Sunday, 27 December 2015

It May Be Winter Outside...

With the job of our traditional end of year review already done for 2015 by our most recent posts, I thought I'd offer instead some seasonal shots of Bristol SUL coaches which will make you feel warm inside (and cold outside).

What with 2015's mild Christmas, it's easy to forget that Winters were like this when our friend w're a lad.

Photo: M Parsons
Here, 270 KTA is seen battling the notorious Winter of 1963 on private hire work, thought to be nearing East Portlemouth. The driver, attired in full Winter overcoat and hat, was probably no gauge for the temperature of his passengers, but it's hard to imagine why the door has been left open in such freezing conditions; at least two of the hopper side-vents are also open! One can only assume that our friend's heating worked better in 1963 than today - or were the hoppers as hard to close then as they were when I bought it?

Photo: Beckingtonian
Here's a photo regular readers will recognise from earlier discussions, showing our friend during the Winter of 1969/70. It's one of several photos I have of 270 KTA battling snow in the Trowbridge area at the end of Western National's reign in this part of Wiltshire - or was it beyond? All records suggest the coach moved to Taunton from Jaunary 1 1970 - when Trowbridge operations passed to Bristol Omnibus Company - but some photographs, including this one, purport to be from 1970. Is it possible that 270 KTA stayed on briefly and unofficially with BOC? The presence of snow may hold the answer, but as yet, nobody has been able to tell me definitively when the snow came and went in Trowbridge in 1969/70....

Most likely during the same Winter, 423 (273 KTA) follows a sunlit path across snowy Dartmoor en-route to Tavistock. Snow is a regular feature of both Dartmoor and Exmoor, and we'll no doubt be recreating this scene - deliberately or otherwise - in the future.

Photo: Colin Billington
Here's 275 KTA - fellow member of the Sheppard fleet - during a shunting manoeuvre in 2009. The snow fell quickly, leading to this delightful Christmas card scene which proves that an SU coach will stay happy and smile through even the harshest of conditions.

Finally, a uplifting Winter scene worthy of an Ealing Comedy. Here, passengers and crew of an Exmoor tour enjoy a snowball fight while their unfortunate SUL awaits rescue. It's likely this is the Winter of 1963/4; the coach is most likely to be 430 (280 KTA), then based at Minehead.

It's interesting and heartening that, today, our friend is a regular visitor to all the locations pictured here, though not often in these conditions. Perhaps Winters really were tougher in days gone by - or perhaps SULs are getting softer.

Seasons greetings to all our followers - here's to a Happy New Year and a 2016 full of adventure and success.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Playing Catch Up: Part 4 (Paramours)

Remember this sorry tale of infidelity, in which my philandering with one of 270 KTA's sisters left me heartbroken at the roadside, longing for my true love? 

Well, as they say about promiscuous husbands who never learn, if he's done it once....

Truth is, in September, I took another bus to Kingsbridge Running Day. 270 KTA did attend too, but in the trusted care of Driver Farley (who's now getting a bit too good for my liking). Meanwhile, your scribe's attention was demanded by a slightly older but more petite paramour, who required the hands of an experienced man... 

672 COD - the pioneer Bristol SU, no less - has just undergone a major engine rebuild. With new big-end bearings, crankshaft and more, a period of careful 'running-in' is required; and who better to keep an ear on your big-end than a man who's spent years responding to funny noises made by SUs in their plaintive cries for help?

As it happens, this little SU got its naughtiness out of the way in good time for the big day (well, the day before) when some familiar fuel problems caused us to spend an afternoon flushing out the system round the back of a roadside farmyard. I suppose it's not an unknown venue for a first date...
The rest of the dalliance went very well; I think we both enjoyed it, though I must admit to a certain feeling of guilt afterwards. There are few temptations that would cause me to surrender 270 KTA's driving seat at Kingsbridge, but here was a time of great need. 

