Another lengthy delivery journey – part of my role as ‘Crosville Odd Job Man’ – occurred recently. I was sent north to collect a 1938 Bristol L5G single deck bus and bring it back to Weston-super-Mare.
Southern National 280 (ETT946) had been bought at auction in September 2015 but remained uncollected in Yorkshire until I was invited to go and collect it last week. I had seen photographs of this elderly vehicle before and, although its original Beadle-built body had once proudly worn Tilling Green and Cream livery, it appeared to be in a rather dilapidated condition. However, I was assured that it was mechanically in good order. Always up for a challenge, I accepted the invitation.
On the way up north I delivered a more recent example of the former Southern National fleet, Bristol RELL 2700 (HDV626E) to the Stoke-on-Trent premises of Reliance Bus Works for some additional work to the nearside body panels. This is a wonderful vehicle to drive, as well as being historic. It is the earliest surviving example of the RELL Series 2 body style but, from a driver’s point of view, is hard work. It has a very heavily sprung accelerator pedal which is manageable on short trips but very tiring after long stints on motorways!
From Stoke I travelled up to Selby ‘on the cushions’ (as a passenger on a train). After an overnight stay in a guest house I arrived at the premises of another historic vehicle restorer, where the old Bristol L5G stood in the chilly morning air awaiting my attentions. I had been in contact with the restorer earlier in the week but it turned out that, on the day I planned to collect the bus, he was due to be away! He had topped up the oil, fitted a fresh battery and assured me that it was ‘on the button’ and ready to go.
I wandered round the vehicle several times, checking it over. At some time in its long life it had been converted into a mobile home and, while it now stood devoid of any living accommodation, a couple of clues remained. The most bizarre of these was the back end of the bus which had been remodelled to resemble a pine-clad cottage, complete with bay window! In the offside roof there was evidence of a chimney which would have been part of a solid fuel stove inside.
The first thing I noted when I opened the cab door (using a handle that came from an MG sports car) was the enormous starting handle lying on the cab floor. Was this an omen of things to come, I wondered? The battered driver’s seat had lost its upholstery long ago and the only padding was provided by an old sofa cushion. Thankfully all the glazing was complete, so I wouldn’t have to suffer an icy blast on the journey.
Topping up the water in the radiator was next, followed by checking the oil level. Buses of this era tend to have 2 helpful holes in the bonnet side sheet so that drivers can check the oil and even top up the level without having to remove the side panel. Could I find the dipstick? I thought I must be going blind – it must be staring me in the face, surely? I had to remove the heavy side panel to have a better look. Still nothing. I thought “this is silly, it’s bound to have one but where the dickens is it hiding?” Finally I spotted the angled end of what might be the top of a very un-original dipstick poking out from behind the dynamo. It was so small that I couldn’t reach it without climbing up onto the chassis and reaching into the engine space. I secretly hoped I wouldn’t need to do this while the engine was hot! The dipstick showed a healthy sump-full of reasonably clean oil. While I was in there I pressed in the cold-start button underneath the injector rack.
My next task was to get the thing started so I climbed into the cab and was relieved to see the red glow of the charging lamp when I flicked the ‘Start’ switch. I said a little prayer and pressed the starter button. The engine turned over slowly, without firing. I persisted, hoping that I wouldn’t need to crank it too much for fear of draining the battery. Eventually one cylinder began to fire so I floored the accelerator pedal and the 5-cylinder Gardner rattled and bellowed into life. Clouds of blue-ish smoke poured out from underneath the bus as I warmed the engine enough that I could leave it idling. While checking the lights I peered underneath and saw what remained of a very shortened exhaust system, full of holes.
I had been told that 280 had a broken rear indicator lens so, being a resourceful chap, I had liberated a lens from another unrestored Bristol L back at the Crosville garage and brought it with me. However, it was to no avail because the broken lens was at the front! Not only that but the bulb wasn’t working either. I fished around in my pocket and brought out a spare bulb, also borrowed from the aforementioned Crosville bus. Finally I had all indicators working.
