Old buses may lack the full-steam-ahead pulling power of much-loved locomotives, but to the scores of enthusiasts who maintain, restore and run them around abandoned airfields and decommissioned depots up and down the country, they will forever be a transport of delight.
Bus museums began operating in the 1970s as devotees rushed to rescue some of their favourite vehicles, liveries and childhood memories from being consigned to the scrapheap by an unrelenting series of industry reorganisations.
“Cities and larger towns used to have their own corporation fleets, colour schemes and operational foibles before they were merged into what were called passenger transport executives,” says historian Paul Williams of the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester. “Aficionados, therefore, tend to be parochial because of the small bus companies they remember.
“A railway enthusiast might be able to spot a particular engine anywhere between Bristol and Inverness, but localised bus companies had unique vehicles – which they often built themselves – with different designs and destination blinds full of nearby place names.”
Williams caught the bus bug when, during his school holidays, he accompanied his older brother on his rounds as a Department of Transport inspector. “While he was in an office checking maintenance records, I would be in the car park watching two blokes with a big hammer doing exciting things round the back of a Leyland Atlantean,” he says.
Williams joined a preservation group at the age of 15 and has been involved with the museum for 40 years. “We have the UK’s largest surviving open-top, horse-drawn bus, which is covered in gold leaf,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine a lady in Edwardian crinolene trying to get on and off; she would have had no hope of going upstairs. The braking system was simply a piece of iron applied to the rear steel wheel, which would have been interesting on wet Manchester cobbled streets.”
Williams and his team are currently restoring a 1934 Crossley double-decker, number 436. “Buses of this age are rare because they were used heavily during the war and entire fleets were replaced when they wore out,” he says. “Number 436 was found in the 1990s being used as a caravan in the Welsh Marches. It has an art deco feel inside and will look the business when it’s finished. We can find mechanical bits to make it run again but we are fundraising to replace some of the body parts.”
People want to see the buses they grew up with, but we have to be choosy as our old leaking bus depot is running out of room
Alongside the vehicles, the museum – based in one of the city’s oldest garages – has time-capsule offices full of associated memorabilia such as posters, timetables, bus stops and shelters.
“For some reason, we have the full correspondence files for the old Bolton municipal bus company and, flicking through it, you can see things like managers desperately appealing for tyres.
“There are also records in which conductors are reported as being under suspicion for takings coming up short,” says Williams, who worries about the museum’s long-term prospects.
“I wonder what will happen when all the volunteers with the maintenance skills needed have gone,” he says. “Keeping relevant is also an issue for us; people want to see the buses they grew up with, but we have to be choosy as our old leaking bus depot is running out of room.”
Like a few of his fellow fanatics, Eddie Taylor owns prized buses himself. They are housed at the Scottish Vintage Bus Museum in Fife where he is a trustee, membership secretary and events coordinator.
“I found one in a peat bog in the Highlands where it was being used as a buffet for hill climbers,” says Taylor. “The owner let me have it as long as I supplied a replacement caravan. It was a right basket case and we set up a fund to restore it. About £150,000 and 20 years should do it.”
The museum has around 180 vehicles of all shapes and sizes on its 49-acre site, a former naval stores depot with seven hangars that ensure all exhibits are kept under cover. There’s also a function room, office buildings for the archivists and a private road network. Taylor says it’s like having the world’s biggest toy bus collection, some of which he continues to drive on a regular basis.
“I take out vintage buses from Stagecoach’s heritage fleet, which is based here and for which I still drive part-time for the company on school runs and private hires,” says Taylor, whose favourite mode of transport is a 1964 Lodekka Bristol.
“Driving the more modern buses is alright but they don’t speak to me in the same way as the 1950s and 60s vehicles. The Lodekka Bristol was the last vehicle to enter service in Fife with a door at the back, before the advent of one-man operated buses. It was withdrawn in 1980 and came up for sale a few years later. Stagecoach acquired it and it has been restored to its original red and cream livery.”
Nearly all its buses are privately-owned by individuals who pay the museum rent for storage, which provides about 65% of its income. This means the museum is on a sound financial footing and came through the lockdowns relatively unscathed.
The other main moneyspinner is the running days, a bus museum staple during which grand old vehicles with life still left in them tour the local countryside packed with passionate passengers clutching memorabilia bought from traders’ stalls. That is not, however, a privilege shared by all institutions.
