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Birmingham AEC Regent Appeal - January 2019 - The Return to Wythall
For me, the successful journey from Surrey to Wythall on 30 December 2018 was an achievement that stands out amongst the most remarkable experiences that I have ever had the privilege to be involved in.
Since I drove 486 northwards that day, I have had time to reflect on the six years leading up to that event, after I had agreed to the Trust's request to take on management of this complex and difficult restoration. Those of you that have followed my regular reports in 'Omnibus' since 486 made the journey in the opposite direction in the autumn of 2013 will have some idea of the extent and thoroughness of the work carried out at Ian Barrett's workshop near Dorking and the difficulties that had to be overcome. The most significant setback to the whole project was undoubtedly the failure of the engine when on road test in May 2018, an event that could not have been foreseen by Andy Baxter who had rebuilt the AEC 7.4 litre unit from a collection of components mostly salvaged from three engines that were in an extremely poor state.
The sub-standard repair by an outside contractor to the white metal bearings in the con rod big ends was not evident until the rebuilt engine was put under load, at which point one of them started to break up. As the restoration of the vehicle was covered by warranty, responsibility for rectification fell to Andy who had then to strip the engine back down to its component parts. With the original contractor now out of business the bottom end was sent to Owselbury Crankshaft Services of Winchester for re-metalling and machining. The high standard of their work and the final rebuilding of the engine by Andy is evident in the way the bus performed on the 160 mile journey back to Wythall.
After completing four days of road testing in December 2018, I felt confident that 486 was ready to make the trip home under its own power. Plans were put in place for achieving this on the weekend between Christmas and New Year, not a time when the weather and road conditions were likely to be at their best. However, I decided that, other than if the route was blanketed in snow, the bus would have to make the trip regardless. We could not leave 486 in Ian's workshop any longer as he had a queue of vehicles waiting for attention and if the bus was to be made ready for the 2019 season, it needed to be in dust-free conditions and better insulated from winter temperatures.
On Friday 28 December, I set off on the all-too-familiar route to Dorking, knowing that this was likely to be the last time I would have to make the journey in connection with 486. In the car with me was my partner Kevin Langford who came along to help with cleaning and preparing the bus for its home-coming.
On arrival at Ian's workshop I was pleased to see David Hurley who joined us to enjoy a short run on 486 as we went to fill up the fuel tank at Bucklands near Reigate. David had been especially helpful in the process of obtaining a V5C registration document for the bus so that we could retain the correct registration number, OV 4486. This was a rather long-winded and complicated process spread over years rather than months and reliant for success on David's knowledge and his reputation at DVLA in Swansea. On the Saturday morning, Jim Munro set out from Wythall with his West Midlands Travel conversion single-deck Fleetline 1956. On board with him were David and Alex Potts, Kevin Hill, Ken Westmacott, Peter Hyslop, and Jim's partner Jane Wright, plus a selection of tools and recovery apparatus so that 1956 could act as a support vehicle for the homeward run. Their arrival at Ian's workshop in the early afternoon was just after Andrew Gardner who had made the journey down from Nottingham by train and bus. Instruction was then given to the assembled party so that they were aware of what to do in case anything should go wrong with the bus, after which we set out on one last test run. Kevin Hill and Jim took turns behind the wheel, familiarising themselves with the operation of the advance and retard mechanism and quickly getting used to the combination of a big petrol engine and crash gearbox. On return to the workshop, all remaining left-over materials from the restoration were loaded onto 486 and 1956 and we retired to our B&B accommodation in Dorking to freshen up. A very pleasant evening of good food, drink and conversation then followed at an Italian restaurant and in a couple of the many pubs that the town has to offer.
Next day dawned grey but dry and fairly mild. After a hearty breakfast, Kevin Langford and I piled into my Polo and headed for the workshop, collecting Andrew and Peter from their accommodation en route. Ian was waiting to see us away and ride on 486 for the first section of the journey into Dorking. Departing at 0920 hours and we were accompanied on the first leg of this auspicious journey by Ian's landlord, farmer Andy Jackman, escorting us in his lovely red Austin Healey. Having made our rendezvous in Dorking with the rest of the party in 1956, Ian bid us goodbye and headed back to the farm with Andy in the Healey.
