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1969 Park Royal Daimler Fleetline, RFN 953G - Partial Restoration & Traditional Coach Paint
In: Projects

1969 Park Royal Daimler Fleetline, RFN 953G - Partial Restoration & Traditional Coach Paint

July, 2019

Ashley Blackman discusses the restoration of the sole surviving 1969 Park Royal bodied East Kent Daimler Fleetline “953” with owner James White and digs deeper into James family heritage with the East Kent Road Car Company and how he came to purchase this rare classic.

When James first contacted me we talked at length about our great memories growing up in Kent and the many buses that we both remember, so it was a huge privilege to undertake this restoration and to learn of James family involvement working on East Kent buses and how they continue to be majorly involved in the preservation movement down in the sunny South East of England. I hope you enjoy this article in conversation with James and if you ever manage to take a trip to the many events in Kent and East Sussex do take a ride on James’ smoothly driven Fleetline, 953, it is a real treat!

A: James, where did your interest in buses come from and why do you have a passion for the preservation of East Kent buses in particular?

J: I grew-up in the south east of England, on the Isle of Thanet and our local bus operator was East Kent Road Car Company Ltd. My earliest memory of buses was being taken, by my Mum, to the bus stop outside Ellington Infants School, in Ramsgate. I can clearly remember the poppy red bus arriving at the stop and the driver opening the doors for us to board. I would only have been around three years old and, although I can’t be sure that it was this specific bus journey, I’m pretty sure that the bus that we travelled on was a Daimler Fleetline as I also have a vivid memory of sitting on the inward facing rear seats and looking out at the strange marker (referred to by East Kent crews as ‘the lollipop’) that hung above the engine bustle. This had been added by the East Kent engineers at their Central Works (in Canterbury) prior to them entering service. As a child, I was hooked on buses and, like most boys, I wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps. In my case, by becoming a bus driver just as soon as I could. I would have to wait a few years until that would be possible and, in the meantime, accept that my model buses and model bus garage, as well as going to work with my Dad at weekends & school holidays, would be a suitable compromise.

A: Your family goes back a couple of generations working on the buses in East Kent. What a great heritage to have.

J: East Kent was a big part of our family, my Dad had joined East Kent as a Trainee Driver in April 1972, at Thanet (Westwood) Depot. My (maternal) Grandad, had also been with East Kent for around twenty years, eventually retiring in 1976, and although employed on local bus routes during the winter months, his employment primarily was as a Tour Driver within the coaching fleet and this took him on continental tours to Europe. He would often reminisce and ask after certain old colleagues, with my Dad, when he came to visit. Like most large companies, East Kent Road Car Company had had a very active social club and the events calendar would often include activities that were open to the partners and families of current staff/club members. Although my Grandad had retired from East Kent, I was always acutely aware that he, and many other retired staff, looked back on their employment with such fondness and happy memories. Perhaps bus travel was considered to be more accessible to the older generation during the 1980s and 1990s. I certainly recall meeting many retired staff whilst at work with my Dad. Ex-Drivers and conductors would still regularly travel on buses driven by their former colleagues and I got to know several names and faces; all of whom would ask after my Grandad.

A: Did your family heritage with the bus company influence your decision to purchase 953?

J: My Dad, whilst not encouraging me to become a bus driver on a permanent basis, had sewn the seed in relation to driving buses in my spare time and, perhaps, owning a bus to take to rallies on summer weekends. Buses were always in the background and I could never quite let the idea of becoming a bus driver go completely. During my mid-twenties, I decided to commit to attending a course and, fortunately, I passed my PCV Driver training and began working, only on a casual basis, with some local companies to my home in Kent. It was a great grounding and my very first paid duty was driving an ex-London Transport Leyland Titan. I spent my first day driving the very same vehicle that had been regularly allocated to my Dad; KYV348X.

It was around this time that I also began making some tentative enquiries as to the possibility of acquiring my own ex-East Kent bus or coach. Initially, it proved a little difficult and, ultimately, unsuccessful. My experience in the early days was that my valuation of a vehicle seemed significantly less than the current owner had placed on their vehicle. This is, to a certain extent, almost inevitably going to be the case. A successful outcome will depend on how far adrift the two prices are and if there is a shared enthusiasm to meet at an acceptable middle-ground. The idea was put on hold for quite some time until my Dad was contacted by one of the joint equal-owners of RFN953G, an Ex-East Kent Daimler Fleetline (complete with ‘lollipop’).

A: “953” is the sole surviving 1969 Park Royal bodied East Kent Daimler Fleetline, can you tell us more about the history of 953 and how it came to survive all of these years later after being withdrawn from service?

J: East Kent Road Car Company began taking delivery of their first rear-engine double decker buses; a batch of twenty Daimler Fleetlines (Registered RFN953-972G), in the Spring of 1969. These Daimler ‘Fleetline CR’ chassis, having been built at their plant in Coventry, were fitted with a Gardner 6LX (10.45 litre x 135bhp) engine and full height 14’8” Park Royal (H39/33F) bodywork. These revolutionary new buses were delivered in the same livery, long associated with this operator, of red & cream.

