Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Winter Warmer

The keen eyed* will have already observed that a new Winter banner has arrived on the blog, marking not only the coldest week of the year so far, but also twelve months since 270 KTA was delivered to her new owner.

It was Sunday, 6th December 2009, just days after I'd agreed to buy her, that she arrived from her previous home in Cornwall behind a tow truck.

I remember arriving in a half-light to find her ticking over impatiently in the yard, her front panel missing and smelling strongly of leaking fuel, and the mixture of elation and horror in realising it was now over to me.

Who would have believed that twelve months on, the elation would still be just as strong (as is, at times, the horror.. and come to think of it, the smell of leaking fuel - but we'll say nothing of those). My aims for a return to the road within weeks of that day have proved naive, but there's been much progress, and an awful lot of learning to be proud of.

And proud I am, of us both.

We eventually put her inside, before spending the rest of the evening in darkness trying to revive the tow truck, which had itself conked out. I chose not to take it as an omen...

*Those with even keener eyes will observe that my Winter theme has called for some artistic licence. The SU on the right of the banner is in fact 273 KTA, seen crossing snowy Dartmoor sometime between 1969 and 1971. The terrain is just like that which her sister will need to conquer en route to MOT next year. As for the weather, well...

Thursday, 2 December 2010


If you think you're cold, spare a thought for our six-wheeled friends who are currently braving a relentless run of sub-zero temperatures. Tonight in the South Hams, 270 KTA and friends will be huddling together for warmth in surroundings of -8 degrees C!

And if that hasn't melted your heart, spare a thought for those of us who have been working on them in the arctic...

Here I am wearing three jumpers, two vests, six socks and Compo's hat (from "Last of the Summer Wine") last weekend.

After a couple of weekends storing up heat, I've begun work on my list of jobs-to-be-done-before-we-go-anywhere (to appear here in full shortly). The aim is that, once I've worked through the list, I should not only have cured all the outstanding issues which have so far hampered attempts at an MOT, but I'll also have performed a good deal of preventative maintenance which seems to have been lacking since... well...

First and foremost, I've been tackling a problem which seems to be at the heart of the braking issue. Comparing the vacuum gauge to that on her sisters during the Kingsbridge weekend, 270 KTA is having great trouble building up vacuum.

For the uninitiated, whilst the brakes on an SU are hydraulic, they are assisted by a servo which is operated by vacuum. Without the servo, or the vacuum, the brakes will still operate but with limited force, and are pretty useless on the road. Sounds familiar, doesn't it...

After weeks of isolating sections of the system in search of a leak, I concluded that the exhauster itself (which creates the vacuum) must be at fault. Mercifully, Colin Billington was able to provide some spares, and last weekend I became the world's leading expert in changing Bristol SU exhasuters... in the cold.

With a replacement exhauster fitted, the gauge reached levels of vacuum never before achieved, and with full vacuum the brakes worked really well. However, a trip up the drive revealed that vacuum was still too slow to build...

It's possible that, whilst the replacement exhauster is more effective than the original, it's still not quite up to the job, and with that in mind I'm going to try a third exhauster before drawing too many conclusions.

Though I might wait a few days for slightly warmer weather...

Sympathies also to SMA 5, Trevor Leach's former West Yorkshire SUL bus, who is currently snowed in "in a cold, wet building on a farm in North Yorkshire". Your South West cousins are thinking of you and rubbing their tyres together...

Monday, 20 September 2010


270 KTA may not have been able to go to the ball, but her Fairy Godfather did bring her a coach.*

Here they are, the Sheppard SUs, together for the first time in almost 15 years. Following this weekend's brilliant Kingsbridge Running Day (more about which in a moment), an overnight stop for 275 KTA allowed for a reunion in the sunshine at 270 KTA's Devon home.

It's likely they are friends of old. They would certainly have worked together during the Christmas of 1965, when 270 KTA moved (briefly) from her Kingsbridge base to 275 KTA's native Plymouth depot.

Last time they met, at the Plymouth rally in Newnham Park in 1996, both were in the early stages of preservation. 275 KTA had made the the long journey from Berkshire, having only recently returned to the road after a decade in bits; 270 KTA arrived from Laira behind a Western National tow truck, having been donated to them for preservation.

