History of Bristol Commercial Vehicles

A brief history of Bristol Commercial vehicles by Alan Macfarlane of the "Bristol Interest Circle" and reproduced with his kind permission.


The Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company started running motor buses in 1908. They were on Thornycroft chassis and they were soon followed by some Fiats. Before long, it was found that neither make was able to work reliably in Bristol. BT&CC's management, including the influential Sir George White and Charles Challenger, decided their company could probably build better buses itself. As a result, on May 12th 1908, the first bus manufactured by the Bristol Company started work on the service into Clifton. It was this event of 90 years ago that we are celebrating this year.

Over the next few years more and more Bristol built buses and charabancs were added to the BT&CC's fleet. Seating was typically in the range 16 to 28 and the chassis were built originally at Filton. Bodywork was also built by the Company, in the Brislington tram depot. In 1913, a new Motor Constructional Works was officially opened, just a short distance from the Brislington depot, on Bath Road. The coming of the Great War in 1914 put a halt to bus building while the factories were turned over to building fighter aircraft for the related Bristol Aeroplane Company. When events had settled down again, Bristol took a broader look at bus manufacture. They decided to launch an improved chassis and exhibited one at the 1920 Commercial Motor Show to attract custom from other bus operators. This was a 29 seater, known as a 4-Tonner. Before long orders started to flow into Bristol, from operators ranging from Cornwall Motor Transport to Sunderland District, and from municipalities as diverse as Aberdare Urban District Council and Manchester Corporation. In 1923 a small 20-seat 2-Tonner was added, while the first double-deck Bristols were built on 4-Tonner chassis for Hull Corporation. Both 2-Ton and 4-Ton Bristols were also built as lorries and tankers.

In 1925, a new bus chassis appeared, with a lower floor than before, to ease entry. This received a new description that showed Bristol was here for the foreseeable future - it was the A-Type. Only a few A-Types were built, as an improved chassis, the B-Type, was introduced in 1927. This 3O to 32-seat single-decker became Bristol's most successful yet, totalling 778 by the time production fizzled out in 1934. Until 1929, all Bristols had been powered by Bristol built 4-cylinder petrol engines. In this year, though, a 6-cylinder Bristol engine was introduced; it was mounted into a B-Type chassis, which was reclassified D-Type. Only 50 D-Types were built, mainly for coaching duties, where the 6 cylinder unit was at its best. 1929 also saw two experimental chassis appear. Named the C-Type and E-Type, both were for double deck bodies and both had six wheels, with two rear axles. This layout was very popular at the time and yet only two of each of the Bristol chassis were built and neither C-Type recived a body. The two E-Types were bodied, however, and the most interesting point about these was that they were trolleybuses - as it tumed out, the only trolleybuses ever built by Bristol. One ran for Doncaster Corporation, the other for Pontypridd Urban District Council.

In 1931 it was time for more new chassis. These were developed as a result of new regulations allowing single-deckers to be built to a length of 27ft 6in, instead of the 26ft of the B and D-Types. The new models were the 4-cylinder H-Type and 6-cylinder J-Type. A sister chassis, designed for double deck bodywork, was the G-Type, also fitted with a 6-cylinder petrol engine. Bristol first installed an oil or diesel engine in 1933. This was not made by Bristol but by Gardner of Manchester and had 5-cylinders. It was placed in a single deck chassis that was then recoded JO5G - J-Type, Oil, 5 Cylinder, Gardner. The combination of Bristol chassis and Gardner engine - in double deckers as well as single deckers -was soon to become famous, for ruggedness, reliability and economy. Although further A and 6-cylinder Bristol petrol engines were to be made, the last petrol engined Bristol was turned out for the 1936 Commercial Motor Show. Meanwhile, other oil engine were tried in small numbers, including 6-cylinder Gardners in GO6Gs and JO6Gs, and units by AEC (J06As), Dennis (JO4Ds), Beardmore (one GOSB) and Leyland (a solitary GOSL).

The Gardner 5LW -cylinder oil engine was standard in the 1937-launched K-Type double decker and L-Type single-decker. Since the early 1930s, Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company had been part of the Tilling Group of operators and, as a result, the Group started to standardise on Bristol chassis, usually bodied by another Tilling operator, Eastern Counties. In 1937, their coach factory, in Lowestoft, was renamed Eastern Coach Works and became synonymous with Bristol chassis. K5Gs and L5Gs were added to TilIing fleets ranging from Southern National to Caledonian Omnibus Company. Other companies and municipalities featured less in Bristol's output, but still there were regular repeat orders from these sectors. The only variety of engine types were found in L6G coaches for Black & White of Cheltenham and West Yorkshire, and a few L4G buses for the flat terrain in Gloucester and the Eastern Counties area.

