A Century of Transport - Front to Back; A Rear-engined Revolution
Experimental rear-engined buses appeared before the Second World War but none went successfully into production in the UK. The need to minimise the engine's occupation of passenger carrying space had led to underfloor-engined single-deckers, standard from 1950 onwards. The result was high floor levels and several steps to get aboard. Even less success could be reported on double-deckers with underfloor engines because the engine location implied excessive overall height or inadequate interior height. Midland Red was the only successful British designer of underfloor-engined double-deckers around this time, building just two D10 models in 1960-1 of which the sole survivor is on display at the Transport Museum, Wythall. 943 KHA is technically one of the most unusual buses in Britain but, being unassuming in appearance, most visitors pass it by without appreciating its significance.
Fleets of rear-engined double-deck buses were running successfully in the United States in the 1930s. Leyland is credited as the first major builder of rear-engined buses in the UK but, actually, Foden was well ahead of the field with its PVRF6 model, introduced in September 1950. The standard engine was the distinctive nasal-sounding Foden two-stroke, although a PVRG6 Gardner-engined variant was also offered. Few were produced.
Leyland had been experimenting with rear-engined double-deckers throughout the '50s but its earliest prototypes looked very different from the production vehicles. They had a rear entrance with the space alongside the driver being wasted. The longer double-deckers permitted from 1956 allowed an adequately wide entrance to move ahead of the front axle and the double-decker began to take on the layout familiar today. The production model, the Atlantean, was launched at the 1958 Commercial Motor Show.
The double-deck bus was effectively turned back to front. The entrance was now at the very front and had low steps, directly opposite the driver. The notion of driver only operation was not a serious issue at this stage as double-deckers without conductors were not permitted until 1967. The Atlanteans were built to the new 30 feet length, had lots of seats and the driver could supervise boarding and unloading while the conductors kept busy collecting the fares on these big buses. In due course the Atlantean had rival rear-engined designs, although separate ownership disappeared in the '60s when virtually the entire British vehicle building industry merged into the ill-starred British Leyland.
Rear Engines become Standard; Manufacturers Merge and Collapse
Some operators continued to favour front-engined buses, generally on reliability grounds or speed of loading. At least the Atlantean and its compatriots all had semi-automatic gearboxes - many operators (and the builder for state owned operators, Bristol) carried on specifying manual gearboxes for other types despite bigger dimensions, the ever increasing traffic in cities and the loss of driving staff to industries with better pay and conditions. A bus grant introduced in 1968 for approved designs eased the introduction of driver only buses to minimise the staffing shortages, but killed off all the front-engined models on offer, good or indifferent. Double-deck bus design had changed totally in ten years. The accelerated replacement of buses meant that by 1980 the front-engined bus was becoming an endangered species outside London.
Operators now called for rear-engined single-deckers to replace the underfloor designs with their steep entrances. They did not want the engine occupying space across the back so, while the engine did move to the back, it was placed under the floor. The difference between the low front entrance and the high floor at the rear end was met by ramping or a step. Most of these early rear-underfloor single-deckers of the mid-'60s evidently suffered from inadequate development and set new records for short life but in time the concept matured.
Most of the British vehicle building industry was merged into British Leyland in the 1960s. Guy Motors of Wolverhampton was one of two significant manufacturers of buses and lorries in the West Midlands. Guy vehicles were tough sloggers whilst Daimler of Coventry was well known as a manufacturer of refined quality cars and buses. Daimler featured pre-selective gearboxes for many years and its buses were much loved by town operators coping with congested streets. Daimler and Guy were taken over by Jaguar in 1960 and 1961 respectively. Jaguar merged with BMC in 1966 and merged again in 1968 to form part of British Leyland.
The causes of the subsequent collapse of the industry are still the subject of much heated debate but most agree that concentration of development effort towards cars led to the bus and truck sectors falling behind its European competitors with disastrous results. Meanwhile some old British vehicles seem indestructible as anybody who has visited Malta, with its salt free roads, will confirm.
Amongst the European invasion was Volvo which proved initially to be resistant to the concept of rear-engined buses. It continued to sell underfloor-engined single-deckers and coaches to operators crying out for reliable products. It also developed the Ailsa double-decker, built in Scotland. This had a front engine - a small, turbocharged, Volvo unit between the driver and the entrance door. The successor to this design was an underfloor-engined double-decker, at last introducing to the open market in the mid-'80s the configuration successfully pioneered by Midland Red a quarter of a century earlier!
©Copyright 2003 Malcolm Keeley for the Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire B47 6JX, England.
All rights reserved. Except for normal review purposes, no part of these website articles may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the Transport Museum.