How to drive a vintage bus

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.

Bristol-Ks-and-Ls

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!

cab-step

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 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

cab-handbrake

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.

CAB FURNITURE

cab-indicator

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.

MOVING OFF

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.

CHANGING GEAR

cab-gearstick

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 in neutral while revs rise, the remaining four in quick succession).

cab-clutch

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.

SUPER TOP

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.

BRAKING

cab-footbrake

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.

cab-view

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 or Bristol 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.

H&D-FLF-at-St-Bartholomews-Corsham

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23 comments on “How to drive a vintage bus

  1. Bill Stickers says:

    I learn’t to drive a PSV on a Bristol FLF, but with the larger Gardner 6LX 150bhp engine with United at Darlington. I found after a while I could change gear without using the clutch simply by listening for the engine revs (revving up to change down) and whopping the stick in at the opportune moment.
    Also most “crash” gearboxes are fitted with a clutch stop. This can best be described as an engine operating on the engine brake and is somewhat akin to a brake shoe operating on the engine flywheel. It enables one to make quick upard changes, say on hills, without the need to double declutch. It is often called a snatch change, you press the clutch pedal down to the floor as far as it will go, then in one quick movement whack the stick across, there is a clunk, a slight jerk and hey presto you are in the next gear. However it needs practise to perfect it, make a mess of it and the gearbox certainly lets you know audibly, but done properly it is certainly a bonus on hills. The clutch stop, fitted to most Bristols and Guys needs to be kept in adjustment by the fitting staff.

    • busmanjohn says:

      I know about the clutch stop but so far have yet to drive a Lodekka which is fitted with one. I read somewhere that Bristol Ks and Ls were fitted with them but Lodekkas weren’t. I’m sure I could make good use of it when changing up a gear going uphill! I will have to ask around at the depot.

      I can manage to do a snatch change (one quick dip of the clutch) to go from 1st to 2nd gear when pulling away on a rising gradient but I can only do it quietly when the revs are low.

      Perhaps my target for 2013 should be to learn your clutch-less technique, although I think that should be reserved for empty journeys to start with!

  2. John Wye says:

    Yes John and make sure you strap your wrist & elbow when practicing, as when they kick back it will shoot straight up your arm mate, and bang your elbow on the bulkhead behind you, happy snatching !!! JW

  3. Peter Cook says:

    The article mentions 5th gear being known as ‘overdrive’ or ‘super-top’. Don’t know about BTCC but at some depots of Western National in the 1950’s/1960’s ‘super-top’ was a euphemism for being in neutral – i.e. on a slight down gradient a bus like the K would go faster out of gear than it would in gear. I remember a driver who had a 3 bell load hurtling past a stop near Taunton in ‘super top’ only to discover far too late that there was an Inspector at the stop flagging him down. He got seriously disciplined as he was, of course, a long way past before he could bring the K to a stand.

    • busmanjohn says:

      Haha! I’m sure that many a reckless driver used that trick to make up time. It is, of course, quite dangerous. With no engine braking available, any emergency braking application could lead to either a collision or brake fade followed by a collision!
      However tempting it might be (and on some of my longer duties with a slow bus, it is VERY tempting) I would never risk damaging the bus or those within by using ‘super-top’ other than as I described in the article.

  4. Double de-clutching is unnecessary; all you had to do was single-clutch but hold the pedal down for longer. With a fierce clutch-stop fitted it was possible to use this on all changes and get a along a lot quicker.
    Double de-clutching was basically to get the timing right. It makes no difference whether its one or two movements, Once its in neutral, its in neutral; pushing the pedal down again just added to wear and tear. Experienced drivers wouldn’t even use the clutch.Try it for yourself.
    I used to drive FLFs day in and day out and they were fun. Fifth gear would come out with just a light jab and a quick rev; no need for all this double de-clutching nonsense.

    • busmanjohn says:

      That’s an interesting comment, thanks Roland. For me it’s become a habit to double de-clutch both up and down the box. Maybe it’s because I’m just a weekend driver!

      I do remember conducting for a driver who only dipped the clutch to engage the next gear when upchanging.

      None of the buses I drive regularly are fitted with a clutch stop (or at least one that works) but I’d love to try using it one day.

  5. Tony Miller says:

    I passed my PSV test in a 1952 Leyland PD2, in 1975, the test took 1 3/4 hrs then nearly an hour in the class room for the “theory”. You had to have a good memory as the examiner would ask every so often, “what was the last road sign you seen” or “what was the second to last sign?”. The downhill part had you sweating like a pig, you would drive at 30mph and then go down a steep hill, you had to be in first gear within 250 yards, you could only use your brakes once between 4th – 3rd. You had to line the rear platform perfectly at the stop. The hill start was frightening, very steep hill, 1st gear, the examiner would get off, watch your rear wheel to see if it crept back when pulling away, he would then get back on, then the fun started, going from 1st to 2nd on a crash box, over rev/speed and it’s stuck in first, not enough revs/speed you miss the gear and stop and then roll back.
    When driving in service, the clutch was only used for pulling away and stopping, the rest of the time it wasn’t used on gear changes.

  6. Liese says:

    I want to book a routemaster drive for my husband he has an HGV licence hoe do I go about it please ??

  7. Liese says:

    We live in hampshire

    • busmanjohn says:

      These operators are in your area and have Routemasters:

      Boogie Bus Travel (Southampton)
      Premier Carriage Company (Bournemouth)
      Shaftesbury & District Motor Services Ltd

      Having an HGV (LGV) licence does not qualify a person to drive a PCV so allowing your husband to drive one of their buses would be completely at the operator’s discretion.

  8. c2757 says:

    Just to second Tony Miller’s comment, I did my training with a Bristol Omnibus instructor and I can remember him saying “after a week you don’t use the clutch” – he was referring to crash box K’s and variants and he meant after a week of 8 hour shifts.

  9. sandie says:

    Interesting to read your coments guys on driving these old buses.
    i am a modern day psv driver, but have recently had the pleasure to drive a Bristol Lodeka double declutching and pausing for a gear change does take a bit of getting used to. I have been on some buses and the gear changes have been terrible with some drivers, yet others seem to make a smooth change no trouble at all. Practice makes perfect i presume.

  10. Matt W says:

    Very good write-up John, thanks for sharing. Like Sandie, I passed my PCV test in a fairly modern vehicle (Dennis Dart) but have since had the pleasure of some older traction. Still yet to pit my wits against a crash gearbox though!

  11. Alan Roberts says:

    I own a Leyland Pd2 and 1st to 2nd is a crash gear change. . Just slow every down and you soon master it

    • busmanjohn says:

      I mastered it long ago, thankfully Alan. Going from 1st to 2nd I make use of the synchro on 2nd which comes in handy on rising gradients when you need a quick up-change! Going down from 2nd to 1st on the move I use the double-declutch method otherwise it won’t go in. That’s where my crash box experience comes in useful.

      If your PD2 requires a crash change going up from 1st to 2nd, you have a later PD2 which only has synchro on 3rd and 4th.

  12. Robert says:

    A wonderful read !

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