In August 1975, RFN953G was repainted into the ubiquitous NBC ‘Poppy Red’ livery – as per my memory of the Fleetlines when travelling with my Mum in the early 1980s – and in 1985, the entire batch were fitted with, what was considered by some, as the calamitous air-operated power steering rack; ‘Autosteer’ and for the remainder of 953s service life, it was transferred to Ashford Depot until final withdrawal in June 1987.

By the time of their withdrawal, RFN 967-9G had been sold to Maidstone & District and were operating in their green NBC livery. The remainder, with the exception of 966 (which was scrapped), were officially sold (on paper at least) on 10.7.1987 to T.Wigley (dealer), Barnsley. Though in practice, they were sold on to Wealden PSV (dealer) of Five Oak Green, Kent who collected the vehicles from the disposal area at Westwood Depot. Some did see further use and five were acquired by Guide Friday and converted for use on their open top sightseeing tours.

The first of the batch, RFN 953G, was collected by Wealden PSV and a buyer was found in Prestwood Travel of Buckinghamshire and it remained in service, on Private Hires and contracts, around the High Wycombe area until 1st December 1989. This change of ownership led 953 into entering preservation status with David Ladd of Ivor, Buckinghamshire. Mr Ladd had 953 repainted with a fresh coat of National Bus Company ‘Poppy Red’ and rallied it in such condition until 1994 when, whilst travelling back from the Southsea Common Bus Rally, a mechanical failure occurred on the climb up the Devil’s Punchbowl near Hindhead.

RFN 953G then spent approximately 7½ years in open storage in the High Wycombe yard of Ward Jones. In 2001 the third change of ownership occurred and the bus was brought back to Kent by new joint owners Phil Drake and David Ferguson. It took until 2005 for 953 to eventually appear on the rally circuit in Kent. Undercover accommodation had been sourced, many preparatory parts sourced and mechanical defects rectified; as well as a semi-professional re-spray into maroon & cream, had been undertaken.

A: What made you decide to purchase the Daimler Fleetline and how did it come about?

J: Towards the end of 2016 an opportunity presented itself for me to acquire 953 from Phil & David. They had spent 11 years attending rallies and running days throughout Kent and Sussex. By this time, 953 was the sole surviving Fleetline and my Dad had retired from East Kent, in September 2011 after 39½ years of unbroken service. Phil had made contact with my Dad, following a tentative conversation that they had at the Herne Bay rally in the August of 2016. Following some productive telephone calls and emails, I was invited, by Phil, to test drive 953 and headed out onto the roads of Kent, (accompanied by Phil as my mentor / instructor) for a good run over several miles around the picturesque countryside near Canterbury. Phil & David had sent the Gardner engine away for rebuild, with Welham’s Engineering in Leicester, just prior to me buying her and, as a result, was a good ‘runner’. Whereas before 953 had a 6LX head and sump with a 6LXB crank block - producing standard 6LX bhp; she now had a 6LXB head. I was confident that 953 was mechanically in pretty good shape and a deal was agreed for me to by her.

My first official outing as the new owner of 953 was at the South East Bus Festival, at the Kent County Showground, in April 2017. This is a largely static event with around 150 buses on display and various vehicles taking turns to provide free bus rides around the showground during the day. It’s the first event of the ‘Season’ and is a great opportunity for the vehicle owners to catch up and swap stories. Fortunately, for me, I knew most owners through my Dad and through the M&D and East Kent Bus Club. Although I was very proud to have finally fulfilled my ambition to own and East Kent bus and to take it to a local rally, my new ambition was to do my utmost to have the bus fully restored into ‘as delivered’ condition in advance of the 50th Anniversary of its delivery, in May/June 2019.

Throughout 2017, I attended the Rallies and Running Days that 953 had been a regular feature of prior to my ownership. My preference is the running days when services are planned to replicate timetables from years gone-by and covering areas that buses used to serve but, in some cases, no longer see such a regular service. If any service at all! The only minor mechanical frustration encountered during my first season was an electrical/starting issue. Eventually, after some miss-diagnosis and having replaced the batteries, overhauled the alternator and the regulator and serviced the starter motor, by the end of May 2018 the issue had been fully resolved.

“ I had spent some months researching the possibility of a full restoration"

James White

A: It was a great privilege to be able to restore 953 for its 50th birthday. We undertook the restoration in two parts, first the exterior bodywork and coach painting, not forgetting the new chromework and polishing, but then we also managed to achieve restoring some of the interior within your budget also. What can you tell the readers about the restoration period and your experiences?

J: I had spent some months researching the possibility of a full restoration. Two ex-East Kent vehicles stood out in providing inspiration. David Thompson’s GJG739D in Sealink livery is exceptionally well presented, and was featured in this magazine in the past, and PFN874 had also been treated to a recent repaint to celebrate the centenary of East Kent Road Car Company in 2016. Having spent some time chatting with David (739) and with Richard Wallace (874) my heart was set on having some expert attention given to 953.

