Harsh legislation from 1861 onwards had virtually eliminated mechanically propelled vehicles from the roads of Great Britain. Towards the end of the century, however, the success of the internal combustion engine in Europe greatly influenced public opinion in favour of such vehicles. As a result, Parliament introduced the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896, which went some way to removing the obstacles holding back development of road vehicles. The Act came into force on the 14th November 1896, widely regarded as the date from which the development of the modern mechanically propelled omnibus can be traced.
Initially the development was slow, mainly because there were no suitable vehicles. Many of the early 'omnibuses' were simply converted motorcars with wagonette bodies, or horse buses to which some form of motor had been attached. Throughout the late 1800's and early 1900's much experimental work was undertaken by the early pioneers to produce a reliable and robust vehicle for use on the nation's streets. In 1889 initial trials with a battery-electric bus were held in London. The vehicle was built by the Ward Electric Car Company but, although a licence was granted in 1897 for a single-deck battery-electric bus, it was not until 1907 that one finally ran in service. In the meantime, other avenues were being explored, with both steam and petrol vehicles taking to the roads. The experimentation and improvement that followed led firstly to the production of single-deck buses that were reliable enough to introduce services on a regular basis and finally the development of the double-deck vehicle from about 1906 onward. It was soon realised that petrol engines had the advantage over steam engines and steam faded into oblivion.
On the 9th October 1899, what is generally regarded as the prototype of the London bus began a regular service between Kennington and Victoria Station, via Westminster Bridge. Two, 12-horsepower, 4-cylinder, petrol-engined German-built Daimlers with 26-seat horse bus bodies were used, although they had been withdrawn from service by the end of 1900. On 3rd October 1902 a petrol-engined Canstatt-Daimler with double-deck body seating 12 inside and 15 outside was placed in service in London between Lewisham and Eltham, running until 1904. It was the first large bus fitted with rubber tyres. In November of the same year, the London Motor Omnibus Syndicate introduced four Stirling 12-seat petrol-engined single-deck buses on a service between Oxford Circus and Cricklewood. The bodywork was a development of the wagonette design, but was permanently enclosed, and had a platform and step providing nearside access. By 1906 the company (by now the London Power Omnibus Company) had replaced the single-deckers with double-deckers. One of the greatest difficulties faced by early motorbus operators was the prohibitive cost of tyres. It has been stated that the cost of running a one-ton vehicle on solid tyres was around 10d a mile and this was a factor in many early failures. It was not until 1905 that tyre companies began to offer contracts based on a figure of about 2d a mile, which made the cost of running motorbuses considerably more manageable and allowed the further development of bus services.
In the provinces, ventures into motorbus services were made as early as 1897 in Burrelton, Kilmarnock and Hamilton in Scotland, and in Blackpool and Burnham in England. The first true licensed urban motorbus service in Great Britain is thought to have commenced on 19th May 1898, from the General Post Office to Haymarket Station, in Edinburgh, a distance of some one and a half miles along Princess Street. It was operated by the Edinburgh Autocar Company using a small Daimler and Motor Manufacturing Company (MMC) petrol-engined waggonettes. The venture was not a great success and the Company ceased to function in 1901 with debts of £14,000.
The motorbus era is generally regarded as having been introduced with the commencement of municipal services in Eastbourne and with a feeder bus service between Helston and The Lizard inaugurated by the Great Western Railway, both in 1903. By this time the petrol-engined motorbus was seen as being reliable enough to undertake stage carriage work and the chassis sturdy enough to stand up to operating conditions, although many were still beset by mechanical problems.
The growth of bus services in the rural and smaller provincial areas can be mainly attributed to the railway companies, who saw the motorbus as a relatively inexpensive way of extending their services without the costs of constructing new lines (although the only systematic expansion of a bus network by a railway company was that of the Great Western Railway in Wales and the West Country), whilst the larger conurbations provided a passenger nucleus for the dedicated motorbus operator. Much of the early initiative in running motorbus services tended to be on the part of local individuals, who commenced services in various parts of the country and it was not until 1913 that serious development of bus services commenced. Until then the electric tram had held sway, but the British Electric Traction Company (who had formed a subsidiary, the British Automobile Traction Company (BAT) in 1905), began to show an increasing interest in the motorbus and actively encouraged its tramway subsidiaries to develop their motorbus operations. At the same time its BAT subsidiary began to acquire shareholdings in motorbus companies (such as Aldershot & District, Maidstone & District and Trent Motor Services), and the spread of the large transport group became a feature of early motorbus services, with Thomas Tilling and the National Omnibus & Transport Company also growing through acquisitions, until the advent of the Great War of 1914-1918, which proved to be one of the great turning points in the history of the motorbus industry.
Many of the first motorbuses in Britain were of foreign manufacture, but gradually as interest in the motorbus increased, so did the number of British chassis manufacturers. Among the earliest were Albion and Leyland. Albion started by constructing small petrol-driven cars in 1899 and by 1913 had decided to concentrate on commercial vehicles. Leyland, on the other hand, started in 1896 as the Lancashire Steam Motor Company, manufacturing steam lawnmowers amongst other things and by 1907 had been re-named Leyland Motors Limited. Amongst early British manufacturers to appear on the scene were such famous names as Dennis, Daimler, AEC, Maudslay, Thornycroft and Tilling-Stevens. All have now gone, although the last of these famous old names, Dennis (who started as long ago as 1895 manufacturing bicycles), was used until recently.
After the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, British manufacturers began to move away from designing 'commercial' chassis, which could be used for both bus and lorry bodies, towards a purely 'bus' chassis. During this postwar period, many chassis of this type, including the Albion PM28, the Leyland PLSC Lion and the Maudslay Marathon, appeared on the market. The industry had a brief flirtation with the six-wheel bus during the 1920's, and although this type of chassis remained popular amongst trolleybus operators, bus models were relatively rare. When, later, weight restrictions were eased, the six-wheel bus fell out of favour. Probably the best-known vehicle to make an appearance was the Leyland Titan, which was introduced in 1927 with the TD1 model. This bus in particular, probably did more to popularise the provincial double-decker than any other model.
The greatest difficulty of establishing a motorbus service before the war had been that only those with a considerable reserve of capital stood any chance of success, but here and there small carriers' businesses had been mechanised, some with a degree of success. More often than not carriers' had started running motorbuses after the war and these services contributed much to the development of the bus industry, frequently being assisted in their purchase by the salesmen of the manufacturing companies who played their part in the postwar expansion. In some areas small operators were solely responsible for the services, whilst in others large companies had taken the lead, leaving few openings for others to follow. Some of the better-known names in transport (such as Tilling and British Electric Traction) were already establishing areas for themselves.
Many smaller operators found themselves unable to compete with the financial muscle of the larger companies and quietly faded into oblivion, their routes and vehicles often being swallowed up by their competitor. In areas where there were municipal fleets, the individuals and companies fared less well, since local authorities were often the licensing authority, and as well as protecting their own fleets and income by imposing conditions on other operators, were able to refuse to issue any licences. This state of affairs led to the call by some of the larger and more powerful companies for some form of regulation, independent of the local authorities. As a result, in 1930, the Road Traffic Act became law, setting up regional Traffic Commissioners who were to regulate the bus industry for the next 50 years or so, laying the foundations of the UK’s bus network until it was torn apart by de-regulation in 1986.
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