History of the Routemaster Bus Part 1 - The 1950s and 1960s.
Updated: Jan 27, 2019
When our vintage buses are out on Wedding and private hire work we are regularly asked about the history of the Routemaster bus, so we asked conductor Mike to write a decade-by-decade report about the history of the iconic buses we now offer for private hire across Cheshire, North Wales and the North West...
The 1950s was the decade that gave us the Festival of Britain, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Teddy Boys, Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley and the Four-Minute Mile. The 1950s was an interesting time as Britain slowly started rebuilding and reinventing itself from the dark and gloomy days of World War 2; with a new monarch in charge of the State and Commonwealth the future slowly started to look bright and many people were slowly starting to become better-off financially than they were in the Great Depression of the 1930s due to more new jobs and opportunities being created. London waved farewell to the last of its original trams in July 1952 and it seemed that the 1950s was to become the decade where the humble tram, a legacy of the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain’s many towns and cities was to be fully obliterated with various tramways being closed one by one, year by year, with the diesel motorbus being cheaper and more flexible to operate than the rickety bone-shaking electric trams with their electric trolley pole running along on their fixed track.
During 1954 a statement was released by London Transport where they were in the planning stages of withdrawing the trolleybuses from the streets of London in order to have a standardised diesel motorbus fleet to serve the needs of Londoners – London Transport had partly achieved this objective with the AEC Regent III (the RT type) which was built in two batches between 1939 and 1940 (known as the Pre-war RTs) and between 1947 and 1954 (known as the Post-war RTs). 7000 of the RT bus variant were built, with the RTs that were built between 1950 and 1952 replacing the last of London’s remaining trams. But something else had to be designed and built by London Transport’s design team at Chiswick to take the place of the RT as although the RT did a sterling job serving London the design was getting dated by the mid-1950s and a bus design where comfort not only to passengers but to the crew and ease of engineering needed to be created with the emphasis on the design of this new bus being focused on evolution rather than revolution. Step forward the new AEC ‘Routemaster’.
Displayed to the public at large at the 1954 Commercial Motor Show at Earl’s Court the new ‘Routemaster’ looked very modern although to some of the critics it looked just like an RT as it was red, it had an engine at the front and a platform at the back and that was about it. But compared to the earlier RTs the Routemaster was physically and mechanically different as the body of the Routemaster was made of aluminium making for lighter weight as well as the Routemaster having 64 seats compared to 57 seats on the earlier RTs. The design of the Routemaster was more sleeker and there was a larger space to fit a larger AEC engine compared to the tight engine space in the 1930s-designed RT. The side adverts proclaimed the Routemaster as ‘London’s Bus of the Future’ and as the body was styled by industrial designer Douglas Scott the Routemaster certainly fitted in with the contemporary designs of 1950s Britain at the time such as the iconic red GPO K6 telephone box and the Morris Minor car. The ‘Routemaster’ bus was given an appropriate new fleetnumber – RM 1 – and finally after various extensive mechanical testing of the bus was completed RM 1 entered service on 8th February 1956 out of London Transport’s Cricklewood bus garage on route 2 running between Golders Green and Crystal Palace via central London’s bustling streets. RM 1 certainly stood out back then amongst the sea of RTs and many of its drivers were very impressed with how the bus operated, with the drivers appreciating the semi-automatic gear changes on RM 1 compared to the chunky pre-selector gearbox of an RT. And most of the conductors enjoyed the ‘cubby-hole’ situated on the platform area of RM 1 as on the RTs there was no cubby-hole for the conductor to stand in if the bus was full, leading to many a conductor’s foot being accidentally trodden upon by passengers making their way on and off the lower deck of the bus.
As well as RM 1 three other Routemaster prototype buses were built: RM 2 in 1955, Leyland-engined RML 3 in 1956 and prototype Green Line Routemaster coach CRL 4 in 1957. RM 2 entered service with London Transport’s Country Area as a green bus and it was based at Reigate bus garage where it operated on the long LT country bus route 406 which back then ran all the way from Kingston out to Redhill in the heart of Surrey. The 406 route was a perfect route to test RM 2’s hill-climbing abilities on the hills of the North Downs which gently rise south of Epsom and RM 2 rose to the challenge with ease compared to some RTs which would occasionally have their radiator boil over after climbing up these hills. The staff and engineers at Reigate bus garage were impressed with RM 2’s level of service and it seemed this new modern era had reached the countryside outside of the concrete metropolis of central London where back in the 1950s the RT was the formidable double-deck stalwart of London Transport’s green bus operations. In London, RM 1 only ran in passenger service until 1959 as in early 1959 the first of the production Routemasters (RM 5) had rolled off the AEC production line and London Transport needed to have RM 1 used as a driver training vehicle to allow for the drivers to change over from the veteran RTs to the new RMs.
Back in 1940 London Transport had the world’s largest trolleybus system in passenger service with most of the trolleybus routes in London operating in the west, north and east of the Capital. However, 1959 was to be the year when the first stage of London Transport’s mass trolleybus withdrawals began with trolleybus route 654 linking Crystal Palace with Croydon, Carshalton and Sutton Green being the first to be withdrawn followed by the two south-east London trolleybus routes 696 and 698 connecting Woolwich with Welling, Bexleyheath and Dartford. Routemasters were not needed for these first three trolleybus conversions as there were still enough RT motorbuses available to replace the trolleybuses on these routes. However with these three trolleybus routes now gone, the focus was on the replacement of the trolleybus routes in East London and this was where the Routemaster came into its own. From 1959 brand new Routemaster buses registered in the VLT xxx number series replaced the vintage trolleybuses dating from the late 1930s in the Bow, Poplar, Barking and Ilford areas of London’s bustling East End and from then on a new era in London’s Transport history had only just begun.