With a healthy vacuum showing on the gauge I drove the bus gingerly up the yard to test the brakes and steering. Both appeared to be functioning as expected, which was a huge relief. To be fair, someone had obviously done quite a bit of work on the engine and running gear recently and I was told that the bus had been driven under its own power from the auction house elsewhere in Yorkshire. There were many parts of the bus that were broken or missing (the bottom step of the rear entrance being just one) but I decided that, mechanically at least, the bus was fit to be driven. How long it would endure was anyone’s guess.
A couple of days before, when planning my route, I had sought out a nearby filling station with decent access so this was my first stop. That short journey revealed a few more shortcomings. The gearstick knob was loose (it came off in my hand just as I changed down before a roundabout – very awkward) and the indicators were only working when they felt like it, according to the little red lamp on the switch. I learned to manage the gearstick knob issue but resorted to using hand signals to complement the untrustworthy indicators. I later found that, while indicating to change lanes on the motorway and receiving a flash from a following vehicle, the exterior lamps were working but the repeater on the switch was not. I could live with that.
Did you notice, dear reader, that I mentioned ‘motorway’? As dodgy as it sounds, it seemed to be the best option. I had fitted trade plates over the original registration plates so everything was legal and, making use of the Bristol 4-speed plus overdrive crash gearbox, the bus could manage 40mph on the open road so I began my long journey south on the M18 past Doncaster. There’s not much to say about the first half of the journey, except to say that my right foot didn’t get tired but my ears did. Let me tell you, it was bedlam in that cab! A pre-war Bristol L has its engine bolted directly to the chassis and this, together with the bus only having half an exhaust system, made quite a racket.
I made an early service station stop to check levels and, apart from a slight drop in coolant level, everything was fine. That is, until I was in the Nottingham area and noticed the oil pressure needle flickering. Alarmingly, as the miles passed, it began to drop as well. Was the gauge telling the truth or was it yet another part of the bus that was unservicable? The oil pressure dropped still further and, reducing speed, I looked out for the next service area. By the time I’d reached Trowell Services the gauge was barely registering any pressure at all.
I stopped the engine, jumped down and peered under the bus. A pool of oil was already forming beneath the engine so I lifted off the side panel to investigate. Engine oil had clearly been spraying all over the filter housing and everything nearby. I had no tools with me (a lesson learned there) so I called base to advise them of my predicament. A recovery van was despatched from a nearby bus and coach operator so I went to find some lunch.
A very helpful chap from Redfern Travel came and sorted out the problem. As I stood watching him, it started to rain. The nut on top of the filter housing had shaken itself loose so he nipped it up and cleaned everything down. He replenished the engine oil and we ran the engine to make sure that there were no further leaks. I could tell that he thought I was bonkers to be driving such an old bus all the way to Weston but, on the other hand, he understood that such vehicles are normally rugged and reliable. Redferns are associated with Johnson’s of Hodthorpe, which has a few vintage Bedford vehicles in its fleet.
I resumed my journey in a shower of hail which later turned into torrential rain. Visibility was tricky, made worse when much faster trucks swooshed past one after another. I quickly discovered another of 280’s shortcomings. It was raining inside the cab as well as outside!
By the time I had reached the more familiar countryside of Gloucestershire it had stopped raining and stayed dry for the rest of the journey. There were no further problems, apart from having to stop and lift off the engine’s side panel to occasionally check the dipstick. In gathering gloom I eventually reached the safe haven of the Crosville garage. The cleaners did a double-take as they saw the country-cottage-on-wheels disappear into the dark interior!
The next day the new owner took 280, still wearing trade plates, out in the sunshine for a quick spin (that’s a relative term, by the way). He pronounced himself very pleased with his new acquisition. It will join the queue for a full restoration behind three other buses, one of which is almost finished.