As I drove out of Dorking at the wheel of 486 and away from surroundings which had become so familiar over the previous five years, I had feelings of satisfaction and excitement but also some apprehension, knowing that I was now responsible for getting one of the most valuable buses in preservation to its destination. This was by a circuitous route avoiding motorways and London and it felt a little like sailing a new ship out of port for the first time and into the open ocean. Climbing westwards on the A25 over the North Downs, heavy drizzle started to cover the windscreen and the quirky 'up and over' horizontal wiper mechanism was put to the test, passing with flying colours. On through the uneven, winding and busy streets of Guildford we continued on to the A31 over the Hoggs Back towards Aldershot, which was bypassed on the A331. The drizzle was finally left behind as we continued northwards through Blackwater where we took the A30 and A327 to Reading before threading our way through the town and onto the A4074 towards Wallingford.
I was aided in finding my way by Andrew Gardner who kept an eye on the road atlas and gave directions where the signage was inadequate. As we passed through each town I had the task of negotiating the often complex and busy roads whilst keeping watch on the rear-view mirrors to ensure 1956 was still behind and that my car was at the tail of the convoy driven by Kevin Langford. Following a lunch stop and fuel top-up for 486 at a service area on the A4074, we pressed on towards Oxford where we encountered Dave Taylor and his wife Lynn at a lay-by on the A34 filming us as we passed. Having mentioned filling up with fuel a couple of times, it is probably appropriate at this point to say that using modern unleaded petrol in the Regent is not a problem as the engine was designed and manufactured before lead was widely used in fuel and so it has hardened valve seats that can deal with the higher ignition temperatures involved.
Stopping for one of several rest breaks at Kidlington, Dave and Lynn joined us to take photos, catch up with the support crew and have a closer look at 486. From there the A4260 was followed to Banbury and the A422 to Stratford upon Avon. We had now been on the road for seven hours and as the gloomy day turned to darkness I had to contend with the added problem of driving with only one headlight. 486 has been restored to its authentic state with lighting arrangements normal on buses until the 1950s so that when on dipped beam, only the nearside headlight is illuminated. On full beam, the offside headlight comes on to accompany the nearside light which remains on dipped beam but even that arrangement barely illuminates the road ahead. In the face of dazzling modern headlights, I can tell you that seeing where I was going was a challenge so most of the time I left the headlights switched to full beam and I never got flashed by any oncoming drivers!
After heading to the outskirts of Alcester and joining the A435, we were on the homeward run via Studley and the eastern edge of Redditch. As I finally drove down Chapel Lane, I could see a welcoming party including Malcolm Keeley and Dave Taylor waiting at the bus stop by the church. Having stopped to pick them up, and at the end of an epic eight-hour drive, I guided 486 into the Museum to the sound of applause from those gathered in the yard. It was indeed a proud and emotional moment and the bus had made it without missing a beat. It had run smoothly and reliably throughout the demanding and varied journey with speed maintained effortlessly for much of the time in the mid to high thirties MPH. My feelings of apprehension as I left Dorking had proved unfounded. 486 was home at last and without a hitch.
After the New Year, I set about preparing the bus for the attentions of sign-writer Steve Evans. Having flatted down everything below the gutter which runs around at upper deck floor level, Steve began his work of applying yards of gold lining and the many notices and legal lettering. This he has done with his usual skill and attention, including painting the registration number onto the lower rear window, where the saloon lights are intended to illuminate it at night. The gold lining and lettering is formed by painting on gold-size and then sticking gold leaf to it when the gold-size has dried to the point of being tacky. I have then varnished over Steve's completed work to give the final finish. As I write, there are still a few odd jobs left to be completed prior to the grand launch of this historic and iconic vehicle. I look forward to sharing the pleasure which I hope our Regent will bring to the membership and our visitors during 2019 and for years to come.
The Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcs B47 6JA Tel: 01564 826471 | email firstname.lastname@example.org
TRANSPORT MUSEUM WYTHALL is a registered charity no 1167872