Wrong side working

Hard to believe this is over 30 years ago. My memories are quite hazy now… I have some amazing photos from the experience, probably the most intense omnibological immersion in all my days.

My interfaces with this phenomenon were twofold: the first time when I saw a Southdown “Queen Mary” PD3 appear in Aberystwyth one evening, either 1983 or 84, I don’t remember now. That evening there were a few familiar faces milling around and I was invited to join them for a pint in the Unicorn if I remember rightly [it was my only visit to that establishment, it not being a regular student haunt, but I think it had a connection to the former Crosville depot super].

Fast forward to 1989 and I was invited to join the party. The trips – actually a seven day package holiday – were arranged by SOES, the “Sheffield Omnibus Enthusiasts’ Society” who are still going strong it seems, but no mention of holiday tours on the web site. I think that more recent tours have been arranged without the direct involvement of the Society on a more informal basis.

It was the only time I was to indulge but it was an enjoyable experience with visits arranged in advance to operators and organisations with some very interesting vehicles for the time. I had a ride on a Gardner engined AEC Regent V on which I could see the ground whizzing by through a hole in the floor beneath my feet. A research team of organisers had been out to verify the accommodation, scout for interesting vehicles and meet the people who would welcome us on our way round.

Each year a bus would be hired for the week. I remember that open-top buses were used a lot – I think the Southdown PD3 seen in Aberystwyth was open top – and the year I went the bus certainly was. DFG27, a converted open top FS Lodekka then with Crosville Wales, was used. I think we picked it up at Rhyl depot on the Friday evening and returned it to Llandudno Junction on the Saturday after the holiday. I say “we” because I was one of the nominated drivers for the week which involved two half-days at the wheel on the tour itself and positioning journeys to and from the official start and end points in Yorkshire.

Somewhere in my boxes there is a souvenir booklet reporting the events and places we enjoyed during the week which will help me piece together my memories of the time and give more context and meaning to the many photos I shot. There is a lavishly illustrated book to be written about this holiday so I won’t go into any detail here, there are too many to mention. I’ll just put the idea on the spike and present these views of the holiday bus looking quite at home but actually on the wrong side of the country where the sun rises over the sea in the county noted for its Tigers and tea.

A thought for the pause

By the time I started to learn to drive buses, with Crosville in 1985, a bus driver’s left foot had little to do, except perhaps to give a sticking cab door a kick at the end of a shift. Certainly in the region in which I was working, buses didn’t have clutch pedals. The gearboxes were mostly semi-automatic and new buses were coming with horrible fully-automatic boxes that took the decision to change gear out of the driver’s hands altogether.

Nevertheless, the thinking at Crosville at the time was to use venerable Bristol Lodekkas with “crash” gearboxes to train drivers, since if you can drive one of those you should be able to drive anything. The mystery of the crash gearbox is very easily resolved. To stop the gears making an awful crunching noise you have to listen to the engine sound and just as the engine is revving at the right speed for the next gear, foot down on the clutch and shift the gear lever just at the same time as the foot is going down.

Changing up the gears is straightforward enough… clutch down, release gear, wait for revs to die, then clutch/select next gear in one co-ordinated move. The tricky bit is changing down where, once the gear is in neutral, the engine needs to be faster to change down, so has to be revved up, but just the right amount for the particular road speed in that gear. It takes a little while to get the hang of it but you get an ear for it.

Crosville G220 in Ince on one of the days I was learning on it

Back in the 1960s Bristol Commercial Vehicles, which built almost all the new buses for Crosville in that decade, had a reputation for making life hard on drivers with these crash gearboxes whilst their competitors were fitting their vehicles with synchromesh gears [which could be changed in one go like a manual gearbox in a car] or preselector gearboxes with electric or air-operated selectors. But a new invention came on the market and by 1967 Bristol finally gave companies the option of buying their buses with controls that made life much easier for the driver: the semi-automatic gearbox!

I will deal with this booklet in two parts since the semi-automatic gearbox and combustion heater were two very different things.

The gearbox is described as a very intricate and expensive luxury, to be treated with respect. …

As you can see from these instructions, the gearbox was designed to be changed in a similar procedure to the crash gearbox but without the need for a clutch pedal and without the risk of failure. These gearboxes were tolerant, unlike the manual counterpart which demanded absolute precision. Similarly changing down:

I have to say that I followed this guidance when driving… it wasn’t hard to do. But there were lots, and I mean lots of drivers who realised that the gearboxes were very tolerant of being slammed from one gear to the next with little loss of power in the process and so better acceleration. So pausing between gears on these devices became something of a rarity as the years went on. Sadly that reduced the life of the gearboxes and added to the cost of bus operation through the need to replace gearboxes prematurely. Gearbox abuse was considered such a serious problem by the National Bus Company that they got Tony Bastable in to give the drivers a jolly good ticking off.

I will leave you with a link to that very video all trainees had to sit through, me included, in a room at Sealand Road Works. They Don’t Grow on Trees

And another, the Wikipedia entry for Self-Changing Gears