Let’s be honest. These three buses were the swansong of the front-engined half-cab double-decker in Britain. The Lodekka might have spawned imitators, but if any of these buses really influenced manufacturers and operators at all it was in smarter development approaches, novel componentry that worked, better body technology or ingenious construction techniques.
The Routemaster was designed as a series of standard modules, connected together to produce the vehicle. The potential to create variations on the original RM was first explored in 1961 with the addition of a short mid-wheelbase module giving us the RML.
London Transport wanted to examine if a forward entrance 30-foot long bus could operate on a one-person-operation basis in central London. Thus RMF 1254 was built and quickly proved that wasn’t going to work.
When it became clear the rear-engined front- or dual-door layout was the future for double-deckers, London Transport had AEC and Park Royal develop the FRM. A fleet of five was planned but FRM 1 turned out to be unique. In spite of having a running unit configuration completely different to that on the RMs, it was unmistakeably a member of the Routemaster family.
Technically the Routemaster was available for general sale, but seat for seat it was significantly more expensive than say a Leyland Titan PD3 with Northern Counties body (as bought by Ribble and Southdown) or a Daimler Fleetline with MCW body (as bought by Birmingham and Manchester).
Only one customer came forward, and that was Northern General, which bought 50 forward-entrance 30-footers in 1964. In keeping with the Routemaster’s association with good design, they had special interiors deigned by John Reid. Northern General added RMF 1254 to its fleet a couple of years later.
1966 also saw the production of 65 short forward-entrance Routemasters for British European Airways. Towing a luggage trailer they would transfer air passengers between BEA’s central London terminal and Heathrow airport. Since the M4 motorway was open, they were geared to be able to chase along at up to 70 mph.
After BEA service they came back to London Transport which put them to work as trainers, staff transport, sightseeing buses, and for a short time, as very unpopular service buses.
There seem to have been plans to offer the FRM to the external market. During a training assignment at Park Royal in the 1970s I was given a general arrangement drawing for a ‘provincial FRM’. But any possibilities of adding at new AEC double-decker to the Leyland group stable (of which AEC was a part by the 1960s) were thwarted.
In fact, back in 1962, the takeover of Associated Commercial Vehicles (AEC’s and PRV’s parent company) by Leyland signalled where priorities would lie. Speaking at the time, Lord Brabazon, chairman of ACV, said, “Leyland have developed a fine rear-engined bus. If there has been no merger, AEC would have to produce a rival vehicle, designing and developing it quite independently”. William Black, ACV’s managing director, talked of the urgency of keeping prices stable in the face of rising costs by rationalising research and development across the expanded group.
Maybe that drawing was a bit of mischief that never got past the gates at Park Royal.
Some of the principles of the Routemaster did carry over. After the sorry saga of the Daimler Fleetline Londoners, the capital eventually got a bus – the Leyland Titan – which was a much more serious attempt at providing the level of sophistication the capital’s operations warranted. A fully-integral design, it featured hydraulic brakes, full air-suspension and hydraulically-operated automatic transmission.
The Titan was notable for picking up on the close attention to crew and passenger needs that marked out the Routemaster development. Extensive ergonomic studies were undertaken, including building full scale mock-ups, to optimise the layout of driving controls, step heights, stairway arrangement, and much else.
1,125 were built in between 1978 and 1984. When the last was retired in 2003 the youngest in the fleet would have been 19 years old, which isn’t bad. That said, the Routemasters outlasted them by two years.
Certainly a part of the Routemaster’s legacy was mythical. In 2007 as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson promised to rid the capital of articulated buses and introduce a fleet of New Routemasters. Wrights of Ballymena won the job of developing the bus.
Thomas Heatherwick was retained to bring the designer’s touch to the vehicle. It deliberately evoked the atmosphere of the 1950s bus, with rich colours and traditional moquette seat fabric. However, it lacked the poise and presence of its inspiration.
My rating for Routemaster legacy: 4 out of 10.
In a conservative industry, the trailblazing approach to technology that BMMO was famous for was never going to win over large numbers of other operators. Rubber suspension, hydraulic brakes, fully-integral construction – all of these were well beyond what most 1960s transport chiefs were comfortable about specifying. And when innovations like disc brakes didn’t work particularly well, they rubbed their chins and muttered, “Told you so”.
It was no surprise then that the fully integral Leyland-MCW Atlantean prototype of 1956 was hugely simplified to a body on chassis arrangement before it went on sale in 1958.
However, BMMO chief engineer Donald Sinclair’s abiding dream was to extend the success he had had with large underfloor-engined company-built single-deckers into a practical double-decker. This would offer the prospect of driver-only-operation if and when the law permitted it.
Such a bus would would enable the maximum possible number of seats to be fitted into a 30-foot long bus.
The D9 was still under development when work on realising this concept began.
Many elements of the D9 were carried across into two prototypes – known as the D10s – in 1960 and 1961.
The first had a front entrance, while the second also had a rear doorway and stairway to enable one-way passenger flow throughout the bus.
Installation of the horizontal version of the BMMO 10.5 litre engine was awkward. It was placed to the left hand side of the chassis, with the cylinder head facing inwards. Having the engine under the seats made access difficult.
