Classic buses in Malta

Posted by Chris Graham on 26th March 2020

Mike Forbes took some photographs of the fascinating array of classic buses in Malta plying their trade during the mid-1980s.

Classic buses in Malta

Classic buses in Malta: One of the many Canadian Dodges bodied by one of the Maltese bodybuilders as buses during the 1950s and ’60s, and still running in the 1980s. This was registered Y-0458 – a number later to be see on an DBY 458, ex-Ribble Leyland Royal Tiger, with locally-built Aquilina bodywork, which was re-registered DBY 458, under the new system brought in along with the yellow, red and white livery in the 1990s. The Dodge was photographed on one of the stands at the City Gate Square bus terminus at Valletta, surrounding the Triton Fountain, from where the majority of scheduled routes departed.

I don’t know how things are now but, in days gone by, the Road Haulage Association – like many other organisations – didn’t stint when it came to the annual conference. During the mid-1980s, for example, the RHA went to Malta, which involved spending a week in a nice hotel, with conference sessions in the mornings, free time in the afternoons and dinners each evening.

Then, a few years later, the then recently-opened Disneyland, Paris provided the venue. Such events provide a good way of getting people to attend, and ensured that there was always plenty for their families to do as well.

Classic buses in Malta

Seen parked near the City Gate Square terminus, by the city walls, were these two Maltese, normal-control classics, with Bedford OB – or more probably OL – lorry chassis, lengthened to take similar-looking bodies to the Dodge.

Mission to Malta
I was sent to Malta by Motor Transport, with the idea of talking to the transport bosses present about putting together feature stories on their companies. As it turned out, everybody was off like a shot to enjoy themselves after the sessions finished. Consequently, the only person who spoke to me – at length – was somebody from the potato haulage sector. His concerns centred around the difficulty of making deliveries within drivers’ hours, before the load got spoiled, but he wouldn’t go into print on the subject, so that was that!

So the result was that my wife and I ended up having a pleasant week’s holiday in Malta, making friends with a number of hauliers who were there with their families (notably the Walkers, from Leicester), and spending the afternoons on site-seeing trips around the island which, of course, involved lots of bus rides…

Classic buses in Malta

Most of these photographs were taken at the City Gate terminus, where we see an ex-London Transport AEC Swift, SMS280, EGN 280J. By 1985, it would have put in as many years in Malta as Y-0779, as it had in London. It was later fitted with a front grille, and appeared in the yellow livery.

Timewarp transport
A couple of years back, we published a ‘Road Haulage Archive’ called Timewarp Transport, which looked at the many older-style lorries, buses and cars in use in Malta at the end of the 1980s, many of them vehicles which had previously been used in the UK. There was a section on the buses, which were a special case.

The buses in Malta became famous, not only among enthusiasts, but with all sorts of other people, becoming a tourist attraction in themselves. Until recently, when EU regulations swept them away, Malta’s public transport was provided by a fleet of antiquated vehicles, many of which dated back to the 1950s and before, with just a smattering of more modern, second-hand buses and coaches from the UK. The local people might be happier with their comfortable new low-floor buses – the introduction of which from 2011 was not without many hiccups, which we won’t discuss here – but Malta’s roads have now lost a lot of character.

Classic buses in Malta

Another Maltese classic, Y-1379 is believed to have been based on a Bedford chassis, though this style of grille was used on Leylands and Dodges as well, with bodywork by Aquilina or Barbara.

The bus services in Malta date back to the 1920s and ’30s, when operators, many of them owner-drivers, began working the routes. The reforms undertaken in the 1970s led to the establishment of the Public Transport Association, with rotas, rosters and routes co-ordinated centrally. The individual colours for routes gave way to basically green and white livery for route buses by 1975. Private hire coaches were painted yellow and white and tended to be more modern vehicles, though hardly new.

Unusual embelishments
The photographs included here show the green and white livery, plus the many embellishments that drivers often added to the bodywork. The livery was changed to yellow lower panels, separated from the white by a red line, around 1995. The buses on the neighbouring island of Gozo had their own livery, with grey lower panels. Route numbers continued to be displayed by a white card in the windscreen.

Classic buses in Malta

Y-0797 was a 1971 AEC Swift 4MP2R1/Marshall B46F, formerly London Transport SMS194, EGN 194J. It was converted to single-door for use in Malta, and fitted with twin headlights and a chrome grille, later to be registered FBY 797 under the new system.