If an organisation runs traditional trolleybuses, for example, it is limited to places with access to a 550-volt DC electricity supply via overhead cables. The Trolleybus Museum at Sandtoft, in the wilds of northern Lincolnshire on an old RAF base, is one of just three such sites in the UK.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, which is both a blessing and a curse,” says commercial director Chas Allen. “On the plus side, we haven’t suffered the spate of vandalism and specialised thefts at other town-based transport museums. But, the disadvantage – certainly from a visitor and volunteer perspective – is that we’re not served well by modern public transport links, which is a bit ironic.”
Maintenance work on the trolleybuses is carried out by a hardy, but dwindling, band of volunteers. That includes all the overhead wiring, which – before the site was hooked up to the mains supply and given its own transformer and rectifier – was powered by an old diesel engine.
“Back then, it was said that when a trolleybus set off on a circuit around the field, all the ovens went out in Sandtoft village,” says Allen, who has seen a pronounced shift in visitor demographics recently. “It used to be purely enthusiasts who remembered the trolleybuses from their youth. Now we have a younger family audience who have never seen anything like them before. We’re catering for them with additional cycle and toy displays and a streetscape with older shops.
“When the vehicle approaches, many of them wonder how to board because the platform’s at the back. It’s clear they have never taken any kind of bus ride.”
The museum is developing displays to explain how this greenest of transport systems is now a thing of the past rather than a vision of an eco-friendly future. “Councils used to run the trolleybuses and had their own departments to power them,” Allen says. “After the nationalisation of the electricity industry in 1948, prices went up but oil was cheap; in addition, slum clearances were creating new housing estates away from the city centres.
“Along with the convenience of car journeys, all this led to the decline of trolleybuses, but I can’t see the logic; London was the first city to turn to diesel despite suffering an awful smog problem.”
Ironically, one of the museum’s best-preserved buses was displayed as a low-emission exemplar at Cop26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last November, Allen says.
“Another irony is that the move away from combustion engines generally could make securing fuel for running historic buses in the future much more difficult.”
While some bus museum folk merely harbour a penchant for a Plaxton Panorama coach or a Dennis Dominator double-decker, others simply have oil in the blood.
Denis Chick became a trustee at the Transport Museum at Wythall in Worcestershire after a career in the West Midlands car industry. He ran the PR campaign for the launch of the Austin Montego and looked on from product planning the Rover SD1 and Triumph TR7 as trade unionist Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson repeatedly led the workforce out of British Leyland’s Longbridge plant during the 1970s and 80s.
“A lot of the strikes seemed to coincide with the start of the fishing season,” says Chick. “They’d sometimes go out because the cold drinks weren’t cold enough; add to that government interference and the whole place being far too big to manage, it was chaos. I loved every minute.”
Chick brought his experience of triumphing over adversity to Wythall where he introduced new thinking about opening up the collection via special tours and social media during the pandemic.
“Between lockdowns, people desperate for somewhere for a safe day out saw us online and came in such huge numbers I was gobsmacked,” says Chick. “We had around three-quarters of our usual visitor numbers during the three months we were open. We’d have been in some difficulty had the doors stayed locked.”
Wythall’s collection focuses on the vehicles that ran across the West Midlands, centring on Birmingham, a city with a long history of bus manufacturing.
“Buses made for the second city were unique as they were slightly narrower to ease their way through the tight streets,” says Chick. “The same factory built buses for the other major corporations, such as Walsall and West Bromwich, all with their distinctive features, magnificent fleet liveries and ornate city crests.”
Leading the way is a collection of buses from the Midland Red company which, before nationalisation, operated across central England with vehicles – designed and made in-house – that pushed the boundaries of engineering. They included the D9, introduced in 1958 and the very first bus to have a semi-automatic gearbox, a godsend to drivers previously forced to operate an industrial-strength clutch.
The museum has recently rebranded with a new identity firmly aimed at families, with trips out to neighbouring attractions on vintage vehicles and activities for younger visitors. And it has a dedicated education team that welcomes schools with curriculum-friendly events and light-hearted histories of the vital role buses played in communities before cars were commonplace.
“The youngsters clamber on board and love being high up off the ground and, of course, ringing the bells; it’s fulfilling to see them introduced to a bygone era when children went off to school on their own,” says Chick. “As if that wasn’t enough, we show them our fleet of electric delivery vans and floats. They simply can’t believe someone used to turn up at 5am to leave milk and bread on the doorstep.”
John Holt is a freelance writer