Early GWR Motorbuses

Since getting acquainted with Maud I’ve developed an interest in very early motorbuses. Maud of course is Exeter Corporation No 5, a 1929 motorbus which I had the honour of driving back to Exeter a couple of years ago.


Today I came across some photographs of an early Great Western Railway motorbus with very local connections, having been photographed in my home town of Paignton. They are in fact postcards and the images were posted in a Facebook group called ‘Paignton in Pictures’. I have permission from the group’s administrator to reproduce the images here.

The postcard shown above, dated 1906, was originally a black and white photograph which has been hand coloured by an artist, a common practice in the early days of photography which was intended to produce a more life-like product. It also made the image more saleable of course! The image shows passengers alighting from a GWR motorbus which has parked outside the Gerston Hotel, Paignton. The photographer would have been standing right outside the GWR’s Paignton railway station and the passengers were likely to be boarding a train there.


It’s a bit unfortunate that a local horse-drawn hansom cab is obscuring part of the bus but happily there is another postcard that features a photograph that seems to have been taken on the same occasion but from a different angle. This one clearly shows that the bus was No T-390 and I contacted my friend Robert Crawley to see if he could tell me more about it. Robert is Chairman of the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT), which has an extensive archive of information and images relating to all aspects of transport in this area.

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Maudslay FJ6154 returns to Exeter: Empty to Depot


Having performed faultlessly in Exeter the previous day, Exeter Corporation No 5 gathered up her skirts and headed back to mid Devon, ‘Empty to Depot’.

Only two of us turned up in the morning of Day Three, one to drive the escort car and one to drive the bus. The only other witnesses to our departure from Exeter were some Sunday morning drivers and some bemused pedestrians. Once again I had dressed in my winter uniform. Yes, I know we were not carrying passengers this time but I just can’t bring myself drive a vintage bus in ‘mufti’.

With the Autovac problem still with us we topped up the small reserve tank, did a thorough walkaround check (which included setting the destination blind to ‘Depot’) and set off for the countryside. As you would expect, the city traffic was much lighter than on our outward journey the previous Friday and we made good progress out of the city. As I sat in the cramped cab listening to the wonderful two-tone whine from the gearbox, I silently bade farewell to the city on Maud’s behalf, wondering how long it would be before she returned. Hopefully sooner than 76 years!


Once out of the city we began the gentle climb up the River Exe valley towards Tiverton. The 86-year-old stalwart forged on without missing a beat and soon we pulled over in Stoke Canon where we’d planned to stop and top up the fuel again.

The only real pinch points on our route were the two narrow river bridges at Stoke Canon and Bickleigh. These are particularly tricky to negotiate when the bus has no nearside mirror. I was keenly aware of the stone parapets which, had we scraped them, would have spoiled Maud’s gorgeous paint job somewhat. Not wanting to risk any narrow squeaks, I held back and allowed traffic to pass on the wider parts of each bridge.

Back on the open road, I let the Maudslay gather speed when gradients and visibility allowed. Braking performance is adequate but nowhere near as effective as on a modern vehicle so I needed to plan for greater braking distances than normally, in case we met a hazard on a bend. After a particularly free-running stretch (I was told later that the bus had managed 35mph) we stopped on the side of the road to let a queue of traffic pass by. The engine was quite hot after that burst of speed and the radiator began to boil over with no breeze passing through it. Although my right foot had not yet been on the floor, I made a mental note to ease off the throttle and not push the bus quite so hard!

Another stop was made at the Esso filling station in Tiverton for a final top-up. We also took the opportunity to refill the radiator as there were several stiff climbs ahead of us. Once we had left the town, our progress was more leisurely. Not just because we were travelling along country roads but also because I was keen not to overheat the engine again. Despite my intention, she did boil again briefly but only as a result of climbing one of the aforementioned hills. At one point I had to go down to second gear and the decrease in forward speed turned the radiator into a kettle again.

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Maudslay FJ6154 returns to Exeter: Maud does her civic duty

Saturday May 2nd 2015 will always be a landmark day in the life of Exeter Corporation No 5. However, on the day the bus was due to meet the Lord Mayor of Exeter, the weather refused to play ball.


Mrs Busman John and I arrived at the Exeter City Council depot early in the morning to help prepare the Maudslay ML3 for her big day. Our Chairman had arrived even earlier and we found that everything had already been checked and all I needed to do was to climb into the tiny cab (good job I have short legs…) and start her up.

Soon we were out on the city streets again, making our way into the city centre for our rendezvous with the Lord Mayor. This time there was no escort car so the Maudslay had to fight its own battles in the busy city traffic. Again, I was glad to have had the chance to get to know the bus really well on the journey down to Exeter the previous day as this allowed me to focus on navigating my route to the coach station. I chose the wrong lane once at a busy junction but, in my defence, I’m sure the road markings are misleading!


