Next, let’s consider aesthetics. Buses are conspicuous pieces of what is sometimes called ‘street furniture’. They don’t have to be pretty, but they do need to look presentable. How do our three contenders stack up?
The Routemaster had a tough act to follow. Many would consider the RT to be the pinnacle of British bus design in the 1940s. It looks good from any angle, and the sweep from the radiator up past the cab to the roof dome is far more artistic than industrial. That this bus was designed by an in-house team at London Transport, and achieved a more harmonious design that most dedicated bodybuilders at the time could manage, is remarkable.
The principal dimensions of the new bus were established by the London Transport team at Chiswick. But they felt the design needed to be lifted a bit to create something that would be as essential to London as Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus and the Tower.
A A M Durrant was completely in tune with the exhortations of Frank Pick, London Transport’s first chief executive (from 1933 to 1940), that every aspect of LT’s operations should display the highest standards of design. For the Routemaster, that meant engaging an industrial designer.
Industrial design became prominent first in the United States. People like Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague helped major corporations improve sales by reshaping their products to be eye-catching and attractive, as well as smoother in shape and (sometimes) easier to use.
Loewy did a fair bit of work with Greyhound, creating the distinctive look of many of their coaches.
After the Second World War many British firms realised they needed to improve the look of their products if they were to succeed in world markets, and one of the early British industrial designers was Douglas Scott.
Scott started his career in Loewy’s London office and eventually branched out on his own. He had quietly built up an impressive list of clients and was first called in by London Transport to produce an experimental streamlined version of the RT (RTC1) and then improve the shape and interior of the RF single-deck bus.
He was called back in 1952 to help the team with what became the Routemaster.
His brief was not to radically change the design and appearance of the Routemaster, but to make subtle interventions that would increase its visual impact. These were to soften the curves of the boxy shape, re-design the bonnet area, and emphasise the horizontality of its appearance. At a more practical level he had to avoid very curvaceous profiles that would not suit the new automatic bus washing machines that were being introduced.
Scott’s involvement with the RM extended over several years. Many of his ideas were debated and rejected, especially his treatments for the grille and bonnet. But eventually a design was settled on that certainly stood out from contemporary efforts by other bodybuilders (including Park Royal).
The hand of a professional designer in the appearance of a vehicle of this kind clearly shows. The panel radii at the corners and roof domes are just right. The front bonnet layout is absolutely unique to the RM, with its low-level grille, and car-like nearside fender.
The overall effect is a large vehicle that has an energy about it, looking ready to jump into action. It made its contemporaries look podgy and a bit stale.
Inside the bus, Scott specified the exact shades for the interior surfaces and moquette seating fabric – Burgundy red, Chinese green and Sung yellow. This produced an atmosphere that was welcoming yet hard wearing.
In general Scott was content with his work. But he always remained unhappy with a late change he had to make to the upper face of the engine cover. In order to fit over the power steering header tank, he had to create a kink in the curvature, a broken back, which he said spoiled its symmetry.
The Routemaster is an almost perfect example of industrial design. That is except when we come to the RML. The need for a bigger bus was met in 1961 by stretching the Routemaster to provide eight more seats. This was done by inserting a 28 inch long module into the middle of the wheelbase.
The effect on the integrity of the original design was terrible. Plonking a half bay in the centre of the bus broke up the rhythm of the side windows. That energy and vitality in Scott’s design was gone. Instead, the RML looked all out of proportion, lumbering rather than lithe.
Unfortunately, these ugly ducks were the Routemasters that survived the longest, and were the last to leave London’s streets.
My rating for Routemaster aesthetics: 7 out of 10. That would be 8 for the RM, brought down by the ungainly RML.
No-one could describe the D9 as beautiful. It was not alone among BMMO designs in this respect. Midland Red had displayed lots of rather odd ideas about the interior and exterior appearance of its buses over the decades.
The later batches of chief engineer Wyndham Shire’s REDD and FEDD buses were handsome, but under Donald Sinclair’s direction the lines of some BMMO models became distinctly strange. With the lower sills of the upper front windows, the windscreen and the concealed radiator slats all drooping towards the sides of the bus, the D5s carried a mournful air about them.
The deeply recessed and raked cab screen of the D5 and D7 might have been functional but they certainly didn’t make the buses bright and cheery.
