Ralf Obergfell. Routemasters.

Travis Elborough - Don't miss the last bus

London is a city with many ghosts. On the 9 December 2005, the Routemaster bus became another phantom of Oxford Street. After close to fifty years, it was famous the world over, its image and name as synonymous with the capital as Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, pigeons and exorbitant house prices. In many respects, these roll-top baths in guardsmen’s red had been living on borrowed time since day the last one filed off the production line in 1968. Their executions were stayed so often that it came to seem as if they could live forever. But now they have officially joined the ranks of the undead. The handful that linger haunt the city, as if tethered by chains, on two heritage routes.

Unlike most spectres, however, these blood-red tykes are gone by dusk. And, like black cabs, not seen south of the river. But in London and beyond, the Routemaster is still a powerful talisman. Just a few months after their official retirement, the Routemaster was voted an Icon of England and competed against Concorde and the Chopper bicycle in something called the Great British Design Quest.

And to evoke its name is to call up powerful notions of classic style, indigenous engineering ingenuity, civic pride and the thrill of a hop-on, hop-off ride, the open platform a potent symbol of the liberties of the city itself.

Illustrating their currency, Boris Johnson, equipped as he is with the hair (and name) of a mad scientist in a James Whale film, launched his London mayoral campaign in 2007 promising to bring the Routemaster back to life again. The Son of the Routemaster was back on the slab, in the political lab, at least.

Just how or why something as mundane as a bus came to occupy such an exalted position in London’s emotional and socio-cultural firmament isn’t entirely easy to explain. Well, certainly not straightforward, anyway. One thing I’d like to suggest is that looking good in colour film didn’t do it any harm. But before we get on to all of that, it’s probably best if we start with the nuts and bolts.

The Routemaster was the last bus to be built for London, by Londoners, in London. It was the last bus to be staffed by both a driver and a conductor. And it was the last bus to go into service with the engine and half-cab for the driver at the front and an open platform for passengers to enter and exit at the rear. It really represented the culmination of a line of similar vehicles made specifically for London dating back to 1910, when the London General Omnibus Company produced their rather dull-sounding B-type bus. As the final bus to be staffed by a conductor, its lineage can even be traced to Shillibeer’s first horse omnibus in 1829. But, most significantly, it was the last bus to be wholly conceived for the capital – Savile Row tailored, if you like – by the once monolithic London Transport.

All public transport in London had come under the unified control of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933. The largest transport organization on the planet, and a public corporation along the lines of the BBC, London Transport was able to use treasury funds to create a fully integrated network that was, for a time, without equal anywhere in the world. London Transport’s guiding light, its conscience and its superego, even after his death in 1941, was its chief executive Frank Pick.

Pick was a severe, cold and slightly intimidating man. Raised among devout Congregational Methodists, he was a dedicated administrator who possessed a visionary eye and zeal for good modern design. Believing that ordinary Londoners deserved the best and that their lives could be enriched by surrounding them with simple, beautiful and well-made objects, Pick insisted on uniform levels of coherence and excellence across the board. The roundel of the Underground logo, the distinct Johnston typeface of its signage, Harry Beck’s diagrammatical tube map and Charles Holden’s incomparable stations for the Piccadilly line were all commissioned under Pick’s watch. In 1942, the architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner dubbed him ‘the Lorenzo the Magnificent of our age’. And the standards and the culture that he established at London Transport were central to the design of the Routemaster.

In the 1930s, the efforts of London Transport’s Bus and Coach Division, headed by the equally formidable and no less exacting Albert Arthur Durrant, had culminated in the creation of a flagship bus, the RT, in 1939. For many, the RT, in its post-war incarnations, is the London bus. Nearly twice as many were built as its usurper the Routemaster and it tarried in the capital for forty years. It is also the London Bus on which Cliff, Una and gang rode Europe-wards for some sun in Summer Holiday (just to get that out of the way now).

During the Second World War, the corporation’s bus works at Chiswick were turned over to aircraft production and helped to build Handley Page Halifax Bombers. Through this work, LT engineers and designers came into contact with the latest innovations in aircraft manufacturing, including the use of lightweight aluminium and component construction. These ideas were soon put to good use on Civvy Street when bus building recommenced after the war.

