It could be argued that the skills required to drive a vintage* bus successfully are significantly greater than those required to drive a modern bus or coach. However, the truth is that the skillset is different rather than necessarily greater. When it comes to physical effort however, there can be no doubt that vintage buses demand a good level of fitness. Perhaps more than would be required in a modern vehicle due to the more basic engineering of the older vehicles.
This page is intended to give a flavour of what it’s like to drive one of these older vehicles. Its aim is to be merely a good read, of particular interest to those who remember these vehicles in normal service. Those who intend to drive such a vehicle may use this page as a guide but please remember that these are only my personal musings and, at the time of writing, are the product of just under a year’s practical experience on the road.
Due to the fact that my driving experiences have exclusively involved buses of Bristol manufacture, the reader will have to make some allowances for other makes which differ in some ways.
*’Vintage bus’ is a generic term referring to a bus that was built before 1967 or thereabouts. The terms ‘heritage bus’ and ‘classic bus’ can mean the same. In my mind, if the engine is at the front, it’s a heritage (or half-cab) bus.
THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
There are of course aspects of driving a vintage bus that overlap with those of driving a modern bus or coach. Spacial awareness, rules of the road, daily walkaround checks, consideration for passengers… these are part and parcel of responsible driving and the care of passengers, regardless of the vehicle. I learned a great deal about these attributes when training in a modern bus for my PCV licence last year. It was a fairly simple matter to transfer those skills to a vintage bus.
THE CAB – A LONG WAY UP!
I’m not saying that you need a degree in mountaineering to enter the cab of a vintage bus but, certainly in a ‘half-cab’ bus, entry to the cab is gained through a door on the offside which is much higher than the step entrance provided on the nearside for passengers. This is due mainly to the fact that the driving position has traditionally been above the offside front wheel rather than in front of it in modern vehicles. A recess, located just behind the front wheel, is provided to assist the driver climb up into the cab. Sometimes a treaded ring (on Leyland buses for example) is also provided on the front wheel itself, roughly adjacent to the wheel nuts. A good pull on the hand grips either side of the cab door helps to scale the heights.
LEVERAGE AND SIGNALBOXES
One of the major differences between a modern bus or coach and a vehicle of the half-cab era is the steering wheel. Hardly any buses of this age will have power steering (with the possible exception of Routemasters) which means that the steering wheel is usually larger, to provide greater leverage when manoevering at slow speed. The gearing is lower too, meaning that you need to turn the wheel through more revolutions from lock to lock than you would on a bus with power steering.
The handbrake (parking brake) is nearly always mechanical and the handbrake lever resembles something you would normally see inside a railway signal box. If it is positioned to the right of the steering wheel, as it is on Bristol buses, it can get in the way when trying to get seated.
In comparison with the driving controls in a modern vehicle, those in a half-cab bus are positively antique. The indicators are controlled by a large metal device with an orange plastic top. The top part swivels to the left and right and flashes in time with the indicator lamps. On later models this may be self-cancelling which I find of limited use. It usually cancels itself before I’ve finished with it, meaning that I have to turn it back on, sometimes more than once, until I’ve completed the manoever.
The gearstick (if the bus has a manual box) is hard to miss, being of similar proportions to the handbrake lever.
Other switchgear, such as windscreen wiper, lights and door controls (if fitted) are also reminiscent of a bygone era.
Assuming that a walkaround check has been done, it’s time to set off. The buses I’ve mostly driven so far are variants of the Bristol Lodekka marque and the motto for driving one of these is “everything happens slowly in a Lodekka”. Accelerating (this is a relative term), braking, changing gear and turning corners are all things that take a long time to happen so the driver must plan every manoever a long way ahead compared to how you would drive a car or even a modern bus. The rear view mirrors are smaller than those found on a modern vehicle so they must be carefully adjusted before leaving the depot and frequently used thereafter!
If the engine is cold, particularly if it is a Gardner diesel, it will produce quite a lot of blue smoke until it comes up to full operating temperature. This is probably quite disconcerting for following car drivers but is only temporary, unless the engine is in poor condition.
Now, where do I start? Gearchanges, as you will have noted if you’ve read my postings since I passed my PCV test, can make or break a driver, particularly if he has to wrestle with a constant mesh (crash) gearbox. You have to master the dark art of ‘double de-clutching’ to make this work. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of a gearbox with synchromesh so I can’t really comment on those. I did briefly drive an AEC Regent III with a pre-select gearbox but that is quite a different animal. Describing the use of a crash gearbox in detail deserves a whole website all to itself so, for now, I will just summarise.