This weekend, 275 KTA was very much a star performer at the Kingsbridge Running Day, where we were celebrating 50 years since the first Bristol SU took to the road. Among the highlights of a truly magical day, a journey on Service 110 saw us heading along the narrow lanes through Beeson and Beesands to beautiful East Portlemouth, with a full compliment of 33 passengers - who loved every minute!

As my Dad will attest (he negotiated the double hairpin bends on hills with customary skill, often to well-deserved applause from the passengers), the SUs come into their own on terrain like this.

When they're running, that is! The past few weeks show that 270 KTA has, realistically, a good few months of work in store before I can think of subjecting her to passengers with any great confidence. A check-over by my Dad (and Chief Engineer) this weekend has cemented that fact, and I'm now working on prioritising a list of 'little jobs' for me to tackle over the Winter months.

The weekend has spurred me on enormously, and reminded me that the occasional perils of owning a Bristol SU are worthwhile. 275 KTA travelled 470 miles in three days without a problem - a timely reminder that with excellent maintenance, they're excellent little vehicles.

So - 270 KTA will go to the ball one day. But not until I've stripped-down the glass slipper, cleaned it from top to toe and reassembled it with copper-slip. It should be easier to fit then, too...

*Comments from SU detractors about "ugly sisters" will be ignored.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Together for the first time in 15 years: Full story to follow tomorrow...

Thursday, 16 September 2010


"On the third occasion - optimistically booked before I'd uncovered the full horror of the offside rear brakes - I chomped the hard bullet of realism and cancelled well in advance."
... and on the fourth occasion, the hard bullet of realism bit me.

Given the absence of jubilant updates last week, it will come as no surprise that our latest lurch at the green certificate wasn't the triumph I'd hoped for. Sadly, the mission was aborted within a few miles of base, when multiple problems suggested it would be wise to turn back while I had the option.

Firstly the brakes, though greatly improved since our first adventure, were still not quite to my satisfaction on Devon's hills; the re-build of the rear brakes has undoubtedly worked wonders, but there's still not the braking response I'd hoped for beyond shunting in the yard. I conclude that the front brakes will require a similar rebuild, and perhaps the vacuum servo will need attention, too.

Also, a gentle 'knocking' sound - evident since it I bought it, whenever the engine is warm - seemed to increase in volume during our journey; coupled with some dense black smoke on the hills, these are all signs that I need to do some more work before I trouble Mr Guscott again.

One great sadness for me is that 270 KTA won't be on the road for the Kingsbridge Vintage Bus Running Day this Saturday, where we'll be celebrating 50 years of the Bristol SU. Not only was she originally based at Kingsbridge (the only remaining SU with that claim), but she now lives so tantalisingly close to where five other SUs will be recreating a 1960s timetable in celebration of their half-centenary.

I couldn't have tried harder to have her ready. But with every week I've worked on her, it's become more and more clear that 270 KTA needs quite a bit more work than her reasonably tidy cosmetic appearance would suggest. And ultimately, that's what real preservation is about; doing things properly, instead of the patching up and bodging which has kept many a vehicle mobile (just), until somebody takes responsibility and does it properly.

And Do it properly I jolly well shall.

Happily I'll still be there on Saturday with my Dad and 275 KTA, an SU which (it's heartening to remember) we've successfully brought back from an even more sorry state. Although mine won't be at Kingsbridge, I hope we can bring the two together at some point over the weekend for the first time in fifteen years. Last time I managed a photo I was just 13...

So it's looking as though 2011 may be 270 KTA's year instead, with an exciting winter of challenges to come. It'll make that first rally all the more exciting, whichever one it is.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Dave Guscott - the affable boss of Guscott's Coaches in Halwill Junction, North Devon - will chuckle to himself when he sees what's booked in for MOT next Tuesday at 1000. It'll be the fourth time my name has appeared in the bookings this year.

We failed to reach North Devon for our first appointment back in March, after 270 KTA developed a heart-shuddering banging noise just a few miles from home.

Having replaced the diaphragm in the governor, we did make it across Dartmoor in April for our second appointment; however, given the braking problems which became all too apparent en-route, it's a miracle we made it back again.

On the third occasion - optimistically booked before I'd uncovered the full horror of the offside rear brakes - I chomped the hard bullet of realism and cancelled well in advance.

