The Red double decker bus is so synonymous with the image of London that it has become a global symbol of London and Britain. It is unquestionable that the London red bus should have a place in the pantheon of British iconic design but despite its enduring popularity as a symbol of design, there are actually two distinct types of London Red Bus that people think of when talking about the big red London bus, so, take your seats and make sure you have the correct fare as we take a journey into the story of the Red London double decker bus!
The London General Omnibus Company, or LGOC, was founded in 1855 to regulate the disparate horse drawn omnibus operations in London. The company produced the first motor omnibus for London in 1909 with the X-type. This was rapidly followed by the B-type design which is recognised as one of the first mass produced vehicles. Introduced in 1911 and by 1913 around 2,500 had entered service. 900 were even used to move troops behind the front line in France and Belgium during World War I.
The Associated Equipment Company (AEC) was created as a subsidiary of the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) in 1912 to build buses and other equipment. AEC would provide the vast majority of the London bus fleet for the next fifty years.
AEC designed and built lorries based on the X-type chassis that were pivotal to the military logistics and road haulage of the era. The company produced various models of lorry with names beginning with M and buses starting with R. The lineage of the Routemaster London Bus can be traced back to the AEC range from the early 1920s as the distinctive styling of a single side cab and the motor housing flush to the front of the bus rather than being housed in a protruding bonnet. When London Transport was formed in 1933 it inherited a fleet of mixed vehicles that were gradually being standardised.
It was the quest for standardisation that was to give birth to the design icon we all know and love.
The Regent RT
It became a primary objective of the operator to find a design to provide across all services and in the late 1930s AEC built the first batch of Regent III, or RT, as a replacement for the existing STL design. The Regent RTs entered service in June 1939 only for the order to be slashed in half following the outbreak of WWII in September of that year. During the war AEC production facilities were retooled to provide planes and tanks for the war effort and the lightweight body shell construction techniques for aircraft were to prove significant in the thinking for the development of London buses!
Production resumed in 1946 and the Regent RT was to become ubiquitous on the streets of London, replacing the tram and trolleybus network across the capital. London Transport and other regions took receipt of over 7,000 post war built Regent RT buses between 1947 and 1954.
Whilst people know the name of the Routemaster bus which was to eventually replace the Regent, The Regent or RT is as iconic as the Routemaster, or RM. There were more RTs built than any other class of bus before and since and many claim the RT is the British Icon, not the RM!
In fact it is without doubt the RT that first projected the iconic red bus of London to the world. In the 1950s a group of the buses participated in a world tour to promote London as a tourist destination. A group travelled across America and Canada for 12,000 miles without incident or mechanical fault.
The RT fleet served the London public until final withdrawal in April 1979 and the standardised overhaul process employed at the Aldenham works on the edge of Elstree was almost certainly responsible for this long life. An impressive and revolutionary system of complete overhaul cycle saw the fleet maintain excellent standards and performance. Buses would be taken to the works once every three to four years and completely stripped and overhauled. Standardised parts meant that while a bus might drive out of the works with the same number, the chassis and fixtures could be from other buses. This large works, in fact the largest bus works in the world was opened in 1956 and the infrastructure investment in the standardised maintenance lines would be significant in the design of the forthcoming Routemaster fleet.
The Routemaster RM
Development and Innovation
Despite the widespread use of RT buses, the technology and design was already almost a decade old by the time they were being introduced in large numbers. A design brief for the next evolution in the London bus was already on the table while RTs were still being rolled off the production line. Improved fuel efficiency for the austerity of the post war economy, better speeds and easier operation alongside the requirement to be maintained at the Aldenham works which had been subject to intense investment to overhaul the RT fleet. RT buses were used as test beds for many of the mechanical innovations for the new buses.
The Routemaster was in development between 1947 and 1956 by a team under Albert Durrant and Colin Curtis with styling by Douglas Scott. The vehicle featured an aluminium body shell, following aircraft construction techniques. This weight saving design also included independent front suspension, power steering, an automatic gearbox and power hydraulic braking. The major change from previous bus construction was that the RM had a body frame but no chassis. Once this innovation was combined with the aluminium construction, a Routemaster double decker bus could seat 64 passengers and weigh less than a modern single decker bus with half the capacity. The aluminium body also meant that it did not corrode at the same rate as steel body construction.
