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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lee

History of the Routemaster Bus Part 2 - The 1970s and 1980s.

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 1970s was the decade that gave us Glam Rock bands such as T-Rex, Slade and Sweet strutting their stuff on Top of the Pops, the three-day week, ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest, flared trousers, Frank Spencer, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the birth of Punk Rock and the infamous Winter of Discontent. The 1970s was basically the decade that taste conveniently forgot, although it did have its good moments as well! Following the creation of the Transport Act of 1968 by Barbara Castle MP and the takeover of AEC by Leyland (to become what was British Leyland) this meant that after a period of years dating back to the 1920s, London Transport could no longer design and build their own vehicles to their own specifications. Instead London Transport, like so many other bus operators in cities around the UK, had to buy their new fleets of buses ‘off the shelf’.

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RML 2456 at the Hampton Transport Gala, September 2014 © Mike McDermott

1st January 1970 was when the former London Transport Country Area green buses transferred over to the National Bus Company (NBC) with a new company called London Country Bus Services (or London Country for short) taking over the green bus operations outside of London. This now meant that London Transport was solely in charge of the red bus operations as well as the Underground with London Transport being placed under the auspices of the Greater London Council (GLC) and answering directly to the GLC whether they liked it or not. 1971 saw the arrival of the first one man-operated (OMO) double-decker buses for London in the form of the Daimler Fleetline (the DMS class) which first entered service out of two bus garages; namely Brixton (on route 95) and Shepherd’s Bush (on route 220) with the Daimler Fleetline being introduced as a result of cost-saving implemented by LT’s 1968 Reshaping Plan.

The Routemaster was still very new and it still had its part to play in moving the people of London to and from their everyday duties in their lives. However, had the Routemaster only lived up to its planned 17-year life span things could have turned out quite differently with many of the Routemasters being withdrawn from service on London’s streets during the late 1970s which would have been a very sad state of affairs had this plan taken hold. Thankfully luck and good fortune played a major part in preventing this from happening.

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RM 116 at the RM60 rally, July 2014 © Mike McDermott

1974 saw the start of a fresh new look for London Transport’s bus fleet with buses being painted in a brighter shade of red and on the Routemaster fleet out went the cream relief band, gold fleetnumbers and gold underlined London Transport fleetnames and in came a new-look white relief band, white fleetnumbers, plus a solid white version of the iconic London Transport roundel. Around the same time London Country’s fleet of RMCs, RCLs and RMLs inherited from London Transport were in the process of being repainted from their original 1960s LT Country Area Lincoln green livery into the new National Bus Company corporate ‘leaf green’ livery with a white relief band, grey wheel hubs and the London Country fleetname applied in white with the infamous NBC ‘Double N’ logo placed alongside. The National Bus Company leaf green livery looked decent when it was freshly applied but the paint became dull very quickly with this shade of leaf green making for a very drab appearance on an iconic vehicle such as a Routemaster. The London Transport red livery with the white band and solid white roundels did however look good on a Routemaster and if anything, this livery gave the RMs and RMLs a new lease of life.

A turning point was also reached in 1974 when a former LT bus conductress named Jill Viner became the first woman bus driver to be recruited by London Transport. This bucked a long trend for women working on London’s buses as prior to 1974 the only women who were employed on London’s buses were either conductresses or cleaners. Ironically during the 1960s many UK towns and cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester had female bus drivers in their ranks, whilst back in the 1950s there were women driving trams in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow! Sadly London Transport (or rather the unions) were rather archaic in their approach to women driving buses but they could not swim against the tide forever and Jill Viner’s appointment as an LT bus driver set a precedent for more women to choose driving London’s iconic big red buses as a career.

London’s Routemaster fleet survived relatively unscathed during the 1970s, although due to various mechanical problems with the new Daimler Fleetlines many of the older class of RTs continued in operation with these RTs starting to look very sorry for themselves. The long hot summer of 1976 saw London Transport and London Country resort to hiring buses from outside of London due to protracted deliveries and mechanical failures of newer buses with buses from towns such as Maidstone, Southend, Eastbourne and Bournemouth gracing the streets of London’s leafy suburbs. Matters got so bad with London Country in 1976 that they even had to resort to recertifying and repainting four RTs to return to passenger service, such was the shortage of serviceable buses London Country suffered from at the time! Since 1970 London Country always strived to become an OPO bus company but they had to wait another ten years to finally get that wish granted.

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RM 2208 opposite Kilburn Park Underground station, September 2015 © Mike McDermott

The summer of 1977 saw Queen Elizabeth II celebrating her Silver Jubilee and as a result 25 standard RMs that were recently overhauled at LT’s Aldenham Works were repainted into a special silver livery with a red relief band, with the Silver Jubilee livery on each of these 25 RMs being sponsored by various different companies. This was followed in the spring of 1979 by the repainting of twelve standard RMs overhauled at Aldenham Works into a mock-Shillibeer Omnibus holly green, cream, gold and red livery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of London’s buses, with this distinctive livery being based on George Shillibeer’s horse-drawn Omnibus service which originally ran between Paddington and the Bank of England in April 1829.

During September 1978 London Country said farewell to their last green RT in service and London Country were looking at ways of withdrawing their remaining RMC, RCL and RML fleets now that newer one person-operated buses were becoming more mainstream on most of London Country’s green bus routes. 7th April 1979 saw London Transport say farewell to their last red RTs in service on route 62 with Barking bus garage becoming a Mecca for bus enthusiasts all hoping for one last ride on a London Transport veteran. The new order in outer East London in 1979 was the Leyland Titan – a bus that would make its mark in the 1980s...


