Saturday, 16 July 2022

Birmingham AEC Regent 486 in £500,000 Restoration

A double decker bus with a remarkable history spanning more than 90 years - and now AEC Regent 486 has a new lease of life after a painstaking restoration that's cost £500,000.

With the rapid expansion of the City of Birmingham between the World Wars and the need to serve the ever-growing suburbs beyond the tramway network, Birmingham's bus fleet saw major growth during the 1930s.
In February 1931, Birmingham Corporation Tramway & Omnibus Department (BCT&OD) issued tender documents for the supply of 60 four-wheeled omnibus chassis with bodies seating 52 passengers (in the event, they were 48 seaters). These buses were to become Nos 444 - 503 in the city's fleet.

Amongst the ten chassis manufacturers vying for the work of building them were Guy, Thorneycroft, Dennis, Vulcan, Leyland and Halley but the tender was won by AEC who would add 60 Regents to the 107 already giving good service in Birmingham.

Construction of the 60 chassis for this contract commenced at AEC's Southall factory in June 1931, with deliveries to Metropolitan-Cammell for fitting of the bodies starting the following month.  The chassis for 486 was one of nine inspected at the AEC factory by BCT&OD's Chief Engineer on 24th August 1931 and found by him to be 'in accordance with our specification'. All nine were subsequently driven to Washwood Heath for bodying and once completed, 486 was delivered to Harborne Garage where it entered service on 4th December 1931.

Life for 486 during the early and mid-1930s appears to have been busy but quite uneventful, clocking up around 800 miles a week with only a break from continual use in February 1934 when the bus entered Tyburn Road Works for its first overhaul after covering 90,000 miles. The body was obviously standing up well to clattering over Birmingham's many cobbled streets as it only required a 'touch up and varnish' according to the record card. 
At this time, the bus would have been in regular use on routes to Queen's Park/West Boulevard (3), Harborne (4), Perry Common (5), Sandon Road, Bearwood (6), Portland Road (7) Quinton (9) and Bartley Green (12). It would also have been a regular performer on the legendary Outer Circle (11) route.

From the start of 1937, 486 was moved from front-line duties as more economical diesel engined Daimler COG5s entered service. The six-cylinder 6.1 litre AEC petrol engine drank fuel at a much faster rate than the frugal 5 cylinder Gardner 5LW oil engines fitted in the Daimlers. 
By the time of its next semi-overhaul in May 1938 it had only covered a further 22,000 miles. However, work on the body was still restricted to cleaning and varnishing the original paintwork, so the durability of MCCW's steel framed body was proving its worth.

For 486 and its fellow Regents, the outbreak of World War II resulted in an unexpected new lease of life. Being 'The City of a Thousand Trades' was going to need every bus that Birmingham City Transport could lay its hands on. 
The metal framed MCCW bodied buses soldiered on until their final withdrawal, some surviving until 1947, a full 16 years without significant repairs or exchanging of bodies. The additional investment of £80 per body back in 1931 evidently paid off!

In September 1940, the Blitz of London began in earnest and numerous buses and trams were damaged or destroyed. As a result, the call went out to all municipal and regional operators to supply replacement vehicles to the Capital. 
The following is an extract from a letter from BCT's General Manager Arthur C Baker to the City's Transport Committee:
"I beg to report that on 24th October instructions were received from the Regional Transport Commissioner's Office to send 30 buses to London. It had been hoped to retain these vehicles to deal with anticipated disruption to tramway services. Immediately I was informed of the Commissioner's instructions, I caused enquiries to be made as to whether this was optional, or an order. The answer came back that it was an order."

Accordingly, 30 buses were quickly dispatched southwards, all of them Regents, a logical choice as the London Transport fleet was largely made up of the type. Among the buses sent was 486, which arrived at Turnham Green Garage in the west of the city on 27th October. 
As the bombs rained down on London, 486 was going to need even more luck to survive until the return of better times. Whilst based in the Capital the bus would have worked services 55 - Greenford (Red Lion) to Chiswick (Edensor Road), 65 - Ealing (Argyle Road) to Leatherhead Garage and 91 - Cranford to Wandsworth Broadway (Mon - Fri) or Hammersmith (Sun). Turnham Green also operated the Night Service 297 - Turnham Green to Liverpool Street so it is possible 486 was in the thick of it during overnight air raids.

