With most British products now designed and made elsewhere (albeit by British designers very often), we sometimes have to be reminded that we once built rather good vehicles. Every nation could unearth a few classics, but our little islands have produced a whole encyclopedia: beautiful ocean liners, graceful steam engines, grand cars, aircraft, motorcycles and of course buses.The theory behind Britain’s long love affair with the double-decker bus is that our narrow city streets made it necessary to build upwards. Perhaps, although the same could be said for any number of European cities. More likely, we just enjoyed being different.
How did London’s Routemaster bus become such an enduring icon – a symbol of the capital, recognised the world over? Although comparatively recent, the design successfully combined old and new in an alluringly British way: the open rear platform and steep stairs had their origins in the horse-drawn omnibuses of the Victorian era, but the running gear and general space-efficiency of the machine were right up to date. In terms of overall dimensions versus passenger capacity, it was a remarkable bit of packaging that may never be surpassed, and although designed and built in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Routemaster – like all the best icons – remains a strangely timeless machine.
RM1, the Routemaster prototype, was built at London Transport’s Chiswick garage in 1954, and was followed by a further three as the details were refined. In 1956 an order was placed for 850 production machines, the mechanical bits being assembled at lorry maker AEC’s factory in Southall, and the bodywork at the company’s nearby Park Royal plant. Buses gradually came into service from June 1959.
…it was a remarkable bit of packaging that may never be surpassed…
Several variants were made over the years, but the classic Routemaster was bright red (naturally), 27′ 6″ long, eight feet wide and just over fourteen feet tall. Access was via an open platform at the rear kerbside, leading to a flight of steeply curved stairs to the top deck, or a single step up to the bottom deck. Early examples had 64 seats, but from 1965, an extra centre section was added to create the RML; a shade over 30 feet long, with 72 seats.
The Routemaster may look timeless, but beneath the surface, the design was seriously cutting edge. Previous double-deckers had been built of steel and wood around a substantial steel chassis.They could be prohibitively heavy, and the Routemaster’s predecessor, the RT, was limited to 56 seats to keep the weight within limits.
Instead, the Routemaster was built around a strong, but lightweight ‘monocoque’ aluminium body, doing away with the heavy chassis altogether, at a time when such technology was considered adventurous in the car world. The AEC 115hp engine, 4- speed gearbox and suspension were bolted to subframes under the body. At 73/4 tons, the Routemaster was incredibly light for its day, and remains smaller, some two tons lighter, and more economical than similar modern buses.
The best bit for large and small boys alike was the driver’s cab. Once again, there were Edwardian echoes, with the driver sitting in stately isolation up front, to the right of the engine. But beneath the surface, the cab bristled with innovation – independent front suspension, power steering, power-assisted hydraulic brakes, and a fully automatic gearbox. All very conventional today, but state-of-the-art for the 1950s.
Rise & Fall
Numerous design changes were made over the years. Most were very minor, but a Leyland diesel engine was tried for a while, and a faster RMC coach derivative with fewer seats and electrically-operated doors, was built in quite large numbers to race rather incongruously in and out of London, notably to Heathrow Airport.
Altogether, more than 2,800 Routemasters were produced, mainly for use in London, but with a small number going elsewhere.The last of the series of development prototypes, unveiled in 1966, was as strikingly modern as RM1, with front platform doors and a rear engine, but for political and practical reasons, the design was never put into production.Another option put forward by the design team was to put the engine under the front stairs, a brilliant bit of packaging, but nothing more was heard of the idea.
…the buses were just too cost-effective to be withdrawn en masse…
From then, as with so much of British innovation, the story was one of gradual decline, although the Routemaster, designed for a life of twenty years, was to outlive its contemporaries by a considerable margin.
Withdrawals began in the late 1970s, but the buses were just too practical and cost-effective to be withdrawn en masse. Newer one-man- operated buses saved on manpower, but caused traffic delays and were unable to dispense change or cheerful cockney travel advice like the Routemaster conductors. Although losing ground in the suburbs, the old buses clung tenaciously to the congested inner urban routes.
In the following thirty years, some 1,500 Routemasters were scrapped, but many cast-offs found a new lease of life with provincial bus companies, particularly in the cut- throat post-deregulation world, where the space- and fuel-efficiency of the design often outclassed newer machines.
In London, Routemasters were even being upgraded, 600 of them receiving new Cummins and Iveco diesel engines in the early 1990s. Privatization came and went, and still the Routemasters kept rolling. Confidence was boosted with yet another refurbishment programme between 2001 and 2004, when mayor Ken Livingstone reiterated that the Routemaster was an essential part of the London scene.There was an anniversary party in 2004, featuring numerous early examples of the marque, including RM1, still in revenue service after an astonishing 50 years. But a few months later, the mood suddenly changed, and Transport for London announced that the last buses would be withdrawn and sold by the end of 2005.
Why? It seems that buses with open platforms are becoming increasingly difficult to insure in this litigious age, and the Routemaster’s high platform was never, ever going to be wheelchair accessible. Ironically, this most space-efficient of vehicles is being replaced with so-called ‘bendy buses’ – cumbersome articulated single-deckers that occupy a great deal more of London’s precious road space.
Now past its half-century, there’s no doubt the Routemaster needs updating. As one Londoner puts it, ‘Don’t get too misty-eyed: they’re good fun if you’re fit, childless and enjoy excitement and (very) cool breezes. Everyone else is better off on the new buses.’
Like most older vehicles, the Routemaster is hardly folding bike-friendly either.The tiny luggage space under the stairs is small and often jealously guarded by the conductor. Modern low-floor designs, most of which incorporate a spacious wheelchair/buggy area, are much more practical in this respect.
Could a new Routemaster still emerge? One interesting proposal is the Q-Master, a strong, low-floor Routemaster update, but as with the railways (see High Speed Train, A to B 27) www.atob.org.uk 11 A to B 46 the funding mechanisms and political will just don’t seem to be there any more. But a generation of young British designers is refusing to go quietly. Blake Cotterill, a student at Coventry University, has proposed an updated driver-only-operated Routemaster with front doors and a host of new technologies.This ‘hybrid’ diesel/electric machine would feature an internal combustion engine in the classic front position to aid accessibility, but the engine would drive the front wheels, giving a low floor throughout.Acceleration would be boosted by an electric motor fed from a fuel cell and/or batteries, providing regenerative braking and – once again – class-leading fuel economy.
Routemasters are set to disappear completely in the next few months unless a ‘heritage route’ reprieve is announced. At the time of writing (January 2005) the buses were still operating on seven routes:
No 13 Aldwych – Golders Green
No 14 Putney – Tottenham Court Road
No 19 Finsbury Park – Battersea Bridge
No 22 Putney – Piccadilly Circus
No 36 Queen’s Park – New Cross
No 38 Clapton Ponds – Victoria
No 159 Streatham – Marble Arch
You can help save the Routemaster.There’s plenty of information at www.routemaster.org.uk or www.savetheroutemaster.moonfruit.com where more than 10,000 people have signed the online petition to date. Meanwhile, do take a last ride (preferably without a folding bike).