The weather was atrocious and our arrival at the coach station – surely its most elderly visitor yet – was made in very grey and dismal conditions. We had allowed for all sorts of delays but fortunately there were none so we arrived with plenty of time to spare. I parked the bus near the exit onto Paris Street and we waited in the dry interior while the rain dribbled down the windows from the canvas covered roof. It has not been re-covered so is the original but it has been thoroughly waterproofed.

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Maudslay FJ6154 returns to Exeter: the long journey south

Exeter Corporation No 5 was given her stiffest test yet last Friday – a 27 mile journey under her own power back to her old home – and she passed with just a couple of ‘advisories’.

The 1929-built single deck bus had been especially requested by the retiring Lord Mayor of Exeter, Councillor ‘Percy’ Prowse, to convey him to Exeter’s historic Guildhall. A journey not to be taken lightly, it was nevertheless the most cost effective way of getting her into position for her appointment. For me as her official driver, it was also the most rewarding way!

Hours of work and plenty of planning had been carried out by the volunteers at WHOTT in order to prepare ‘Maud’ for her momentous return to Exeter. With brakes adjusted, batteries charged and Autovac topped up with petrol, the historic Maudslay ML3 was ready for the journey. I’m not sure that I was, though. Despite having eagerly anticipated the run for ages, it still posed a huge challenge for me as a driver and I was feeling the pressure. The bus is owned by a billionaire businessman and is regarded in heritage transport circles as a national treasure. And today it fell to little old me to get her unscathed from mid Devon to Exeter. Not only that, but I had an audience too. The Chairman of WHOTT, a photographer and a video cameraman were to accompany me in their cars. Scary stuff!


The slow-revving Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life, if a little reluctantly. There are still some ignition timing issues to sort out. With auxilliary lights checked we were off, with one car ahead of me acting as an escort and two others following. I was so glad to have had the opportunity to have some practice runs under my belt as this allowed me to concentrate on driving safely, rather than having to cope with the specific challenges of driving this unique vehicle. As we trundled down the lanes and under fresh, leafy canopies, the only peculiarity that was ever-present was the lack of a nearside rear view mirror. The bus wasn’t built with one and, in the pursuit of authenticity, still doesn’t have one. Frequent glances at the front nearside wing and over my left shoulder were the only way to safely judge my distance from the verge and other hazards.


On the rural route to Tiverton there are several steep hills which demanded confident changes into lower gears, both to climb and descend. Thanks to my earlier practice, these were successful. Good job too, otherwise the bus would have either ground to a halt during the climb or risked running away out of control downhill. We stopped a couple of times to top up the Autovac’s reserve tank until we reached the nearest filling station. Soon we reached the wider streets of Tiverton and the fuelling stop. The Maudslay looked very incongrous among the modern vehicles, especially when a Dartline service bus pulled in at the same time! Now that we had a chance to fill the main fuel tank, we shouldn’t have to worry about fuel levels in the small gravity tank. All that remained was for us to check occasionally to make sure that fuel was being drawn up into the Autovac to replenish that used by the engine.

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Vintage bus link to Hestercombe Gardens

Yesterday I had my second duty with a vintage bus at the West Somerset Railway (WSR), when I provided a link between the railway’s southern terminus at Bishops Lydeard and Hestercombe Gardens.


Crosville Motor Services has a new contract with the WSR to provide vintage bus services in support of various special events. However, this duty was the first in a series of weekly excursions which run throughout the season. I arrived at the depot to find my allocated bus, Crosville KG131 (Bristol L5G KFM893), ready and fully fuelled just inside the garage. So it wasn’t long before I was on my way, via the southbound M5, to Taunton and thence to Bishops Lydeard. Despite its age, this bus bowls along at about 40mph as it benefits from having a Bristol overdrive gearbox.

This is really one of my favourite buses to drive at the moment. Not only is it immaculately presented inside and out, it’s very rewarding to drive. It took me several outings to properly get used to it but these days I can jump into the cab, settle into ‘L’ mode and produce a relatively crunch-free ride. Only once yesterday did I miss a gear and that’s because I let my concentration lapse. I fear I may have been thinking ahead to tomorrow’s marathon drive with a 1929 Maudslay!

As I arrived at the station I had a definite feeling of déjà vu. I have been there many times in a heritage bus because that’s where Quantock Motor Services had its bus depot. And there to film my déjà vu moment was my friend Mike with his camcorder!

I had about 10 minutes before the train from Minehead arrived so I had a chat with a chap in the ticket office, just to let him know where the bus was parked. The first train of the day was also labeled the ‘Hestercombe Gardens Express‘ online and passengers booked on this excursion have a vintage bus journey and entrance to the gardens included in the price. The train arrived, hauled by GWR Large Prairie Tank no 4160. As the passengers left the platform I stood near the bus shouting, in my best bus conductor’s voice, “Anyone for Hestercombe Gardens? Bus leaving shortly!”