The first prototype was unveiled at the Commercial Vehicle Show in Earl's Court in 1954 but the type continued to undergo rigorous testing and redesign to produce the best bus possible for the demanding conditions of the London services. It was not until November 11th 1959 that the first Routemasters entered service. This long development process probably accounts for the durability and performance standards of the RM. The production of Routemasters ran until 1968.
RM & RML
The vast majority of Routemasters built were the traditional RM standard with 2,123 of the 27.5 feet or 8.38metre long vehicles. Alongside this type, London Transport also took receipt of 524 RML models. A longer version at 29.9 feet or 9.12 metres with an extra half window section in the middle of the body, adding 8 extra seats. It was a change that was possible with the use of modular construction techniques. Both these models had an alcove under the rear staircase for the conductor to stand without obstructing passengers boarding and alighting the bus.
RMC & RCL
Coach versions were designed for longer journeys, a bigger engine partly to offset the extra weight but also to give smoother running at higher speeds, regeared for higher gear ratios, modified suspension and an electric rear door instead of an open platform. The seats were given deeper upholstery and spaced further apart along with luggage racks. The immediate differences on the exterior were the door and double headlights. The RCL was the longer body version. The RMC provided seating for 57 and the RCL for 65. 69 RMCs were built and 43 RCL versions. They were used on the Green Line Express services but came into service in 1962 but were unfortunate to hit the road as increase in private car ownership and improved train services eroded the market they were competing in. Many Green Line Express services reverted to one man single deck bus operation before the end of the decade. The class was eventually withdrawn between 1977 and 1980.
A large number returned to London Transport for use as driver trainers. In 1989 six of these survivors saw a glorious return to frontline service on the X15 Beckton Express linking the Docklands development with the central London. These RMCs eventually retired in 2003. They are undoubtedly the most comfortable of the Routemaster versions and a small number survive in private ownership or heritage collections.
RMF & RMA
The Routemaster was an amended design in an attempt to sell t markets outside London. It featured electronic operated doors at the front of the bus and the staircase was relocated to behind the driving compartment. 50 RMFs were ordered by Northern General Transport Company for work in the North East of England. They operated inter urban services from 1964 and proved popular with the drivers and passengers. It also provided the surreal sight of a Routemaster with a destination blind “X1 Scandinavia” for the service that connected with the DFDS ferry from North Shields to Scandinavia. Despite their enduring appeal as the seventies wore on, two man operation became economically unviable and they were replaced by 1977. Most were scrapped but 14 were sold to London Transport. Only one entered service, as an open top tour bus.
British European Airways ordered 65 RMAs (the shorter body type) for use as a Heathrow Express fleet. With the regearing and powerful engine they were more than capable of maintaining 70 mph on the M4 but were restricted to 50mph because they towed a luggage trailer.
These also saw their service life come to an end in the late seventies and they were passed to London Transport where they saw further use as staff buses for Aldenham and as driver training units. Two actually saw service use once again on the X15 route in later years.
The Front Entrance FRM was a belated attempt in 1966 to update the Routemaster to the layout used by almost every other bus manufacturer at the time. The engine compartment was moved to the back of the vehicle and front entrance doors with a full width windscreen gives us a hint of what the next evolution of the AEC Routemaster could have looked like. The design of the engine compartment was a marvel, with the ability to remove major components whilst keeping others in place. Most modern vehicles need the entire engine and gearbox to be removed.
It was greatly admired by passengers and staff and gave excellent service until withdrawal in 1983. It is now part of the London Transport Museum collection. It was nicknamed the “Fruitmaster”
A life of service
Upon introduction the Routemaster was immediately put to work in the last phase of the scheme to retire the Trolleybuses across the London network which was achieved by May 1962. The next 500 Routemasters were introduced to replace previous generations of buses. The aforementioned AEC RT Regent and others such as the Leyland RTL and RTW. Lengthened RMLs displaced RMs on central routes to improve capacity and the last Routemaster entered service in March 1968. The RT Regents managed to continue in service far beyond expectations but came to an end in 1979.
The Daimler Fleetline, known as the DMS, was the proposed replacement for the Routemaster and came into service in 1971. It was unpopular for slow loading times, because of the narrow doors and the rear engine tended to overheat, unlike the naturally ventilated Routemaster with her front engine. All were withdrawn by 1983 and many languished at the back of bus depots for almost a decade.
