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