It’s a sign of age when you see in a museum exhibits that you’ve used in real life.
At a South Yorkshire Transport Trust open day I came across a vision of the past in the form of the Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society’s beautifully restored Bristol FS5G ‘Lodekka’ 2376 (OVL 473) of 1960 – exactly the kind of vehicle that I and my school contemporaries, fresh out of sixth-form and off to university, conducted at Skegness depot in the late 1960s.
The Bristol Lodekka was the effective solution to the long-standing problem of building double-deck bus bodies that could negotiate bridges tighter than 14 feet 6 inches.
Bristol Commercial Vehicles, the chassis manufacturer, in combination with Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, body builders, designed a drop rear axle, which meant that there was no need for a step up into the lower deck and – more importantly – the overall height of the vehicle could be as low as 13 feet 5 or 6 inches.
The first prototype, a famously odd-looking vehicle, was launched in 1949, and by the end of the 1960s over five thousand Lodekkas had been built.
However, a legal anomaly in the arrangement of the part-nationalised British bus industry meant that this revolutionary design was unavailable to many UK operators.
Bristol Commercial Vehicles was a subsidiary of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company, which had built its own vehicles from 1908 and increasingly sold them to other operators. By the late 1930s Bristol customarily worked in tandem with the body manufacturers Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, itself an offshoot of the United Automobile Company which had originated in East Anglia but concentrated on bus services in the north-east.
Bristol, with its manufacturing subsidiary, came into the ownership of the huge Thomas Tilling transport combine in 1931. The Tilling Group was nationalised in 1948, as was Eastern Coach Works, and the two manufacturers were tied to provide vehicles for the third of the British bus industry that was in government ownership.
So during the 1950s Tilling Group companies standardised on the Lodekka, including the Lincolnshire Road Car Company which operated no: 2376.
By a quirk of policy, however, Bristol and ECW were expressly forbidden to sell their products to the rest of the industry,– that is, the other great combine, British Electric Traction, and the many municipalities and independents that ran their own bus services.
Eventually, these operators were able to buy low-floor buses built on licence from Dennis of Guildford.
By an enjoyable irony, the one operator who gained the most practical advantage from the drop-centre axle was Barton of Chilwell. They ordered a one-off Dennis Loline II with a Northern Counties lowbridge body to prove to the Traffic Commissioners that they could squeeze a double-decker under the railway bridge at what is now Long Eaton station. They made their practical point but the Commissioners refused to license the route for a double-decker and this unique vehicle – the seldom-spotted 861 (861 HAL) – spent its days as a star turn on the X42 Nottingham-Derby express service.