A great place for ‘bus-spotting’ was at the main City Gate Square bus terminus in Valletta, surrounding the Triton Fountain, from where the majority of scheduled routes departed. Many drivers rolled away downhill from the bus stops, ‘bump-starting’ their engines as they gathered speed, which added to the fun.

It’s difficult to be specific about the details of particular Maltese buses like those seen here. Many of them were like the proverbial broom, with its new head and handle. Some were based on chassis originally built in pre-war or wartime years, including military vehicles – the Canadian-built Dodge was a popular chassis – but mainly dated from the 1950s and ’60s.

Classic buses in Malta

Another ex-UK import, now enjoying a second life in the Maltese sunshine, was Y-0417, a Bedford YRQ-Plaxton, previously KCK 539N. It was later registered DBY 417, in the yellow livery.

They all tended to be rebuilt with more modern and powerful diesel engines, new gearboxes and axles. These were often not what would be expected, for example, an AEC engine in a Bedford chassis. To confuse matters further, the badges and signwriting on the buses might refer to the chassis, power unit or neither.

Even the more recent, second-hand vehicles from the UK were subjected sometimes to quite radical rebuilds, like the ex-London Transport AEC Merlins, which found their rear-mounted AEC engines replaced with vertical engines, mid-ships, under a raised floor – although outwardly appearing original.

Classic buses in Malta

This was a 1968 AEC Reliance with Willowbrook B45F, TNY 493G with Cynon Valley, but now Y-1211 and later EBY510. The addition of an AEC Ergomatic lorry cab front panel with its chromework, adds to the style. It was photographed next to another classic, Y-0606; a Ford ET7 with local bodywork by Casha.

Make do and mend
The bodies were also rebuilt or renewed over the years, even on quite elderly chassis. The traditional-style bodies were made by a number of local companies, including Aquilina, Barbera, Brincat, Casha, Debono, the Dockyard, Schembri, Tonna, Zammit and others. Many were decorated with lots of chrome, lining-out of panels and signwriting on the basic livery, showing a great deal of pride in their vehicles from the drivers and operators.

All this has been swept away, with just a few vehicles remaining to be operated on tours, leaving images like these as our only memories of a very individualistic and quirky public transport system. It may now be a lot better for local travellers, but there’s little left to interest enthusiasts these days. So enjoy this look back to happier times.

Classic buses in Malta

In spite of the Leyland Tiger Cub badge, Y-1241 was based on a chassis built in 1967, in the Maltese Dockyard works, and fitted with a Barbara B40F body with, what was then, very futuristic frontal styling.


Classic buses in Malta

A frontal view of another ex-LT single-decker, SMS152, EGN 152J, now Y-0321 in Malta, adorned with a chrome grille and twin headlights.


Classic buses in Malta

A couple of classics parked by the city walls, including Y-1043, both believed to have been based on Bedford chassis, with Samut, Brincat or Debono bodies. There are various detailed listings of Malta’s buses to be found on the internet, mainly dealing with the vehicles to be found there from the 1990s onwards. But some of these earlier vehicles slip through the net, thanks to rebuilds and re-registrations.


With other classic Maltese buses to the rear, this was Y-0562, a Ford ET7 bodied by Aquilina, which carried on to be re-registered and painted yellow.


A close-up of the bonnet, with its mesh sides and many embellishments, on an early post-war Commer Superpoise, with the Aquilina-style body.


An interesting line-up by the city walls, from the left, Y-1040, another Ford ET7 with Aquilina body, Y-0370, in spite of the Leyland signwriting, which could refer to the engine, a Bedford SB, with Barbera body, later DBY 370, operated by Paul Mifsud of Mellieha, Y-1359, with an AEC badge – it could have been an early-1960s Mercury chassis – with similar bodywork to the examples preserved in the UK, and a great survivor, believed still on the island, Y-1083, a1948 Thornycroft Sturdy, with Brincat B35F body, later DBY 382, operated by John Borg of Mellieha from new.


Not the best photo, but it captures the scene by the Triton Fountain, as an unidentified, ex-UK Bedford/Plaxton sets off, followed by a traditionally-bodied vehicle.


