23rd January 2020

The Bristol Bus Company – from Boom to Bus

The founder of Bristol Commercial Vehicles, The Bristol Aeroplane Company and latterly Bristol Cars, had never planned to become an industrial pioneer and magnate, in fact, greatness was rather thrust upon him by fate.

Aged just 14, George White took a two jobs in the city of Bristol, becoming a clerk at a solicitor’s firm, and a librarian at the Bristol Law Library. An interest in the law led the young man to read the entire contents of the library during his working hours, which meant that by the age of 16 George’s knowledge led him to be hired as the company secretary at the newly formed Bristol Tramways Company. By the age of just 19, George had been promoted to the position of Managing Director.

As the company grew and brought its electric tram networks to cities around United Kingdom, George realised that the transport network could be expanded rapidly if buses were used to transport the masses into urban areas that the trams could not reach. When a fleet of buses was purchased for this purpose, George judged them to be underpowered and unfit for his needs, and duly employed a team of designers and engineers to build a range of buses that would better compliment his electric trams. He urged them to create vehicles that were quicker, stronger and more reliable than any others on the market; and thus the Bristol Commercial Vehicles Division was created.

The first ‘Bristol’ bus to hit the road, the C40 became an instant commercial success thanks to its reliability and performance. Once it was proved to be good product, the company produced the C50 charabanc, which they sold to external operators across the country. Powered by a large four-cylinder engine that was designed and built in-house by Bristol, the open-topped coach was a revolution. Quicker and quieter than its rivals, Bristol sold more than 700 of these coaches around the UK and continued to produce petrol powered commercial vehicles until the introduction of diesel engines to its range in 1933, with the JO model.

As Bristol Commercial Vehicles expanded into the production of vans, lorries and taxis alongside the buses, its vehicles being exported for service across Europe, the USA and Australia; it had become a global brand and was considered the vanguard of quality and technology. By the 1960s and with the M1 Motorway having opened up the idea of high-speed road transport to the British Public, Bristol coaches became ever more popular with operators and passengers alike, thanks to their safe handling and ability to cruise in comfort at high speed.

While many coaches of the era struggled to do more than 50mph, the Bristol REHL (which stood for Rear Engine, High Frame Long, or in other words, a coach) was known to be able to cruise on the unrestricted motorways at 80mph and maintain 70mph uphill.

The introduction of speed limits to motorways, and the part-nationalisation of the company in the mid-1960s meant the end of the Bristol’s headline-grabbing speeds, but the company continued to produce commercial vehicles into the 1980’s, when it was finally swallowed by Leyland group.

If you're lucky enough to own a classic bus, why not take a look at our Historic Bus insurance policy? From single vehicles to fleets, we can arrange cover for a wide variety of makes and models.

Do you remember the high-speed coaches, or a local double decker bus? Let us know in the comments below.   

I have a small library of bus books but my main interest is in 40's, 50's and 60's single deckers - I rode on so many but my absolute favourite was the amazing Bristol 6 - it was unbeatable !

Topcat, 10/02/2020