A Century of Transport - Changing Towns and Cities
The need to rebuild bombed sites after the Second World War was accompanied by huge reconstruction schemes, especially in Birmingham and Coventry. Birmingham's city centre was torn apart for the Inner Ring Road to cope with increasing car use, leading to quips that the City Engineer, Sir Herbert Manzoni, had done more damage to the city centre than the Luftwaffe.
Excellent work was done to sweep away substandard housing in the inner areas, often described today as 'slums' - unfairly because many occupiers slaved to keep them presentable. Sadly, old communities were destroyed in the process as the displaced residents were scattered to new estates around the city rather than kept together, what has been the long-term social cost of that policy? Many of the new dwellings were high rise flats, apparently offering a much better quality of life but all too often this promise has not worked out, like much of the rebuilt city centre. There is little doubt, however, that the '50s planners meant well but maybe they attempted too much.
The 1950s did more than change the face of the cities - the faces of the people began to change too. Reconstruction and buoyant car production meant full employment and industries with uncompetitive pay and/or unsocial hours could not easily compete for staff. The transport industry found itself increasingly in this category and actively sought staff from Ireland and then from further afield, from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent. Other nationalities were also to be found in the early postwar mix, notably middle Europeans such as Poles who no longer had homes to go back to after the Second World War, and Hungarians fleeing Soviet repression.
By 1950 bus operators had got on top of overhauling or replacing their prewar vehicles, although some vintage buses survived well into the 1950s, often with companies with thin territories that generated insufficient cash for new buses.
Bad news was the premature ageing of bus bodies supplied during the Second World War, due to the need to use unseasoned timber when they were constructed. They either had to be replaced or rebuilt. Today, wartime bus bodies are extremely rare because of their poor quality.
Passengers in 1950 would travel by buses which, by then, had reached a level of mechanical reliability arguably as good as today although, to achieve that reliability, they required more onerous maintenance and overhaul regimes. Comfort has not been excelled in some respects; legroom was certainly more generous in the early 1950s. Suspension, however, was more primitive in 1950 and few buses had doors and heaters.
The forced extension of vehicle life caused by the Second World War had showed the weak points in bus body design. Bus bodies were beefed up and had the potential for much longer lives without major rebuilding. Passenger comfort was also being addressed with new features such as doors and heaters. Buses also got bigger in the 1950s. Midland Red, as ever right on the ball, proudly placed its S13 prototype on the road on the very first day thirty-feet long single-deckers became legal - 1st June 1950.
All these developments led to an increase in weight which often resulted in bigger engines which, in turn, added further to the weight and the fuel consumption. Buses were therefore put on a diet! Manufacturers set about the problem with zeal and, indeed, by the end of the 1950s some designs of bus were far inferior in comfort to the last pre-war buses they were replacing.
The trend began at the 1952 Commercial Motor Show when Metro-Cammell-Weymann exhibited its new 'Orion' double-deck body which weighed under 2 tons (note: this weight does not include the chassis). Chassis manufacturers brought out lighter designs such as the Leyland Tiger Cub and the AEC Reliance. The Rootes group, manufacturers of Commer vehicles, introduced a two-stroke diesel engine of outstanding frugality although noise levels reduced its appeal.
Another example was Midland Red's D7 which, at just over 7 tons, weighed a ton lighter than its predecessor, despite being a foot longer to take advantage of relaxed length. They originally seated 58 but the desire for further economies led to five more seats being crammed into the upper deck. The D7s were smooth buses to ride in but the lightweight bodies took the edge off the quality, especially upstairs where the legroom was intolerable for taller people.
Midland Red's lightweight single-decker design was the S14. This is the prototype which weighed just over 5 tons, a saving of two tons compared to the S13 models. Midland Red was a pioneer in employing light fibreglass in the construction of its buses. Single rear wheels were sufficient on the S14, adding to the weight saving.
Birmingham Corporation, however, completed its postwar bus replacement programme before the fad for lightweight vehicles really took hold, although those built from 1951 onwards showed some minor downgrading in specification. The city's passengers were blessed with buses of significant quality, beautifully finished internally, regarded within the industry as amongst the best in the country. They were capable of very long lives but many weighed over 8 tons - a cost penalty in fuel for every day of those long lives.
Bus operators were encouraged to be frugal by the start of economic hard times. Patronage was beginning to reduce, particularly in the evenings when television began to replace going out to the cinema. Costs were rising, it was increasingly difficult to attract staff to an industry with unsocial hours at a time of full employment. Driver only operation began in earnest on country routes in the late '50s.
©Copyright 2003 Malcolm Keeley for the Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire B47 6JX, England.
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