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A Century of Transport - The Second World War
Austin of Longbridge, Birmingham, successfully relaunched itself into the commercial vehicle market in 1939 by targeting the light mass production sector that was dominated in Britain by General Motors subsidiary Bedford. This progress, however, was to be interrupted. Most manufacturers ceased producing and developing civilian designs for the duration of the Second World War between 1939 - 1945. Relatively few buses were produced and had basic bodies, usually with wooden seats.
For a time, the country's entire but rather restricted wartime output of double-decker buses was produced in Wolverhampton. Guy motorbuses and Sunbeam trolleybuses had long been built in the town whilst Daimler was temporarily there, having been bombed out of its Coventry factory.
Under the Floor
Many bus operators were frustrated by the loss of space caused by the engine at the front. Companies like Midland Red and the manufacturer Daimler had produced buses in the '30s with short engine compartments but the ultimate goal was to solve engine intrusion completely by placing it under the floor.
London Transport had received a batch of underfloor-engined Leylands in 1938-9 but the Second World War had stopped further development. Midland Red was not just an operator but built its own buses for almost half a century. Mr. D. M. Sinclair was General Manager for the two decades after the Second World War and had many advanced ideas on the design of buses and coaches. Midland Red vehicles often incorporated design features that were well ahead of the major manufacturers. Midland Red built underfloor-engined prototypes during the War and, when production resumed in 1946, all new single-deckers had underfloor engines. The new buses seated 40, compared to 38 of the pre-war short engine compartment buses and 34 of a typical single-decker of the time.
Mr. Sinclair wanted Midland Red and its passengers to have 'the finest buses in this or any other country'. This was not a casual remark. He set up bus design committees covering works and garage engineering staff, and platform and other traffic staff. A picture of the inaugural meeting on 3 November 1949 shows the representatives looking at a large model which has now found its way to the Transport Museum at Wythall.
A small company, Sentinel, based in Shrewsbury, soon followed Midland Red's lead but failed to make an impact. The big manufacturers took years to catch up and it was not until 1950 that underfloor-engined buses and coaches entered quantity production. The position of the engine meant coachbuilders had complete freedom to evolve flowing designs. Sometimes they got over-excited and some dreadful confections were designed! The best of the 1950s designs, however, had a grace and elegance unequalled since. Today's coaches may be more comfortable but, with their angular styling, arguably they don't look it!
British double-deckers continued to have engines at the front because placing the engine beneath the floor raised the chassis height, giving unacceptable overall height or inadequate headroom in both decks.
Half cab single-deckers instantly looked out of date. This was not too bad for service buses but was critical for coach operators where an up-to-date image was important. Many half cab coaches had short lives on front line services, being downgraded to market day bus services or sold prematurely to building contractors etc for staff transport. A partial solution was to build a complete new front end, enclosing the engine, but often such drastic rebuilding looked worse than the original half cab and fooled nobody. The most radical remedy was to fit them with new double-decker bodies, a solution successfully employed in the Midlands by Potteries Motor Traction and, in the 1960s, Stratford Blue.
©Copyright 2019 Malcolm Keeley for the Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire B47 6JA, England.
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