Sixty years ago, the beloved AEC Routemas­ter bus set new stan­dards for pub­lic trans­port. Nick Larkin drives the last one built

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - News - WORDS Nick Larkin PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Stu­art Collins

Bus both­erer Nick Larkin drives the last Routemas­ter made and cel­e­brates its 60th an­niver­sary.

There are only two ve­hi­cles that can truly be said to be recog­nised in all four cor­ners of the world as be­ing em­blem­atic of Bri­tain in gen­eral and Lon­don in par­tic­u­lar. One of them is the tra­di­tional black taxi cab and the other is the AEC Routemas­ter dou­ble-decker bus. It’s one of the lat­ter – all 240 square feet of it – that I’m about to take out on the pub­lic high­way. Room for one more in­side.

We’re cel­e­brat­ing 60 years since the first Routemas­ter, RM1, took to the cap­i­tal’s streets on 8 Fe­bru­ary 1956, travers­ing Route Two from Gold­ers Green to Crys­tal Palace. I’m sit­ting in the last one ever built, RML 2760, one of the many his­tor­i­cal ex­hibits on dis­play at the Lon­don Bus Mu­seum, Brook­lands, where it is on per­ma­nent loan from Stage­coach.

RML 2760 is the equiv­a­lent of a Fer­rari 250 GTO among om­nibus en­thu­si­asts – it’s the ir­re­place­able end of the line that was al­ways treated to a lit­tle more love than its ev­ery­day brethren. It was spared the tacky 1990s Routemas­ter mod­erni­sa­tion, still proudly hang­ing on to its orig­i­nal bits, in­clud­ing an AEC 9.6-litre en­gine and tar­tan seat mo­quette.

Af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing the climb to reach the self-en­closed cab and plonk­ing my­self on the sump­tu­ous driver’s seat, I send a mum­bled prayer – well, more a plea – to St Christo­pher: ‘Please don’t let me prang it!’

Reach­ing up to pull the starter switch above the emer­gency win­dow, I re­mind my­self this is a Routemas­ter, which in this spec will run out of puff at about 45mph, but has fea­tures lack­ing in many 1960s fam­ily cars, such as power steer­ing.

The en­gine thumps im­pa­tiently by my foot, amid won­der­fully mu­si­cal trans­mis­sion whine. The cab is quite spa­cious and noth­ing’s shak­ing. Tick­ling the tummy is an enor­mous and thick-rimmed steer­ing wheel ready to thread care­fully through your fin­gers.

All Routemas­ters are free of a clutch pedal and on most you can en­joy fully au­to­matic trans­mis­sion by putting the gear selec­tor straight into fourth, al­though this fa­cil­ity has been re­moved on this bus. Hardly a prob­lem. You’ll merely have to go through the gears, each of which has a pro­nounced slot on the gate. A spe­cial knob has to be pulled be­fore you are able to go into re­verse. Start­ing off in se­cond is the norm, ex­cept on a hill, so it’s gear­lever down and to the right. The en­gine note dies down and there’s a slight lurch as you re­lease the mas­sive, but easy to ac­ti­vate, ‘fly-off’ hand­brake, and have a fi­nal glance in the driver’s mir­ror for any run­away Kias.

It doesn’t take long to slot it into fourth and set­tle into the ve­hi­cle’s nat­u­ral rhythm, though some of the over­hang­ing trees look a bit omi­nous. The power steer­ing is su­perb, giv­ing you plenty of con­fi­dence with its re­sis­tance to wan­der­ing. You can stop the bus in any gear, the won­der­ful hy­draulic brakes do­ing their job so well, al­though in a quick­stop sit­u­a­tion or go­ing down­hill it’s usu­ally worth drop­ping down into third.

It’s child’s play

A speedome­ter is the only in­stru­ment de­mand­ing your at­ten­tion as you get ready for the more dif­fi­cult aspects of bus driv­ing, par­tic­u­larly judg­ing gaps in traf­fic to make sure they are wide enough to get 30ft of Routemas­ter through. Then there’s an­tic­i­pat­ing the ac­tions of other mo­torists, and mak­ing sure that you pull up cor­rectly at stops for pas­sen­gers to board and alight. It’s al­ways nec­es­sary to po­si­tion the bus cor­rectly be­fore mak­ing any ma­noeu­vre, made eas­ier on a Routemas­ter as there’s no enor­mous bodywork over­hang ahead of the front wheels as there is on mod­ern buses. Ev­ery el­e­ment of the Routemas­ter – in­clud­ing the con­trols, which are child’s play to op­er­ate and laid out log­i­cally – is de­signed to make op­er­at­ing it as easy and pleas­ant as pos­si­ble.

