Exeter Corporation No 5 was given her stiffest test yet last Friday – a 27 mile journey under her own power back to her old home – and she passed with just a couple of ‘advisories’.
The 1929-built single deck bus had been especially requested by the retiring Lord Mayor of Exeter, Councillor ‘Percy’ Prowse, to convey him to Exeter’s historic Guildhall. A journey not to be taken lightly, it was nevertheless the most cost effective way of getting her into position for her appointment. For me as her official driver, it was also the most rewarding way!
Hours of work and plenty of planning had been carried out by the volunteers at WHOTT in order to prepare ‘Maud’ for her momentous return to Exeter. With brakes adjusted, batteries charged and Autovac topped up with petrol, the historic Maudslay ML3 was ready for the journey. I’m not sure that I was, though. Despite having eagerly anticipated the run for ages, it still posed a huge challenge for me as a driver and I was feeling the pressure. The bus is owned by a billionaire businessman and is regarded in heritage transport circles as a national treasure. And today it fell to little old me to get her unscathed from mid Devon to Exeter. Not only that, but I had an audience too. The Chairman of WHOTT, a photographer and a video cameraman were to accompany me in their cars. Scary stuff!
The slow-revving Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life, if a little reluctantly. There are still some ignition timing issues to sort out. With auxilliary lights checked we were off, with one car ahead of me acting as an escort and two others following. I was so glad to have had the opportunity to have some practice runs under my belt as this allowed me to concentrate on driving safely, rather than having to cope with the specific challenges of driving this unique vehicle. As we trundled down the lanes and under fresh, leafy canopies, the only peculiarity that was ever-present was the lack of a nearside rear view mirror. The bus wasn’t built with one and, in the pursuit of authenticity, still doesn’t have one. Frequent glances at the front nearside wing and over my left shoulder were the only way to safely judge my distance from the verge and other hazards.
On the rural route to Tiverton there are several steep hills which demanded confident changes into lower gears, both to climb and descend. Thanks to my earlier practice, these were successful. Good job too, otherwise the bus would have either ground to a halt during the climb or risked running away out of control downhill. We stopped a couple of times to top up the Autovac’s reserve tank until we reached the nearest filling station. Soon we reached the wider streets of Tiverton and the fuelling stop. The Maudslay looked very incongrous among the modern vehicles, especially when a Dartline service bus pulled in at the same time! Now that we had a chance to fill the main fuel tank, we shouldn’t have to worry about fuel levels in the small gravity tank. All that remained was for us to check occasionally to make sure that fuel was being drawn up into the Autovac to replenish that used by the engine.
Now on the main A396 trunk road to Exeter, we bowled along at 30mph. Or so I was told later by one of the car drivers. There’s no speedo in the Maudslay’s cab! In fact there’s only one instrument in front of the driver and that’s the oil pressure gauge. We stopped at the picturesque Bickleigh Mill for a breather and to check the fuel situation. Worryingly, it didn’t seem as if any fuel was being drawn up from the main tank. Further checks would be necessary but for now, the Autovac was topped up again from a plastic can. Naturally, much attention was focussed on the old girl and we had to drag ourselves away from some interesting conversations to make some more progress. Another stop was made at Stoke Canon, both to allow following traffic to pass and to check the Autovac level. Still going down, sadly.
Our video cameraman joined me on the bus for the final sector down to Cowley Bridge Junction and past Exeter St Davids Station. I was conscious of even more eyes on my driving skills, via the camera lens which was at times looking straight over my shoulder. As we joined heavy traffic crossing the busy Exe Bridges, I was also aware of how significant this journey was becoming. We were now travelling along streets that the old Maudslay bus would have used when in service as Exeter Corporation No 5. Maybe it was this extra pressure that brought on a couple of rather jerky take offs. I had been careful all along to lift the clutch very carefully as it has a tendency to launch the bus into action with a squeal and a lurch and the resulting YouTube video may unfortunately confirm this. Oh, the joys of a cone clutch!
Finally, we turned off the main road into the Marsh Barton Trading Estate and stopped on the City Council weighbridge. This was to weigh the bus in preparation for a possible appearance at a very important event in London later this year. It subsequently transpired that the dynamo hadn’t been charging the battery and the self starter failed to do its job after weighing was completed. Only short trips had been done prior to this and the charging system fault only now revealed itself. Once the Council’s Fleet Support Van had rendered its assistance our Chairman drove the Maudslay the final few yards to a nearby garage for overnight stabling. This was a significant journey for him, more than it was for me as he was born and bred in Exeter. He had followed the fortunes of this bus for much of his life.
I returned the next morning to carry out our planned return to the city centre, but that story will have to wait until the next blog post!
Top and centre right: Robert Crawley (WHOTT)