The coming of the second world war gradually caused Bristol to stop building buses in favour of Bristol aircraft parts again. In 1944, though, as operators were desperate for new buses, Bristol was one of only three empowered by the Government to recommence building double-deckers. As Gardners output of engines could not be stretched, Bristol was allocated AEC motors, for the wartime K6As. As production returned to normal from 1946, Bristol continued to offer K8As alongside K5Gs. A few K6Gs were built, mainly for municipal operators, and there were also examples featuring Bristol's own oil engine at last (the AVW), in the KOB. Similarly, single deck and coach chassis were L6As, L6Gs, L5Gs and L6Bs, while a few L4Gs were assembled using 4LW engines supplied by the operator, Eastern Counties. From 1946, Bristol made a start on the export drive that manufacturers were so encouraged to follow. 100 L5Gs were supplied to India and L-Types also went to South Africa, but as regulations there differed, these were longer, allowing 3Oft overall instead of 27ft 6ins, and were termed LLs. Soon, wider examples became the norm, powered by 6LW engines -LWL&Gs. The only larger double deckers of this period were twenty KW6Gs - "exported" to Cardiff Corporation! A new design of chassis, termed the M-Type, appeared in prototype form in 1948, but the idea sadly got no further.

A major event of 1947 was that the Tilling Group, including Bristol and ECW, became "nationalised", or owned by the State. Restrictions were soon imposed, in that Bristol and ECW could only supply to the State-owned fleets. So several long-supportive municipal and company operators were forced to break their intake of new Bristols. As time progressed, the number of fleets under State control (i.e. the British Transport Commission) increased, to compensate for this loss.

Home market customers had to wait until 1950 for LLs and LWLs to be permitted. At the same time, the length of double deckers was increased by a foot to 27ft (permitting 80 seats) and the new Bristol was termed KS, or KSW if wider too. At the same time the AEC engine option was dropped and all but a few LL/LWL/KS/KSW types received Bristol AVW or Gardner 5LW engines, although from 1952, 6LWs gained popularity in KSWs. Two rather more noteworthy designs emerged around this time. For many years, double deckers had been built in one of two layouts. One had a conventional central gangway upstairs, but the other was a squat design to allow the bus to pass under low bridges; this had a sunken upper deck gangway along the side, the seats were four-across benches and the roof was very low. Various ideas had been tried to overcome the low bridge problem, but it was Bristol's designers who persevered longest. In 1949, the first of two prototypes was built with the transmission sent down the side of the frame, so that the chassis could be much lower, and featuring a dropped-centre rear axle. The lower-saloon gangway no longer needed a step up from the rear platform, so the upper deck floor was able to be that much lower, permitting a central gangway to be used -and yet the bus could still pass under low bridges. This low 'decker was named Lodekka! The other new design was a single decker, in which Bristol kept up with the other major manufacturers by laying the engine on its side, under the floor, between the axles. Being right out of the way, seating capacity could be increased by as many as six. Bristol and ECW built this underfloor-engined model as an integral vehicle, with no separate chassis, resulting in light weight, so the model was called Light Saloon, or LS. Horizontal Gardner and Bristol engines were made available for it.

The LS entered production in 1952, after which the LULWL was dropped, and the Lodekka, or LD, arrived in 1954 after considerable testing and modifying, enabling the KS/KSW to cease in 1957. The Lodekka was viewed with envy by operators outside the B.T.C., so Bristol negotiated with Dennis in 1958 for the manufacture of the Lodekka under license, as the Dennis Loline. 1954 also saw a new Small Capacity 35-seater emerge for rural routes, the SC4LK, with Gardners smallest engine. Meanwhile, following the Natonalisation of a large number of road-haulage firms, the new British Road Services looked for a new fleet of lorries. Bristol responded in 1952 with a 8 wheeler Heavy Goods chassis, which was fitted with a powerful engine by Leyland (HG6L). An Articulated tractor-unit (HA6L) followed in 1955 and later, when a more powerful Gardner engine was introduced, the 6LX, this was installed in the HA6G.

