The double decker bus is the teddy bear of transport. Big, friendly and slow, it brings back memories of childhood on the front seats of the upper deck eating sweets and messing about with friends on the way home from school.
So, if I can’t dice with death on my Brompton bicycle, my favourite London transport is, of course, a big red bus. The tube might be quicker, but the bus really enables you to really see and hear London.
And on the subject of hearing, the musical masters Flanders and Swann famously dubbed the Routemaster the ‘monarch of the road’ in their song ‘Transport of Delight’ in 1960:
“When cabbies try to pass us, before they overtakes,
My driver sticks his hand out and jams on all the brakes.
Them jackal taxi drivers can only swear and cuss
Behind that monarch of the road,
Observer of the Highway Code,
That big six-wheeler scarlet-painted London Transport diesel-engined 97-horsepower omnibus.”
And even the new London buses are a clear tribute to the Routemaster’s style. The bendy buses are late and unlamented, but we all love to see a Routemaster.
We’ve all ridden in them, but wouldn’t it be fun to drive one?
Well, that’s what my friends thought. They’d have enough of my boasting of driving Porsches, Jaguars and Mustangs – all borrowed courtesy of the wonderful Classic Car Club. So with my 60th birthday coming up, they thought this should be the sort of speed I should now get used to.
A company called Expeditional offer bus driving experiences. They include both straight and bendy buses, but my friends wisely chose the Routemaster for me.
I was overjoyed with my gift vouchers. I imagined giving said friends a lift down to Marble Arch. Sadly, the Highway Code and the laws of the land confined me to the North Weald Aerodrome near where the M11 meets the M25. And only me, and my instructor, were allowed on board. But when you look at the sheer size of a bus (over 30 feet long) the merits of a WW2 runway to run about on are fairly obvious.
I didn’t fancy the embarrassment of having all the friends there to see me drive. And to be honest, it’s more exciting to do than watch. But my dear wife Luisa, and one of the shareholders in the present, her old friend Alex, did accompany me to offer moral support and take the photos. You always need proof when you’ve done something as amazing as… 20mph in a bus.
This particular Routemaster is 50 years old and has clearly seen very active service. She is no restored museum piece. Stan the instructor (not his real name but it sounds right) was not a former LT driver but the retired Head of a Primary School. He thought confining kids to be upper deck was preferable to confronting them in the classroom.
The first Routemaster’s appeared in London 1954 and they only ceased being part of normal services in 2005. Of the 2,876 made, nearly half are still in existence.
Time to get on board. Back in the Routemaster days, the drivers did not have to mix with the hoi polloi, otherwise known as fare paying/dodging passengers. Instead they could sit in a nicely elevated cab with nothing to do but drive.
Getting up to the cab was reminiscent of a scaling a climbing wall. So even getting in to the driver’s seat feels like an achievement. Once there, the view out is not like any motorised view I’ve had before. You are right on the nose – there’s nothing in front. And to your left is the bonnet! But there is one hulluva lot behind you. The big mirrors provide a good view back along the tall, flat sides – but judging distance is not easy. Instead you end up looking down the inside and out of the side windows.
The view inside the cab is reminiscent of being at the controls of the Hawker Hurricane that marks your entrance to the airfield. All blacked aluminium with strange heavy controls. But there is only one gauge – the speedometer. The resemblance to an aircraft is legitimate as it employed the use of lightweight aluminium pioneered in aviation.
Looking around the cab, I’m particularly attracted to the handle for changing the destination blind above my head.
To my surprise – and relief, this is an automatic. Apparently, the London bus drivers had been used to the electric trolley buses which preceded them and which had no gears. And, to be honest, an automatic is so much easier in the stop start life of a bus.
The 9.8 litre engine is already running and has a friendly, gruff note familiar to us all. I am shown how to release the tall alloy handbrake and put her into drive.
And here comes the real surprise, despite her 10 ton weight, this is an easy, nimble and responsive drive. The Routemaster was full of innovations: excellent air powered brakes, the easy automatic gearbox, aluminium space frame, and power assisted steering. They all contribute to a very enjoyable spell behind the (huge) wheel. I can see why the Routemaster remained in service – the drivers loved them.
By comparison, many of the cars I have driven from the Classic Car Club collection, have been much less pleasant to drive. There will be shudders of horror from some readers (if I still have any after saying this) but this bus feels much less like a bus than either the club’s Jensen Interceptor or Aston Martin V8.
My bus route around the runway is a simple oval with slalom straight and… a bus stop. I keep finding myself catching up with a bendy bus, which is clearly a much more intimidating drive. The slalom course shows that the bus barely rolls and the brakes are powerful and progressive. But, as it’s so long, I still manage to run over a couple of bollards.
Several laps later, it’s time to hand over my 115 horsepower omnibus. My car seems very small by comparison.
My admiration for buses and their drivers has increased immeasurably.
Next time I’m out on my bike I need to remember how tricky it is for the bus driver to both see – and avoid me.
So I got to drive a Routemaster, the friendliest of machines, all with a little help from my friends.
Many thanks everyone. Tickets please….