Nature abhors a vacuum, so the saying goes, and this is proved in practical terms every time an enthusiast gets spare storage space. A new project always turns up to fill it. So it was with the latest vehicle to join my collection. While I am new to the AD&DBOA, I understand that my latest acquisition has been on the membership list before.
As far as I am concerned the story started back in 1998 when a good friend of mine, Nigel Parks, asked if I knew of anybody who would be interested in a Dennis with a Harrington body. No further details were known, just a contact number. (I should point out at this point that Harrington Coachwork is my "specialist" preservation interest - Operator and chassis being a secondary factor). At that time there was no possibility that I could offer it a home - besides, it was a bus and I was really into coaches.
So I mentioned it about as one does and put it from my mind. Two years later the Harrington grapevine had it that the bus had still not changed hands and the future was beginning to look a bit bleak. This time the information coincided with a job related house move (This was a huge undertaking. At work my interests were well known. Said the boss, "We'll pay for your house move but not your buses!" Amazing how easily one can pass off bus spares as domestic furniture). So once again, dismay that the future for the bus was not secure, but I was unable to help. 2003 found me firmly settled in and, next to the bungalow, a nice new barn had gone up with plenty of space so that I had room for all my restoration activities. Gentle reader, this does not happen. I believe a bus restorer invented keyhole surgery on the Tokyo underground.
A rainy day in December found fellow Harrington enthusiast Dave Hurley and myself at Dave Povey's Iver Heath yard. By prior arrangement we had asked if we might stop by to look at the Dennis. The "just visit" message may have been lost in translation because when we arrived the engine was ticking over and Dave P. was clearly optimistic that this might be his lucky day. We had imagined that it was going to be a complete wreck, since nobody had apparently wanted to take it on, but we were pleasantly surprised. (Some bright spark will now write in and ask if I have found the huge crack right through the chassis that everyone else knew about).
Lancet UF 160LU2 started life with Hutching & Cornelius in South Petherton, Somerset. The H&C fleet had favoured Dennis since the thirties. The first three UFs with Strachan bodies arrived in 1954. YYB 118 was the middle of another batch of three in August 1957 when the firm switched to Harrington bodies. Harringtons were subsequently used for one more UF in December 1958 and similar bodies on AEC Reliance thereafter. One of the earlier Lancet buses became a spares donor for the fleet which had a relatively long service compared with other vehicles. Apparently, YYB 118 was the last UF remaining in service on withdrawal in September 1974. It then passed through Tor Coaches of Street, probably as dealers, and then served another seven years or so with Brutonian Coaches, who eventually took on some of the old H&C routes on the closure of that firm in 1979.
The body on YYB 118 is Harrington's effort at a single deck bus acceptable to BET companies. Eleven buses in this style had first been built as Harrington Contender integrals for Maidstone & District at the end of 1955 and, although
records are not complete, it looks like H&C could have been the first order for the body on a separate chassis. Clearly, in selecting coachwork, H&C concentrated on the practical rather than the aesthetic, which perhaps makes the choice of the rather exotic Dennis chassis a bit of a surprise.
The appearance of the H&C body is extremely plain. There is only one chrome framed windscreen (opening, as required by law at the time) and the other is simply rubber mounted, looking as if H&C could not afford two screens (which may have been the case). Though specially made for each vehicle, the screens are the same "standard" size as the M&D Contenders, so making up the vehicle height as a result of the Lancet's low driving position has resulted in a deep blank area above the screens. Exterior bright trim is limited only to a strip which covers a body seam below the windows and the usual "bumper" and edging strip around the wheel arches are noticeably absent. Built at the same time, PHR 829, a Leyland delivered to Silver Star of Salisbury had the more typical "bells & whistles" - all the windows and trim plus chromed air louvres. Perhaps H&C were not so daft though, anticipating panel damage on the narrow West Country roads.
Alternatively, they spent so much on the chassis, the body was made down
to a price. It has been suggested that the seating was subject to a grant.
The first bus of the 1957 batch, YYB 117, had full coach seats. The other
two were "semi-coach", which to me look like a sort of double
version of the driver's seat found in most other Harrington coaches of the
time. I wonder if somebody can enlighten me as to the cost of a Lancet UF
compared with other contemporary chassis?