The most notable event of 1955 was the renaming of the manufacturing arm of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company to Bristol Commercial Vehicles Ltd. The integral LS model was replaced by a vehicle with separate chassis in 1957; this made it Medium Weight or MW. Only Gardner 5HLW and 6HLW engines were offered in the MW. From 1958 double deckers as well as single deckers were allowed to be 30ft long and in 1957 Bristol built six 30ft Lodekkas with 70 seats - LDL6Gs - for assessment. It was felt the Lodekka would benefit from a flatter lower-saloon floor and in 1958 two prototypes were built, a 27ft LDS8G and a 3Oft LDL6G. A more powerful Bristol engine, the BVW, was introduced in the same year and was installed in LDSBs and in a production batch of eight LDSSBs for Brighton Hove & District - their first Lodekkas. A new fashion was emerging with the longer double deckers now permissible - the door at the front instead of a rear platform. This allowed the driver to control the flow of passengers, while the conductor concentrated on the extra fares. Bristol responded with a new range of Flat-floor Lodekkas in 1960 - the FS (Flat-floor, Short - traditional length 60 seater); FL Flat-floor Long, with 70 seats); FSF Flat-floor, Short, Forward-entrance) and FLF flat-floor, Long, Forward-entrance). After two years it had become obvious where operators' tastes lay - with the conventional FS and the new fangled FLF! So the FSF and FL were discontinued. By now, Gardner had a more powerful engine to offer, termed the 6LX, and some operators chose this unit in their FLFs. The 35 seat SC4LK was dropped after 1980, when a Small, Underfloor engined chassis was introduced, with 30 seats (SUS) or 36 seats (SUL). The engine was a Acylinder unit, bought in from Albion. Western/Southem National ran far and away the largest number of SU-Types.

In 1962 the maxmum length of single deckers was again increased, to 36ft (11 metres). Most manufacturers simply stretched their existing underfloor engined chassis. Not so Bristol! The new length permitted 54 or 55 seats, which was about the same as the old K-Type double deckers being taken out of service. Bristol could see the 36 footer replacing double deckers on some fairly busy routes, so felt a low, easy entrance was desirable. But with an engine below the floor between the axles, the chassis was too high. If instead the engine was moved to the back, behind the rear axle and still under the floor, the rest of the chassis could be sloped down to a low front doorway. This was the layout Bristol adopted -a Rear Engined chassis, or RE. The weight of the engine at the back was offset by putting the gearbox ahead of the axle and, to get the transmission shafts over the axle, a Lodekka dropped-centre axle was there for the using! The RE was first built in two forms, the RELL (Long, Low) as a bus, and the RELH (Long, High), for coach work, where the low entrance was not as important as large luggage lockers along the sides. The RE range was extended to include the Shorter RESL and RESH in 1987, following the ending of the production of the MW, then to the 12-metre REMH in 1988; this model earned a high respect after glamorous REMH6G coaches were introduced by Eastern Scottish and Western SMT on the fast Edinburgh or Glasgow to London Motorway services.

A major event of 1965 was that Bristol was released from its restriction of sales to the State-owned operators. This came about by the Government swapping some shares with Leyland. Bristol was keen to offer the famous Lodekka and the new and acclaimed RE to all-comers. In the event, no Lodekkas were ordered by other firms, but the RE attracted a great deal of custom, some companies choosing bodywork other than by Eastern Coach Works. By the early 1970s, there was a major swing in favour of large capacity single deckers and the RE became a best-seller. Indeed, of all the British rear-engined single deck chassis, the RE was the only true success! One area where the RE sold particularly well was with Lancashire municipal operators - right on Leyland's doorstep! Most of these had bodies built by East Lancashire Coach Builders. Early REs had only used Gardner 6HLW or 6HLX engines, but from 1987 Leyland engines were also offered. At the same time, FLFs were offered with Leyland engines (although in the event only specified by Hants & Dorset/Wilts & Dorset), while production of Bristol engines was drawn to a close. Incidentally, the last 5 cylinder Gardner engines had been installed in FS5Gs and MW5Gs in 1966, 33 years after the first pioneering installation.

In 1966, Bristol was allowed its first stand at a Commercial Motor Show since 1948 and had a new type of double-decker to display. The response by Leyland to the original Lodekka concept in 1954 had been to place the engine across the rear platform, to simplify drive lines. This idea culminated in the launch of their Atlantean in 1958 which, although no longer of low height, allowed seating in the 30footer for no fewer than 78 (against 70 in the LDL) and with the platform at the front, watched over by the driver. Daimler picked up on this idea with their Fleetline of 1962 and Bristol needed to follow if they were to compete. For the 1966 bus, Bristol designed a chassis also with a Vertical Rear engine, as the prototype VR. Bristol, however, placed this engine in line with the chassis, in the offside rear corner, driving straight to a Lodekka rear axle. The chassis frame was developed from the FLF to make a low height bus. Bristol could also see the VR receiving longer bodies, with a second staircase over the engine, and single-deck bodies with continental-style multiple doorways, all with low, easy, access. In the event, to comply with Government Grants towards the cost of new buses, the VR was redesigned with the engine turned across the back of the chassis in a Transverse position - VRT -although the Longitudinal position was still available to special order. The latter was immediately chosen by Ribblel Standerwick for trend-setting Lancashie to London Motorway double-deck coaches, with Long and High frames and Leyland engines (VRULH6Ls), while similar chassis renewed Bristol's connections with South Africa, where they were bodied as city buses. Otherwise, the VRT became the standard format, being introduced while the last Lodekkas were entering service, in 1968 - thirty years ago this year. The usual VRT was a 70 to 77-seater, with a Short, Low frame (VRT/SL), but a few customers chose Long VRT/LLs seating up to 86 (though fewer if central exit doors were featured), while Liverpool uniquely specified the Long, High-framed VRT/LH for their busiest cross-city services. All VRTs to begin with were powered by Gardner 6LX engines, or the new, even more powerful 6LXB, and all had semi- or fully automatic transmission, a system that had been offered first in REs and later modeI FLFs.

