Boris would have approved. He might have been envious. He might even have remembered the lunch he owes me. But I’d have let him off that just to have seen his face when he saw me at the wheel of a Routemaster bus.
Since it is a vintage vehicle, an ordinary car licence suffices provided there are no more than eight passengers and no charge is made, and the drive is easier and yet more enjoyable than you’d think. With luck and the new mayor, we might see them on London’s streets again: Autocar has already reviewed an improved design that more than meets modern requirements.
Built in London for London by Londoners, they entered service in 1954, intended to last 17 years. When production ceased in 1968, about 2,875 had been produced, mostly the basic 27.5ft RM which was later modified to become the 30ft RML. In 1994 the entire fleet was re-engined and smartened up. In 2000 Transport for London (TfL) sought another 24 second-hand ones in which to install the latest low-emission, more efficient engines. The aspirant mayor, Ken Livingstone, promised to ‘get conductors back on buses’ and to retain the existing fleet until a modern Routemaster was produced. The man in charge of TfL’s buses said that they could refurbish and modernise three Routemasters for the price of one new bus. In 2001 Ken Livingstone further opined that ‘only some ghastly dehumanised moron would want to get rid of the Routemaster’.
That same year his new MD of Surface Transport at TfL, Peter Hendy, ordered the first of the £200,000 Mercedes Citaro bendy buses. In his previous post, as deputy director of First Group, he had reportedly overseen the adoption of the same bus in Manchester. By 2005 virtually all Routemasters had been withdrawn and sold off, save a few on tourist routes.
But such gloomy mysteries were far from my mind as I climbed into the cab of a freshly painted red 1966 RML one fine Surrey morning. The first thing that strikes you is its almost brutal functionality; like my 1966 Land Rover, this is motoring of another era. There’s the wide flat steering wheel before you, the high forked handbrake and stubby automatic gearbox selector on your left, a pleasingly over-engineered hooter on the right, a hand-sized round indicator switch with a point to show you where you’ve indicated, a speedo and a few switches for lights, heater, wiper and — an extra, this — an assault alarm. There’s no milometer or rev. counter and the warning lights are above the windscreen, enhanced by a mechanical arm that drops down in front of you and says STOP. The fuel gauge is a broomstick thrust into the 29-gallon tank from outside.
The seat is comfortable and sufficiently adjustable while remaining close to that wonderfully satisfying steering wheel. You sit upright, feet flat on the floor except when operating the dip-switch or the industrial-sized brake and throttle. From the moment you don your cap, slide the door closed, engage gear and move off when the bell rings, you’re in your own world.
Bell apart, you certainly can’t hear much of anyone else’s world thanks to the (in this case) 9.6-litre Cummins diesel next to you. I didn’t mind the noise — I liked its reassuring throb and clatter and anyway it’s quieter than its successors — but it did mean that Mr Skeate, its loving owner and my instructor, had to indicate directions through and around Guildford by ringing the bell. One ring left, two right, three stop.
The key to manoeuvring is simply to take all the room you need — nobody’s going to deny you. The 8-feet width is narrow for a bus (one reason why it suits London streets) and, although the turning circle is a daunting 62 feet, the steering is power-assisted and easy. You take corners wide and slow, making good use of those generous wing mirrors; anyone used to towing will manage easily. Acceleration is grindingly and gratifyingly snail-like, with no 0–60mph time for the simple reason that you never get there. Top speed, I was told, is about 37mph, although on the Hog’s Back we achieved a heady (indicated) 40mph. They manage about 8mpg in town, which is frugal compared with their 5.5mpg successors, and about 13mpg on the open road.
The great thing is that it feels like a perfect marriage of function and style, a happy combination of thoughtful utility and stylistic restraint. The same may be seen in Harry Ferguson’s tractors, the Hawker Hunter fighter and the Lee Enfield .303 No. 4 rifle. If you want one you’ll have to pay upwards of £15,000–£20,000 for something reasonable. Alternatively, you can hire Mr Skeate’s (with driver and conductor) for weddings and other functions by ringing 0845 838 1695 or visiting www.omnibuzz.co.uk. Or you can hop aboard next time one passes. That’s their greatest single advantage: the inconveniences of city travel are hugely lessened when you can hop on and off where you like. Bring ’em on, Boris.