Besides, this was just a one off... 

The following day, I was back where I belong for the now traditional post-Kingsbridge run to Dartmouth, this year extended to the South Devon Railway at Buckfastleigh for a pasty lunch and a cream tea on the train. Remembering what I'd missed, I hogged 270 KTA for the whole escapade.

A stop at Totnes (scene of our near miss with a traffic warden, remember?) presented another temptation for your scribe,  whose childhood obsession with Totnes depot has haunted him into pseudo-adulthood. The possibility of trying to squeeze past the depot site in Ticklemore Street  (now flats) was not to be missed... 

So, after head gaskets, water pumps, luggage nets, seat frames, Penzance, transfers, Taunton, exhaust pipes, alternators, Teignmouth, misnavigations on the Royal Blue Run, Travelodges, two weddings, a fuel leak, Kingsbridge and Totnes... you're almost up to date.

Photo: Graham Richardson, Plymothian Transit
Before I declare "normal service resumed" on the blog, I should explain the first photo in Part 1 of our catch-up. Taken by Graham Richardson (author of the splendid Plymothian Transit blog), it shows our friend and his owner on a very important day in West Country bus history. In September, First Group sold its South Devon operations to Stagecoach, marking the end of several routes which have their roots (no pun, etc.) stretching back before the birth of Western National in the 1920s.  

Among them was the famous 93, Plymouth to Dartmouth via Kingsbridge, recently named one of Britain's most scenic and treasured bus routes by the Telegraph. With a long history of Bristol-built traction over the decades, it's to my great pride that 270 KTA was to be the last Bristol vehicle to work the 93, as part of the special free bus services organised to commemorate the change. 

"Where did you get this lovely old bus from?" asked one of the regular passengers.

I could think of no better way to explain than pointing her in the direction of this blog.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Playing Catch Up: Part 3 (Wedding Special)

270 KTA receives more wedding invitations than I do these days. 

At the grand ol' age of 33, I'm just reaching the end of the morning peak for weddings. Most of my contemporaries have now done the deed, or else firmly eschewed matrimony in favour of a life committed to old buses. It's just as expensive.

But I do receive more than the occasional enquiry about vintage bus hire for weddings various, asking how much it would cost to take a bride to heaven and back. As it happens, I don't hire out our friend for a few good reasons. For a start I'd need to hold an Operator's licence to charge, and having held one for other exploits in the past, I know it would become a huge distraction from the core aim of keeping 270 KTA alive and well for us all to enjoy. Plus, the pressure of delivering a paid service with a fifty-three year old vehicle would be way too much for my nervous disposition, especially on someone's big day. So our friend generally has to disappoint the bride...

... but there have been two rather fun exceptions this year. For good friends, an appearance from 270 KTA makes a splendid wedding gift that money can't buy. In July, our pals James and Charlotte decided to "go through with it after all" in a superb ceremony at Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, and we were delighted to accept the invitation.

The high-risk duty of delivering the groom and guests from Exeter - some 70 miles away - was undertaken with some trepidation, although we didn't let on in case 270 KTA smelled the familiar scent of fear. As it was, this and the return journey (complete with bride) passed without incident and an excitable crowd cheered us on with laughter and song.

While the ceremony was going on, 270 KTA was enjoying a liaison of his own in a backstreet Sherborne car park with an older model from the local area. Terry Bennett's SUL just happened to be passing (a likely story - Terry and I suspect the two had long been plotting their Dorset romance). Above we see the happy couple exchanging vows and tickets before their star-crossed romance was brought to an end by the need for lunch.

Fresh ribbons and bows were back on in September, when my school-friend (and oldest enemy) Riah married her beloved Rob. We were honoured to be invited along to the beautiful Chavenage House in Gloucestershire, famous as a location for BBC1's Poldark and, more excitingly still for me and nobody else, the follow up to Are You Being Served?, Grace and Favour...  As Master of Ceremonies, I think I probably passed for Captain Peacock.