Another ex-UK bus, believed to be Y-0378, a Leyland Tiger Cub/East Lancs., new to Darwen Corporation in 1966, which emigrated to Malta in the early 1980s, one of a number of ex-municipal vehicles that went there at that time. The body only received minor modifications, like the addition of the front grille, during the 30 years it was in service on Malta, latterly registered DBY 378.


Pictured on route 19, somewhere in Valletta, we see Y-1097, a 1958 Bedford forward control chassis, with a B36F body by Debono which looks rather later, operated by Salvu Sciberras, Zabbar, from new, later registered DBY 396. The vehicle was handed in to Malta Government in July 2011, and scrapped by Transport Malta.


A less common type, seen near the Triton Fountain with other vehicles, ready for its next run, was Y-1128, with Austin Loadstar front panels and a similar body to the Ford ET7s and Dodge seen previously.


The old and new in mid-1980s Malta, with Y-1014 and 0715, an ex-UK Duple Dominant-bodied Bedford, and a classic with O model normal-control front end, head a varied selection of buses at the City Gate terminus.


Little-altered from its former life with a UK operator, this BET-style single-deck bus waits for the off from Valletta. Its registration is quoted in the internet listings as a locally-bodied vehicle, so we can’t identify this one.


You have to ignore the ‘Paramount’ lettering on this non-route bus in private hire livery, as it was a Bedford VAS with the style of Duple body used in the UK by the likes of Inner London Education Authority as a school bus, and the Metropolitan Police, from where it might have been sourced.


A street scene in Valletta, with a classic Ford ET7 bus on route 62, followed by unidentifiable full-fronted vehicle. The number of signs in English is worthy of note.


A classic, lengthened O model Bedford chassis, with Aquilina-style bodywork, passes through a Valletta street. Note the embellishments on the front and the flamboyant rear wings, reminiscent of 1960s American cars.


Perhaps Paramount was the name of the operator, rather than a local take on the Plaxton body name, on Y-0852, a locally-bodied coach-seated AEC Reliance, in use as an un-scheduled bus on private hire, tours and so on. It was in the yellow and white livery used for these vehicles in the mid-1980s. By 1992, it was pale blue.


Looking rather like a bus, but another unscheduled vehicle on a private hire, Y-0866 was probably built on a Bedford SB or similar chassis. The modern-style body could have been by local company, Sladden.


We went on a trip from the hotel on this coach, so I’m embarrassed not to know more about it. The UK-inspired 1970s era body could have been built by Spiteri. It was Bedford-badged, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate what chassis was used.


Another vehicle on a trip from the hotel was Y-0885, a Leyland PSU1/16 with an Aquilina body, with coach seats here, but later used as a route bus, registered DBY 402 in the later system, operated by Carmelo Caruana, of Zebbug, and retained by the owner, when the classic buses were taken off the road.


Another unidentified example of the ex-UK municipal Leyland Tiger Cub, with BET-style bodywork, still in more-or-less original-condition, and registered Y-1145 in Malta.


By 1986, registration Y-0865 was on a Bedford YRQ/Duple Dominant in pale blue livery but, in the last years of the classic fleet, the number was on a bus similar to this seen here in the yellow livery; a Bedford or similar chassis with Samut, Brincat or Debono bodywork. Which would you rather have ridden on a tour in; this or the modern-looking Leyland-badged Continental-style coach behind?


This private hire vehicle in the yellow unscheduled bus livery of the time, Y-0896, which had previously been cream, registered 3334, and later blue, registered 629 blue, had a Commer badge on the front and ‘Commander’ lettering on the side.


Another look at the old and new in the mid-1980s. Here’s a Duple Dominant-bodied Bedford, between two classics, a forward-control bus with a Bedford grille, and a normal-control Canadian Dodge.


Seen at Luqa Airport in ‘Air Malta’ livery, was an ex-Reading Corporation, 1967 Bristol RELL6G, with Strachans B34D ‘standee’ bodywork – just the thing for moving the crowds between aircraft and the terminal.


This one took me back to my early driving days; a Ford 300E van, fitted with side windows, in really good condition for its age. However, when it drove off, there was no doubt it had been fitted with a diesel engine.


Another ‘blast from the past’, even in the 1980s, was this early F Type Vauxhall Victor from the late-1950s, still in regular, daily use by its owner.


I must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the only classic lorry I managed to photograph in Malta was this nice Bedford TA, complete with all the embellishments. Why didn’t I go off and look for more…?


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