Mike and Julie Blenkinsop take a nostalgic look at the business of bus recovery and the inventive ways operators have tackled it.
During the mid-twentieth century, bus companies either bought a dedicated breakdown lorry for the company’s own use, relied on a third-party commercial service or, increasingly, converted a redundant bus from their own fleet into a service vehicle.
Companies with a decent size fleet manifest made do with an old, time-expired model of a single or double decker bus, chopped-up around the rear to provide a working area and, if management were sympathetic, some cover for the recovery crew. Sometimes, it was done neatly with two bays of the passenger compartment retained; others had their bodywork unceremoniously hacked off with a welding torch with no attention to aesthetic detail, but usually just enough was left to offer some shelter and storage.
Our 1965 picture of ex-Bradford ‘Leyland’, 296 KU, is a typical example of this practise where the original bus has been reduced in height and adapted as a service barge known as a towing vehicle, often carrying a towing sign on its destination board; the chassis was often shortened at the rear to make towing easier. Initially, we thought that this would now be a corporation lorry, but Bradford bus expert Norman Hinchliffe suggests that the ‘Leyland’ would probably have a difficult enough task hauling itself up some of the hills in the area without having to tow a bus too.
This vehicle may have ended up as a scrap-collector for a local dismantler’s yard but well illustrates the radical surgery which many fleet buses were subjected to. They were either fitted-up with a bar for a straight-pull to get the crippled vehicle back to base or, alternatively, a basic crane structure was bolted to the rear section of the chassis to pick the front-end up and suspend-lift the casualty back to the depot.
Invariably, some sort of workbench would be available with a vice for small, immediate repairs. Many of these converted buses put in long years of service and there are examples which have survived for more than 40 years in this role. They became known as garage tenders, often doubling up as a stores wagon.
We aren’t here to discuss buses per se, (Did we hear a collective sigh of relief?) but rather some great commercials, both civilian and ex-military, which worked for the bus companies as recovery vehicles, although in deference to our bus-loving enthusiasts and for the purpose of this article, a bus is only a commercial vehicle with seats!
Before we leave the subject of buses though, at one point, the country did become quite enthusiastic about chopping buses down to size.
Northern General in Gateshead created one of the most bizarre looking tow-vehicles by chopping the top deck off an old Atlantean. They couldn’t shorten it as the engine was at the back, so fleet number 2034, 9034 PT, didn’t last long and 18 months saw it withdrawn from towing service in December of 1978. Yorkshire Traction even took a cutter to a Leyland Royal Tiger luxury coach!
Some tried hard to make a good conversion like Maidstone Corporation who cut one of their old Guy Arab 2 double-deckers down, in 1960, flowing the metalwork into a fluid shape from the top floor down retaining the height at the front to make a tree-lopper and adding a crane to the back to create a dual-purpose service vehicle; it survived until 1978, its Park Royal body resprayed to enhance a very practical vehicle. Hundreds of passenger vehicles were converted until something came along which would revolutionise the bus recovery scene.
In 1947, the prospect of obtaining war surplus vehicles for sale at government auctions presented a new source of equipment. Along came an opportunity which hundreds of bus companies took up; the availability of the ex-Army, Air Force and Navy AEC Matadors from the Ministry of Supply defence sales. When the sales became more centralised at Ruddington in Nottinghamshire, under the control of auctioneers Walker, Walter and Hanson, they provided an ideal shop window for these 4×4 trucks.
The well-loved and highly respected Matadors were powered by the AEC A.187 six-cylinder, 7.7 litre O.853, diesel engine, developing 95bhp, although initially, 150 plus were fitted with the A.193 petrol engine. We recall 9,610 was the build figure that the AEC company achieved for these gun-towing oil-burners, which were rated at ten-tons, combining four-wheel drive flexibility with the tough and very reliable AEC 0.853 series engine. However, it is not generally known that the AEC Matador production line was opened-up again in 1950.
The new CT gun-tractor design for the next generation was based on the Leyland Martian 6×6 chassis, which had been held up in its distribution programme as time was needed to iron-out design issues. Around 800 were built for the Services during this period, taking the true Matador build-figure up to around 10,400 (source: ‘Taking the Rough with the Smooth, The AEC Matador’, by Steve Jones).
Although it made its post-war name by being the darling of the foresters and tree-felling squads, the Matador was an obvious choice for the bus garage too. Hundreds were employed all over the country and they were invariably found dozing in semi-retirement in the back of the workshop, on stand-by, ready to leap into action when called upon. Their engines had a wonderful knack of starting even after standing for long periods of time. A couple of months ago, an intrepid collector found one in a forest scrapyard and following an oil check, two new batteries and a dose of fresh diesel, it fired on the fourth turn!
Some were left as-is, or repainted in the company colours, but others were subjected to a serious make-over. Generally, a weather-proof crew-cab/workshop would be fitted-up behind the re-designed cab and an eight-ton Harvey Frost crane bolted to the chassis, and voilà! a quick, cheap and effective recovery conversion was created.
Southall’s magnificent war machines were rolled-out of AEC’s Windmill Lane Works as a chassis cab, to be driven to the appropriate body-builders to become gun tractors for towing the 5.5-in field gun, the slow and plodding, but versatile lorry made many friends during its War service, performing all over the world with its very reliable, oil engine rarely missing a beat. Like the Gardners in the Scammell Pioneer, they gained a reputation for simple but good quality engineering and reliability.
