About a week ago I took a wedding party to The Grange Hotel, Winterbourne in a 1950 Bristol L5G where another ‘bus’ was involved; a VW Campervan.
My allocated bus, ex-Crosville KG131 (KFM893), was in the middle of a line of other heritage buses but I had to move another Bristol L out of the way first. This is another acquisition by Crosville, an ex-Bristol Tramways bus. Delivered to Bristol Tramways (the forerunner of Bristol Omnibus Company) in 1949, this Bristol L5G ran as fleet no C2736, including a spell based in Weston-super-Mare running on the Sand Bay service. LHY976 carries a dual door 33-seat ECW body, a feature that is believed to be unique to Bristol Tramways.
KG131 can manage 42mph with its overdrive Bristol gearbox so it wasn’t long before I arrived in Portishead, via the M5. I arrived before everyone was ready so I was invited into the bride’s house by her father and was offered a welcome cup of tea. While inside, the bride’s ‘limousine’ arrived, an early VW camper van. Both the bus and the VW were a surprise for the bride. While we waited I chatted to the camper van’s driver who told me that he had spent £40,000 on the vehicle and its restoration. The quality of the workmanship (the owner also works in the motor trade) is evident in the immaculate finish on the classic vehicle.
The VW driver wasn’t sure of the route through Bristol, so we agreed that he could follow me. We had been requested not to use the M5, although it would have been quicker, but to travel through the city to reach Winterbourne. I had visited the wedding venue, The Grange Hotel, on my very first heritage duty with Crosville – just one week after passing my PCV test.
With a relatively light load (only about 8 passengers on board) we set off from Portishead, crossed over the M5 and continued past Leigh Woods on the A369 to Bristol. The traffic through the city wasn’t too heavy (it was before midday) although I did have to wait for the VW camper van once after a set of traffic lights changed just as we passed through. A short blast up the M32 took us up to the ring road and thence through Hambrook towards Winterbourne.
Parking up outside the hotel, we waited while the wedding ceremony took place. The Bristol L seemed to dwarf the VW, especially as the camper van’s suspension had been lowered!
We had been asked to remain in place while photographs were taken so, after the ceremony, the bridal party and guests emerged into the warm summer sunshine and the interminable process of taking group photos began. It took ages! In fact we were there for an hour and a half while photographs were taken, some of which included both vehicles.
The journey back to the Crosville depot was long-winded, but that was of my own choosing. I decided that buses of this era weren’t really designed for motorway travel so I avoided the M32 and M5, prefering to mix with the busy traffic through Frenchay, Eastville and the City Centre.
Earlier, on the outward empty journey, I had begun playing a game with my gearchange technique, something I’d tried before on a Lodekka: changing gear without using the clutch. This is something that old drivers like to brag about; “Clutch? Who needs a clutch? All the best drivers change gear without it!” I like to think that I’m reasonably familiar with the overdrive crash gearbox fitted to the Bristol L5G and my usual technique when changing up is to wait until the engine revs die away to the point where they are correct for the next gear. Not using the clutch is really a refinement of this. It takes some ‘bottle’ and tends to go against the grain. After all, everyone who learns to drive knows that you dip the clutch to change gear. It becomes second nature. But to intentionally keep your left foot away from the clutch pedal takes some will power!
Once I’d cleared the mental hurdle I found that my keen ear had already been judging the timing just right and the gears just slid in easily. Ok, some of them were a bit jerky and sometimes I had to have a second go when the gear stick was reluctant to move out of gear. I learned that I had to ‘unload’ the gearbox by easing off on the accelerator a bit earlier.
The next challenge was to master changing down. This meant really precise judgement when it came to raising the engine revs to the correct point so that the lower gear engaged smoothly. This was more tricky and more than once I ended up playing a tune on the gearbox. For the time being I saved my experimentation for the empty journeys. I didn’t think it wise to risk screwing up a gearchange with passengers on board!
All this playing around with technique got me thinking. How about using the clutch stop? It’s a mythical item often mentioned by wizened old busmen isn’t it? Many old-hand drivers tell of speedy up-changes, courtesy of the clutch stop fitted to most of the Bristol ‘boxes. The Bristol L, when fitted with a 5-cylinder Gardner engine, is sluggish at the best of times when mixing with today’s traffic. Having to wait a fortnight for the engine revs to die away before engaging a higher gear makes its progress seem positively pedestrian! The clutch stop is a device fitted to the input shaft of the gearbox (I think) and comes into play when the clutch pedal is pushed right to the floor. Usually the driver only needs to depress it halfway down. The net result is that you can change up much faster than you normally would, which is very helpful in busy traffic or when climbing a gradient. I was pleased to find that on this Crosville Bristol L, the clutch stop actually still works. By pushing the pedal to the floor much sooner than I normally would I found that I could slip the gearstick into the next gear shortly afterwards. By keeping the stick pressed firmly against the desired gear I could feel when it was ready to drop in.
All this talk of gearchange technique is probably boring you rigid, dear reader, so I’ll leave it there. Suffice to say that I made reasonable progress through Bristol and the bus was put to bed in the garage with its gearbox still intact.
In my next post I’ll review an excellent day in Dorchester at the WHOTT running day.