Bristol VR brilliance

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JOU160P sits outside Cheltenham Depot, where it was delivered new in 1975. RICHARD SHARMAN

In the first of a new series testing heritage vehicles from the 1970s onwards, Richard Sharman takes a look at Stagecoach West’s Bristol VR, JOU160P, and gives it its on-road debut in its new livery

The Bristol VR is perhaps one of the more loved ‘one man operation’ double-deckers of the 1970s. It was produced in three series, with the Mk.1 version being notable for having a flat front, later models featuring a curved windscreen. Production started in 1968 and continued with various versions and body combinations until 1981.

The full chassis designation for the model tested is VRT/SL3, which stands for Vertical Rear Transmission, Short/Low Series 3. Stagecoach West retains JOU160P as its heritage vehicle, where it has recently returned home to the Cheltenham depot.

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No more stripes
The Stagecoach livery of the ‘80s and ‘90s was responsible for banishing many popular bus liveries in the 1990s, but there is no doubt that it is itself now a heritage livery when you consider how many thousands of vehicles carried it before the ‘beach ball’ era arrived in 2000.

JOU160P has enjoyed a long career in the industry and has carried Stagecoach stripes since 1994, with the most recent repaint being in 2012. It has operated in an array of different liveries over the years, though. It was delivered new in late 1975 in National Bus Company (NBC) green, then switching to the NBC poppy red livery in 1984 before being painted into Cheltenham Tramways livery five years later, which it wears once again in 2020.

Between 1989 and 1994 it also carried Western Travel’s red and ivory livery with Cheltenham District fleet names. Western Travel had different variations of this livery for each depot; for example, green for Stroud Valley and dark blue for City of Gloucester.

The recent repaint into Cheltenham Tramways livery was led by Stagecoach West Managing Director Rupert Cox and undertaken at Gloucester depot’s own in-house paint shop, which did an excellent job. The Cheltenham Tramways livery seems to suit the Bristol VR better than the ‘80s Stagecoach stripes, as it makes the vehicle’s styling stand out more.

On arrival at Cheltenham JOU160P was parked at the front of the depot – which, by the way, is the original Cheltenham Tramways building. It could have been 1984 if it were not for the brand-new Alexander Dennis Enviro200s parked next to it! I was given a warm welcome to the depot by Engineering Manager at Cheltenham and Stroud, Adam Pugh.

Joining me on the test drive was Gloucester driver Adam Harber, who also runs and had taken JOU160P to various bus rallies during 2019. He was equally impressed by how it looked after its repaint.

A proper driver’s bus

The cab is well laid out and a nice place to be. RICHARD SHARMAN

Although the one common goal of all buses remains transporting people from A to B, the vehicles have changed a lot over the years. Bus drivers in the year 2020 may well be using vehicles equipped with electric mirrors with monitors, an upper deck camera monitor, auto-dimming interior lights, automatic headlights, electronic destination equipment, next stop announcements and an automatic gearbox with options of drive, neutral and reverse. Whilst all of these features are advances in technology and safety, it leaves the modern-day bus driver with a vehicle that requires them to just push a button and go.

Back in the day of the Bristol VR the bus driver had far more control of their vehicle, from having multiple switches for things like the interior lights, destination lights and ‘pay as you enter’ light to having to change actual gears! This all meant there was plenty for the driver to do to keep them occupied during a 10-hour shift.

Older drivers in the industry would term the Bristol VR as a ‘proper’ bus, one that there was an art to driving correctly. Of course, the Bristol VR was not alone in this; the ‘70s was an era where the Leyland Atlantean and the single-decked National were also in abundance.

The Bristol VR is by no means a new experience for me, having worked at Midland Red South’s Banbury depot shortly after Western Travel’s takeover by Stagecoach. We had a large allocation of them from all over the Stagecoach empire at the time, and in liveries which ranged from Circle-Line of Gloucester to Ribble!

Cab-wise, JOU160P is very much in original condition with the only real alteration being the use of what looked like an original Dennis Dart switch to start the engine, rather than the stop and start buttons – but you still need to turn to the silver ignition switch on first. Impressively, the air-operated windscreen wipers were still in place after all these years. Many others were converted to an electric motor long ago.

JOU160P started on the first turn, and for anyone who has driven or ridden a Bristol VR you will know that nostalgic sound well. The Gardner 6LXB sprang into action; as with all the engines of this era, a cold start brings with it some white exhaust smoke whilst the engine warms up. It was also nice to hear a proper, ear piercing low air buzzer again after all these years!

Turning heads in Cheltenham
After spending a good 45 mins filming and photographing JOU160P, it was time to take it out on the road for the first time since it has been repainted and transferred from Gloucester.

But before departing, it was time to set up the destination gear. No Hanover or Mobitech units here: this is good old manual destination gear will a three-track number blind and a destination roller blind. I am a big fan of this type of destination gear, but it’s not so good when you need one destination showing at the start of a journey and another on the return leg. Maybe that’s why drivers of that era didn’t have to go to the gym to lift weights after a 10-hour shift!

Luckily the destination gear in JOU160P is well oiled and works well. Rolling through the destination blind, it would appear that this particular blind was from a Stroud depot-based vehicle originally, so I opted for the Not in Service on a plain white backing and the original fleet number.