Another new chassis of 1968 was rather more simple; a straightforward, Lightweight Horizontal engined single decker, the LH. Aimed at rural services mainly, three wheelbases were offered - the LHS for about 35 seats, LH for 45 and the LHL for up to 53 seats, and smaller Leyland and Perkins engines were available, with manual gearboxes. The LHL was bodied exclusively as a luxury coach for private operators and, later, the LHS became very popular as a midi-coach for this sector. A notable sale was of 95 ECW-bodied LH8Ls (with semi-automatic transmission) to London Transport.

1968 also saw the setting up of the National Bus Company to administer nearly all major company operators in England and Wales. Many NBC firms were customers of the RE already and most others soon followed Suit. The LH became a popular choice during the 1970s for rural services, although the NBC suggested a life span of only seven years for lightweight single deckers (it is notable that, since the NBC has broken up, a few operators have recorded 20 years service from their LHs!). In the mid 1970s, double deckers began to enjoy a revival and at one stage, the Bristol VR grew to become the best-selling British double decker! This was in the model's Series 3 form, for which a new engine was offered as an alternative to the two Gardners - the Leyland 501 unit, a smaller but turbocharged engine. The Series 3 was characterised by having its engine encapsulated, to reduce sound emissions in line with European thinking, and, in order to supply cooling air, the addition of grilles to the upper corners of the body sites.

Meanwhile, at Leyland, plans of rationalisation and new models had been progressing. Firstly, Leyland and the NBC collaborated over a new, standardised, integral single decker, the Leyland National. This was introduced in 1973 and NBC operators were instructed to order no more REs. Municipal customers were still allowed REs, but only until 1975. But then, Ulsterbus in Northern Ireland and Citybus in Belfast decided the RELL6G was vital for their fleet renewal, so, over the next few years, no fewer than 600 REs were built for them! Another order was accepted from Christchurch Transport Board in New Zealand. Some of these had ECW bodies built up from kits.

Leyland then turned its attention on a new integral doubledecker, to replace their Atlantean, the Daimler Fleetline and the Bristol VR. In the event, this bus, the Leyland Titan, was beset with production problems and few other than London Transport, seemed interested in it. Leyland decided instead to design a separate chassis, using the Titan's technology. The job of designing this chassis - the Leyland Olympian - was given to Bristol! Furthermore, production was to take place at Bristol, although it did mean the VR would finish. (The LH also ceased.) So, in August 1981, the last true Bristol chassis, a VRTISL316LXB, was dispatched to ECW, to be finished not for an NBC company but for Stevensons of Spath in Staffordshire, for whom it was registered UVT 49X. The last LHS coach was delayed so as to become CLJ 41 3Y, (with Bere Regis & District.)

Unfortunately, the early 1980s were not good for the bus manufacturers. There was a sharp downward turn in new orders, as the Bus Grant was ended and uncertainty was felt for an approaching deregulated world. After only a thousand Olympian chassis had been built, Leyland - now in sole charge of Bristol - closed the Brislington factory, in October 1983. The last chassis was bodied by ECW for Devon General (A686 KDV). Olympian production was transferred to the Leyland National plant at Workington in Cumbria, then later to Leyland in Lancashire and then, under Volvo ownership, to Irvine in Ayrshire. The Olympian is still in production by Volvo - not so far different from the model designed by Bristol people! And what of the deregulated world? An unprecedented demand for inexpensive and reliable used buses saw RES and VRs enter front line duty - often competing with other operators - all over the country and earned remarkable respect! Even the LH was thrown into the affray on Teesside, where this bus, designed for gentle rural work, ended up on busy and frequent urban services ... taking it all in its stride.                                                  

Allan Macfarlane. The Bristol interest Circle, May 1998

Bus Description

Description of bus types