The same family hangdog look extended across the firm’s single-deckers as well. The exceptions – and what exceptions – were the sensational motorway coaches that Midland Red built to charge up and down the M1 at up to 85 mph. It must have had some help to make them as good as they did.
This is not to say that Midland Red was not interested in the appearance of its buses. The most well-known innovation it made was in moving away from an exposed radiator with slim panels concealing the engine, to a fully-enclosed design, hiding the radiator behind a cover that extended right across the front of the vehicle.
This was first tried on a FEDD in 1942, and was incorporated into all new double-deck designs thereafter. It started a national trend, as throughout the fifties all the main manufacturers began to offer the concealed radiator option on their chassis.
Yet when it came to the D9 it would seem that, unlike with the Routemaster, no major efforts would be made to make it appear attractive.
It was a big vehicle and its lines emphasised that bulkiness. There were no mudguards, even like the narrow ones on the D7. The bonnet had a flat face that extended right to the edges of the bus. The sides were slabs of red, without any stripes of cream or white to relieve the rather oppressive feel.
The high lower deck waistline reinforced the visual heftiness of this big machine. The extensive blank areas of metal shielding the staircase at the back gave the bus an over-heavy look seen from the rear. The rear elevation itself was far from pretty.
And to top it off, literally, was the GRP roof. This was created using a male mould. This meant that the matting and resin were laid on top of the mould shape such that the underside was smooth and the top side was slightly rough. Looked nice and clean inside the upper saloon, but – despite some energetic finishing work – created a less appealing look on the outside.
The radiator grille had a chrome border, and there was a chrome strip along the lower part of the body side, but these cosmetic touches were not enough to help a fundamentally ill-proportioned appearance.
The interior was not contemporary in any way. The seats were covered in a thirties style jazzy moquette with curved handrails over the top that reinforced the pre-war look. The colour scheme of the sidewalls and ceiling was peony pink and white – described by one writer as ‘sickly’. Extensive use was made of Formica sheets for interior panels and Darvic PVC cloth.
Upstairs passengers sat beneath the huge single skin GRP roof. Its line was punctuated by a number of hollow roof sticks there to provide the roof shell with some stiffness (and bump your head on if you were tall enough).
For all its technical prowess, I have to say the B9 wins no prize from me for its visual appeal.
My rating for B9 aesthetics: 4 out of 10.
The Bristol-ECW Lodekka did not start out well from an appearance point of view. The prototypes looked as if the K series had taken steroids. Everything was just… too big. Big chrome radiator (pinched from the M series prototypes than were abandoned). Big drooping windscreen. Big shiny bumper. A big expanse between the top of the lower deck windows and the bottom of the upper deck windows. Nothing in proportion.
This was unfortunate, because ECW had a reputation for producing bodywork that had a handsome, airy look about it. The KSW double-decker and the LS single-decker were neat designs.
Thankfully, somebody sharpened their pencils and by the time the LD series entered production, the bus looked much better. Even so, the prominent bonnet that concealed the radiator, the deep grille, and the hefty front mudguards, were still rather ungainly.
However, the bigger design challenge was to get the side elevation to look right. Even though they were mounted on platforms, the lower deck seats were set a bit lower than on typical highbridge buses. The trick was to get the proportions right by getting the amount of glass and the amount of panelling such that the bus didn’t end up looking top heavy.
ECW achieved this perfectly, creating a pleasing symmetry that was often further enhanced if one or two relief stripes in white or cream were painted between upper and lower deck windows.
Even though the chassis design was considerably altered on the F series, the body design remained broadly the same. The window bay length was increased slightly which helped the bus look a little more sleek.
The radiator grille on the early LDs ran all the way down to the bottom of the bonnet which seemed rather out of scale, and on later models a more compact grilled was adopted. This was modified further on the F series to a smart fully chromed unit reminiscent of the grille of a Jaguar Mk10. It certainly looked classy.
Inside the Lodekkas followed ECW’s tradition of unfussy functionality. There wasn’t much evidence of the kind of industrial design thinking that went into the Routemaster for example. Over the years there were a few tweaks, the most noticeable being the fitment of cream window rubbers from the early sixties which brightened the bus’s appearance to a surprising degree.
Yet the Lodekka wasn’t going to make any big statements, or hold itself out as an icon of anywhere. Wherever it was, the Lodekka just sort of… fitted in.
My rating for Lodekka aesthetics: 6 out of 10.
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