The 1960s was the decade that gave us the Beatles, the Kray twins, Mods and Rockers, Flower Power, the Miniskirt and the infamous Beeching report on Britain’s railways. The 1960s started off basically as an extension of the 1950s but this all changed rapidly within a few years. During the early years of the 1960s London Transport was still very much a traditional operator of buses and trolleybuses although the latter were in the course of being phased out due to a change in LT’s policy. 1960 saw the replacement of trolleybuses in the Hackney, Leyton and Walthamstow areas of London by Routemasters, with this new batch of Routemasters being registered in the VLT xxx number series as was the case with the new fleet of RMs which replaced the trolleybuses on the routes serving London’s East End. Interestingly the Routemasters originally built from RM 5 to RM 253 were fitted with plain front windows on their top deck akin to the plain windows on the four prototype Routemaster vehicles.
Following complaints from passengers due to lack of ventilation on hot days a pair of opening window vents were installed on the top deck windows at the front of Routemasters built from RM 254 onwards, thus making for a more pleasing frontal appearance as well as having better ventilation for passengers, as the RMs with the plain front top deck windows always had a somewhat provincial look about them.
The year 1961 was best remembered as the year when the infamous Berlin Wall was erected to divide the communist and the democratic parts of Germany although if you were living in north-east London during 1961 the writing was on the wall for the London Transport trolleybuses which served the Tottenham, Harringay, Wood Green, Holloway and Finsbury Park areas by the ever conquering Routemaster, with these RMs being registered in the WLT xxx number series. As a direct consequence of London Transport’s trolleybus-to-bus conversions more and more trolleybus drivers went through LT’s driver training school at Chiswick Works where they eventually swapped the merits of the DC electric motor of a trolleybus for the diesel combustion engine of the Routemaster. As for the former trolleybus conductors who changed over to the Routemaster they were happy in the most part – more so as they didn’t need to get out from the bus to place the errant trolley poles back onto the wires following a dewirement on a wet or snowy day!
In 1961 a batch of prototype 29-foot long Routemasters were built as the ER class (ER 880 to ER 903) to replace trolleybuses out of Finchley bus garage on the busy North London trolleybus replacement route 104 linking Moorgate with Holloway, North Finchley and Barnet. These 24 vehicles had an extra short bay placed in the middle of the bus with eight more seats added, increasing the seating capacity from 64 to 72 seats. Although originally classed as ER (Extended Routemaster) these 24 prototype lengthened Routemaster buses were soon re-classed as RML (RouteMaster Lengthened) for clarification purposes.
1962 was to become the year when the last of London’s electric road transport came to an end with the trolleybuses in the Finchley, Wembley, Chiswick, Hounslow, Twickenham, Surbiton and Kingston areas being replaced by the Routemaster bus – ironically it was the Kingston, Surbiton and Twickenham areas where London’s first trolleybuses began operation back in September 1931 under the auspices of the London United Tramways prior to the formation of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) on 1st July 1933. By the spring of 1962 only Isleworth and Fulwell were set to become the last operational London Transport trolleybus depots and eventually on the evening of 8th May 1962 the last trolleybus on route 657 made its way from Shepherd’s Bush Green, Chiswick and Brentford into Isleworth Depot. Also on the late evening of 8th May 1962 London Transport’s very last trolleybus made its one-way journey on route 604 from Wimbledon Town Hall to New Malden, Kingston, Teddington and into Fulwell Depot – and that was that. Isleworth trolleybus depot subsequently closed its doors with the replacement Routemasters operating out of nearby Hounslow bus garage whilst Fulwell remained in service in its new role as a bus garage where both garages received a brand new batch of RMs registered in the xxx CLT number series.
Also in 1962 a batch of 68 Routemaster coaches (RMC 1453 to RMC 1520) were built for London Transport’s Green Line express services with this batch of RMCs differing from their red RM sisters in many ways with their deep-cushioned seating, rear platform doors, overhead umbrella racks and fluorescent interior strip lighting. These 68 RMCs were also fitted with high-powered twin headlights which were ideal for use at night on unlit country lanes or in areas with poor street lighting.
From 1963 onwards the Routemaster began to replace the RTs on a one-for-one basis with the former Rye Lane bus garage in Peckham being one of the first bus garages in London to have their RT fleet replaced by RMs. This set the precedent where garage by garage the Routemaster replaced the oldest of the RTs; many of which were in a very poor state by the mid-1960s. Following trials with a front-entrance Routemaster (RMF 1254, built in 1962) the Routemaster received its first order outside of London where a total of fifty front-entrance Routemasters were built in 1964/65 for Northern General for use on their bus services in the Newcastle, Gateshead, Washington and Durham areas of the North East where they became very popular vehicles with the Northern General operating staff. 1965 saw the last standard RM (RM 2217) built and the beginning of the batch of 43 longer Green Line coaches (RCL 2218 to RCL 2260) built where they were allocated Romford Green Line bus garage for use on the express commuter routes 721, 722, 723 and 723A running from Aldgate in the City out to the likes of the South Essex towns such as Grays and Tilbury.
From 1965 construction commenced on the final production batch of the RML class Routemasters from RML 2261 onwards, with the last ever Routemaster to be built – RML 2760 – rolling off the Park Royal Vehicles production line in April 1968.
The late 1960s was a pretty turbulent time for London Transport where a controversial Reshaping Plan implemented in 1968 made many well-known LT bus routes shorten and disappear completely and many other routes convert to one-man operation (OMO) with new single-deck buses in order to save money.
By 1969 London Transport had changed from what began as a very traditional bus operator into a very radical bus operator, just in time for the 1970s...
To read the next part of Mike's History of the Routemaster please click the following link...