Twenty or so years ago I made my first journey to “Big” school, and that trip was made on the very bus you see as the lede image to this feature. While gathering information and pictures for an upcoming article that I bet you simply can’t wait to read, I found myself able to piece together a little more about what became of the box that took me to school every day.
Yeah, it’s just a bus. But buses are ‘verseworthy vehicles, too. They burn fossil fuels, create evocative aromas and produce visceral sounds and feelings. So, if you will, join me in paying my respects to KJD58P, a bus which, it turns out, had quite an extraordinary life.
KJD58P was built on a Daimler (Leyland) Fleetline chassis, with a Leyland 0.680 diesel engine of 11.1 litres capacity, sporting out 185HP via a Daimatic self-changing gearbox. The bodywork was of the DMS type, a standardised design that London Transport had introduced in the hope of replacing the venerable AEC Routemasters with a more modern alternative. The theory had been that LT would be able to dispense with bus conductors; the front-entrance design of the DMS buses would enable the drivers to take fares as well as point the bus in the right direction and make it stop and go. This was what became called One Man Operation.
New to London Transport in February 1976, KJD58P became fleet number DMS2058. It entered service with London Transport, being based at Holloway Garage in March that year. The bus remained in service based in that location until being withdrawn from service in February 1984.
That was actually quite a long lifespan for a DMS in London front-line service. The type was not universally appreciated, certainly compared to the Routemasters that everybody knew and loved. Those buses, with their front engines and offset bonnets, their rear entrances and stairs on the platform, and their iconic design, were a traditional part of London life, and passengers appreciated being able to hop on, hop off. London Transport didn’t love the DMS, either; finding them more expensive to operate and maintain than the Routemasters, finding their conventional body-on-chassis construction a bit of a pain. In contrast, the integrally-constructed RMs had a power pack that could quite easily be dropped out of the bus to be worked on.
Some DMS’s were simply withdrawn and sold for scrap, some were broken for parts to keep others in the fleet active. A great many were sold to find new homes outside London. KJD58P was one of many sold to Ensign Bus, a large bus operator, dealer and breaker in February 1984.
KJD58P didn’t stay in storage for anywhere near as long as many examples of the breed. Legend has it that there were so many surplus DMS Fleetlines that a good number just sat there, rotting and never got sold. This one, though, sat around for a little more than a year after Ensign took ownership, finding a home with Premier Travel of Cambridge in May 1985, after Ensign first converted the bus to single-entrance configuration for dealing with lower passenger densities than London Transport needed to handle. The bus seems to have spent some time wearing a livery to promote holidays in America.
The era of KJD58P which was relevant to me began in May 1988 when the bus was sold to another independent operator called CJ Partridge & Son, based in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Partridge were a well-known local operator and their buses served on many of the school contracts for the surrounding schools and villages. My school, Tendring High School, must have been one of there most distant contracts, the buses having to travel from their Claireaux depot, over the frontier and into Essex.
It was the first time I had ever needed to catch a school bus; my primary school had been easy walking distance from home. Indeed, the first time that black, gold and white DMS leant around the corner and hove into view, I was met with some trepidation as to what my first day at Big School would bring.
Pretty soon, though, I would learn to appreciate it. No matter how bad my day at school had been, KJD58P would be there at the end of it to take me home to toys, warmth and family. The twenty-minute ride home was the polar opposite of the journey of dread at the beginning of the day; the mood was always better and the dickheads at the back of the bus would have far more to say about themselves at the end of a long days mischief, bullying and avoidance of education.
Travelling on KJD 58P was fun. Downstairs you stood on longitudinal wooden ribs of the same style as those on the floor of the London Underground Tube Trains built by Metro Cammell Weymann, who incidentally this bus’s bodywork was built by. The stairs were on the right hand side, halfway along the bus. There were bench seats running North-South above the wheelarches and all the roof panelling and much of the surfaces below the windows were finished in a gloss white /grey. The stairway structure was finished in a handsome chequerplate aluminium. It all felt very solid. Like it had been built to deal with all London could throw at it.
Sounded good, too. Sometimes, from an afternoon silent reading session on the third floor where English was taught, you would hear the bus drivers revving their engines, and I quickly learnt to distinguish them from each other. The bus drivers employed by Partridge tended to be the most exuberant, too. On the stretch immediately before the final stop; my home stop, there was a sweeping downhill bend on Rochford Way, where the irascible Joss would tend to explore the handling limits of the old girl, while we all got on our feet at the front of the top deck to try and stay the course or tip the bus over. We never managed the latter.
Other buses would occasionally step in on Route 15, but KJD58P always felt the most like home. And so it was for three years, when I moved schools and no longer required the service of a bus. I would never see the big old beast again. In fact, the bus remained in service with Partridge until August 1993, when an operator called Manning of Challow (wherever that is) took it over.
May of 1996, though, saw an interesting chapter of the bus’s life begin, though, when it was bought by The Big Bus Company, with a view to use on sightseeing work. This meant the old girl would be back once more on the streets she started her life on, although now being expected to serve in a far less demanding capacity, handling smiley-faced tourists rather than stressy, high-blood-pressured commuters.
This role saw KJD58P losing her head, an uninterrupted view out being seen as essential for sightseeing duties as, in London, there’s a fair amount to be seen looking up. Not good for protection from rain but, hey, bring a waterproof jacket for heavens sake. This is England. The old bus also benefited from a thorough overhaul as well as a handsome new paint job.
For seven years the bus carried out these duties, that’s the same amount of time it spent in service with London Transport at the beginning of its life. But what came next was even more dramatic. Having been exiled from London to the countryside when just eight years of age, only to be allowed to return twelve years later, KJD58P was to finally take a rather longer trip.
Rather coincidentally, considering the livery the bus wore during its Premier of Cambridge days, KJD58P was Going To Philadelphia, USA in fact. Ex London open-top sightseeing buses are big business in the USA, with examples being seen from New York to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, her trip stateside was to be rather less glamorous than she might have hoped for; she was to be exported as a source of spare parts.
And that’s where the trail goes cold. We have to assume that KJD58P is no more, having given her life so her friends might live. However, it’s not all sadness and tragedy, there is still one way I can remember the dirty old bus that took me to high school every day, like a lamb to the slaughter, only to bring me home safe and dry at the end of it all:
To my great surprise, Exclusive First Editions have produced a quite excellent 1:76 scale (OO gauge) model of KJD58P as seen towards the end of her UK career, post open-top operation. I will be buying a copy, it’s a fitting tribute, and a happy ending. Well, sort of.
(Disclaimer: The internet is amazing; it has allowed me to trace my old school bus through all phases of its life. The photo credits are too numerous to mention, though. If I’ve used yours and you’d like a shout, please drop us a line. And thanks.)