1975 saw another attempt to replace the Routemaster, the Metropolitan, a joint venture between Scania and Metro Cammell Weyman (MCW). Far more reliable than the DMS it too failed to win the hearts of Londoners and the 164 strong fleet were also all withdrawn by 1983. Finally in 1978 two new designs started to challenge the Routemaster, The MCW Metrobus and the Leyland Titan (B15). The new models saw some Routemasters relegated from major routes or taken out of service to be used for training. The first fleet withdrawals started in September 1982 after the Greater London Council lost a political battle over their subsidised fare scheme.
The writing on the wall
The RT 3 or 4 year overhaul cycle at Aldenham had been increased to a 5 year cycle overhaul programme with the Routemasters and along with the excellent design, it is this methodical approach that is credited with the lifespan of the vehicle. Buses literally left the works as good as new, it is often said the finishing line at the works as buses were lined up for application of their advertising, gleaming in a brand new coat of red paint was a sight to behold! Sadly, financial cutbacks put pressure on the future of the works and as Routemaster numbers started to decline and the later generations of buses which were not suited to this complete overhaul programme, Aldenham was condemned to closure and closed its doors in November 1986. The impressive site was demolished in 1996 and is now the Centennial Park Business Park.
Leyland Motors had purchased AEC in 1962 and with the end of the Routemaster production in 1968 AEC ceased all double decker bus production and the last AEC vehicles were produced in 1979 when Leyland then closed the Southall plat.
Many routes were converted to driver only operation in the 1970s in response to staff shortages and operating costs. Complications also came about with the closure of AEC and for a time Routemaster parts were difficult to source. Rear-engined driver only operation buses began to bite into the Routemaster territory and the grand old ladies were gradually reduced to central London routes only. Despite the age of the design and the economic case against two person operation the Routemaster acceleration and carefully considered design continually demonstrated it was better suited to the urban hustle of London than more modern designs.
Fleet withdrawals continued to eat into the numbers until 1988 with the fleet numbers then remaining relatively constant until 1992.
A coat of many colours
Aside from the London Red, officially Pantone 485 C Red, (the same colour used by Royal Mail, London Underground, Kit Kat and McDonalds among others) many Routemasters served in the distinct Green Line livery. Most of the green liveried RMLs lasted longer in red than their original green.
The Routemaster had such a long service life that 25 examples were painted silver for the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977 and obviously 50 were painted Gold in 2002!
Clydeside Scottish purchased 114 Routemasters in the mid 1980s and could be seen on the streets f Glasgow in red and yellow colours until 1990.
In 1986 following deregulation of the bus sector many operating companies saw Routemasters as a cheap way of expanding their fleet and examples were seen in a variety of colour schemes in Bedford, Backpool, Burnley, Carlisle, Corby, Doncaster, Dundee, Glasgow, Hull, Manchester, Perth, Rotherham, Scarborough, Southampton and Southend-on.Sea.
For a time Reading had the second largest fleet of Routemasters with 45 working throughout the town. They were in use upto the year 2000.
As the Routemaster fleet began to age and the cost of maintenance began to increase, alongside the cost of two man operation, many examples found their way back to London to donate spare parts or be pressed back into service on the streets of the capital.
Privatisation had been initiated in the early 90s and the new operators were required to maintain Routemaster operation for the five year contract period. It became rapidly apparent that without AEC or Aldenham Works a new solution would be required to maintain the units. Impressively, even though some were looking rather tired, upon inspection, the fleet was structurally sound and focus for refurbishment was for engine units and interior furnishings.
In 2001/02 50 RMs were purchased from operators outside London, including two from Italy and after refurbishment and re engine overhaul almost 30 were put to work on central London routes.
The Grand finale
Debate raged over the benefits or difficulties of maintaining the Routemaster in London in the early 21st century. More modern buses were arriving on the scene, including the deeply unpopular bendy buses. Critics pointed out that new legislation on access to buses would leave the Routemasters unable to comply with the law. Further developments including the Oyster card scheme and off bus ticketing also helped the Routemaster in reducing boarding times.
With the disability discrimination act making wheelchair access a requirement coming into force in October 2014, London Transport decided to make the move earlier and the last Routemaster in general service ran on December 9 2005. RM2217 ran the last service, on Police advice during the middle of the day rather than a normal shift until 23.00, The final departure from Marble Arch at 12.08 arrived in Brixton, heavily delayed. The last final corner into Brixton Garage took 10 minutes. Crowds blocked the route throughout with emotional fond farewells and at 14.06, the Routemaster era came to an end.