The two prototypes entered service, but Midland Red had to decide whether to produce in-house buses with the maximum possible seating capacity – 78 seats – or buy well-proven rear-engined buses from elsewhere with the same capacity as the D9s.
Recognising that the D10s would need more development, and in the face of worsening skill shortages at the Central Works, the firm started buying large numbers of Daimler Fleetlines from 1963.
The future of the Central Works as a design and manufacturing centre became increasingly uncertain and it finally closed in 1970.
If the D9 (or rather the Midland Red engineering team) had a legacy, it was rather a tangential one. Guy Motors had its factory in Wolverhampton, where the advanced BMMO designs were a familiar site in the 1950s. Committing itself to the development of highly advanced double-deck bus, it saw the potential of innovations like independent suspension, disc brakes and a novel running unit layout. This bus appeared in 1959 as the Wulfrunian, a front-engined, front-entrance high-capacity double-decker.
The fate of the Wulfrunian is well-known; it was a technical and commercial failure with virtually all production going to West Riding Automobile Company.
Two operators opted to try the model with the entrance behind the front axle. Accrington Corporation took a pair with rear entrances in 1961, and Wolverhampton bought one with a forward entrance the following year. In both cases the front axle was set back in the same manner as the D9, and one might speculate whether the Midland Red layout in some way influenced this decision.
My rating for D9 legacy: 2 out of 10.
In many ways the Lodekka was the most influential of the three models we are comparing.
By the time the Lodekka was announced, Bristol and ECW were prohibited from selling their products in the open market. Quite a number of municipal and company fleets outside the Tilling Group had a problem with low bridges and routes busy enough to demand double-deckers.
Two of the senior people at Bristol in the early 1950s had come from Dennis in Guildford and somehow a tie-up was arranged whereby Dennis would build a version of the Lodekka available to non-British Transport Commission customers.
Dennis was mainly known for fire engines and refuse collectors, but did produce a modest number of bus chassis. These included the double-deck Lance.
The Dennis version of the Lodekka appeared as the Loline in 1956. It contained a mixture of Dennis and Bristol components. The main changes were the fitment of a Dennis gearbox and air brakes instead of vacuum.
Several companies fitted bodywork on the Loline, the main one being East Lancs. They presumably secured a licence to use ECW’s construction system to ensure the whole vehicle’s structural integrity.
Development of the Loline shadowed that of the Lodekka. The Loline II incorporated the flat floor of the Bristol F series, and the Loline III had rear air suspension as standard and a semi-automatic transmission as an option. The most popular variant was the forward-entrance 30-foot Loline III which accounted for 182 of the 280 Lolines built.
In reality there wasn’t a massive market for the commercial Lodekka. The Loline’s biggest customer by far was Aldershot & District, whose route network encompassed Guildford.
Of course, Bristol and ECW were not the only firms actively considering the lowbridge problem in the early 1950s. Operators with strong allegiances to major manufacturers like AEC and Leyland were interested and did not want to risk committing themselves to a marginal bus maker like Dennis.
The AEC-PRV Bridgemaster was an integral bus which employed some of London Transport’s Routemaster technology to achieve its low height. Introduced in 1956, the majority of them were built as forward-entrance 30-footers. It is extraordinary that, given they were producing the handsome Routemaster at the same time, Park Royal managed to make the Bridgemaster look so ugly.
It was succeeded in 1962 by the Renown, which reverted to a body on chassis arrangement. Whereas the 180 Bridgemasters were sold, 251 Renowns were built.
The year before Leyland unveiled a low floor version of its Titan PD3 as the Albion Lowlander. This actually proved the most commercially successful of the Lodekka look-alikes, racking up over 300 sales.
None of these buses was quite as elegant a solution to the lowbridge problem as the Lodekka. Most of them still needed a shallow step to get from the entrance into the lower deck, and the problem of achieving a low overall height whilst giving the driver a reasonable ceiling height in the cab led to some very contorted upper deck seating layouts.
Their combined sales came to fewer than 750 between 1956 and 1967, compared with the thousands of AEC Regents and Routemasters, Leyland Titans and Atlanteans, and Daimler CVG6s and Fleetlines that were churned out over this period.
One factor that didn’t help was the price of these buses. A 1960 Leyland Atlantean PDR1/1 chassis cost £3,040. In 1962 the list price of an AEC Renown was £3,534, and the contemporary Albion Lowlander cost £3,645.
As for Bristol, it was under great pressure to produce a rear-engined chassis by the early 1960s, as that was the direction the market was definitely heading in. It developed the VRL, which had a chassis construction clearly influenced by the F series. The engine was sited longitudinally on the off-side behind the rear axle.
This was to be Bristol’s offer when the Lodekka was phased out. But then the UK government announced that bus grants, to subsidise new bus purchases, would only be paid on transverse rear-engined vehicles.
Bristol quickly created the VRT (vertical rear transverse engine) – too quickly, for without adequate prototype testing it proved a problematic bus for operators until its many deficiencies were ironed out.
It was also a retrograde step in that it reintroduced a step up from the front platform into the lower saloon, undoing one of the best features of the FLF Lodekka. Some operators even went to the extent of specifying a complicated split step arrangement to try and make boarding the VRT a little easier for less spritely passengers.
My rating for Lodekka legacy: 6 out of 10.
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