Leeds Corporation was particularly proud of their Matador, in its Verona green and cream livery, as, ready for action, it usually stood, front of house, on the bus depot forecourt. Acquired in 1949, it served Leeds well for more than 30 years, being built with the archetypal crew cab cover and Harvey Frost crane; fortunately, it retired into preservation and we met it again at the Keighley Bus Museum in February 2019, after it had been restored for a second time.
Bradford was another Corporation that acquired a Matador, but they re-worked it using bus bodywork to give it a more modern look. The bus company coachbuilders put a lot of effort into the styling of their breakdowns; many becoming completely unrecognisable, as some of the body-teams really did let their imaginations fly.
Northern, based in Gateshead, was one of many to rebuild the cab using bus panoramic windows and cab top from, we believe, Alexander body parts, to provide a better view of the action and a much more comfortable and spacious cab for the crew. Fleet number 46 recovered casualties on trade plates 135 CN, its grille having been borrowed from an AEC Regent Mark 5. As the parts used for the conversion came from the bus parts bin, they were interchangeable with the buses that they were recovering. Northern also ran an interesting, ex-American, lend-lease, FWD 4×4 SUE-COE type, fleet number 26, from 1949 until 1967, fitted with an eight-ton, Harvey Frost crane.
The Matador became the must-have tool for the bus engineers; Barton company’s Matador, NAS 624 Fleet N° 14, being a good example, which still appears on the rally circuit. We understand that it was restored and repainted at RR Services in Ashford, Kent, where it was spotted in 2012. It was stationed at Long Eaton in its working days and used trade plates 832 AL or 833 AL, in conjunction with a Leyland bus/lorry, fitted up with a heavyweight Harvey Frost crane carrying the fleet number 41. Research suggests that it was replaced by an ergonomic-cabbed AEC Marshall Major six-wheeler with fleet number 54 on a PJO 147P plate.
Western Welsh was another bus operator to use the Matador, converting British Army gun tractor, 09 RD 94, one of the early Matadors to go through the first phase of the military vehicle overhauling programme in 1948; it is now registered as USJ 639 having survived into preservation.
Cornish bus operator Willis added a Matador bus recovery truck to their preserved fleet when they picked up a reconstructed, coach-built one from Western National where it was awaiting the scrap man. PFJ 847M called ‘Jumbo’ was saved and was seen awaiting restoration in a 1991 period photograph, while 217 GOE, a 1943-built Matador is preserved by Rob Handford, of Halesowen, in Birmingham Transport colours.
It was bought into the fleet in 1961 and converted by the company at its Tyburn Road Works; Rob has owned it since 1980. This has an extra special history as the chassis came from one of the Matador military conversions, that of an armoured command all-wheel drive vehicle which had been registered with the Army as census number F 89227 while fighting and 96 ZR 93 in peacetime.
Seen on the showground in the last ten years, other preserved examples include the Birmingham Motors Omnibus Company (BMMO) who built a spectacular conversion, now restored and exhibited in Wythall Museum of Transport.
Matadors were used by Halifax, Chesterfield, Crosville, Alder Valley, Bristol, Doncaster, Maidstone, Lincolnshire and Lancashire United to list just a few. Matador bus recovery NR8, PFJ 850M, is another typical example, preserved in yellow, in Western National livery, having last worked in Torbay pulling in stranded dustcarts for the council. Torbay had bought it from the bus company, but fortunately, this 1944 Matador found a private buyer when it was made redundant and he kindly donated it to the West Country Historic Omnibus and Transport Trust, better known as WHOTT.
The preserved Bradford Corporation Matador seen until recently in its Metro-period, Verona green livery has changed its identity. Enthusiastic owner Kiran Tolson has taken the vehicle back, one click, to its days in Bradford Corporation and its more complimentary livery of beige over blue.
Perusing the excellent book on Matadors by Steve Richards, a selection of the preserved Matadors is listed towards the end of the book in an appraisal by John Harrington. A quick count shows around 45 of the existing Matadors having served some time as bus company recoveries at one period or another.
As the availability of 4×4 Matador former military gun tractors dried up, many companies moved over to the 6×4 and all-wheel-drive Militant, a successor to the Matador, used by the British Army in a similar role. Two fine examples were run by London Transport, one based in Camberwell, the other in Cricklewood, working as fleet numbers 1456 and 1457 MR and using trade plates 559 LC and 587 LB respectively, working their areas circa 1979.
London Transport had bought the two 1953/54 AEC Militants one year apart, in 1966 and 1967 with very low mileage on their clocks as both had spent most of their life in storage. Although they came from the same original military contract, they differ, in that the first is a 6×6 O860 Militant and the other a 6×4 O859 variant. The mudguards with their curved, soft shape would suggest that the Militants were originally HATs (Heavy Artillery Gun Tractors), but this isn’t the case as they were both standard GS (General Service) cargo trucks, which would have had sheet steel panels for their rear wheel covers.
Designated Master Breakdown Tenders, they were considered quite slow, but very capable, with their ten-ton lift cranes built by Boughton of Amersham. They were powered by the standard Militant AEC A223 11.3 litre six-cylinder diesel, providing 160bhp. London Transport withdrew them in 1980, but fortunately both were saved. 1456 MR went on to the National Rescue Group, saved by Andy Lambert and is now at Brooklands becoming the first and only Militant to have its own dedicated web site www.millytant.com
Milly’s sister, 1457 MR, went back to work with Blue Triangle, a bus company in Essex and is now believed to still be active working with preserved locomotives on one of the heritage lines.
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