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 test facilities.

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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 Buses.

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 famous bus.

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 300 survivors.

dailysportscar.comAlongside 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 money.

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 London service.

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.

Despite its 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.

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It 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.

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dailysportscar.comThe ‘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.”

dailysportscar.comThen 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.
GG

 

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