Clean, sweet heat?*

I posted this image, of an aide-mémoire issued to Crosville bus drivers in the 1970s, a few weeks ago and wrote a few thoughts about semi-automatic gearboxes, as discussed in the card on pages two and three.

I did not refer to the fourth page which refers, as you might expect from the cover page, to the use of combustion heaters. At the time this was issued, it referred uniquely to Webasto heaters though later I came across Duple Laser coaches fitted with Eberspacher heaters which worked in a similar way. Essentially, a low combustion of fuel created heat and air would be blown over the unit to circulate the heat around a chamber in the side wall of the bus, to emerge from vents into the saloon.

You can still buy these heaters [albeit new models] brand new today – one will set you back about £3000 – and perhaps they are still a regular feature of 21st century coaching. I don’t get out much on modern coaches to have any knowledge of that.

The problem with Bristol-manufactured coaches in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was that the engines were sometimes too efficient: Gardner engines were renowned for fuel economy and running cool. In the winter the driver of a Gardner-engined bus would often be seen in his cab wearing an overcoat. The day’s Daily Mirror might be stuffed over the radiator grille to try to keep some heat in the bus’s cooling system. In a coach this could cause mass hypothermia if a coachload had to sit there for four hours or so with inadequate heating. So the combustion heater could be called upon to heat the saloon of such a bus effectively.

Crosville had these heaters fitted to most of their coaches from the 1960s and also to some “dual purpose” buses fitted with coach seats in a bus body. The “DPs” operated lots of interurban routes where passengers could be on board for half an hour, often an hour or more. So the comfort of those people in winter became a concern. The 50 Seddon DPs of 1971-72 were fitted with Webastos as were the 24 1972-73 Bristol RELLs.

Crosville ECW-bodied RELH6L coach ERL267 heads a line of Crosville participants next to Sherdley Park at the open day arranged by St Helens Transport Museum in September 2010. The grille for the Webasto heater can be seen on the waist rail beyond the fleet name but ahead of the rear axle.

In later years the use of the heaters could be hit and miss. It was recommended to use paraffin [kerosene] but ordinary bus diesel did the job and was often used instead. It didn’t burn as cleanly. As the years went by, lack of maintenance could be an issue. Heaters would misbehave or simply not work at all. By the time I started driving buses the newest coaches in use were fitted with Eberspachers that nobody seemed to know how to fire and I suspect were not being filled anyway.

My favourite coach was a venerable 1974 RELH6L with ECW body [a lot like the one above] which we were using on local express services that were well patronised in the late 80s. It was the only one and the oldest coach in the depot but the garage allocators knew it was my baby and would allocate it to me frequently because nobody else wanted to drive it.

One morning I was driving to Liverpool on the X4 service which linked Runcorn and Liverpool via Widnes, Cronton and the M62. Ripping along the M62 I felt a bit cold, so when I had a traffic light go against me at the end of the motorway [the Rocket interchange] I fired up the Webasto during the wait. A short distance after the junction there was one of the limited stops where a number of passengers would alight so I pulled over to let them off and was about to pull away when a little voice called out… “driver”. Looking in my interior mirror down the bus, thick smoke was filling the saloon and the smell of sooty diesel was creeping forwards. This looks like a good time to take a look at page 4…

The procedure above must not have been followed to the letter by the last driver to use the heater [who, driving a bus which would have been relieved many times during the day, may not even have realised it was working]. The heater was probably still running until the bus was switched off in the depot leaving partially-combusted fuel in the system.

That morning, the fumes were unbearable so quick action was needed. A roof vent was pushed open, forced air ventilation was switched on and the door was left open as we drove away. No-one died and though almost asphyxiated the passengers were generous in their restraint. The X4 did cover the better parts of Widnes…

Do you have any memories of buses fitted with Webasto heaters?

* “Clean, Sweet Heat” was the advertising slogan adopted by Manweb to encourage the uptake of storage heaters in 1972. It featured on posters on the side of Crosville Bristol Lodekkas that year but I can’t find a photo of one. If you see one, please send me the link and I’ll post it here.