Let's hear it for the Coachbuilders

I think all coachbuilders, such as Duple, Weymann, ECW, ROE, & PRV of course, and too many others to mention here, have been treated as "second class citizens" in the world of commercial vehicles.  Why?  Because it has always been the case that a commercial vehicle has been known by the marque of the chassis producer rather than the designer/builder of the bodywork.  I am equally guilty of promoting this by categorizing many of the vehicles on these pages by the chassis manufacturer; but it is difficult to do otherwise.

Everyone who has any interest in the heritage of British commercial vehicles will know that a vehicle is an "AEC Regent" or a "GUY Arab" or a "Daimler Fleetline" etc. and sometimes the bodybuilder might be specified (e.g. GUY Arab with body by ROE etc.).  But from the traveling public's perspective all they see is a bus or coach that takes them somewhere without breaking down and in a timely fashion.  If it achieves that, all is well.  Their only other interest is easy access and how comfortable it is; and the price of the journey!  

However, the traveling public's visible surroundings are that developed by the coachbuilder, for apart from the wheels they see nothing of the running unit(s).  So if the ride is good the coachbuilder has played its part as well as that of the chassis manufacturer, yet the emblem they see on the front, and usually on the wheel-hubs too, is only that of the latter.  The coachbuilders' name plate is often some small and nearly obscure feature surreptitiously placed inside, if at all.

It is true that the running-unit design is a major factor in comfort, but so is that of the bodywork.  How the body relates to the chassis will largely determine roll and pitch, even more so for a double-decker; how will the whole unit react around bends?  Every element plays its part, even down to the upholstery.

So what's the problem?  Well nothing really, except putting the record straight for those vehicles consigned to history.  And now that the original London Routemaster bus is so, I should make special mention of its marque.

Everyone knows it is an "AEC Routemaster" as AEC built the bus didn't they?  After all, AEC always proudly proclaimed, and was widely known as, the "Builder of London's Buses".  Well yes!  But by neatly forgetting about the coachbuilder's craft - NO - actually; and in particular when it comes to the Routemaster.  The Routemaster was a significant development originally by London Transport, and latterly in conjunction with both AEC and PRV who jointly designed and built two, of the four, production prototypes at LT Chiswick.

It might be forgiven if AEC considered PRV as a subsidiary using the term "Built by AEC" as a generic term, but this brings another point.  AEC created, and became part of, ACV (Associated Commercial Vehicles) that also owned PRV and its subsidiary ROE, along with Maudslay, Crossley, Thornycroft and the original AEC marque etc..  So the companies AEC & PRV should certainly have been considered equal partners under the ACV umbrella.

For many reasons the Routemaster was different from anything that went before it, but in particular the  fact that it was a monocoque design whereby there was no chassis in the conventional sense.  The aluminium bodywork was strengthened to provide support for two running units, front and rear.  The front providing the engine, gearing & front suspension whilst the rear providing the axle & rear suspension; the design facilitating straightforward body-swapping that often occurred at LT's works at Aldenham.

So AEC provided just the running units - the rest was up to PRV to make happen.  So there was arguably as much detailed design & build work at PRV as at AEC; if not considerably more!

Yes of course teamwork was needed between LT, AEC & PRV to design & build the final prototype, and AEC was certainly LT's main point of contact with the group.  But the term "AEC Routemaster" is a misnomer, the truth being that many Routemasters even had engines from other manufacturers, Leyland, Cummins and later DAF & Iveco, considerably reducing the AEC element.  Whereas, apart from the ECW and Weymann prototypes, the Routemaster the public knew was designed & built at PRV including the design & construction of the, too-many-to-mention-here, varieties.

Whilst some did not display the AEC badge, all had one thing in common - the inconspicuous makers plate situated above the luggage compartment by where the conductor stood - that was Park Royal Vehicles!

(Please click here for my note on 'The Regents in Tehran story')

So let's hear it for the coachbuilders, it is also their skill that have brought us our vehicles.

Here is the Maker's Plate from RM445. Mounted on ash (the popular timber at PRV for the frames of pre-Routemaster buses), I use this as a desk paperweight.

Addendum: In 2008, by pure happenstance, I had the pleasure of kindly being introduced to Colin Curtis CBE (1929-2012) during a visit to LT's Acton Depot Museum.  For those unaware, Colin was the Engineering Manager at LT's Chiswick Works and responsible for LT's Routemaster Project.

I mentioned that I was the son of Alf Hill who was to become the appointed PRV designer of the detailed bodywork for the RM.  Colin was very gracious & interested and, considering the headline of this article and my taking that opportunistic moment to express my views, I was gratified, though somewhat surprised, that Colin wholeheartedly agreed about the lack of recognition of the coachbuilder's skills; adding that PRV definitely had a lot more to do building the monocoque RM especially in comparison to AEC's tasks.

I recalled with Colin my father attending many meetings at Chiswick; Colin said he didn't remember my father particularly (I didn't expect him to do so) but commented that the many meetings were 'very' well attended, rather too much so in his opinion.   He added there was always a significant AEC contingent and often wondered why they were there. 

I'm certain Colin wasn't humouring me, nor I'm sure, would he have countenanced doing so.  I think it more likely that he hadn't ever been questioned, or asked to comment, or give any credence to views such as those I propounded; in which he was evidently sufficiently interested and prepared to spend some time discussing.

I wouldn't have minded if Colin had disagreed; for it was one of the most memorable moments for me to meet such a true gentlemen; as I did when I met, also by happenstance, my motor racing namesake; but that's another story!

 Graham Hill

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