Despite it being many years since I had driven a Bristol VR, I immediately felt at home sat in the cab. One thing I didn’t expect as I pulled away from the depot was just how light the steering was. As you depart Cheltenham depot there is a long straight drive with speed humps followed by a tight left hand turn out of the depot.

It went around in one without issue; the turning circle on these vehicles is pretty good, thanks in part to their short wheelbase. One thing with the VR is that the brakes are a tad sharp until they warm up a bit, but once warmed up they were perfect, progressive and effective.

Heading down towards the Royal Well bus station, I was impressed by how good the suspension was considering it uses leaf springs rather than air. The semi-automatic gearbox, made by Self-Changing Gears, on the Bristol VR has five speeds, although first gear has an extremely short ratio so is really only for use in traffic or when crawling uphill.

Whilst the Gardner 6LXB is no racing machine, it is nippy around town and 30mph is easily achieved fairly quickly. Of course, with it being a semi-automatic gearbox you need to pause between gears and let the revs die down before changing up.

As I approached the town centre the vehicle was starting to attract attention, mainly from the elderly who may remember the old livery. Other members of the public and car drivers also seemed impressed by its shiny new paintwork! Driving it into the Royal Well bus station attracted the attention of some bus drivers on break, and passengers on the National Express stand also looked a bit bemused!

The Royal Well bus station makes for a great backdrop for photography, as the white house behind makes the livery of the Bristol VR pop. I was graced with some sunshine but this was short-lived, so after a few trips around the town it was time to head for Gloucester, another place where JOU160P would have spent plenty of time running to and from. Heading out of Cheltenham I had got a feel for the Bristol VR and could understand now why so many are preserved – they make for a lovely drive.

No rattles here

The upper deck is light and airy and can seat 43 passengers. RICHARD SHARMAN

In terms of build quality, the ECW bodywork is not ‘plastic fantastic’: the vast majority is made of solid metal, aluminium, or painted fibreglass. For this reason, the body is pretty much rattle-free, an amazing feat for a vehicle that is now 45 years old. If only some new vehicles could harness some of this rattle-free technology!

JOU160P was lucky enough to benefit from a full interior refurbishment in late 1996, which was undertaken in-house as a way of raising the standard of the fleet. The full refurbishment included all side panels being soft trimmed in hard-wearing grey fabric, all seats retrimmed in Western Travel’s red trim, hardwearing non-slip flooring applied and convection heating fitted to the upper and lower saloon.

In 2020, JOU160P still retains all these features and the convection heating is still effective today, although the cab is a little draughty when in motion (this was to be expected though as it’s still winter). A cab heater box is also provided for the driver’s comfort.

It was now time for JOU160P to stretch its legs and join the dual carriageway towards Gloucester. As I said before, the Gardner 6LXB is no racing machine, but it’s good for 45mph, which is more than most three-speed Voith-gearbox MCW Metrobuses can muster! By this stage, it had started to rain and the wind had got up, which meant switching the air-powered wipers on and applying a bit of corrective steering. The short wheelbase and high suspension make its handling in high winds somewhat interesting, although with passengers on weighing down the suspension it may improve.
Coming into Gloucester I passed Stagecoach West’s depot on London Road, a proper old school depot that is located close to the City Centre.

Gloucester has undergone some major redevelopment since the last time I visited, and this includes a fancy new bus station named the Gloucester Transport Hub. It is ideally located opposite the city’s train station, making it ideal for connections. The new facility is managed by Stagecoach West and includes toilet facilities, a paper shop, café and a travel shop. Stagecoach West also benefits from having a drivers’ room and offices within the facility.

Taking the Bristol VR into the bus station sparked a fair amount of interest from waiting customers who seemed impressed by the presentation of the vehicle, and rightly so. Parked next to an Alexander Dennis Enviro400, it makes you realise how much smaller the Bristol VR is. But, to be fair, I also found the interior of the VR quite airy thanks to the curved roof coving panels and the variety of different seating positions, from single seats on the top deck opposite the staircase to side-facing seats at the front and rear. JOU160P also benefits from having two rows of side-facing seats in the lower deck opposite the staircase, thanks to the centre exit doors being removed in the late 1980s to increase seating capacity.

Departing Gloucester Transport Hub to go back to Cheltenham Depot, I felt that JOU160P had stood the test of time. Despite having spent 14 years away from its original operating area with Stagecoach South, where it spent between 2000 and 2002 on operational duties before joining the preserved fleet there until 2014, it had managed to retain all of its original features from its in-house re-trim.

JOU160P is a credit to its current owners, Stagecoach West, and all the companies that it has worked for during its long career.

Buses through the ages
JOU160P will be attending a new bus event, arranged by Stagecoach West.

‘Buses through the ages’ will take place on Saturday 16 May with the North Car Park at Cheltenham Racecourse being the focal point.
The day will include a significant static display of Stagecoach West and visiting group vehicles, plus historic vehicles that have had a Cheltenham or local area connection.

It is intended to operate some special bus services during the day, including something to Winchcombe. Rather than charge any bus fares, Stagecoach West will ask for donations for their staffs chosen charity for 2020 ‘Increase the Peace.’

A tour of the Cheltenham depot, home of JOU160P, will also be available on the day.