Last week I had my first half cab drive since March and it was a long distance delivery job for a new owner.
The AEC Regent III, 1951-built RT2591 (LYF316), came to Somerset in 2019 as part of a batch of purchases from the former Yorkshire Heritage Bus Company fleet. My friend Dave Moore and I had quite an adventure bringing this bus and a Wigan Leyland PD1 back (full story here).
Being suplus to requirements in Weston-super-Mare, RT2591 has now been sold to a gentleman in Kent so this was a solo delivery journey.
I hadn’t driven a bus with a pre-selective gearbox for several years so I had arranged to take the bus for a quick drive the previous afternoon, just to familiarise myself with it. Not the kind of task a driver can do safely when the bus is parked only 3 minutes from the motorway! Fortunately I recalled the required technique readily, helped by the fact that I’d watched several YouTube videos showing the driver in the cab of an RT. The thing to remember is that the pedal on the left (normally the clutch in a manual ‘box vehicle) is a gearchange pedal. A gear is selected in advance of actually needing it using the column-mounted selector. The pedal does the actual change when the time comes.
Confident that I knew my way around, I turned up before daybreak the next day to do my checks. It happened that there had been an overnight frost so my first job was to scrape away the ice on the cab windows! The 9.6 litre engine sprang into life readily enough but I began to get worried when it didn’t appear to be building up air. In the RT there aren’t any air pressure gauges. In fact the only dial in the cab is the speedometer! Instead, there is a metal ‘flag’ which hangs down in front of the driver when the air is low. Imprinted on the flag is the word ‘Stop’, making it abundantly clear that it’s not safe to move off. In this case, I couldn’t move off anyway because the gearchange mechanism is air-operated and I couldn’t engage any gear at all!
I revved the engine and waited for several minutes. Still no air. Time was ticking by and I was keen to get away as I didn’t know what delays I might encounter on the way. Not only that but my ticket for a return train journey had already been booked.
In desperation I sent a couple of messages and I soon learned that this particular RT is reluctant in the cold. A bit like me, in fact. The trick is to hold the gearchange pedal down while revving the engine. Lo and behold, within a few seconds after doing this, the ‘Stop’ flag withdrew itself into its box above the windscreen and all was well.
With my woolly hat pulled down over my ears and with thermal gloves on to ward off the cold, I headed for the M5 motorway just as it was getting light. I settled down at a steady 45mph (estimated) but kept a wary eye on my mirrors. I always watch the trucks overtaking me because, although I was travelling with lights on, I worried that other drivers wouldn’t notice my slower speed until it was too late. Happily there were no dramas.
However, it wasn’t a comfortable drive. The seat made my back ache and the engine was loud but I could live with that. However, my hands and feet were SO cold. I wished that I’d worn thermal underwear as well as thermal gloves!
Apart from having to deal with patchy fog, my only worry during the first part of the journey concerned the charging system. When this bus was driven down to Somerset last year there was a problem with the voltage regulator and I didn’t know whether this had been fixed in the meantime. I would have to wait until my first break at a Service area to find out! Having stopped for a break I was relieved to hear that the charging system had been fixed.
For navigation, I had an A4 clipboard with me in the cab with a sheet of ‘bullet point’ directions. Neither my TomTom nor my phone would have survived the journey without a source of power!
On we went, following the M4 eastbound until I turned off at junction 10 and drove through Bracknell to pick up the M3 further south. Having to negotiate junctions and roundabouts in a 69 year old bus kept me on my toes but I was pleased with my progress through the town traffic. I can understand why the pre-selective gearchange system was specified for these buses, as they had to do lots of starts and stops in busy London traffic and a bus with a manual ‘box (before the days of synchromesh) would have been far less agile.
To see what I mean, here’s a chap who is driving an RT in service (quite vigorously) in Romford:
Joining the M3 I then had to do battle with heavy traffic in multiple lanes as I headed for the M25, following the anticlockwise motorway around the southern edge of London. I felt reasonably safe in lane 1 but occasionally had to venture out into lane 2 when lane 1 became an off-slip at several junctions.
Once I began to see signs for the Dartford Crossing I knew I didn’t have far to go. My destination was Greenhithe so I left the M25 at junction 2 and within 10 minutes had arrived at journey’s end.
I climbed stiffly down from the cab and handed the bus over to its new owner who was apparently new to RTs and needed a few tips, such as “How do you stop the engine?”. He muttered something about using the RT as a temporary office for his garage business but I sincerely hope that there is a better future in store for the old girl than that!
The new owner kindly drove me (in his car, in case you’re wondering…) to the nearby railway station and I spent the rest of the afternoon riding home ‘on the cushions’ in the relative warmth of a railway carriage.
In other news, my day job consists of reduced hours doing morning and afternoon school runs with the occasional driving assessment in between.