Ultimate Olympian

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The Volvo Olympian was once the staple of many big bus group fleets, but in 2020 First Bus only has two left across the whole organisation. Richard Sharman visited Cornwall to find the older of the pair – and the last passenger-carrying Volvo Olympian in the group – which has been retained for special duties and private hire

Depending on when you were born, the Volvo Olympian may seem too young to be a contender for a rare vehicle test drive, but the replacement for the Leyland Olympian first entered service in July 1993 with First South West’s predecessor, Western National, taking the first batch as 801-4, K801-4 ORL in what was known as the ‘badger and flags’ livery.

This was to be the start of a long relationship between the Volvo Olympian and the then-Badgerline division and its current incarnation First South West, that would see a large number of the type pass through its ownership from many other First Bus divisions.

UK-built

The Volvo Olympian was manufactured and assembled in Irvine, Scotland between 1992 and 2000. A variety of body options were available during its time in production, but one of the rarer bodies, when compared to the Alexander R, was the Wigan-built Northern Counties Palatine II, as carried by First Bus’ oldest remaining example 34137, L637 SEU.

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Northern Counties had been building bus bodies since 1919, and it is fair to say that they were extremely proud of their heritage. A brochure that I picked up in the mid ‘90s from an NEC show explained: “For more than 70 years, this company has employed only the most dedicated of craftsmen. And, in all this time, second best has never been good enough. Anything less than perfection has no place in our philosophy. All of this means that when you commission Northern Counties, you receive the finest work that money can buy.

“In addition, we strive to provide a service which is above and beyond the call of duty. In today’s high-speed and thrusting world, these two principles may seem somewhat old-fashioned. Things have moved on apace since 1919.

New technology and modern materials have altered working practices beyond recognition. Nonetheless, before the machines finally take over, and while we still deal with people, person to person, we can think of nothing more important than giving our customers the service they deserve.”

That statement alone makes you believe that Northern Counties was a quality bodybuilder, and certainly, in my experience of driving a good majority of bodies the company built, it is true. They were well designed and bulletproof once in service.

Thanks to the Paladin/Palatine range being introduced, Northern Counties was in the middle of a resurgence of orders when in 1995 it was approached by Henlys Group, then-owner of Plaxton. A deal was made and Henlys Group acquired Northern Counties for £10 million, dropping the Northern Counties name four years later in 1999. The Paladin name continued as a Plaxton product for a while however, and Stagecoach continued to take Volvo B10Ms with that body.

The frontal styling of the Palatine II was very different to many of the other flat-fronted double-deckers of that era. RICHARD SHARMAN

From city to seaside

L637 SEU was new to Bristol City Line’s Winterstoke Road depot as 9637, and was part of a batch of 24 Northern Counties Palatine II-Volvo Olympians that wore the red, blue and yellow livery for routes 48/49, replacing Bristol VRTs. It moved from plying the streets of Bristol to the fresh coastal air of the South West in November 2008, before being converted to open-top in June 2011. It had operated in ‘Barbie 3’ livery at First Kernow before gaining its current Atlantic Coaster livery in 2017. It is now classed as a Truronian vehicle for promotional, special event and private hire use.

The most notable use of L637 SEU in open-top format was its involvement in celebrating the Olympics with victory parades of Penzance in both 2012 and 2016. The bus was named after Helen Glover, the Olympic rowing gold medallist from Newlyn, for the 2016 parade with the destination display black surround area fitted with gold vinyl and her name in large pink and black letters.

L637 SEU was not the only one of this batch to be converted to open top as L650 SEU, numbered 39920 in the First Bus national series and new to Bristol City Line for Bristol Park & Ride service 504, has also operated in open-top format for many years on the Bath Bus Tour following conversion, then at Weston-super-Mare for use on service 1 from the rail station to Sandy Bay before joining Weymouth depot for use on the 501 to Portland Bill.

In 2014 it then headed North and joined the First West Yorkshire fleet for use as a tree lopper in the Leeds area. Once that project had been completed it moved to Hunslet depot where it received a repaint and light internal refurbishment before heading back to Weymouth depot, where it was again used on the 501 until it was replaced by a low-floor open-top. It was retained and used on private hire and for promotional events until entering preservation on 29 July of this year.

The Palatine II features a split step and passenger boarding lighting. RICHARD SHARMAN

Styling features

First impressions of the Palatine II body before boarding is that the styling is certainly more futuristic than what had gone before. It’s not as exaggerated as the ‘pregnant’ Bova Futura, but there is certainly a slight bump under the windscreen!

It seemed to be quite common in this era to not have a rear lower window, with the Alexander Royale-bodied Volvo Olympians operated by Yorkshire Coastliner instantly springing to mind as they made use of this space for marketing the route with a large map of their operating area.

