Buses Promotional Day
The Deputy Ed.’s Day Job
It’s seen by some as a paradox: weekends and evenings he writes
about sportscar racing but 9-5 Monday to Friday he works to raise
the public image of the much maligned London Bus.
It does have
its perks though as the intrepid PR man this week entertained the
media at the Millbrook Proving Ground, owned by General Motors and
home to a quite astonishing range of test tracks and automotive
For one morning only
though the twists and turns of the Alpine and Urban test courses
were host not just to a range of prototype and development vehicles
from the world’s carmakers but also to a trio of big red London
Not just any buses though.
2004 marks two
very significant anniversaries – it is the 175th anniversary
of bus services in London and the 50th anniversary of the unveiling
of the prototype AEC Routemaster, perhaps the world’s most
The trio was
led by the very last Routemaster built, the 2760th for London service,
still running in regular service in very original form after first
running on the London streets in 1968: it’s one of around
the old lady were two of the very newest buses in the 8000 vehicle
fleet, a double decked Volvo with “Nokia” style and
Northern Ireland built Wright Contour Eclipse bodywork, and a Mercedes
Benz Citaro articulated “bendy” bus, at 18 metres the
longest bus it is legal to operate in the UK, capable of carrying
an astonishing 140 passengers, twice the capacity of the Routemaster.
The idea of the day was
not only to give the media an opportunity to experience the ‘old
lady’ but also to demonstrate that the investment made in
the new vehicles being added to the fleet was a wise use of public
With that in mind the
often critical London Evening Standard was invited to attend, alongside
Daily Telegraph motoring correspondent and longtime sportscar writer
Brian Laban. Completing the journalistic trio was the London correspondent
of the Washington Post Glenn Frankel, his stateside readers eager
to learn why the Routemaster’s days are numbered in frontline
With an AEC diesel engine
whose design dates back to the early 1950s powering the Routemaster,
acceleration is best described as leisurely, just 118 bhp available
from the 5.9 litre 4 cylinder unit.
vintage however there is advanced technology on show in the AEC.
With a pre-selector gearbox and a fully automatic option it was
decades ahead of its time. It also has power assisted steering,
not that you would know it from behind the wheel.
was always going to struggle over the hilly ‘Alpine’
courses but there was a moment of almost comic theatre as the Routemaster
rumbled up a steep incline with a fire breathing Mitsubishi World
Rally Car from the factory team (using the Millbrook facility for
a pre-rally shakedown) unable to pass.
‘Urban’ course showed that the Routemaster was quite
astonishingly manoeuvrable, an essential requirement in the tight,
twisty and crowded London streets, but at the cost of huge effort
required from the drivers behind the wheel, the steering needing
both muscle power and a huge amount of lock.
The sheer nostalgia
of driving such a historic vehicle was not lost on any of those
present: “That was a real privilege,“ said Brian Laban
(right). “Driving that vehicle has been an ambition of mine
for as long as I can remember.”
After trying the ‘RM’
all concerned found the Volvo a doddle to drive: push button automatic
transmission, a turbocharged engine with twice the power, with just
the fact that the steering wheels sit behind the driver to deal
with as a novel part of the driving experience. The sight of the
Volvo rounding a banked turn, heeling well over, put the infamous
‘tilt test’ - which all UK double decker buses are put
through - into sharp focus.
“It was just like
driving a big van, a world apart from the RM,” said the man
from the Standard. “I know which I’d prefer if I was
driving it for a full day.”
it was time to take on the apparent challenge of the ‘bendy’
and with the help of an expert driving instructor, everyone present
found the Mercedes astonishingly manoeuvrable, easily able to match
the tight turns managed by the Routemaster, despite the extra length
and the fact that the 9.4 litre, 245 bhp powerplant and driven wheels
are at the very rear of the vehicle.
The media left highly
impressed with the facility and with the buses: the PR man, having
taken the opportunity to drive all three himself, left with a grin
as wide as a Routemaster radiator grille! Getting to grips with
this very different trio brings into sharp focus the skill of the
men and women that drive them day in, day out, in all weathers,
in one of the busiest cities in the world
These things may not
be as sleek, fast or sexy as the GT cars we feature every day on
dsc, but they are all hugely impressive pieces of kit, and the six
million passengers they carry every day keep the heart of the UK’s
capital city beating.