Only 7 people boarded the bus and, after conferring with the Stationmaster, I prepared to leave. I had a quick word with the passengers after checking that they all had tickets. I also explained that the journey would be ‘leisurely’ as this elderly bus doesn’t go very fast. In fact, it didn’t go very fast when it was new either. They all seemed happy and sat back to enjoy the ride.

My first hazard was a modern ‘Tally Ho’ coach parked just ahead of me beside some parked cars. I edged through, watching the front nearside wing and my mirrors intently. Our route included a quick blast down the A358 past Cotford St Luke and then through the suburbs of Taunton before turning onto Cheddon Road. Soon we were out into the countryside again and the road became a lane. I’d seen ‘Pitchers Hill’ marked on the map and had wondered how steep it would turn out to be. Third gear? Second? First even? With the hill now in sight ahead of me and knowing I had a light load I decided to give it a go in third, changing down well before the hill to enable the Gardner 5LW to wind itself up to full revs. The gradient was short and sharp and our speed soon fell away. The passengers, especially the gentlemen I suspect, must have been thinking “change down man, change down!” But I have a knack of knowing if my bus will make it to the top or not and I stayed resolutely in third gear. It’s a little game I play with my passengers, especially if I have a Gardner lump beside me. These engines develop plenty of torque way down into the rev range. Sure enough, just when you could begin to count ‘1-2-3-4-5’ out loud (OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), our speed began to pick up and I allowed myself a little grin.

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Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #2

My second test run with the Exeter Corporation Maudslay bus took me much further afield than the first one and provided some very useful experiences.


We’re currently only using the autovac’s gravity tank for fuel. This holds a couple of gallons of petrol which is sufficient for a short run such as this. We’re not planning to use the main tank until the weekend due to the tendency of modern petrol to go stale if not used. So, with the autovac (whose real purpose is to suck petrol up from the main tank using vacuum created in the engine’s intake manifold) topped up, we prepared to move the bus out of the shed. Unfortunately the removable trailer board, which contains auxilliary signalling lights and is fixed to the back of the bus for road runs, refused to work properly. This should have been rectified by the WHOTT electrician by Friday.

Climbing the steep track away from the farm, I tried a snatch change up to 2nd gear. It didn’t go well. The 4-cylinder Maudslay engine, even when cold, takes even longer to spool down than a Gardner 6LW so I need to adapt my technique some more.

Out in the quiet lanes I went up and down the gearbox, refining my changes. As in most things, practice makes perfect but this bus is so unique that perfection will take some time to achieve! I drove the bus on a big circular route which included some stiff gradients, which meant changing down to lower gears both to climb and descend. Unusually for the era, the Maudslay ML3 has drum brakes on all four wheels (rather than just the rear wheels) but even so, braking on downhill gradients still has to be assisted by engine braking. Additional braking assistance is also available via the parking brake which on this bus takes the form of a transmission brake, rather than operating the rear drum brakes as is usually the case. It’s really useful sometimes to supplement the footbrake with a partial application of the parking brake which is effectively a mechanical retarder.

Once or twice we started off with a bit of a lurch and some of my gearchanges were rather jerky. I’m still trying to improve my clutch technique! There were no mishaps and, apart from the troublesome auxilliary signalling lights I mentioned earlier, the bus performed as expected.

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Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #1

Exeter Corporation No 5 (FJ6154) was already obsolete when Conductor Wooldridge climbed into its cab to take a driving lesson. The year was 1938 and within 12 months the bus would be withdrawn from service and sold to a local scrap merchant.


We can only wonder what Conductor Wooldridge thought of the primitive controls in the cab. Fortunately I can tell you what they’re like because the bus survived its visit to the scrapyard and is still with us today, thanks to the efforts of Mr Arden (a local farmer), the late Colin Shears, York’s Coaches (Northampton) and the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT).

I mentioned in my last post that this 1929-built Maudslay ML3 bus is due to convey the Lord Mayor of Exeter to one of his final public engagements on Saturday May 2nd and, in preparation for this, we took the bus out for the first of two shakedown runs. She had not moved from the spot where I had parked her last September at the conclusion of her debut appearance at the WHOTT Rally at Westpoint. By the time I arrived on Tuesday last week the Maudslay’s battery had been charged. WHOTT’s chairman Robert Crawley prepared to start the engine by turning on the fuel supply tap beneath the autovac and setting the choke. This is done by pulling a rod which is sited underneath the radiator. After ‘tickling’ the carburretor to make sure the float chamber was full, he climbed into the tiny cab and turned the electric starter switch. Amazingly, the original 4-cylinder Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life after only a couple of revolutions. Nick, a WHOTT member who was to share the driving with me, closed the choke once the engine was running normally.


The bus was gently eased out into the April sunshine and driven around the side of the storage shed. There was a pause in proceedings at this point because a van and two Devon General AEC Regents were partly blocking our exit. It was while we waited that the Maudslay’s clutch decided to seize. Although our exit was now clear the octogenarian No 5 couldn’t be moved because none of the gears could be engaged. There followed some strenuous efforts involving blocks of wood, a crowbar and a hydraulic jack.

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