Mil­lions of us are fa­mil­iar with the Routemas­ter’s virtues, and plenty of you will have hopped a ride home on RML 2760 at some point in its past – af­ter all, it has a few mil­lion miles of sub­ur­ban driv­ing un­der its belt. It’s a ve­hi­cle built for pur­pose, vis­i­bil­ity and a feel­ing of so­lid­ity on the road surely not even matched by the lat­est buses. It seems hardly sur­pris­ing that there was gen­uine sor­row when the Routemas­ters were taken out of gen­eral ser­vice in 2005 – es­pe­cially since many of them were re­placed by the ‘bendy­buses’. Imag­ine a hum­ble Rover P4 beat­ing the lat­est model of BMW on all driv­ing counts – that’s the sig­nif­i­cance of the Routemas­ter’s achieve­ments.

The Routemas­ter’s his­tory is as fas­ci­nat­ing and noble as the bus it­self. By 1951, plans were be­ing for­mu­lated for a suc­ces­sor to the mighty RT fam­ily of buses that were then in ser­vice. A de­sign team was headed by Lon­don Trans­port chief en­gi­neer AAM Dur­rant. He’d seen how air­craft had been put to­gether at the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Chiswick Works dur­ing WW2 and wanted the new ve­hi­cle to be built along sim­i­lar tech­no­log­i­cal lines, us­ing al­loy to re­duce weight.

Aes­thet­ics were down to de­signer Dou­glas Scott, who had worked in the Lon­don of­fice of Ray­mond Loewy As­so­ciates, where Rootes was among his ma­jor clients. Scott counted the Aga Cooker, the leg­endary K6 phone box and the AEC Re­gal RF Lon­don bus among his pre­vi­ous hits.

Ev­ery as­pect of the Routemas­ter’s de­sign was care­fully con­sid­ered, from the easy re­place­ment of body sec­tions to a cub­by­hole below the stairs in which the con­duc­tor could squeeze. The ceil­ings were painted a deep yel­low to dis­guise nico­tine stains, and the seat mo­quette was a tar­tan pat­tern, with dark red to hide stains and yel­low stripes help­ing hide the ef­fects of fad­ing.

All this was noth­ing com­pared to the ve­hi­cle’s me­chan­i­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion, which in­cluded semi-au­to­matic trans­mis­sion, hy­draulic brakes, coil spring sus­pen­sion and even a heater, fa­cil­i­ties which many mo­torists of the time would never have been able to en­joy in their own cars. Two sub­frames were fit­ted, the for­ward one car­ry­ing the en­gine, gear­box and front sus­pen­sion and the se­cond sup­port­ing the rear axle and sus­pen­sion.

The pro­to­type ver­sion, Routemas­ter RM1, made its de­but at the 1954 Com­mer­cial Mo­tor Show. It was an all-Lon­don ef­fort: AEC of Southall did the me­chan­i­cal bits, in­clud­ing the 9.6-litre en­gine, while sis­ter com­pany Park Royal Ve­hi­cles pro­duced the bodywork.

RM1 was fi­nally ready to carry the pub­lic, ap­pear­ing on Route Two from Gold­ers Green to Crys­tal Palace on 8 Fe­bru­ary 1956. Ap­par­ently the heaters weren’t work­ing on a freez­ing day, but peo­ple were gen­er­ally im­pressed. Some com­men­ta­tors did sug­gest that the ve­hi­cle’s tra­di­tional open plat­form half-cab de­sign was not ex­actly cut­ting edge. Buses Il­lus­trated mag­a­zine likened the ride to a ‘good large mod­ern pri­vate car’. Chil­dren’s comic boookok The Ea­gle fea­tured a cut­away draw­ing of the RM1 and Mec­cano Mag­a­zine gave the bus its front cover.

