There are two names connected with the New Routemaster London bus, Boris Johnson and Thomas Heatherwick.
The latter is a controversial designer, feted and sometimes scorned. He is maybe, in stature if not style, the UK’s Philippe Starck. Someone who is obviously clever and ambitious, and doesn’t want to be hemmed in by specialising in a particular field. The same, of course, can be said of Mr Johnson which, one might assume, is why they gelled. The original Routemaster, let’s call it RM, a vehicle never a bus stop away from having the ill-used adjective ‘iconic’ added to its name, was a product of a very different era. It was never designed to attract tourists to Brand London but its longevity on the roads meant that it became an ingrained part of the city, viewed with affection by all those who didn’t get stuck on the rear platform on a freezing Winter’s day.
Commissioned and developed by London Transport and finally built by AEC and Park Royal Vehicles, the RM’s gestation period was long. The project started in the late Forties, the first four prototypes ran from 1954, but it didn’t enter service in any numbers until 1959. RM was innovative. Although superficially similar to the previous, pre-war design, RT double decker, it had power steering, power braking and an electro-pneumatic automatic transmission and it employed unitary construction, using lightweight aluminium material derived from the aeronautical industry. The engineering was handled by a team under engineers Durrant and Curtis, but the project was also innovative in employing Douglas Scott, an industrial designer, to style it.
Before the Second World War, Scott had worked for Raymond Loewy’s London studio where he redesigned that aspirational totem of the country-dwelling middle classes with time on their hands, the AGA cooker. During the War he worked in the aeronautical industry at De Havilland, learning a lot about structural engineering. Afterwards he became a freelance designer and, in 1955 he formed his own consultancy and designed items such as stamp-vending machines, washbasins and tape recorders. As an industrial designer, he wasn’t responsible for the basic engineering of these items, but he was from a discipline where you studied a brief in detail, understood how an item functioned in depth, and ensured it could be produced in practice.
His spell in the aircraft industry would have ensured that he was not viewed by the LT engineers as ‘the creative’, to use a contemporary term of disparagement, and he carried out the exterior and interior styling of RM, even including the tartan seat fabric. His work gave the Routemaster character, but never allowed his ego to swamp its essential function. Scott said “I have always designed for the market…private and personal aesthetics are out of place in industrial design”
These are the principles he had which, for many years now, have seemed very admirable to me. Unfortunately, when I was in my early twenties, I saw none of this. Douglas Scott was our course tutor in my final year and, although I respected his achievements, I found little attraction at the time in this self-effacing method of working. I’ve mentioned this before on these pages, but he seemed a very decent man, and what, at the time, I took as a certain conservative disapproval of me was probably just complete bemusement that I wasn’t grabbing a privileged opportunity with both hands.
Anyway, that same Routemaster, that he styled and that I took to college every day, was finally put to rest by Transport For London under Ken Livingstone’s mayorship. Over the years the fleet had been restored and re-engined, but none had been manufactured since 1968 and various closed door double deckers had been introduced to supplement them. A particular concern for TfL was occasional lawsuits from litigious folk who fell drunkenly off the open platforms. Additionally, they required expensive two person operation. So their abandonment made some sense, but their replacement with long Citaro articulated single deckers, bendy buses, designed for the streets of Wuppertal not those of a medieval city, must have involved a prodigious amount of wining and dining from Mercedes, combined with a mayor who, as a non-driver, possibly didn’t understand how things go round corners.
So, in principle, Boris Johnson’s mayoral pledge to replace the Routemaster was popular, with a return to the more agile double-decker, a conductor to keep you company and the attraction of being able to hop on and off whenever and wherever you wanted. What’s more, to make it even more Boris-funtastic, and to involve us all, he announced a competition. Look at various of the 700 plus proposals and, rather like Ford’s stewardship of Jaguar and BMW’s stewardship of Rover, it’s clear from the overall retro-heritage look, that many of the Routemaster’s admirers had lost track of, or never knew, the fact that it had been, in its time, a very innovative vehicle.
Pared down to a joint two prizewinners, by Aston Martin/Foster+Partners and Capoco Design, the final production version actually looks like neither. After the contract for production was awarded to Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus, it was announced that their hybrid would be 40% more fuel efficient and cut particulates by 33%. In addition, to ensure it became a future icon, Heatherwick Studios were called in.
Thomas Heatherwick has a far more ambitious quotation than Douglas Scott. “At the root of everything I do is a fascination with ideas – what ideas are for, what jobs they do.” But does this actually mean anything? We are post-modernism, we are post-irony, we are post-language. How exactly do you address the idea that you should re-create an ‘icon’?
The New Routemaster’s development didn’t take the leisurely, if thorough, decade or so of the RM. The final design was approved in mid 2010 and the first New Routemaster entered service 20 months later. From criticisms, this shows. In common with today’s cars, the upper glasshouse is not as generous for passengers as it seems, and the windows don’t open. There is a cooling system for both its decks, but not a proper refrigerated air-conditioning, and the bus is not a popular place to be on hot days. Also like many cars, consumption and emission figures seem to have remained well rooted in the land of theory. It’s reported that problems with the hybrid system’s batteries mean that the vehicles end up running too often on their conventional diesel engine, resulting in emissions that are actually higher than on the vehicles they replaced. And the much trumpeted open platform spends an awful amount of time closed. With that last point in mind in particular, shorn in practical application of its open platform USP, why did London need its own double decker when perfectly good alternatives were already in service?
Manufactured in Ballymena and thus fitted with age-unrelated Northern Irish registration plates to further underline its would-be status as a timeless classic, Johnson had blustered, with his usual rigorous respect for figures, that 2,000 NRMs would be ordered but, at £350,000 a pop, London’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has labelled it the most expensive bus in the world, so it’s unlikely that the current figure of around 1,000 in service or on order will be exceeded. The original had a production of 2,876, although this comparison means little more than the fact that, compared with a Rolls Phantom, the NRM is actually a lot of metal for the money.
In Part 2, we step away from our screen and actually experience the New Routemaster. Future Design Classic or Boris’s New Clothes?