It's a wonderful part of the world - former Bristol Omnibus SUS stamping ground on the outskirts of Stroud, and Western National territory before that - and one where 270 KTA was instantly at home. Indeed, the residents of Rodborough Common took a great interest...

Despite not being invited in for breakfast, our friend behaved almost impeccably for the 300 mile round trip, with only a slight weep from a fuel bleed-off pipe to raise a brow. As it was, this turned out to be just an olive which had worked itself lose, something I often suffer from myself at wedding receptions... 

Another reason I'm so rarely asked.

In Part 4 of our catch-up, we'll hop back to the First Devon Farewell event in September, Kingsbridge Running Day and more, to bring us firmly up to date and ready to resume normal blogging service. 

To be continued...

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Playing Catch Up: Part 2

Changing head gaskets one month; tying sheep bends the next. That's the beauty of bus preservation.

Remember our pre-Penzance rush to get 270 KTA's interior back together? One of the troublesome tasks I faced was the hanging of the luggage nets, a tangled mess since long before I bought the coach. On examining the nets I had, it was clear they were not the originals but some that had been cut to length and then abandoned during fitting. The reason was quite clear: whilst they had been cut to measure, the wielder of rule and scissors hadn't accounted for the fact that, when stretched across their width... the nets would reduce in length. Hence, they were too short.

It is, it genuinely is, sheer coincidence that on the very night I discovered this irritation, members of The Braid Society were gathering in Devon for a conference. 

Quite literally on 270 KTA's doorstep, I arrived with my enquiry trailing behind me, and was instantly welcomed by the party. All fingers pointed to Edna, a member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers (follow the link if you don't believe me), who immediately recognised the 'sheep bend' technique and demonstrated the art at lightning speed to her new apprentice...

Together (well, I tied a couple) we managed to join two sections of net for the offside, and I defy you to spot the join...

May was, for me, an insanely busy month when every engagement crashed uncomfortably into the next. Having been hosting the Stagecoach South West Awards until the wee small hours of Sunday morning, I leapt at the offer from our pal Mel Williams to drive 270 KTA to the Taunton Running Day, picking me up en route. Seldom do I get the chance for a ride, or to take videos like this...

Having caught up on some sleep (just as well we had a smooth driver), I resumed my usual seat for four round trips on Service 270 to Corfe via Trull. This is certainly a route worked by 270 KTA during its time at Taunton depot, and was almost always operated by an SU throughout the 60s and early-70s, for reasons that became obvious! Working alongside 286 KTA, there were several single-track stretches where the SUs had to play hide and seek in the hedges to enable one another to turn and pass.

As the day went on, our friend began to serenade passengers with an orchestra of unwanted sounds, the first being a mystery tinkle when the engine was left to idle, the second being something much easier to identify...

This is the front section of 270 KTA's exhaust, leading from the manifold to the the silencer - or, at least, it was. No doubt affronted by its disturbance during Gasket-gate, the ailing flexi-pipe decided to flex no more. We barked and tinkled our way home from Taunton.

Our good friend Malcolm offered to source some pipe which, true to form, turned out to be an unusual size. He saved not only the day, but the rest of the month, by doing the necessary welding too. We owe Malcolm and Nora a trip on a non-tinkling 270 KTA now that the season has quietened down (and so has the coach!) - I haven't forgotten. The tinkle turned out to be a loose stud in an alternator bracket, by the way, which I solved during yet another of my nocturnal surgeries.

Thanks to Malcolm's help we were running again in time for Teignmouth Running Day, a first for 270 KTA but a return to some of the territory familiar from its Devon General days - and, indeed, from our outing last year. We'll be there again no doubt.

