The bus that defined London

In 1947, as I lay in my cot ruminating upon what this life malarkey was all about, engineers in Chiswick were chewing their pencils over a new project.

During the war, Associated Equipment Company (AEC) had been given over to the manufacturer of parts for the Hadley Page Halifax Bomber and now this expertise was to be put to use. They copied the riveted aluminium fuselage of the wartime plane to create a bus that was considerably lighter than its predecessors, thus increasing its passenger capacity and economising on fuel. It could be assembled and taken apart with ease, much like Lego. The open platform enabled passengers to hop on and off the vehicle whenever it was stationary. Provision had been made for large pieces of luggage in a cubby hole beneath the stairs, and the conductor (there always was one) could stand in front of this recess away from alighting passengers. An innovation in mass transit vehicles was a heating system, the wheels had independent suspension, much needed with the post-war roads, and there was a fully automatic gearbox.

These vehicles along with the black cab defined London amongst the drab greys of the 1950s.

It was some time before the bus took to the roads, but by its launch in 1956 the years of research, design and planning was borne out and the iconic Routemaster was a great success.

Between 1954 and 1968 they built 2,875, so many vacancies were created to crew them London Transport actively recruited drivers and conductors from the West Indies, thus playing a part in immigration that was to transform and diversify London.

By the turn of the century, hundreds of Routemasters were still to be found on the streets of London, but their eventual demise can be traced back to a decision by the government in the 1960s, to pour money into British Leyland, in the hope of keeping the doomed business alive. The result, as AEC had been swallowed up by British Leyland, who now manufactured the successor to the Routemaster was a bus – as Boris Johnson as Mayor of London put it – having lorry engines and lorry gearboxes, more suited to carry 32 tons of gravel than a complement of passengers.

The Routemaster was the last bus on London’s streets to be built by Londoners, for Londoners, in London, and with specific regard to the needs of London passengers.

As I write this, Transport for London has announced that, due to a fall in demand, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 15H Heritage Route with the last 10-strong Routemasters running between Tower of Hill and Trafalgar Square will be withdrawn.

Featured image: 1959 AEC Routemaster bus – RM140 © London Bus Museum

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