As things turned out, Birmingham's need for the 30 Regents was rapidly going to outweigh London's as the Luftwaffe continued its onslaught of heavy raids on the Second City. On the night of 22nd - 23rd November, 88 buses were put out of action either temporarily or permanently when Hockley Garage was devastated. 
A total of 145 buses, mostly new deliveries, were lost or damaged during November 1940 and so BCT urgently put their case to the Regional Transport Commissioner for the return of the requisitioned vehicles. They were returned to Birmingham by 24th November."

Luck finally ran out for 486 when engine failure resulted in it being the first of the MCCW batch of 20 Regents to be withdrawn from service with no reprieve. It was ultimately retained for more than two years and not disposed of until hostilities were well and truly over. Eventually, on 23rd July 1946 any hope of survival must have seemed remote when 486 was sold to Messrs Devey, scrap merchants of Shenstone, Staffs. The remaining hulk would not have been expected to last long and PSV Circle publications in the decades following stated that the vehicle had been broken up. 
One might have imagined this to be the end of the story, but many years later, a new chapter opened up in this remarkable saga.

In the late 1960s rumours emerged that a Birmingham 'piano-front' Regent had been seen in a remote part of Herefordshire.

In the summer of 1969, four 1685 Group members piled into a car and headed off in search of a vehicle they hardly believed could still exist. After a morning of fruitless meanderings in the area around the village of Sollers Hope, the party decided to take a lunch break in a small local pub. They asked if anyone was aware of an old double-deck bus parked in the vicinity. "Oh, no, I don't know of anything like that. No, there's nothing like that at all 'round here.." said one of the old men seated in the bar, "..except for that old bus Mr Preece lives in down the lane..".

As soon as the search party could gulp down their meat pies and drink up, they headed straight for the location described. At first, they seemed to be on a wild-goose-chase then, as disappointed resignation was setting in, there was one last sharp turn in the tiny lane, and there peering over the hedge was the top deck of a piano-front Regent. 
The elderly man who had made the bus his home emerged with a shotgun! Having established that the bus was indeed a BCT Regent, the search party made a tactical retreat. The intrepid foursome headed back to Birmingham, happy that they had found what they were looking for. But which Regent was it?

Months went by and nothing further was heard. Then, one night in February 1970, a call was received from the parish councillor to say that the 92-year-old Mr Preece, a retired Welsh miner, had become very ill over the winter and relatives had insisted he move to a proper caravan in another part of the small field. 
A hurried trip back to Sollers Hope was arranged where the would-be rescuers found the old man now living in his more weather-proof home and the bus abandoned. Inspection of the Regent revealed that remarkably, the front of the cab was still adorned with the registration number plate - OV 4486. 486 had avoided the scrapman's cutting torch and hidden deep in the English countryside, it had escaped the Reaper! Instead of breaking up the bus for scrap, Devey's had sold it on to provide living accommodation far away from the area of its previous operation.

The Group's optimism was soon dampened when enquiries revealed the bad news that the bus had been sold only days before to gypsies then living in the area. It was the gypsies' intention to break it up for scrap. They finally tracked down the very people that had done the deal with Mr Preece's family. After some careful negotiation, hands shaken. 486 was secured. Once again, for 486 it had been a narrow escape!

The bus was eventually towed away for restoration.

Pleased that they had saved 486 but with no the money, expertise, or facilities to take on the massive the group reluctantly sold 486 to Bob Beesley, an enthusiast from Walthamstow, London E17 who stated an intention to restore the bus, one of only three 'complete' mark-one petrol engined short-length Regents in the country to have survived.

So, in July 1971, 486 was on the move back southwards for the second time in its life, but now heading for the other side of London, ending up in a vehicle storage yard at Romford. For the next two years, the bus was stored only partly under cover awaiting restoration, but sadly all that happened was that parts were removed from the bus, including much of the cab structure, and many of the pieces were lost, whilst the shed that was supposed to give some shelter fell apart around it.

Meanwhile some of those that had been involved in the original rescue from Herefordshire were having second thoughts. Other enthusiasts were getting involved in the growing local preservation movement including two employees at the Metro-Cammell factory where 486's body had been built. 
They were John Seale and Andrew Gardner. John had heard of the existence of 486 due to enquiries made by Malcolm Keeley to Metro-Cammell at the time of its original rescue. Having established the whereabouts of the vehicle, John and Andrew travelled to Romford to inspect the bus on 8th September 1973. 
It was soon realised that considerable work was going to be needed even to make it reasonably fit for its 130 mile journey back to the West Midlands. It was found that due to deterioration in the Regent's bodywork, the interior of both decks would need to be shored up.

