Midland Red memories

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Nick Larkin speaks to the author of a new book on unique operator Midland Red

Midland Red fanatic and former employee who spent almost 50 years in the industry has produced the first of a trilogy of books on what was once Britain’s biggest bus company.

Author of Inside Midland Red, Ashley Wakelin said the idea of the book was to chronicle his own memories of the operator and others who worked there, as well as to chronicle the company’s history. “I enjoyed a lifetime in the bus industry, and realising that it had dramatically changed from the calmer 1960s to the stresses and realities of modern times, I decided to put pen to paper to recall the story of my passion for the operator.”

Midland Red played a big part in the lives of the people of the Midlands for most of the 20th century, and still retains a fiercely loyal following of enthusiasts, which is why it is important that stories of ‘The Red,’ such as those in this book, should be retold for future generations.

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Ashley was 15 when he did work experience with Midland Red in Leicester in 1972, joining the firm at 17 working in the booking office in Coventry before progressing to conductor and driver and later occupying various management roles.

“So many people told me their stories of life with Midland Red in the 1930s and beyond, and how the job and the vehicles had changed over the years,” said Ashley. “It is interesting that they all thought that the job was better in the earlier days, and that in turn has become true for me, now that I am looking back over my career.”

Agnes, a cleaner working in Birmingham had been on nights from 1924, and she and her fellow cleaners spent hours on hands and knees polishing the brass floor treads, door handles, and side runners on Midland Red’s early charabancs, while singing hymns at 0300hrs and getting into trouble for keeping the neighbours awake.

Those early charabancs developed through the ’30s into stately luxury tourers, and by the late 1950s had evolved into 85+mph motorway expresses, tearing down the outside lane of the M1. Timetabled journeys from Birmingham to London took 5hrs 29mins in the 1950s, but with Midland Red’s motorway expresses it was reduced to an astonishing 2hrs 15mins!

There are lots of other engineering achievements covered in the book, including a look at the ‘The Birmingham Routemaster,’ better known as the Midland Red-built D9 – Ashley’s favourite double-decker. He has owned 60 buses in his career.

“But it was the Midland Red spirit which got into the blood of many of its employees, and was the career choice of sometimes two or three generations of a family,” said Ashley, who left Midland Red South in 1985. “It was no longer the company it once was.”

Ashley is working on two further books. Midland Red Influence will tell how his training and life with Midland Red influenced his future classic bus activities (including setting up Nuneaton-based operator Wheels) and Midland Red Through My Eyes will be mainly photos and captions.

Midland Red in brief

Set up in 1905, Midland Red, aka the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Company (BMMO), designed and built many of its own vehicles from 1923 until 1970.

At the peak the company had an operating territory of over 12,000 square miles of the Midlands from Nottingham to Gloucestershire, as well as operating daily coach services and coach cruise holidays. An enviable reputation for speed, reliability, comfort and service meant the company became known as, ‘the friendly Midland Red.’

At one point 8,000 staff worked for the company at headquarters and Central Works in Birmingham, as well as 35 garages spread across the Midlands, operating services while building and maintaining a fleet of almost 2,000 vehicles.

Private car owners and social changes meant the company was hit hard financially, selling its West Midlands county garages to the Passenger Transport Executive in 1973.

Author Ashley Wakelin. ASHLEY WAKELIN

In September 1981 the then National Bus Company-owned Midland Red was split into four main regional companies, two of which are today owned by Arriva. Stagecoach runs another under the Midland Red (South) legal identity and there is also Worcester-based First Midland Red.

Buy the book

Inside Midland Red is a hardback book, part historical, part autobiographical, with 128 quality pages with over 250 colour and black and white images. It is available at £35 plus £4.95 UK mainland p&p online from www.midlandred.co.uk