The not-so-sophisticated air conditioning system of Eastern Bloc’s Ikarus buses

Located in a rather northerly part of the world, Poland isn’t exactly a tropical country. It’s so far north that winter days can see less than eight hours of daylight. The daylight makes up for it in the summer, however with the longest day being almost 17 hours long. There are four distinctive seasons but it wasn’t until recently that the summer days have got oppressively hot.

Even in the 80s and 90s, when the climate was different, cooler, as per my own highly unscientific observation, there were still a few hot summer days. In that time the public transit buses, specifically Ikarus and Jelcz buses, did not have air-conditioning. The combination of high temperatures and crowded city buses wasn’t pretty. The buses had sliding windows on the tops of the large side windows and roof pop-up vents. At speed that those worked surprisingly well.

The really hot days called out for more drastic cooling measures. These buses had either three or four bi-fold doors, depending on the length of the bus. Each door had its own open and close buttons on the dash that the driver used. On those hot days, the drivers would simply drive with the front doors open, as seen in the top picture. Yes, there was a risk of someone falling out or getting injured, but no one ever did. In those days people largely took responsibility for themselves and their own actions.

Here are two pictures of Ikarus buses I took when I was in Poland about three years ago. Those are now retired buses held by a group of enthusiasts who work for the Warsaw transit authority, Zarząd Transportu Miejskiego (ZTM). The white and red bus is an earlier version from the late 1980s. The yellow and red bus is from the 1990s. The first Ikarus when into service in 1978 and the last one was retired in 2013. These Hungarian buses have become very iconic in Warsaw due to their length of service and the political climate during which they served.

There were also Jelcz buses driving around Warsaw, as seen in the picture below. Those were made in Poland under a license from the French Berliet company. I personally liked them because they seem quieter in operation and the seats were softer. When little boy me was seated next to the window, I liked the view better because either the seats were mounted higher. But their reliability was rather poor.

These were not articulated and came only in one length. The early ones had two doors, which I recall made egress and ingress more difficult. Later on,  after an update, a third door was added. For some reason I don’t recall the drivers of these buses ever driving around with the front door open, perhaps because they seemed to be on faster routes. The vent windows where also much smaller. Along with the third doors, the later Jelczes got Ikarus-style windows.

Modern Warsaw bus fleet consists of a mix of Mercedes, MAN, and Polish-build Solaris buses. They all kind of look the same, sleek and modern. And they all have air-conditioning. But given the choice, any self-respecting Warsawian wouldn’t hesitate to jump into an Ikarus instead, front doors open and all.

Top historic top image source: ursynow.org.pl

14 Comments

  1. The Ikarus busses really bring out nostalgia in me. They made such a distinctive sound, as if made for young boys to replicate, ejecting way too much spit in the process. Really everything was particular with them, the smell, too. When my hometown’s public transport switched to Mercedes after reunification, the new busses didn’t have AC either, and I definitely remember how much hotter they felt. The opposite was true with the heaters, even though I suppose this was due to different distribution: There were always some spots that would melt shoe soles in the Ikarus.

    1. Ikarus the one-way bus, they used to say. Together with Tatra trams a public transport staple.

      I was delighted to see that Solaris is still in the market, which is an oligopoly in Europe.

      1. Solaris won parts of the bid for public transport in Bergen a few years ago. I’m not quite sure how they hold up compared to others, but every newish piece of equipment in the city seems to be rusting and ailing quite fast. Our wet, salty climate is harsh on stuff.

        1. They should use spare parts from Lemförder.

          (^ I’m pretty proud of that one, you need to know cars, German, and philosophic sci-fi to even consider it as amusing.)

    2. I really liked how the black phillips head fasteners went into the metal parts through black plasticky parts in the places where people could touch.

  2. Never regularly took a bus when I was growing up in a small town but the school buses didn’t have AC and definitely could have used it in summer. I suppose when school started at the end of summer everyone was acclimatised.

    I can’t imagine the heaters were great either, but the bus would still be warmer than the bus stop!

    1. ah memories of white-hot metal grabrails and vinyl seats that would strip a layer of skin if you weren’t careful…
      You could forget about heaters in winter. The best way to stay warm was to sit up the back, over the rather poorly-insulated engine.

      1. ‘Back in my day’ the school buses were still front-engined, with the engine between the two front seats not like US school buses. They were still diesels, probably 100hp or so…

  3. I was in Budapest earlier this year and was pleased to see that there are still a few late ’80s Icarus trolleybuses still in operation. I still find them baffling to watch – it must be tempting to turn down a side street and pull the overhead catenary down.

    Also, reading this, I get the distinct impression that Britain is some way behind the rest of the civilised world, having barely any air-conditioned buses on urban duties. There’s certainly no a/c on any of the London Underground trains, and the sandwiches I take to work genuinely end up toasted by the time I reach the office.

  4. I was in Budapest earlier this year and was pleased to see that there are still a few late ’80s Icarus trolleybuses still in operation. I still find them baffling to watch – it must be tempting to turn down a side street and pull the overhead catenary down.

    Also, reading this, I get the distinct impression that Britain is some way behind the rest of the civilised world, having barely any air-conditioned buses on urban duties. There’s certainly no a/c on any of the London Underground trains, and the sandwiches I take to work genuinely end up toasted by the time I reach the office.

    1. It is a fairly recent phenomenon for summer days to encroach on 40°C in Northern-ish Europe. I really don’t think AC was a requirement for public transport until these last couple of years – and with huge doors opening every few minutes, it is also a really energy intensive feature.

  5. Portland Oregon had some Ikarus articulated buses in the 90s. They fared poorly with frequent overheating even in Portland’s relatively mild summers. At the time Tri-Met didn’t have air conditioning on most of its fleet so these ran with vent windows, but doors shut.

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