A plan was eventually put in place for recovering the Regent and a place was found where the bus could be parked at Castle Bromwich. During this period, the Birmingham Omnibus Preservation Society (BOPS) was created, the initial aim of which was to purchase and bring 486 back to home territory, but with more ambitious aims for the preservation of Birmingham's transport heritage in the future. The deal struck with Bob Beesley meant that BOPS now had its first vehicle. On 24th November 1973, 486 was hitched up once more to a towing vehicle. The entourage finally rolled into Castle Bromwich just before midnight with a tired but satisfied crew, happy that they had achieved what appeared such an impossibly daunting task only weeks before.

Not surprisingly, being easily accessible to the public and in an urban area, the bus suffered unwanted attention over the following year and after a search for somewhere more secure, on 16th October 1974 the bus was taken to an open-sided barn at Trueman's Heath, to the south of Birmingham. This 'facility' had been found some time previously and it now housed many of the buses preserved in the Birmingham area.


By now there was growing interest in bus preservation in the area. The Birmingham Museum of Transport Society (BMTS) was an umbrella organisation which now included the 1685 Group, BOPS and other vehicle owners who were keen to create a museum for Birmingham's transport heritage. BMTS were invited to bring some of the vehicles within the collection to contribute to a display of transport related exhibits filling one of the halls at the opening of the National Exhibition Centre in January 1976 where a free preview event for the citizens of Birmingham was being held.

Discussions between representatives of BMTS, the City Council and West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, successors to BCT, resulted in 486 moving with other vehicles into Moseley Road Garage. This former BCT tram depot and bus garage was no longer operational but housed the apprentice training school. After their previous homes, this was indeed luxury accommodation for the buses and for 486 it gave the opportunity for reconstruction of the missing nearside of the upper deck to be started with installation of replacement pillar sections and stress panels. During this time, work also progressed on replacing parts of the missing cab structure and platform framework.

The arrangement allowing the parking of BMTS/BOPS vehicles in Moseley Road was to come to an end with the expiry of the 12 month agreement in March 1977 and the vehicles were returned to Trueman's Heath to stand in the remains of the old barn structure but the restoration once again came to a halt. On 15th November 1977, BOPS transformed into the Birmingham and Midland Motor Omnibus Trust and the newly formed Trust (which was formally registered as a charity on 7th February 1978) was actively engaged in securing premises that they could make into a permanent museum to house the growing collection of Midlands buses. Early in 1978 the site at Wythall, part of a former RAF barrage balloon base, was taken over, initially on a 21 year lease, allowing for greater security of tenure than ever before, even if vehicles would, for the time being, be stored in the open.

As the museum was built up, restoration work occurred in bursts, particularly work on the wooden frame, but establishing the museum took precedence. At least 486 would be under cover.


Over a quarter of a century passed until in 2012, the museum trustees decided to invest some of its reserves into the restoration of one vehicle. That and a large legacy left by Arthur Whitehouse who had played a significant part in the rescue of 486, enabled the restoration to begin with Rob Handford appointed as the project leader. It was decided that a contract would be awarded for the complex restoration. Meanwhile Rob and his colleagues collected all the available parts that were known to exist and brought them together in readiness.

After reviewing the options, it was decided to entrust the whole project to Ian Barrett a proven and well respected professional restoration expert with the project being co-ordinated by Rob Handford, who led the superb restoration of Birmingham Guy 2548.

After 40 years of fundraising, work to restore the vehicle commenced in 2013 with a combination of contracted partners and volunteers. The full story of the final and full restoration is available separately but needless to say it accounted for thousands of man hours, the involvement of a host of individuals, company sponsorships, legacies and general donations amounting to c£500,000.

486 arrived back at Wythall on December 30th 2018 after a very long drive from Surrey. Final finishing recommenced with the application of gold lining, transfers and final varnishing. With the intervention of Covid-19, that final finishing of the details and some significant mechanical reworks on the engine was stalled.

Eventually, what you see today, a most magnificent example of 1930s engineering restored to perfection, made its first public appearance at the Classic Car Show at the NEC in 2021, receiving much acclaim from the public and media alike. 2022 sees 486 lead a new exhibition at Wythall on the history of Birmingham City Transport and will, at long last, provide an exciting ride for the public at selected open day events.