Even around the entrance area, you can see that styling was changing. The use of two separate pieces of glass for the first saloon window and the destination box is a nice touch, whilst the split-step arrangement with passenger lighting fitted in a recessed area above the entry door to project light onto the path was another advanced feature at the time.

Another handy feature is that the door close button for when the driver is leaving the vehicle is located low down, just above the saloon floor, meaning you can avoid getting off and trapping your bag or coin carrier in the door.

For a vehicle that is 27 years old, the original features of the cab and interior are in very good order, whilst the seating has been re-trimmed in waterproof material upstairs and downstairs. In those 27 years the ‘Coachwork by Northern Counties, Wigan, England’ badge mounted next to the cab window glass has managed to survive.

With seating for 76 passengers – 47 on the upper deck and 29 on the lower with 8 standing – the Volvo Olympian is certainly a people mover.

Despite having heavy rain on the day of my visit, the lower deck had remained impressively dry, with no visible leaks showing through the ceiling coving or the gasket glazing.

Back to the ‘90s

Something is refreshing about getting into the cab of a vehicle that is not full of shiny plastic surfaces, LED screens and disembodied voices telling you about fire suppression systems! It feels more like man and machine as opposed to man, computer and machine.

Having spent hundreds of hours behind the wheel of Volvo Olympians, albeit the last one being eight years ago, I felt instantly at home and immediately remembered all the controls and switches.

That system of having the headlights on the ignition switch is still a good one today, as is having the Broms brake in the corner, along with an isolator switch, which on Alexander bodies you could remove the metal key to isolate the vehicle, particularly on night shifts or at outstations. L637 SEU is fitted with a key system under the cab window, which was standard practice for First Bus in this era – every driver would have a standard key for use across the fleet.

Truronian had selected Relief Controller Craig Woodard as my guide on this test drive, and chatting to him I found out he was a career busman and was driving Bristol VRTs when he started.

When the Volvo Olympian was first introduced to the market it was offered with the Cummins L10-215 or L10-252 engine, alongside the Volvo’s own TD102KF offering. I was intrigued to find out how the Cummins L10 powerplant, as fitted to this example, would drive in comparison with Volvo’s TD102KF engine which became the standard – and with which I had plenty of experience during my time at Stagecoach.

I wanted to take L637 SEU somewhere scenic but that would also challenge the power of the Cummins L10 lump. Craig knew just the place, a small village the other side of the river in Truro that hasn’t seen double-deckers for many years.

Departing the Truronian depot, acceleration was smooth as was the ZF gearbox. The brakes took a little while to warm up, but once they had they were also smooth in operation. The good thing about the Palatine II body is that the all-around vision for the driver is superb thanks to the large windscreens and narrow A-pillar.

I wanted to stretch the legs of this Olympian, before taking it somewhere scenic, to see how it compared out on the open road to more modern counterparts, so Craig directed me towards some dual carriageway. An ADL Enviro400 let me out onto the dual carriageway, and once I put my foot down I found that this Olympian still had plenty of go in it. We climbed out of Truro leaving the Enviro400 in the distance. We then joined a long winding road called Arch Hill on the A39, which was all downhill with a few bends in it. The Olympian held the road well, with its ZF power-assisted steering and front and rear air suspension. Turning around at a roundabout and heading back for the city centre it was all uphill, but 50mph was easily achieved all the way, the bus only slowing slightly at the very top of the hill.

On arrival back in the city centre, Craig took over the driving so I could go upstairs and film the open-top tour to Malpas, which is available to view now on CBW’s YouTube channel.

This is an area normally served by a Bluebird Orion on service 496 three times a day, and it hasn’t seen anything bigger for many years. The Malpas Road is typical of Cornwall – you can be in a large conurbation such as the City of Truro one minute and then be in what looks like a rural area only a few minutes down the road.

What started as a decent wide road soon turned into single-track in some sections, with limited passing places, although it was worth it for the view of the Truro River and Boscawen Park. The village of Malpas sits high above the Truro River where it meets the Tresillian River, but it is a narrow road and a badly parked Jaguar slowed our progress towards the small turning point opposite the Heron Inn restaurant, which also had a number of builders’ vans parked in it!

Luckily, I am banksman trained so between myself and Craig we managed to get past both obstructions and headed back towards Truro just as the heavens opened.

In conclusion, this Volvo Olympian has been well looked after over the years, as evidenced by the way it drives and the condition of the interior and exterior. It seems that the Cummins L10 version, in this bus at least, has a bit more go in it than some of the standard TD102KF-powered examples I have driven, but then it doesn’t have the weight of the upper-deck glass and roof to contend with.

Overall, the Volvo Olympian has earned its place as part of the evolution of the great British double-decker, as has the styling of Northern Counties Palatine II, which still looks good today.

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