What can be said about AEC’s classic design? The Red Routemaster has become an icon of Britain and London, being the prime mode of surface transport for the city since the early 1950’s, and, even though it has been officially retired, still refuses to bow out.
To trace the Routemaster, you need to go back to before the war, and to the previous London Double-Decker bus, the AEC Regent III. The AEC Regent III was the final development in a long line of London buses, starting with the more traditional ‘bonnet’ design, to a self-contained vehicle. Making an entrance in 1938, production was stalled by World War II, and although desired changes to the design were flagged up, the vehicle was very much the same as before. By the beginning of the 1950’s it was apparent that due to fuel rationing and an increasing population, more and more people in Britain were travelling by bus, and the Regent was in serious need of an upgrade.
This is when in 1947, original designs for the Routemaster were conceived A team led by
AAM Durrant and Colin Curtis, and with styling done by Douglas Scott, they designed a vehicle that would by lighter, and by extension more fuel efficient, easier to operate and maintain, but had a greater reliability and longer distances between services. The original design created a 64 seat double-decker bus that was 3/4’s of a Ton lighter than the RT, which only seated 56. Original intentions for the Routemaster were to replace the electric Trolleybus, which had been considered neglected beyond repair after little maintenance had been carried out during the War. The Routemaster was to provide equal capacity to the Trolleybuses, but also allow for greater flexibility.
Construction of the AEC Routemaster was handed to Park Royal Vehicles, whilst power units for the bus were built by AEC. The very construct of these vehicles was beyond innovative, using lightweight aluminium panels derived from WWII aircraft production. It was also the first bus to introduce independent front suspension, power steering, a fully automatic gearbox and power-hydraulic braking, which made the bus incredibly nimble and responsive as opposed to the heavy sluggish buses of the past. One feature the bus had derived from the Regent III was the vehicle’s grounded centre-of-gravity, which meant that if the bus had to take a corner sharply it wouldn’t tip over.
Prior to the production fleet introduction, 4 Routemaster prototypes were built and put
into service between 1956 and 1958 for acceptance tests. All these vehicles were built by different coachbuilders, two were from London Transport’s works at Chiswick, one was from Weymann and the other was from Eastern Coach Works, the latter two being fitted with Leyland engines. After successful tests and widespread acclaim of these prototypes, the first Routemasters of the production fleet entered service in 1964.
Almost immediately, the beautiful red Routemaster became a valiant symbol of London, and were widely employed across the entire London Transport network. By the 1970’s the Routemaster had taken over pretty much every single route, and were soon killing off the likes of the older generation, the last of the previous Regent III’s making their runs in 1979. The Routemaster was very different to any other bus design in that it was front-engined, whilst a majority of other bus companies employed rear-engines so as to allow for front-enterance and greater space internally. This was however the
Routemaster’s great party-piece as it made the bus exceptionally reliable in comparison to contemporary, and even later, bus designs.
One notable failure was the Leyland DMS, a derivative of the Daimler Fleetline. Although an advanced machine, the Leyland DMS failed largely due to the fact that it was rear-engined, and due to a poor air-cooling system the bus would constantly over-heat and break down. The Routemaster, being front-engined, had a directly-cooled engine, and thus this problem was averted.
Throughout the 1980’s, the Routemasters popularity continued to rise, and from 1987 they were given life-extensions, with heavy rebuilds and upgraded engines. The original AEC units were replaced by power units from Cummins or Iveco, and the interiors of the buses were updated for a more modern feel. In 1994, London Buses was privatised into a myriad of companies, and the Routemasters were split up into individual groups based on routes served and depots owned by differing franchise holders. It was the desire of each of these companies to maintain their individual Routemaster fleets so as to outdo one another in terms of performance and looks, but by the end of the 1990’s it was apparent that the Routemaster was starting to look very tired, with the last vehicles
produced in 1968. Although supporters were quick to defend the bus’s reliability, capacity, ease of boarding and tourist potential, the cons outweighed the pros and thus replacement for the Routemaster was sought.
In a bid to keep a few vehicles in service for longer, Transport for London had 50 vehicles heavily rebuilt in 2001, but a majority of the fleet was lined up for decommissioning. The unfortunate problem with the Routemaster was that it went against the Disability Discrimination Act, which required all vehicles to be wheelchair accessible by October 22nd, 2014. The Routemaster as a form of public transport fell flat, whilst other buses had hydraulics and low floors, the Routemaster was an archaic step-entrance design that couldn’t be modified.
As such, withdrawals began in August 2003, with Route #15 having its Routemasters replaced by Alexander ALX400 Dennis Tridents. Ironically, Routemasters returned to this service in November 2005 as this is now the London Heritage Bus route! Withdrawals continued throughout 2004 and 2005, until the very last scheduled Routemaster service took place on December 9th, 2005, working the #159 to Brixton Garage. After the last Routemaster was withdrawn, these services were taken on by the Dennis Trident double-decker bus, and the ill-fated Mercedes Citaro Articulated ‘Bendi-Bus’, which had a tendency to catch fire!
Preservation of the Routemaster however has seen hundreds of these vehicles both return to the roads and return to London. Of the 2,876 vehicles built, 1,280 are known to remain, and pretty much all of them are in active service. As mentioned, Transport for London continues to operate a heritage route along the Strand, with Routemasters
working from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square. As well as that, there are still a fair few roaming the city on the ‘Afternoon Tea’ Tour, most of which have been converted to Open-Top. Many have also ambled across to the United States, and many frequently tour Europe on Cross-Continent Bus Rallies. It is known that people have driven these things right across to Australia!
The very curious thing about the Routemaster is that at the end of the day it’s still a bus, something that most people don’t give a second glance because, it’s just a bus, a mundane vehicle that takes you from place to place. The Routemaster however is different in that it makes you turn your head, or take pictures of it, or acknowledge the fact that it’s something special, because it truly is special, be it for its endearing design or its national symbolism, the Routemaster’s cult status as a British icon isn’t letting up. So much so that the new Routemaster of 2012 (the Boris Bus) takes its design cues from this magnificent machine.