Life After Life
Two “heritage routes” (9 and 15) for continued Routemaster operation were introduced, mostly for tourists, with a small fleet of twenty buses selected from the 2001/02 refurbishment purchase. This was reduced to one route in July 2014 and in 2019 the last route was cancelled.
The London Transport Museum and other owners operate running days for the public on certain routes in London. A small open top fleet soldiered on in Edinburgh before withdrawal in 2016.
Routemasters across the world
Routemasters were exported across the world seeing service in Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, Croatia, the Falkland Islands, Malaysia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and the United States.
The London Bus in Popular culture
The Routemaster was such a part of the London scene for so many years that its appearances in film and TV are too numerous to even begin to list.
The AEC RT Regent has actually starred in some significant film scenes including James Bond Live and Let Die, a post war RT appears in a chase scene in the Mummy Returns which was set in the 1930s and three RT buses (RT2240, RT3882 and RT4497) were rebuilt into two purple triple decker buses to star as the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
That all being said, undoubtedly, the most famous Red Bus film role was the British musical comedy Summer Holiday. Cliff Richard takes the wheel of a converted RT bus to head off to the south of France. The film company actually bought three Rts (RT2305, RT2366 and RT4326 which were all converted and given the number RT1881 for filming. The first ten minutes of the film are shot in the Aldenham works with Cliff on an RT suspended from a crane at one point.
The popularity of the Routemaster was so enduring, especially in the light of the unsuccessful bendy bus fleet, that London Mayor Boris Johnson suggested bringing an updated Routemaster design back to the streets of London.
A revised design was named the New Routemaster and a fleet of 1,000 but it is more of a love letter to the past rather than a genuine AEC Routemaster successor.
An impressive 1,280 of the 2,876 Routemasters built have survived in preservation in locations all over the world. It is believed around 100 Regents survive but some are in better condition than others, this example in Arbujuelo Spain, that I found on my wanderings might not be able to hit the roads again any time soon!!
Despite being just a bus, The Routemaster and her predecessor the Regent have become a part of the cultural landscape of Britain. London became a unique tourist destination where people came to just simply ride the bus, arguably inspiring the idea of the open top tourist bus route. Immediately recognised as a symbol of the British sense of eccentricity with their open rear platform, sleek stylised lines and distinct livery providing the perfect package for a mechanical and engineering success. A true internationally admired symbol of Britain!
If you are interested in learning more about the London red bus there are some excellent resources available:
Perpetual Motion BBC Documentary
The story of the Routemaster bus
Story of the RT Castle Vision Documentary
An hour long programme on the RT Regent including a full inspection of the mechanical innovations of the class.
Overhaul British Transport Films Documentary
A beautiful film on the overhaul process of the RT at Aldenham works with some exceptional footage of the streets of 1950s London
Fares Please! An oral history of London Bus Workers - Gateway Academy, Westminster Cathedral Primary School Year 6 with digital:works
Youtube has a wealth of footage videos of London buses, here are just a few:
The Final days of the RTs in London : Nick Abbott
A pair of 8mm cine films made by E.J.M Abott capturing the finale of RT operations in London
07th April 1979 Final day of operation
A 23 minute footage reel of London streets featuring both RT and RM buses
A wonderful collection of Routemaster videos from the 1980s through to the modern day
A substantial playlist of Routemasters working outside of London
A Youtube channel showing classic bus restoration of their expanding fleet.
The official channel of the Routemaster Assoc. Including fantastic footage of the Routemaster 60 event.
Routemaster Association : The home of the Routemaster on the internet. With information, data and extensive links to find everything you need regarding Routemaster buses.
AEC Bus site : Listings of surviving AEC buses along with manuals and notifications of rallies. An excellent resource for finding news about Routemasters and Regents in your country!
Bus lists on the web : An excellent source for locating existing buses
The Routemaster, Rerouted - The Story of FRM1 : A well researched article on the unique "Fruitmaster" bus.
Museums and collections:
The London Bus Museum : An impressive museum collection in Weybridge, UK. The collection includes the RT prototype and one of the four Routemaster testing prototypes.
The London Transport Museum : The official museum of London Transport with a huge collection of artefacts and vehicles in Covent Garden, central London