The 1980s was the decade that gave us New Romantics, Adam Ant, the Miners’ strike, big hair, lace gloves, legwarmers, Madonna, Channel 4, the £1 coin, the VHS video recorder and the Sinclair C5. The 1980s had it and saw it all – and then some. The 1980s saw a decline in service of the Routemaster bus but also a reversal in fortune for the London icon where a humble red bus from the Capital of the United Kingdom rose to fame in other parts of the country. But we’ll come to that later.

1981 was the year many of us will remember for the good times (such as the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer and Bucks Fizz winning the Eurovision Song Contest) and the bad times (such as the nasty rioting which took place in Brixton and Toxteth) which boiled over as a result of the controversial Sus Law as used by various police forces at the time.

The year 1981 was also when the Greater London Council (GLC) adopted the Fare’s Fair policy in which the London Borough of Bromley made a substantial claim against London Transport in the High Court seeing as the London Borough of Bromley was one of a select few London councils which are not served by the London Underground. As a result of the Fare’s Fair fiasco starting to take hold, this led to a reduction in London Transport’s bus usage and in September 1982 a total of 200 perfectly serviceable RMs sadly made their one-way journey up to the bleak and windswept scrapyards of South Yorkshire. This marked the shape of things to come where one by one the traditional crew-operated bus routes using Routemasters in London’s outer suburbs were being converted to one person-operated (OPO) services using the then new fleets of Leyland Titans in London’s eastern and south-eastern suburbs and the MCW Metrobus in London’s northern, north-western, western and south-western suburbs. By the early 1980s London Transport had six new bus operating ‘districts’ covering London in the form of Abbey District, Selkent District, Wandle District, Cardinal District, Leaside District and Forest District where each of these LT districts had their different bus garages which were responsible for their bus fleets as well as having a General Manager in charge of each district to be accountable to if things went wrong.

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RM 2116 in Vauxhall Bridge Road, Victoria, February 2016 © Mike McDermott

July 1983 saw London Transport celebrate its 50th anniversary in spectacular style with special open days held at LT’s Chiswick Works and at Aldenham Works. A welcome part of the festivities was the painting of four Routemasters (RM 8, RM 17, RM 1933 and RM 2116) into a mock-1930s version of the London Passenger Transport Board livery of red, black and white with silver roofs, with this splendid livery originally being applied to the STLs when they were delivered new to London Transport between 1933 and 1937. Also specially painted for the celebrations was RM 1983 which was treated to a gold livery, seeing as 1983 was the Golden Anniversary of LT! A special London Transport 50th Anniversary lapel badge was issued to all serving London Transport bus and Underground staff and it seemed that for a time at least, London Transport had something it could be proud of achieving as an organisation. However dark clouds were beginning to gather as 1984 saw the rebranding of London Transport as London Regional Transport (LRT) and although nothing changed on the surface with regard to uniforms or bus and Underground liveries, a lot was going on at 55 Broadway in preparation for LRT’s controversial route tendering system where some of London’s bus routes became operated under contract to a private operator on behalf of London Regional Transport, leading to the interesting sight of buses painted in different colours operating on the suburban streets of outer London where red buses once dominated. Although the route tendering system worked on some routes better than others, it still led to some passengers being confused by seeing buses painted in different colours other than the familiar red livery.

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RM 835 in Dorking Civic Centre car park, September 2006 © Mike McDermott

1986 saw the abolition of the Greater London Council and the deregulation and privatisation of the National Bus Company in England and Wales where many long-established bus operators soon started to compete with one another for business. With more and more outer suburban bus routes in London converting from crew-operated Routemasters to one person-operated buses London Regional Transport instead of scrapping their RMs like they did four years earlier back in September 1982 had a change of heart and opted instead to sell their RM fleet to anyone who was interested – and what an impact these Routemasters made outside of London! The first tranche of RMs after their repainting at Aldenham Works prior to its closure in 1986 went to work in Scotland working with the likes of operators such as Clydeside Scottish, Kelvin Scottish and Strathtay Scottish for use on the busy bus routes serving Paisley, Glasgow city centre and Dundee, where the benefit of having a conductor made the bus more approachable to intending passengers as well as making the bus arrive quicker than that of the competition.

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RM 44 at Brooklands, June 2018 © Mike McDermott

Soon afterwards many English operators ended up buying Routemasters from LRT with bus companies such as Blackpool Transport, Burnley & Pendle, Cumberland Motor Services, East Midland, East Yorkshire, Greater Manchester PTE, Southampton CityBus, Southend Transport and United Counties all having sizeable Routemaster fleets.

The 1980s was always known as the decade where the Routemaster was in decline in service on the streets of London but it had a rebirth in various towns and cities outside of London, where the sight of a conductor was the human face of the bus company, making bus travel civilised as it was back in the 1950s and 1960s when bus passengers were treated as valued customers rather than as an inconvenience.

With many of the RMs being sold from London Regional Transport to various provincial bus operators in England and Scotland this just left the longer fleet of RMLs still in everyday service on the streets of inner London, the West End and the City as these RMLs with their eight extra seats were still needed to move Londoners and visitors from A to B with a conductor. The RML fleet soldiered on along with a good few of the RMs that were still needed for use in London; however by the late 1980s it dawned that some of LRT’s Routemaster fleet had to be cannibalised for spares in order to keep the others on the road. But if the 1980s had heralded a new dawn for the RM, it seemed a new dawn would herald for the RML in the 1990s...

To read the next part of Mike's History of the Routemaster please click the following link...

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