PSV driver training with Devon General (part 2)

Just to recap, this post continues my account of some free driving lessons I managed to wangle out of Devon General in 1985.

The purpose of driving down to a quiet part of the Marsh Barton trading estate of course was so that my first attempts at driving would not pose too much of a hazard to other drivers. Bill Porter, DG’s Senior Instructor, climbed down into the saloon through the space behind the driver’s cab that was once a window. “There you are, it’s all yours!” he said cheerily.

Once in the driving seat I immediately felt two emotions. First, elation at finally being allowed behind the wheel of one of my favourite buses. Second, a feeling of dread at what I was about to attempt. The second one was soon to eclipse the first as I pulled gingerly away from the kerb. I was struck by the enormous width of the vehicle compared to the cars I had been used to driving. Then there was the heavy steering. I began to regret not doing some bicep exercises previously! As the first morning’s lesson wore on, I began to appreciate Bill’s advice “…everything happens slowly in a Lodekka”.

I was quietly confident that I would be able to master the double declutch technique needed for the crash gearbox, having spent hours and hours in my childhood kneeling on the bench seat at the front of Wilts & Dorset Lodekkas in Salisbury. I was fascinated by the drivers’ skills, some greater than others it has to be said, with the unforgiving gearbox.

By the end of my first lesson I was indeed fairly proficient and my gearchanges were getting quieter. Hardest of course, was changing down. I struggled to rev the heavy Gardner 6LW engine enough to allow the gears to mesh neatly, but I was improving all the time.

We ended the morning back at Exeter Coach Station a couple of hours later. Bill was very encouraging in his remarks and we agreed to meet again the following Saturday. Before leaving, I asked him why Devon General used such an ancient vehicle to train its drivers, particularly as most of them would only be driving minibuses. “I look at it this way,” he replied, “if they can drive this old thing, they can drive anything!”

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PSV driver training with Devon General on 5675EL

It’s about time I mentioned my first attempt at driving a bus. This occurred 25 years ago, in April 1985. I was at that time working for the Express & Echo, the evening newspaper for the Exeter area. Their offices and printing plant were then in Sidwell Street and my office was at the back of the building. As I was shown to my new graphic design studio I was rather pleased to see that it provided an excellent view of the bus station. However, I was careful to conceal my pleasure at this discovery because I was being paid to design advertisements, not watch buses!

Not long after I started work there Harry Blundred, who was Managing Director of Devon General then, began to introduce his revolutionary fleet of minibuses. These were to replace the remaining Bristol VRs, Leyland Atlanteans, Olympians and other assorted remnants from the erstwhile Exeter Corporation, Devon General and Western National fleets he had inherited.

However, I was much more interested in his driver training vehicle. This was a yellow ex-Hants & Dorset Bristol FS6G 5675EL, fleet number TV2. After seeing most other rear entrance half cab buses ousted by front entrance, rear engined vehicles, I was pleased to see (and hear) this survivor plodding up the hill into the bus station. The fact that it was an ex-H&D bus made it significant because it was possible that I’d seen it in service in former years in either Salisbury or Southampton. I fancied having a go in the old Lodekka before it too was consigned to the scrap heap.

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