After last year's Royal Blue Run, which concluded with our friend being driven home using a piece of string for a throttle control, there was a pressure to return to good form in June. This year's run took the coaches from Windsor to Exeter on Day 1, Exeter to Penzance (via North Cornwall) on Day 2, and Penzance back to Exeter (via inland Cornwall and Tavistock) on Day 3. 270 KTA joined the convoy of seventeen vintage coaches for days two and three; day one had been a chance for me to catch up with the Senior Sheps and of course 275 KTA, who was trusted with the entire 750 mile round trip.

For this year's run I was joined by a new co-driver, who looks an awful lot like our faithful Conductor Farley, newly red-badged, specially insured and type-trained on 270 KTA for the occasion. Luke showed exceptional flare for the task, even on the most challenging of terrain, and is seen in the video above pursuing 275 KTA through the relatively straightforward streets of St. Ives. He certainly took better to his new role than 270 KTA's new navigator. Nuff said...

The chance to get coaches of the same type together is always a welcome feature of the Royal Blue run, and the joys of being a 'two SU' family (so far...) are clear for all to see. Unlike last year, the string stayed in the boot throughout, and 270 KTA completed this year's run without let or hindrance. 

After that long journey, I'll wrap up shortly and save our July adventures for Part 3 of our catch-up. I'll let you retire to Annabelle's with Andrew Neil, but for me, time for a good night's sleep. 

To be continued...

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Playing Catch Up: Part 1

There's an underlying flaw to blogging that has well and truly done for me this year: the more you do, the less time you have to write about it. 

Photo: Graham Richardson, Plymothian Transit
Since we first became manacled together (can you believe, almost six years ago now), this has been the busiest year for 270 KTA - and for me personally, the most intense.

Now, this is not just an excuse for the lack of activity on 270 KTA's blog over the past ten months, but also for the length of the posts you're going to have to endure if you want to catch up. And both our friend and I sincerely hope that you do...

To spur you on, there are the usual dramas that have become the staple of this blog over the years - like a 450 mile round trip to fetch a water pump for fitting overnight; like barricading-in a Police car at the entrance to Morrisons' car park in Bath; like spending £10 on a magnet to retrieve an escaped nut, only to find it's made from brass. Those sorts of things do you? There are also many highs, and many pretty pictures to enjoy along the way.

Let's pick up where we left off. I believe you wanted to know how to change a head gasket?

This pair'll show you. Back in February, Sheppards Junior and Senior set about solving 270 KTA's determination to mix oil and water. You'll recall that huge amounts of coolant were being deposited in the sump, a typical sign that the head gasket (which provides a seal between the top of the engine block and the head of the engine, and through which water travels) had failed. Indeed it had, though as you'd expect from our devious friend, that turned out to be only part of the story...

You can see from the scarring on the head (above, upside down on the bench) where coolant had been passing from the water jackets through the failed gasket in two places, and into the cylinders. The gasket certainly did need to be replaced, but the head, block and piston liners also needed work to ensure we'd get a good seal on the new one. The opportunity was taken for a full decoke, and many happy hours were spent grinding in the valves with our trusty 'gob-stick' and a tub of Chemico grinding paste that's older than I am. 

10 litres of Jizer proved to be almost enough for the many days of cleaning necessary to remove the milky white emulsion which had invaded every part of the system. Having installed the new gasket and refitted the head (and realised that a Sheppard will break long before a torque wrench), we then set about tackling the inevitable nine-hundred and ninety-nine jobs allied to the one we'd set out to do - brazing up a crack in the fuel bleed off pipe, sorting out the air cleaner, retrieving that aforementioned brass nut from the gap between the block and the chassis - all those little unexpected things that take so much time. 

No wonder that Jizer wasn't the only fluid consumed in volume...