The technique involves pausing in neutral before engaging the next gear, whether changing up or down. This is because the engine revs need to synchronise with the road speed in order to engage the chosen gear. Thus, if changing up from 2nd to 3rd gear on the level, the procedure is: foot off the accelerator, clutch down, gear stick into neutral, clutch up (all four in quick succession); wait for engine revs to die down; clutch down, engage 3rd gear, clutch up, apply power (all four in quick succession). If changing down (for example when climbing a hill) the procedure is: foot off the accelerator, clutch down, gearstick into neutral, clutch up (all four in quick succession); bring engine revs up, clutch down, engage lower gear, clutch up, apply power (pause briefly in neutral while revs rise, the remaining four in quick succession).
The fall or rise in engine revs (and thus the length of pause in neutral) will need to vary depending on conditions such as whether you are on a falling or rising gradient. The whole gearchange technique is not really something that can be written down adequately, it has to be observed and practised in order to learn or to correct a badly taught technique.
Owing to the high inertia in the massively over-engineered Gardner engine (some say that going from full revs to idling takes just under a fortnight) the driver has to choose the right moment to change gear. There are some occasions when you just have to wait otherwise it all goes horribly wrong.
It is worth taking time and effort in trying to perfect a good, quiet gearchange. There is nothing worse than having your passengers endure those horrid crashing, grinding noises that indicate that their driver got it wrong.
There’s an interesting, if a little geeky, discussion about engines, gearboxes and clutch stops here.
Buses and coaches built on Bristol chassis’ which were destined for use on country routes were usually supplied with 5-speed gearboxes to provide a higher top speed than their town-based cousins. Other manufacturers may have also done the same but I am not sure.
This ‘fifth gear’ was also known as ‘overdrive’ or ‘super top’ due to the fact that it was a physical add-on to the standard 4-speed box. The gear stick has to negotiate an additional gate to access this extra gear and the use of this, or more correctly ‘mis-use’, has given rise to a certain legendary reputation for being the work of the devil.
I’m sure that drivers who have been familiar with a standard 4-speed box for most of their careers would not know what to make of the Bristol 5-speed box so I think I was fortunate to have plenty of opportunities to see and hear 5th gear in operation. This was back when I was a conductor on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’. One of the regular buses used on this route was a Western National Bristol LDL, fitted with a 5-speed box.
Several of the buses I’ve driven in the last year are fitted with the same gearbox and I can safely say that I haven’t had any disasters with it. Essentially it works in the same way as all the other gears inasmuch as you need to double de-clutch going into and out of 5th gear, just as you would with any of the other gears. Apart from going sideways from 4th gear, through the ‘gate’ and into a second neutral position, the only other difference is that the ratio between 4th and 5th is closer than that between the others. This means that the engine revs don’t need to rise or fall as far, leading to a slightly shorter pause in the second neutral position. Drivers who don’t take this into account can expect the gearbox to complain loudly.
The infamous reputation stems from the golden rule “never stop the bus in 5th”. Due to the design of the overdrive unit, drivers must change down into 4th gear before coming to rest otherwise they will be in trouble. They may not be able to get the gearstick out of 5th or it may go into the second neutral position but no further. Sometimes it’s possible to wrench the stick into the normal neutral position while the bus is at a standstill, sometimes the engine must be stopped to do this. Worst case scenario, you may have to call a mechanic out. Old hand drivers tell of occasions when inexperienced drivers, finding themselves unable to get out of 5th, end up with the gearbox falling into the road!
I can only remember one occasion when I nearly got caught out. I was driving along the A4 Portway towards Bristol when some traffic lights changed just as I was approaching them. I had to work very quickly to brake and double de-clutch myself out of 5th at the same time. My feet were a blur.
Here’s a link to an interesting discussion about 5th gear on the Bristol gearbox.
If there is anything to do with heritage buses that’s more important than driving them, it’s stopping them. Partly due to the size of the vehicle and partly due to the fact that most will have drum brakes all round, braking performance is less responsive than in a car. Great care must be taken in planning ahead when slowing down or stopping in a heritage bus. Plenty of time must be allowed to slow the vehicle down otherwise panic will set in, along with the likelihood of a collision.
Various braking mechanisms are used, depending on the age and size of the vehicle, manufacturer and modifications. Brakes are usually air or vacuum operated. Due to the compressibility of air, some delay can be expected before effort at the pedal is felt as braking effect at the wheels.
