooth and I prepared to hand over to my WHOTT colleague, who had been watching and listening in the saloon behind me.
Apart from the spartan cab and gate-change gearbox, the only other thing to note was the driver’s nearside mirror. It was missing. Or, to be more precise, it had never been there at all. Exeter Corporation (and others, perhaps) didn’t feel the need to specify one so none was ever fitted. Maybe road traffic in 1930s Exeter was so minimal compared to today that a nearside mirror was deemed unnecessary or perhaps cost was a factor. That was certainly the case when it came to helpful aids such as grab handles for climbing into the cab – there aren’t any! As far as the missing mirror is concerned, I had to watch the front nearside wing like a hawk and judge the position of the bus in relation to the edge of the road from that.
I reversed at a junction and we swapped drivers. I gave Nick a few more tips when he had squeezed himself into the driver’s seat. This was his first attempt at driving the Maudslay and, like me when I first drove it, he found the clutch difficult to master. Being a cone clutch there’s very little control as the friction surfaces behave differently to the sprung disc-type clutches we’re all familiar with these days. The pedal doesn’t need to travel very far before the clutch is fully ‘out’ and, until the driver is used to this, progress can be very jerky! To be fair to Nick, there was still some stickiness due to the earlier seizure.
Due to our earlier problems, we had left the clutch cover panel off in case it seized again. This provided an unusual view of the clutch in operation and the video below gives a glimpse of this. I hadn’t planned to make a video, so this was taken on my phone and the quality isn’t great but it gives a flavour of the vehicle in action.
On the way back we stopped in a layby to re-create the photograph of Conductor Wooldridge, the original of which belongs to the WHOTT archive and appears here with permission. It took a while to pose it correctly but even so, there are some inaccuracies! A few days afterwards I worked on the resulting image in Photoshop to produce the ‘then and now’ photograph at the top of this post.
Finally, Nick brought ‘Maud’ back to the farm where she lives. All was well with the bus so the only thing that needs to be done before meeting the Mayor is for her driver (me) to get some more practice in. I’m due to take her out again this week, this time for a longer run. If all goes to plan we’ll be fully prepared to drive her down to Exeter on Friday May 1st. If anyone fancies being around to photograph or video this historic run (or the Mayoral event on the Saturday), please let me know.