The reason so many West Country preservationists travel to Guscott's for their MOTs is that, unlike the majority of commercial MOT stations, Dave understands how old vehicles work. He sticks unbendingly to the rules, and crucially, he'll tell you if there's something wrong with your bus. In 270 KTA's case, back in April, there was: the brakes, which had somehow passed a test elsewhere just a year or so (and very few miles) previously, were far from up to the job. Not that I needed to be told after a terrifying drive...

"Otherwise, it's all good", said Dave, with words that give heart for Tuesday.

We'll see. This weekend I'll finish off servicing the handbrake linkage, and then spend some time adjusting the front brakes, which are actually pretty good as they stand. I'll then pull her outside for a good scrub inside and out.

One other prepartion for Tuesday will be the coning-off of five parking spaces in the BBC car park. Come what may, I'll need to be at work as normal on Tuesday afternoon, and will therefore be arriving by coach.

That should raise a chuckle, too...

Sunday, 22 August 2010


"If there is no struggle, there is no progress", so said Frederick Douglass. He'd have loved the SU...

This weekend saw an historic moment in the project to rebuild 270 KTA's rear brakes. Pulling her out into daylight today, I put my foot on the brake pedal and... the thing actually stopped! This is progress.

It's certainly a marked improvement on four months ago. The rear brakes were reporting an efficency of 30%, with the park brake barely holding it on the flat at 15% efficiency. Looking at the records from previous owners, the brakes had passed the last MOT in 2008 with just 1% in hand!

A strip-down and rebuild was the only option. It turned out that both sides, as well as being long overdue a general service, had some faults.

On the nearside, the top shoe was barely making contact with the drum when the brake was applied. Closer examination revealed that the steady-bolt (which should be adjusted to ensure the shoe is square with the drum) had been over-tightened, and so the shoe was so far out of alignment that only the outside edge was touching the drum. No wonder it was only 30% efficient!

On the offside, two big problems had coincided to wreck the shoes and the drum. Firstly, the hub bearings were loose, so the brakes were fighting against play and drift from the drum. Also, some twirp had seemingly been unable to fit the shoes onto the adjuster (admittedly, I found it difficult, too), so had left the adjuster butted-up to the shoe at ninety-degrees to the slot into which it was supposed to fit!

The steady-bolt issue had been down to worn threads in the backing-plate, so in both cases these had to come off and have nuts welded to them. This also gave a good opportunity to tidy-up the chassis and springs, and apply a few coats of silver.

The bi-sectors and adjusters for each side were stripped, cleaned and reassembled with much copperslip (my new favourite smell), and newly re-lined shoes were fitted to both sides. Colin Billington was able to provide a brand new drum for the offisde, still chalked "BIDEFORD" from its days in storage with Western National. I was very proud to be the one finally to fit it to an SU...

Having completed the rebuild yesterday, today I adjusted each side in turn, before trying the results in the yard. A nice firm pedal was a sure sign of improvement, as was the alarmingly short travel on the handbrake lever, with arm work reduced by about 75%! As it happens, I've since removed the handbrake linkage for further tightening up, as promised - it's currently like the proverbial "stick in custard" at the back end.

For now though, I'm reliving the sense of satisfaction I felt when hitting the pedal today, which eclipsed the many struggles I've overcome in the past few months. With another weekend's work, I'm confident I should be ready to try out those MOT brake rollers again for a slightly more brutal measure of my progress.

Whilst I've done all the work myself, thanks are due to my Dad, whose only hours away from the Chief Engineer's Advice Line in the last four months have been spent working at his lathe, machining parts for me. Thanks also to Colin Billington for his invaluable help in sourcing parts, and to a man I know only as "Kevin", who repairs tractors in the Devon hamlet of Woodleigh - he's the nice man with the mig welder, you see...

Saturday, 14 August 2010


For the first time in many months, 270 KTA is spending tonight on all four (well, six) wheels, following a successful day completing the rebuild of the offside rear brakes.

There'll be a return to the blocks briefly next weekend, when I revisit the nearside to fit new shoes, but with everything so recently reassembled I hope this should be no more than a morning's work.

I'll then adjust the newly rebuilt brakes on both sides, before tackling the rather sloppy handbrake linkage which currently seems to travel in all sorts of unexpected directions when the park brake is applied. My plan is to strip it down and adjust the rods from scratch, given the brakes it controls now are very different to the ones it was tugging at six months ago.

Full details of the rear brake rebuild to follow soon, but for now I'm rejoicing in today's success with a bottle or two of Quercus IPA, from 270 KTA's local brewery in Kingsbridge. And the coach, meantime, is enjoying its own weight once again...