Three fur­ther pro­to­types fol­lowed. RM1’s front grille was changed and the ra­di­a­tor, orig­i­nally be­neath the en­gine, was repo­si­tioned. Vol­ume pro­duc­tion com­menced in 1959 and RM 1000 was de­liv­ered in 1961. A num­ber of teething trou­bles – from over­heat­ing brakes to sick wind­screen wipers – were even­tu­ally ironed out.

Boris and ‘bendy buses’

An RML, the third let­ter stand­ing for ‘long,’ ar­rived in 1961 with bodywork length­ened by 2ft 6in to ac­com­mo­date eight ex­tra seats. Coach vari­ants des­ig­nated RMC and RCL, along with front-en­trance Routemas­ters, were built. Bri­tish Euro­pean Air­ways had a fleet of 11.3-litre AE-en­gined buses for a spe­cial shut­tle ser­vice to Heathrow Air­port; th­ese were ca­pa­ble of 70mph, but stuck to 50mph be­cause they were haul­ing trail­ers. The only Routemas­ter or­der from out­side Lon­don was 50 for Teesside-based North­ern Gen­eral.

Ley­land took over AEC in 1962, and un­sur­pris­ingly favoured its own prod­ucts. The last Routemas­ter, RM 2760, was de­liv­ered in 1968, the year Min­is­ter of Trans­port, Bar­bara Cas­tle, an­nounced plans to le­galise one-per­son op­er­a­tion of dou­ble-deck­ers.

AEC was closed in 1979, but the ques­tion­able re­li­a­bil­ity of more mod­ern buses saw the Routemas­ter re­main­ing in ser­vice through­out the 1970s, with mass with­drawals of the fleet not start­ing un­til 1982. Many of the ‘re­tired’ ve­hi­cles en­joyed a new life with pro­vin­cial oper­a­tors through­out Bri­tain. In 1990, some 600 RMs re­mained in Lon­don and al­most all were ex­ten­sively re­fur­bished with Cum­mins, Iveco or Sca­nia en­gines, neon lights and new seat mo­quettes.

When Ken Liv­ing­stone was elected as Lon­don Mayor in 2000, the Routemas­ter seemed safe, par­tic­u­larly when he de­clared that only a ‘ghastly, de­hu­man­ised mo­ron’ would get rid of them. Things looked even brighter when 50 de­com­mis­sioned buses were brought back and re­built with new en­gines and trans­mis­sions at a cost of £40,000 each.

De­spite this, by De­cem­ber 2005, the Routemas­ter was be­ing forced out of nor­mal ser­vice, with just a hand­ful spared the cull to op­er­ate Lon­don’s two her­itage routes. Ac­ces­si­bil­ity for dis­abled peo­ple, law­suits from rear plat­form ac­ci­dents, the age of the ve­hi­cles and new tick­et­ing sys­tems were all cited as rea­sons to axe them. On 9 De­cem­ber, RMs made their fi­nal trip on Route 159 from Mar­ble Arch to Streatham.

In 2008, Lon­don mayor Boris John­son had pledged in his elec­tion man­i­festo to rid the city of the hated ‘bendy-buses’ and de­velop a new dou­ble-decker specif­i­cally for the cap­i­tal. All this meant mas­sive pub­lic ex­pen­di­ture, but the fine New Routemas­ter has re­sulted. Of the orig­i­nals, sur­vivors on Lon­don’s sin­gle her­itage route are be­ing re­fur­bished to 1950s spec, and dozens of RMs and RTs help out dur­ing Tube strikes.

Routemas­ters are now all over the world in var­i­ous guises and more pop­u­lar than ever. In 2005, you could have bought a good, road­wor­thy RM for £5000 or less. Now you can ex­pect to pay £30,000 or more.

Open rear plat­form speeded board­ing. Who­ever said it was dan­ger­ous?

The seat’s tar­tan-style mo­quette was de­signed to hide dirt and wear, hence the dark red and yel­low stripes.

AEC en­gine of 9.6 litres de­liv­ers 115bhp and can eas­ily cover a mil­lion miles with reg­u­lar ser­vic­ing.

Con­duc­tor could back into ‘cubby hole’ at busy times, giv­ing more plat­form space for pas­sen­gers.

Mec­cano Mag­a­zine de­voted its Au­gust 1956 front cover to RM1.

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