Another of the nine-hundred and ninety-nine jobs was an old weakness of the Albion EN250 engine, whose rocker-cover is an aluminium casting with four fixing nuts across its centre. With the engine mounted on its side (had you never noticed?), it's necessary to get a good seal when fitting the cover, otherwise oil will simply drain to the ground through any gap. Over the years, the tendency has been to over-tighten the nuts, therefore bending the rocker cover and... oh dear - aluminium castings are so fragile look. When we took it off, 270 KTA's rocker cover was found to be both badly bowed across its length and cracked in several places, and would never achieve a seal if we put it back like that.

Just as well we have some clever friends in our midst. Not only is Alex Heath a very skilled precision welder (yes - aluminium can be welded), but a creative technician too. Above is his ingenious method for correcting the banana-shaped sides, a specially manufactured jig, used to vary the tension across the rocker cover as it was heated and cooled. Huge amounts of work went into getting this right, and we're very grateful for his help and skill.

By early-April, we heard this sound again - for the first time in 2015...

... but all was not as good as it sounded. After the shortest of test runs it was clear that, while necessary, the head gasket change hadn't completely solved the problem. Still, coolant was somehow finding its way into the sump, and with our traditional Penzance Running Day deadline looming, the pressure was on to find out how. 

Your scribe asked himself what might have caused the head gasket to fail in the first place, and suspicion fell on the water pump. This is the unit, driven by the engine, which pumps coolant around the system to prevent it from overheating. If it failed, the engine would run hot and very soon the head gasket would fail. Consulting the Albion diagram, it's clear that when the water pump is in good working order there is no direct route for coolant to pass through the unit into the engine. But if something wasn't right inside....

Bingo! This extraordinary sight is the impeller ('P' in the diagram above) which should force the coolant around the system. Dramatically sheered from its drive shaft, it clearly hadn't been doing a lot of impelling for quite a while, and was probably therefore at the root of the head gasket failure. Worse still, with no fixing ('R') at the end of this shaft, the innards of the water pump were free to float around - including, crucially, the rubber gland ('N') which would normally prevent coolant escaping to the engine. If only we had another water pump...

Oh! Here's one, together with somebody else who's owed a drink or two by 270 KTA... 

With the Penzance time-bomb ticking, Conductor Farley (more on whom in Part 2) managed to combine a work commute from Exeter to London and back with a stop at Maidenhead station. Here, he was met by Colin Billington and a fully functioning waterpump, which he'd kindly had overhauled by Graham Green while our courier attended his meeting. A splendid team effort.

This was on Tuesday; we were due in Penzance on Saturday, so having received the goods your scribe wasted no time in getting his overalls on. Overnight, I fitted the pump, flushed the system and changed the oil for the fourth time in as many months. A test drive at dawn suggested that all was well this time, and I ventured to work in the absolute certainty that we'd probably cracked it - or might have done.

Now, there's something I haven't told you about thus far. In parallel with Gasket-gate, a second work front had been slowly progressing since last Autumn, and had itself run short of time. That's why, days before the Penzance deadline, 270 KTA's interior looked like this:

I know, I'm an idiot. You'll remember from here that I'd taken the Winter opportunity to swap some seats and 'quickly' paint the frames. Well, just as Gasket-gate grew into nine-hundred and ninety-nine jobs, so too did this lil' lick of paint. 

While the seats were out, I'd decided to repaint the headlining, which had been done (very badly) some years ago and really did look tatty. You can see what a difference it makes. The light shade (a bit more creamy in real life than it looks here) is much closer to the original colour of the headlining, and really lifts the whole appearance internally.

Having discovered the ease with which a spectrograph can match paint colours from swabs of rexine, I decided it would be churlish, while the seats were out, not to repaint the walls into their original shade of green... and on I went, giving myself a huge number of different loose ends to tie up at the last minute. 

Optimistic idiot. And yet...

... we made it. We're reminded of this blog's mantra of old (well, actually it belongs to Frederick Douglass, who first said it in 1873): "If there is no struggle, there is no progress". And so this year's Penzance Running Day seemed sweeter than ever before - not that 270 KTA has a good record on that score....