Then there’s the dreaded ‘brake fade’. I’ve never experienced this but it is a real danger for drivers of these older vehicles (and newer ones, if they are really reckless). Braking hard heats up the drums and, as metal expands when heated, there comes a point when the drums expand beyond the reach of the brake shoes. The friction material also loses its effectiveness when really hot, too. In worst cases, for instance when descending a gradient and braking continuously, braking effect may be lost and the bus becomes unstoppable. After the inevitable accident the driver, if he survives and is hauled before the boss, might say “sorry boss but it wasn’t my fault – the brakes failed!” It is likely that proper braking technique would have saved the day, assuming that the brakes were indeed serviceable.
Contrary to modern techniques (“gears to go, brakes to slow”), using the engine to help with braking is the way to safely slow down. Changing down is essential when descending any significant gradient, even if it delays following traffic or adds to the journey time. It is better to arrive late than not at all.
CREATURE COMFORTS? FORGET IT.
The cab of a pre-1970 bus is spartan but functional. While there is usually height and fore/aft adjustment in the seat, comfort for the driver is virtually non-existent. In winter, freezing draughts will blast up through gaps around the pedals and straight up your trouser legs. In summer, even with the sliding window open, it can get boiling hot in the cab. You feel like you’re sitting in a glasshouse next to a heater. Buses fitted with Gardner engines (maybe others too) have the exhaust manifold on the right of the engine block, i.e. right next to the driver. If you are climbing a long hill at full revs the metal cab side next to the driver’s left leg gets red hot!
Some later models of Bristol Lodekka were fitted with Cave-Brown-Cave cooling/heating systems and the plumbing for this is routed through the cab, adding to the radiated heat on a hot day.
Then there’s the noise. Soundproofing is non-existent and, with a 5 or 6 cylinder diesel engine bellowing right beside the driver, the decibel levels are high! Don’t get me wrong, I love the rhythmic sound of the slow-revving Gardner 6LW but a full day in the saddle can be a bit wearing. One benefit though is that you can hear exactly what the engine and gearbox are doing. This is vital for choosing the right moment to change gear.
THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE
You know the old fable of the hare and the tortoise? The moral of the story goes “slow and steady wins the race”. The tortoise, in the case of public road transport, is the vintage bus. They are usually so basic in design and rugged in engineering that they rarely break down. However, they are not fast. Depending on the number of diesel horses under the bonnet, the ratio of the back axle and the number of gears in the box, the top speed of a pre-1970 bus usually ranges from 30 – 55mph.
This is not usually an issue around town, where the performance of a vintage bus can be compared to a heavily laden lorry. But out on the open road the lack of speed is noticeable and tailbacks can soon build up. I usually drive around the countryside looking for suitable laybys where I can pull in and let the stream of cars past. It’s the considerate thing to do, if time allows. Many car drivers show their appreciation with a toot on the horn as they pass by. At least, I think it’s appreciation…
Compared to modern buses and coaches, vintage buses have a low power to weight ratio. This is evident when carrying a full load when climbing any sort of gradient requires changing down a gear (or two) to maintain progress.
A JOB WELL DONE
At the end of the day, whether you’ve just returned from a long wedding duty or a jolly busman’s holiday to a rally, it can be immensely satisfying to look back at a job well done. Passengers on a heritage bus are potentially more aware of your driving technique than if they were aboard a modern bus. Possibly because older buses are less forgiving than newer ones, any mistakes or misjudgements are probably more obvious. Not only does this increase the pressure on the driver to do his best but it also heightens the sense of achievement when it all goes well. If you can pick up your passengers on time and transport them to their destination without drawing attention to yourself, you’ve done well.
I find it amazing that buses and coaches designed and built in the 1950s and 60s are still maintained and licenced 50 years later. I consider it a real honour and privilege to sit up at the noisy end and give my passengers a safe and nostalgic ride.
Edit Sept 2019: There are of course other makes of bus/coach with crash gearboxes. Guy, Bedford and Leyland are just three. Many pre-WW2 buses require the same technique as they will have either sliding mesh or constant mesh ‘boxes. Leyland buses from the 1950s onwards usually had synchromesh on 3rd and 4th gears, meaning that 1st and 2nd require the driver to double de-clutch as described above.
There are some useful YouTube videos which have been filmed from behind the driver: Eastern National Bristol FLF (although you won’t see many down-changes); Sydney Albion bus using the clutch brake for a shorter up-change; yours truly driving a 1929 Maudslay (skip to 6:30 if you’re in a hurry); a Bristol KSW6G nicely driven by its owner (from 6:00).