I did an online search for traditional bus & coach painters and found your website and the work that had been undertaken by you over the previous twenty, or so, years. I was immediately impressed and particularly liked what had been done with the ex-Devon General, Marshall bodied, AEC Reliance, 9 RDV. Perhaps it is because of the colours of Devon General are not too dissimilar to those of East Kent. I explained what I was hoping to achieve with 953 and when the work would need to be done in order to have 953 back on the road for the start of the 2019 Season. We were able to use some excellent photos of the Fleetlines that were taken in June 1969 as a our inspiration and reference for the restoration. I drove 953 to Yorkshire and delivered the bus to you on the last weekend of September and the bus was to remain there for the six month restoration period.

Work began immediately and I remember being sent some progress pictures, within 24-48 hours of our arrival. It was an odd experience to see what had taken place. I had overlooked the fact that 953 would have to look significantly worse before it began to look any better. All of the lights and exterior fixtures were removed as well as the panels that had been condemned during the inspection/appraisal three weeks previously. By mid-November all of the preparation had taken place, with new panels fitted, and existing panels rubbed-down. I visited Yorkshire again on the 12th January and by this point the bus was beginning to take shape again with the exterior around 60-70% painted.

With the exterior restoration costs under control and sufficient funds left within the budget, we agreed to proceed with the interior refurbishment. Any attempt to start on the interior was on-hold until we were confident that the exterior was approaching completion that there had not been any unexpected expense that would use my contingency funds. My advice to anyone funding a project such as this would be to have 15%-20% of the total estimate in reserve for any unexpected issues that may need to be resolved.

Within four weeks of my visit, the seat frames had been removed, dispatched for powder coating (in plum red) and had returned to be refitted. The upper-deck floor had been repainted and all other areas had received a deep clean. Fast forward another four weeks and at the beginning of March the bus was finished and ready for collection. Six months, to the day, after delivering 953 to Ashley, I travelled to Yorkshire to collect her for her journey back to Kent. My wife, Laura, travelled with me and was there to see the big ‘reveal’ moment outside the workshop when 953 was handed over.

Ultimately 953 looked even better than I had imagined – and still does! The handsome Park Royal bodywork having been treated to the brush repaint shone and the interior looked stunning. I was blown away with the attention to detail and the small areas that had been worked on to make a big improvement. The sign-written fleetnames and legal lettering were the icing on an immaculate cake! After a faultless 250 mile journey back to Kent and a week back in her home, 953 made her debut at the South East Bus Festival, two years after my inaugural event with her.

A: You have had a very busy 2019 rally season with 953, I forget how many photographs we have seen of the bus filled with passengers travelling on old routes.

J: On Sunday 30th June 2019, I took 953 back to Westwood Depot and spent the day covering the 50, 51 and 52 Routes around the local area. Having originally entered service on Sunday 29th June 1969, it was exactly 50 years later that a handsome looking East Kent Daimler Fleetline was still to be seen taking a foray around the Isle of Thanet on a gloriously sunny day.

The 2019 Season has been such a pleasure and 953 has received some lovely comments and feedback this year. As mentioned already, I particularly enjoy running days where vehicle and their owner recreate a timetable or service from years gone-by. Pretending to be a real East Kent busman is great fun. However, the highlight always is hearing everyone catching up, swapping stories and reminiscing about the good old days and their shared fondness for East Kent. To see and hear everyone chatting as they travel aboard 953 with the Gardner engine whining away at the back and the shared nostalgia that buses bring out in everyone (not just bus enthusiasts) is great! In some cases, the people travelling haven’t met before and are simply chatting about the buses they used to regularly travel on or a member of their family who worked for East Kent.

A: What advice or thoughts do you have to someone who is looking to get involved in bus preservation?

J: When buying 953 and, ultimately, when committing to the restoration, I was keen to have a really fitting tribute to all of the Busmen and women and all of the thousands of staff that had worked for East Kent. The pride that was taken in presenting their vehicles and their drivers to the public around Kent should not be forgotten and it’s important that we keep in mind the foundations that were laid all those years ago. Equally, there is a sense of responsibility to not allow the bus to fall into a state of disrepair. Mr Ladd, Phil Drake and David Ferguson had all invest their time and money in saving 953 from the scrap man. I hope that 953 is a fitting tribute and I’m already looking forward to being back on the road in 2020 for more happy outings!

A: What does the future hold for you and your family and 953?

J: During the summer season, my weekends again will be spent attending the rallies and running days in Kent where 953 is often reunited with buses from East Kent; a Regent V, or two, (or three!) and Guy Arabs in their gorgeous red & cream livery. And my Dad, rather than doing the driving, spends his time as a passenger on 953; listening to the Gardner engine and indulging in nostalgia with some of his ex-East Kent colleagues and enthusiasts.

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