In 1947, and in the spirit of a period when bold forward-thinking initiatives like the NHS and the Welfare State were coming into fruition, the very first memos about the need for a brand new alloy bus for London began circulating at London Transport. It would take four years of research work and countless discussions with manufacturers and men from ministries before a final course for the Routemaster was steered, another three after that before a prototype was finished, and then another four before the bus entered production. Sputnik took less time to get into space. But the final bus would be a capacious, fuel-efficient, highly advanced chassis-less construction. Tooled in lightweight aluminum, it was comprised, rather like a Mechano set, of completely interchangeable parts. Such ingenious engineering was partly why the Routemaster, originally designed for just seventeen years’ service, lasted so long. Like the planks of the Ship of Theseus, they could be refurbished piece by piece over time without disturbing the integrity of the whole.

Having already re-activated pre-war plans to scrap the remaining trams (the last ran on 5 July 1952), LT decided to do away with the city’s electric trolleybuses as well. Pollution-free and practically silent, the trolleybuses were a safe and environmentally sound means of transport. In retrospect, this was a dreadful mistake. But at a point when car ownership was rising in the capital – parking restrictions (yellow lines) had already been introduced on some central roads by 1947 – the wire-borne trolleys were thought an obstruction to traffic.

Acutely aware that it was facing increasing competition from motorists, London Transport went out of its way to ensure that its new bus (now to replace the trolleys too) matched – and even surpassed – levels of comfort found in your average Austin or Morris. The more luxurious the buses, the reasoning went, the greater chance they stood of luring people from their cars. To that end, the Routemaster was fitted with a heating system – a rarity on all but the top of the range motors then. Independent suspension and a fully automatic gearbox were installed to provide a smoother ride and make the bus easier to drive. And, for safety, power hydraulic brakes that virtually eliminated failure in icy conditions, previously developed for aircraft, were fitted as standard.

A prevailing stipulation at London Transport was that the bus must be an attractive piece of street furniture (a phrase, incidentally, favoured by Frank Pick), and one of the few industrial design consultants, Douglas Scott, was engaged to style the Routemaster for them.

From his Potterton Boiler to his GPO call box K8 and his Rediffusion radio sets, Scott’s product designs are models of practical, restrained style. In the 1930s, Scott had been employed in the London office of Raymond Loewy, the great American pioneer of ‘streamlining’ and the man who supplied Lucky Strike cigarettes with their logo and Shell Petrol with their, well, shell. And the shapely body that Scott sculpted for the Routemaster attests to a mastery of the undulating curve he acquired during his stint with Loewy. With the interiors, Scott also excelled himself. The final colour scheme – ‘Burgundy lining panels, Chinese green window surrounds and Sung Yellow Ceilings’, as the official description rather fancifully had it – was chic, heartening and durable. Meanwhile, the tartan mocquette of dark red and yellow he created for the leather-trimmed seats exuded a debonair Aberdeen Angus air but hid dirt and proved immensely hardwearing.

The prototype Routemaster was officially unveiled at the Commercial Motor Show in Earl’s Court on 24 September 1954 under the banner ‘London’s Bus of the Future’. The name Routemaster was chosen in preference to Roadmaster only a couple of weeks before the show. ‘Masters’ seem to have been in vogue that season; a Rowe Hillmaster truck was another vehicle at Earl’s Court, while cinemagoers that year watched an apartment-bound Jimmy Stewart trim his stubble with a Sunbeam Shavemaster in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. For all of its interchangeable aluminium, some commentators felt the Routemaster was rather old-fashioned looking, a tad trad. Which could explain its longevity; free from the more obvious 1950s gimcracks it, perhaps, aged better than it peers.

Sharing its birthday with that other stylish baby boomer, the Stratocaster guitar, the Routemaster’s lifespan in effect mirrors the rock ’n’ roll years: a total of 2875 were built between 1954 and 1968. Like the new breed of teenagers, it was a child of austerity that came of age in an era defined by unprecedented levels of affluence. The downside of this, for a bus, at least, was that those who could afford to were increasingly choosing to travel under their own steam. The number of cars registered in London doubled between 1945 and 1960. Rising home ownership, suburbanisation and television were also reducing the number of bus journeys taken, with Londoners choosing to spend a greater part of their leisure time at home.

With almost full employment, London Transport also found it difficult to obtain staff for jobs with relatively low rates of pay and often long and antisocial hours. This combination of falling passenger numbers and staff shortages would ultimately prove fatal for the Routemaster. Off-the-shelf one-personoperated vehicles would come to be seen as the panacea to London Transport’s ills.

But just a few months after February 2, 1956, when the last two-person bus made her maiden voyage on Route 2 from Golders Green to Crystal Palace, London Transport began to recruit employees directly from Barbados. This scheme was extended to Malta, Jamaica and Trinidad in the 1960s. Playing its own part in the re-peopling of London, the Routemaster arrived at the moment when the city was becoming a far more polychromatic place.