Back in the present day I was rapidly being smitten by the Dennis ticking over in the rain. It had all the right criteria for my "collection policy". 1. Harrington Body. 2. The only remaining example of the body / chassis combination. 3. At Risk. 4. Technically interesting (I hesitate to put challenging or potentially expensive in case my wife reads this). More and more space in Dave's yard was being given over to a hydraulic hoist business and it was clear that, although the Dennis had clung onto its space since 1998, it was now preventing further business expansion and something was going to have to give. That night I phoned up and confirmed I would have it.
First, a number of things had to be resolved. It certainly looked as if the bus could actually be driven to a new home; the expense of low loader hire is a major factor in domestic bliss. The laminated windscreen had been cracked by what must have been air gun pellets over the fence of the yard and it needed a mechanical check over. For those that do not know, the Lancet UF has hydraulic servo brakes. Essentially this means that a high pressure oil circuit motivates the ordinary hydraulic system that puts the brakes on. A version of this system was eventually used with complete success and reliability on the Routemaster. Strangely, despite the longevity of the Routemaster, nobody I have met will actually admit that the system was an unqualified success on any other vehicle so fitted. The trouble is that Lockheed passed through several different versions before arriving at the best (and that we may suspect with the development expertise of London Transport).
The main problem with hydraulics is that they really need continual use. Routemasters in daily service do not have trouble, but YYB 118 had been no further than the occasional move round the yard for 20 years. Hardly an acid test for couch potato cylinder rubbers and ageing hydraulic hoses. The Dennis also incorporates a hydraulic accumulator, which is reassuring in that servo action may be obtained even if the engine should stall (which was very handy on the drive home).
I have to really extend thanks to Dave Hurley for sorting the windscreen and Tim Nicholson for applying his expertise to the brake system. Dave Povey I think, apart from assisting Tim, must have massaged all the other vital parts so that electrics worked and no panels dropped off. These folk worked away at my bus in the depth of winter while I sat at a distance in a nice warm office.
The day of the move came rather suddenly with a snap decision based on a successful road test. Anyone who has experience of old diesels that have just pottered about will know that even moderate throttle will yield clouds of smoke. Smoke! Ye Gods, it was dreadful. You could have hidden an Atlantic convoy in it. We were confident that it would eventually stop, but for the first mile or so every passing car appeared from nowhere cheerfully acknowledging us with a clenched fist. But I'm afraid there's not much that can be done but "clear it out". In my efforts to limit smoke I am afraid I stalled it a few times, hence my pleasure at finding the brake accumulator working well.
I have driven many buses with worse road manners than the Lancet UF. It rode very nicely indeed. We decided that everything seemed to be at the right sort of temperature and our twice negotiated test circuit had been more than just a short run round the block. Also it was a bright sunny day with no prospect of rain. Just the right sort of day to make the 150 mile trip back to Norfolk before dark.
And so it was. With a back up car laden with tools and the madness of the M25 and M11 behind, loping along on the less busy A11 was quite pleasurable despite being naturally alert for any change in mechanical note. One thing on the test drive had troubled me and that was I had only managed to get into 5th gear twice and I'm pretty sure that was by accident. It is termed "pre-select", but as one who has spent many a happy hour at the wheel of an AEC RT it was not quite what I expected. Engage gear (push lever to the left and so far forward you almost cannot reach it).
Clutch in. And Out. Nothing. In fact, really nothing - no gear at all. We are coasting here. So, back to 4th and try again in a minute. Then I cracked it. 5th was much higher than I had expected. It seemed to require 4th gear to be almost flat out and then application of the throttle just as the clutch pedal slowly came up. And then there it was -long legs, nearly 50mph. A surprising pace for a "country bus" from the 1950s. However then came the problem slowing down again. I found it necessary to brake down to the speed where 4th will pick up in much the same way as 5th appears when going fast enough. Good job those brakes were overhauled because it seems they earn their keep on this bus.
Sometimes I think it is a pity that modern traffic conditions oblige older vehicle drivers to row along harder than they might ordinarily be inclined. Still, we negotiated Norwich rush hour in style but some (most) of the double de-clutching was less than perfect. I am sure that despite the terrible peeling paint many drivers did not realise the age of the vehicle they were dicing with. Why, I even got a cheery wave from one National Express driver, who surely must be due a sight test.
We arrived at my home at dusk, and apart from stopping once for services, the 150 mile trip had been negotiated without a break or any sign of distress from the engine, bearings or brakes (we monitored the drum temperature quite carefully at first). We had managed an average of about 30mph. I enjoyed it so much I was almost sorry to stop. I think what happens from now on will have to be the subject of another report.