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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lee

Why Are London's Buses Red?

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

When our vintage buses are out on Wedding and private hire work, we are regularly asked this, so we asked conductor Mike to answer this query...

Replica of the 1829 Onmibus at The London Transport Museum
Replica of the 1829 Shillibeer Omnibus at the London Transport Museum

This is a question I frequently get asked as a guide at the London Transport Museum – mostly by tourists and occasionally by families and children. The answer is not as obvious as some people think, as London’s first horse-drawn bus was never red – it was green (dark green to be exact!). When George Shillibeer unveiled his horse-drawn Omnibus service on the streets of London with this Omnibus service running between Paddington and the Bank of England in the City in April 1829 it started a revolution in how people travelled around the city. George Shillibeer’s horse Omnibus got noticed as the word ‘Omni’ is Latin for ‘For All’ and this marked the start of a recognised public transport service in London. The livery (colour scheme) of George Shillibeer’s horse bus was a holly green colour with cream around the three side windows. Up on the roof the driver of the Omnibus would control his three horses via his long goading stick. Inside the Omnibus an inviting interior carried 22 passengers with the passengers boarding and alighting from a rear door with two steps where a fare was paid to the conductor. The Shillibeer Omnibus became so successful that in the 1840s and 1850s more entrepreneurs went out and about setting up rival horse bus businesses on London’s streets with all these companies competing for passengers and fares. The 1860s saw the first horse-drawn tramway opening in London as well as the world’s first underground railway completed by the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 with this railway running between Paddington and Farringdon and competing with the route of the Shillibeer Omnibus. London was growing in size socially and economically thanks to the new omnibuses, tramways and underground railways being built from the 1860s and 1870s and at the same time more private horse bus operators entered the fray with some horse buses by now having an upper deck added, such was the demand for buses to move the good folk of London!

1921 LGOC K-Type Bus © Mike McDermott
1921 LGOC K-Type bus © Mike McDermott

The 1900s marked a turning point as London’s first petrol-engined motorbus entered service in 1905. Horses powering London’s buses and trams were soon to become a thing of the past as the last horse bus in London ran in 1915 and from then on horse-drawn transport was mostly confined to the Rag & Bone carts, delivery vehicles and milk floats. By 1910 London had a variety of different bus and different tramway operators all painted in varying liveries all trying to compete for passengers as back then it was a free-for-all if you wanted to catch a bus in London. The London General Omnibus Company (or the LGOC for short) which was originally founded back in 1856 had the largest fleet of buses running in service and the LGOC’s first petrol-engined double deck motorbus was the B-Type which was built in 1910 at the former LGOC factory in Walthamstow in north-east London. The London General Omnibus Company’s livery on their fleet was red & white and this is where the iconic red London bus as we know it starts to make its appearance. The 1920s were known as the ‘Pirate’ era for London’s buses as many of the vast array of bus companies were known as ‘Pirate’ operators who would entice passengers away from other bus companies by means of some cheap gimmick. The different colours of the buses and trams all added to the confusion and by 1930 matters got so bad that something needed to be urgently looked into by the Government of the day in order to have some kind of a regulated and unified transport authority to take control of London’s buses, tramways and underground railways.

1937 AEC Regent STL type © Mike McDermott
1937 AEC Regent STL type © Mike McDermott

1st July 1933 was when the newly created London Passenger Transport Board (or the LPTB/London Transport for short) was formed thus bringing all of London’s motorbuses, tramways, underground railways, country buses and Green Line coaches together as a unified organisation. As the London General Omnibus Company was the largest of the bus operators in London who previously painted their bus fleet in red & white, London Transport decided to adopt this livery and continued it courtesy of Frank Pick, London Transport’s first Chief Executive who instantly set about introducing a standard font style for London’s transport and he also recognised the bold colours of red and green as potential marketing tools for London Transport’s buses as the red buses matched with the mostly red-brick buildings in central London while the green buses matched with the trees and fields of the countryside outside London. By 1947 London Transport’s motorbuses and trams were painted into an attractive red & cream livery and after the complete withdrawal of London’s original trams in July 1952 London’s buses were painted into a smart all-over red with just the relief band painted in cream. The all-over LT red with the cream relief band continued into the 1960s when the relief band colour was changed in 1966 from cream to flake grey on the RTs and RMs after their scheduled overhauls at Aldenham Works.

1976 Scania Metropolitan © Mike McDermott

From 1974 LT’s buses were painted in a lighter shade of red with a white relief band for the Routemaster fleet and an application of white around the top deck windows for the one person-operated (OPO) double-deck bus fleet such as the Daimler Fleetlines, Scania Metropolitans, the first 56 MCW Metrobuses and the first 31 Leyland Titans. The 1980s saw the continuation of the white relief band applied on LT’s Routemaster fleet although LT’s OPO bus fleet were repainted into a drab all-over red livery to save money. In 1986 two of London Transport’s bus garages (namely Enfield and Potters Bar) rebelled against the all-over red and painted their OPO buses in red but with an unofficial black skirt and a thick white relief band which actually made the vehicles look quite good, albeit for only a short period. By 1989 a new livery for London Buses’ OPO bus fleet was chosen with red and a mid-grey skirt plus a thin white band where for once London’s OPO buses no longer resembled boring red boxes on wheels. The 1990s saw the privatisation of London’s buses in the autumn of 1994 with all of London’s 7000 buses being back in private hands once again although with a proviso from Parliament stipulating an 80% red rule for the newly privatised London bus companies with red being the main base colour in order to avoid confusion to tourists and Londoners if the buses were all to be painted in different liveries. TfL has since changed this rule to 100% red so ironically today’s modern London buses look similar to their predecessors back in the 1980s.

Hopefully this blog will give you all some idea as to how the visually strong colour of red became the chosen colour which has long been associated with London’s world-famous buses from the early 1920s right through to the London of the 21st century.

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