Write up - 2013 - Classic Bus Driving Experience

On Sunday 19th May at 11.00am Members of the Dorset IAM started to gather in a carpark on the outskirts of Sherborne.  As we parked up, it wasn’t many seconds before our eyes all spotted the reason we were there.  Two classic double-decker buses, owned by one of the Group’s Members were parked up in the bus bays, putting a more modern nearby bus to shame.


The two vehicles which were soon to get our try our hand at driving were the Devon General 518 (CTT 518C) - 1965 AEC Regent V with Willowbrook bodywork, and Southern National 1159 (AFJ 766T) - 1979 Bristol VRT with ECW bodywork.  We were introduced to the buses by Terry Bennett, the owner of both vehicles, and Robin (Woody) Woodcock, who has a long and interesting career in buses and other large vehicles.  Woody will be talking to the Group about vintage Buses and Lorries for our July social – see the back page of the Newsletter for additional details.


Devon General

518 was one of a batch of 6 identical vehicles (515-520) delivered to Devon General during April 1965.  All had the smaller AV470 engine which was later superseded by the more powerful AV590.  518, along with sister vehicle 517, was immediately allocated to Exmouth Depot where it spent most of its time operating routes 59 & 59A (Withycombe - Littleham Village) and route 5 (Exmouth - Crediton) on Sundays.  The bus later saw service in Sidmouth, Exeter, Torquay and Newton Abbot before returning to Exeter for its final 12 months during which it was commonly used on route B (High Meadows - Beacon Heath) and route 2 (Exeter - Newton Abbot via Dawlish & Teignmouth, the doyen of Devon General Regents for many years).  1977 and 1978 saw the gradual withdrawal of all 6 of the batch with 518 the sole survivor by the time of its withdrawal in September 1978.


Southern National

1159 is a Series 3 VR, new to Western National at Weymouth in 1979.  Remarkably, this bus managed to stay at Weymouth and Bridport depots for its entire career of over twenty-five years, despite ownership passing to the reformed Southern National in 1983 and later to First.  Interestingly, it should have been one of very few VRs in the country to receive First ‘Barbie’ livery but somehow, when the time came, it emerged in Southern National green and cream!  Finally withdrawn in the summer of 2005, it was secured for preservation and given a fresh coat of green and cream a couple of years later.


After a quick history lesson about both of the buses, we split into two groups.  Rosemary, Gordon and myself joined Terry in the Devon General, while Phil, Jane, Barry,  Val and Rachel stayed on the Southern Nation with Woody.  Terry and Woody then drove the buses from Sherborne to Penn Mill Industrial estate on the east side of Yeovil.  This initially gave us a chance to explore the buses, and see how they should be driven!


Once on the edge of the industrial estate we stopped.  I volunteered to be the first driver of the Devon General, so hopped into the cab – a task which involved climbing up the side bus – using the wheel and a foot hole in the side of the bus.  Once I was seated, Terry joined me in the cab, and ran through all the controls – a 4 speed gearbox, which required double-declutching to ensure a smooth gear change.  This in itself was (almost) a new experience for me, as the only other time I have needed to do this was between 1st and 2nd gears in my Parent’s Austin 7.  Engaging reverse on this vehicle required both hands!  Continuing on with the cab familiarisation, looking in the mirrors I realised how small they were, when compared to even a modern lorry (interestingly I note the buses in Weymouth still have small mirrors – I wonder if this is so they are less likely to clobber pedestrians as they walk down the pavement?)  The handbrake was on the right-hand side of the seat, and looked like a wonderful piece of engineering.  Fortunately the pedal arrangement was as to be expected so I wasn’t totally out of my depth!  At this point I hoped my previous experience of driving a 7.5 tonne horse lorry would help out, although it has to be said the lorry had power steering, whereas the Devon General doesn’t.


I eased the vehicle into first, and once I had found the biting point, a few seconds later we were slowly moving forward (after fighting with the handbrake!).  It wasn’t many yards up the road before Terry suggesting turning right, so a look in the mirrors and on went the right-hand indicator.  A second check of the mirrors and then I started to turn the steering wheel.  It was at this point I realised quite how much power steering helps!  It was soon time to try to try my first gear change, and to master the art of double de-clutching and matching the engine speed with a quick blip of the throttle.  Needless to say that my first few attempts might have resulted in a less than perfect change, but it didn’t take me long to master the art of relatively smooth gear changes (hopefully my ‘passengers’ agreed too – as I wasn’t dispatched with mop!).  Terry then set me my next challenge – a hill start – one of those things which as learners we all seen to dread.  This I seemed to complete fine, so I was then set my final task.  Terry asked me to come to a stop after a road off to the left.  With the handbrake engaged Terry reminded me how to find reverse in the gearbox, and then I heard those scary words “I would like you to reverse around the corner”.  After pulling away from the curb slightly, I then tackled the reverse.  Using the mirrors and glancing over my shoulder (at this point I was greeted by the grinning faces of Gordon and Rosemary) to work quite when I should start to turn.  I made it around the corner, remaining relatively close to the curb, and not demolishing any of the low-level brick walls, so I was quite happy with that.  My next hill start wasn’t quite as good – maybe I was getting a too confident!


All too soon it was time to change drivers.  I clambered out of the cab and realised that my brow was covered in sweat – a combination of the physical work, and the pressure of not doing something silly!


Next up was Gordon, who put my driving to shame, and finally Rosemary took the wheel.  Next we switched buses to the Southern National.  Again I was first up to drive.


Woody gave us an expert breakdown of the controls of the vehicle.  The Southern National is fitted with 5 speed semi-automatic gearbox.  This means there is no clutch, and that when you change gear you need to keep your foot on the throttle, until you have moved to the gear selector into neutral.  After waiting a few seconds for the engine speed to drop you then engage the next gear.  Failure to do so, and your passengers will know!  After a few laps of the estate my spacial awareness was put to the test when Woody asked me to pull up next to the curb.  The objective was to be parallel and close to the curb (but not touching).  This was easier said than done – or at least it was for me.  Eventually I mastered it, although we had it easier than real bus drivers, as were just aiming to get the bus parallel and the correct distance from the pavement rather than having to do this inline with a bus stop too.  I think that maybe I should not think of a change of careers just yet!  We all had a go at reversing this one too – I seemed to find it somewhat harder than the Devon General – maybe as there was no clutch, so speed was governed by the automatic gearbox and the engine tick-over speed, any slower and you needed a gentle dab of the brakes.  I am pleased to report that once again we all managed not to destroy any houses, walls or cars!


Everyone who attended thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and we would like to thank both Terry and Woody for allowing us the opportunity to drive which these wonderful vehicles and for guiding us gently and skilfully with their vehicles.  It was an amazing experience and not one that I am sure any of us will forget.

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