Friday, 6 August 2010


Welcome to the blog. Ever since I bought 270 KTA last December, I've been meaning to find a way of sharing our many tales with friends, enthusiasts, sadists and anyone else to whom they may appeal - and here it is.

From boiling-up in the midst of a drugs raid near Plymouth, to an emergency stop at Morrisons in Tavistock to buy 24 bottles of mineral water; from explosive backfiring in the face of a South Hams gardener, to shooting myself in the eye with brake fluid; you'll get blood, sweat and tears by the gallon here. (N.B. We work in imperial.)

But first, we've some catching up to do...

Many are confused, amused and bemused that I should have such a fascination for a type of bus that retired from regular service some years before I was born.

My association with the Bristol SU actually goes back to 16th June 1990 when, on the HCVS Ridgeway Run, I first saw Colin Billington's 286 KTA. I was instantly taken by its quaintness - much like a Bristol MW in size, but considerably lighter 'under foot', with smaller wheels and thinner profile - and charmed by its unusual bulging headlights.

Aged 9, I meticulously researched my new favourite single deckers, and presented my primary school teachers with many a hand-drawn image of what they took to be 'just a bus'. Little did they know...

In fact, the SU became just as much a part of my childhood as if I'd grown up in Devon or Cornwall in the '60s. In a moment of weakness in 1993, my Dad - previously not a great fan of SUs - conceded that they were in fact "quite sweet", and bought 275 KTA from Colin Billington for us to restore. We'd already proven our capabilities with our Hants & Dorset FLF, by then in rally condition, and 275 KTA was to be the next challenge.

Aged 12, I began collecting photographs of SUs in service and, uncannily, the very first photo I bought was this one: of 270 KTA in Trowbridge, c.1968.

As the collection grew, the original photo remained a favourite, and I was pleased in 1995 to learn that 270 KTA had actually survived. It had recently been donated to the Western National Preservation Group by Willis of Bodmin, albeit in a bit of a state. Imagine my delight when, at the 1995 Plymouth Rally in Newnham Park, the opportunity to take this photo arose...

I followed the fortunes (and otherwise) of 420 through the years that followed, and when I found myself at BBC Plymouth for a job interview in 2008, it was no surprise that immediately after my grilling I went clambering up the bank behind Chelston Meadow depot in the hope of catching a glimpse...

As it turned out, I had more success with the job than I did with the photo, and I relocated to Plymouth in November 2008. One of the great perks, if not motivations, was to be the active West Country preservation movement, and a string of rallies on my doorstep - in the case of Plymouth's Hoe rally, quite literally, and in July 2009 guess who I caught up with...

Little did I think that five months later I'd be sending off the V5...

As a result of downsizing at the Western National Preservation Group, 270 KTA was set to pass, along with other buses, to Colin Billington. Being fully stocked in the SU department, he offered me first refusal, and thanks to his help the unthinkable happened almost overnight.

270 KTA was towed to her new home on 4th December 2009, untaxed and without MOT, and oddly with very little input from her owner-to-be. WNPG carried out the tow while I was busy on other bus related business in Cornwall; and completely by chance our journeys coincided near Landrake. In a moment I'll never forget, weeks of conversations and years of dreams suddenly turned into a reality: 270 KTA was heading my way, quite literally.

No doubt, both 270 KTA and I owe a large debt of gratitude to WNPG for keeping her alive across two decades. Into 2010, quite a bit of mechanical work is needed to restore her to the road. In due course I'll post a more detailed diary of what's been tackled so far, including a very leaky fuel pump, a puntured diaphragm in the governor, and a thorough rebuild of the rear brakes which were badly in need of attention.

Once MOT'd, I plan to carry out various preventative measures, such as renewing water hoses and re-routing some pipes which are in danger of rubbing. Perhaps more excitingly I want to spend some time on getting the cosmetics right, including a full repaint into the correct shades of Tilling cream and green and application of original 'serif'-style transfers.

Bold plans, indeed. As a preservationist's assistant of some 20 years standing, I should know better than to make plans, and this blog will no doubt serve to highlight that error time and time again. But beyond the tales of over-confidence and optimistic deadlines, I hope the blog serves as a lasting record of what goes into a project like this - and, of course, the unquantifiable but immense pleasure that comes out of it.

Read on!