Routemaster bus graphic

Classic Project: Routemaster (RM) Bus

The Routemaster double-decker bus is widely regarded as a British design icon. First introduced in 1956, a few are still running on a popular tourist route in London.

According to the VisitBritain tourist information office, the Routemaster (RM) double-decker bus is right up there in the top ten of classic British designs, along with the Spitfire, the E-Type Jaguar and the Post Office red telephone box.

Introduced into service in September 1956, after almost a decade of design and testing, the RM-type was the replacement model for the RT-type that had been the standard red London bus since 1939. Primarily a front-engine bus with a rear open platform (with a few variants), it was to survive alongside replacement designs, including the New Routemaster whose introduction was overseen by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in 2012. It was the previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, who ordered the withdrawal of the RM, pointing out that on average one passenger per month was dying after falling off the open platform

Even so, the vehicle is cherished as a British icon. More than a thousand of the total production run of 2,876 still exist, mostly as display, training and reserve units, and they still run on one London 'heritage route': the No.15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill.

Routemaster production was a collaboration between several organisations, with the styling by Douglas Scott, construction by Park Royal Vehicles and engines by AEC (Associated Equipment Company), the latter two eventually becoming part of Leyland Motors, which in turn became British Leyland and later the Rover Group. The first order of the day was to make the bus lighter than the RT in order to economise on fuel. Making use of emerging aerospace engineering techniques and materials, notably aluminium, the RM was also cheaper and easier to maintain than its predecessor.

The unit's independent front suspension, power steering and power-hydraulic braking created an innovative replacement that made it considerably 'lighter' in its handling. Other innovations included sub-frames (rather than a chassis) that supported the engine and suspension in the front, while supporting the rear axle and suspension at the back. Although the majority of the RMs were 8.4m (27ft 6in) in length, regulations for road vehicle size were eventually relaxed and the RML (or 'long' model) grew to 9.1m (30 ft).

The main reason for the RM's longevity was the build quality and the incorporation of aluminium in the bodywork, meaning that it resisted corrosion far better than modern steel buses. Also, it weighs less than a modern single-deck steel bus with half the seating capacity. These benefits meant that the RM saw continuous service in London until 2005, when the last regular service ended.

The Routemaster has passed into popular culture in many ways. Perhaps the most interesting is that Ian Fleming came up with his hero James Bond's '007' designation by counting the number of RMs that passed the pub he was drinking in one afternoon. The bus was to appear in the movie 'Live and Let Die'. The then James Bond, Roger Moore, took bus-driving lessons in order to play the role. Such is the affection for the typical red London bus, but the media and public in general tend to get them confused – a fact much lamented by the Routemaster Association. No one over a certain age can forget the critical role a red double-decker played in Cliff Richard's 1963 movie 'Summer Holiday' – but sadly it wasn't a RM, but an AEC Regent III RT, despite what all the reviewers thought. Likewise, the triple-decker Knight Bus in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' was built from three RTs.

Next month: Gibson EDS-1275 twin-necked electric guitar

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