Returning to London from the Spanish Civil War in 1939, George Orwell had been heartened to find that ‘the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen’ were all still intact. But the colour most people associate with London (and Britain for that matter) after the war and into the 1950s was bomb-dust, austerity grey. When the Zurich-born photographer Robert Frank reached London from Paris in 1951, he was astonished to find it ‘black, white and grey.’ His own snaps of fogshrouded London double-deckers and Magritte-like city gents from this period mine the drear beauty of those three shades for all they’re worth. But the arrival of the Clean Air Act in 1956 and Kodacolor film the year afterwards not only transformed how London actually was but also the image that the city now presented of itself. By the 1960s, the black and white of the Picture Post and The Lavender Hill Mob had been superseded by colour – Technicolor, Kodak Instamatic, Sunday Times Colour Section, James Bond movie colour. Although it features the WRONG BUS, Summer Holiday exemplifies the phenomenon. The film pointedly begins in black and white and, à la The Wizard of Oz, bursts into colour the instant Cliff Richard arrives on screen, driving a red RT bus.

As London’s pendulum began to swing, these red open-platform double-deckers became an essential, unavoidable component in any representation of the city’s giddy ‘happening’ scene in print or on film. The bus seemed to sum up the free-and-easy, catch-me-if-you-can, hop-on, hop-off optimism of those days. The notion of actually using a London bus to promote the nation can be dated to the Festival of Britain in 1951: four double-deckers toured around Europe in the months leading up the festival. But in the 1960s, the Routemaster acted as a kind of perpetual diesel-powered Beefeater for Blighty across the globe. In November 1962, one of the first major exhibitions of British Pop Art in America opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ‘British Art Today’, including work by Patrick Heron and Patrick Wall, was trailed by ‘London Week; a trade/cultural jamboree replete with a Routemaster shipped over for the event. Internationally and locally, then, the Routemaster became the ace face at a time when London was becoming the place to be. Quintessentially, classically British and yet modern, it was the Avengers on wheels.

Still, by 1971, while John Lennon was breezily telling Rolling Stone that the dream was over and ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ was storming up the charts, London Transport was confidently predicting that they’d all be gone before 1978. Somehow, in 1981 most of them were still about. By the 1990s, only 600 or so lingered in the capital. But, in the words of Tennyson, ‘boldly they rode and well’ and life in London without them seemed almost as unthinkable as evicting the ravens from the Tower. In the 2002 horror film 28 Days Later, an overturned and abandoned Routemaster provided the most potent symbol of London’s ravaging by zombies. Time Out magazine put Duke Baysee, the harmonica-playing conductor of the 38 bus, at number 66 in their Top 100 Reasons to Live in the Capital.

In 2002, however, Transport for London announced that the Routemasters, failing to meet European legislation on disabled access, would be phased out. Before the last Routemaster made its final journey, on route 159 from Marble Arch to Streatham, questions had been asked in the House of Commons. The Evening Standard had a campaign devoted to their preservation. 10,000 people had signed a petition against their scrapping. Cliff Richard had vowed never to record again. And the majority of the photographs that fill this book had been taken.

I first met Ralf while I was out chasing after those ever-diminishing shadows, as Routemaster route after Routemaster route was gradually spirited away. We were both convinced something quite unique was being lost, and were trying to document that in our own different ways. And for my part, I still remain rather envious of how his photographs capture something that (naturally) evades prose. Or my prose, anyway. For you can write all you like about the design, the engineering, Frank Pick, Douglas Scott, Cliff Richard, and how it fits into London’s story – all of which is important and relevant – but the Routemaster earned its place in most Londoners hearts by simply doing its job. And it’s those daily interactions, the attrition of little experiences, the everyday glimpses on the streets, the chances to hop aboard, the scrambles for the top deck, the nods to the conductor, that Ralf’s photographs nail so well. The Routemaster in London has, of course, long since come to its last stop. The heritage routes, thankfully, provide the opportunity to experience them in their natural habitat but not as essential components of the living and breathing city. What was once everyday is now extraordinary, and we need photographs like these to remind us of that. Far spookier for its proximity, the day before is still yesterday, and that is history. And long after the memories have faded, these images will continue to bring the ghosts of the past back to life again.

Travis Elborough is the author of The Bus We Loved: London's Affair With the Routemaster (Granta Books, 2005), The Long-Player Goodbye: The Album From vinyl To iPod And Back Again (Sceptre 2008) and Wish You Were Here - England on Sea (Sceptre 2010). He reviews for The Guardian, and has contributed to New Statesman, The Sunday Times, Zembla and The Oldie.