The sun shined throughout, the sea glistened. And fortunately, that was the only ocean we saw that day. After a 250 mile road test, and some of the most punishing routes of West Cornwall, I was satisfied that we'd finally solved the oil-water issue: my dipstick was mercifully un-milky once again. What's more, the de-coke and head gasket change have combined to improve the performance of the engine, which is noticeably more tenacious on hills. Time to celebrate with an ice cream...

Ah yes - that reminds me. Notice anything different (aside from Conductor Page's yoof cut and the unusual sight of me devouring anything other than a light green salad)? No?

In that case, time for a quick competition: Spot the difference. 

To the right you'll see the three main styles of fleetname carried by the Western/Southern National SU coaches. 

Style 1 was carried by all when new, and was a gentle chrome yellow in colour (not gold, a common misconception in preservation), with serifs on the letters, black outline and variable width of uprights and horizontals within the letters; 

Style 2 arrived in the late 1960s and was a much brighter colour, almost orange-yellow, much bolder, no seriffs and with only subtle variation in width of the stems - a good number of SU coaches had this style applied on repaint;

Style 3 was a bright yellow, think block, generally with black outlining tough not always - this wasn't widely used across the fleet, and to my knowledge only one SU coach ended up with it in service. (408 [922 GUO], since you ask...)

270 KTA carried style 1 until 1970, when style 2 was applied during its tenure at Taunton. In preservation before my time, a version of style 3 was applied in thick vinyl (the originals were thin varnish transfers), and have offended my eye ever since. 

Ultimately I intend to reapply style 1 to represent 270 KTA's time at Trowbridge in 1968-70, but those are transfers to save until repaint. To allow me to rest in the meantime, I had a set produced in style 2 as a little reward for spending almost every waking hour working to get 270 KTA ready for the 2015 season. 

Fittingly, I stayed up until 3am and applied them the night before Penzance...

'Playing Catch Up' To be continued...

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Be Back Soon...

After a brief but necessary lull this year, the blog is about to burst into life once again.

Come back soon for a catch-up post and the return of regular updates on our friend, 270 KTA...

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Colouring In

Since we last spoke, the bleak mid-Winter has been brightened by many hues and colours.

This hideous, but at least bright emulsion is what I released from 270 KTA's sump just before Christmas, following our suspected head gasket problem. Needless to say, the issue was instantly confirmed by both colour and volume of the contents, an unhappy mix of oil and coolant. Good job we stopped when we did...

And so, the Winter blues.

This cheerful shade comes to us from an original Payan head-set for an Albion EN250H engine, with all the bits we'd need for the head gasket change. Sadly, this set's already been used (don't forget, we're a Two SU Family...), but I think we may have found another...

More news on the head gasket replacement in the next couple of weeks, when this blog will become a virtual Haynes Manual for anybody else wishing* to do one on their SU.

*be careful what you wish for.

In the meantime, here are some greens. Early harbingers of Spring, perhaps, these are 270 KTA's seat frames, undergoing repaint into their original shade of green.

If you've ridden on our friend recently, you'll know that his seats are very tatty, and in some cases badly torn. A few weeks ago I was invited to rummage through some spare backs and cushions, most of which are a vast improvement on 270 KTA's worst (none of which are his originals in any case). They'll certainly see us through for a year or two until an impending order for some new moquette becomes a reality.

As is the way with bus preservation, one job leads to another, and so I've spent little corners of the Winter so far, on my knees, rubbing down seat frames....

Oh yes - and some late autumn rusty browns. Followers of the ongoing SU wheel saga will be delighted to note the arrival of these, two original style wheels to add to our stocks. I now have three in my posession, another one which is promised in due course, three up in the wilds Yorkshire awaiting collection and one more in a secret location whose liberation has yet to be negotiated.

They'll look nice when I've coloured them in.

And so, lots to do - and so little time before Penzance Running Day on April 19th. Better get the magic pencils out...