… along comes Donny 375.
A dozen or more reasons prevent your author from driving more diverse vehicles, but determination and perseverance can warrant its own reward. Anyone can pop down to a dealership and sample something new to them, but on the other hand, the total number of places you can experience this type of vehicle is a list ending at one.
Sandtoft, near Doncaster (but residing in East Lincolnshire) is home to over fifty, mainly restored, Trolleybuses – the world’s largest collection Having visited there in late 2018 and upon learning that one could drive such a beast, I made enquiries. The following year’s allocation was already booked, but plenty of room for 2020… the chance to wrestle with vehicular history being necessarily deferred until May 2022.
Doncaster 375 (its fleet number) was originally built in 1943 with a Karrier chassis, clothed in what was known as a Wartime Utility Body, cheap, thin, steel over a poorly seasoned timber frame. The mid-1950s saw the fleet being treated to a Roe of Leeds-made, teak framed body. Post war Britain chose not to invest in these silently efficient buses, December 14, 1963 being the day the last paying passengers climbed aboard. Bradford was the last UK trolleybus system to close in 1972 – the diesel motor bus, oilers to operators, being the chosen successor. Doncaster 375 was one of the first eight vehicles to arrive at Sandtoft in 1969, treated to a full restoration in 2013, remaining resplendent now aged almost 80.
The day was all about balance and enjoyment; speed not being a factor here. A brief outline of the day’s proceedings (10.00-16.30) by the enthusiastic, friendly and informative staff and then it was out to manhandle this four-score aged giant. Twenty-seven feet long, seven wide and with a separate cabin for the driver, it engenders a wholly unflattering clamber into the cab: Right foot onto front wheel rim, both hands on exterior rails. Heave in.
Derrière secured in the reasonably well-padded seat, my view is dominated by a huge, red steering wheel, a handbrake sprouting from the floor to my right, a myriad of electrical cables and a huge left foot pedal. Recalibrate brain, left for go, right for stop – repeat until 16:30 hrs. Above the driver’s head sit the industrial power switches, requiring a meaty throw to switch either on or off. Aromas of old dust and anticipation. Around six feet from the ground, the spilt screen view of the road ahead is clear.
As were the instructions, left foot down until one hears the first loud click, which takes an inordinately long time as your brain simply isn’t used to this. Once clicked, disengage handbrake, and we’re off, this practically eight-ton bus, effortlessly glides forward. The loud pedal has five indeterminately spaced clicks as speed increases. Encouragement to press on to the second click garners a messy click from two to three in an instant, the bus lurching a little as I try to connect the clicks smoothly. I maxed out at three. And have yet to master that wheel – left turn ahead!
An instinctive action, the wheel passes quite easily through both hands, four and half turns, lock to lock. Constantly assessing and encouraging, our guide suggests I speed up to click three, then coast around the corners. And should the speed need diminishing, the handbrake proves a smoother retardant. The right foot pedal wakes the gruff sounding and keenly felt air assistance, rumbling floor and fillings alike, and still so alien in concept. Concentration levels are enough to dry the mouth and make both palm and forehead damp; so much to take in on a Sunday morning! The vehicle’s weight slows down momentum as I maintain the turn and trying to apply first click, I hit third. ‘Everyone does it’, enters my left ear as I try to take in the instructions, determine sight lines and get those bloody clicks right. Impressions are of pride alongside moderate terror at being let loose in this museum piece.
Bizarrely, there’s a sudden urge to check mirrors. To my right, a small rectangular device showing something indistinct far away. Leftward, a reflective postage stamp. This would be used to check for passengers alighting, I’m told. The bus shudders, the teak trembles. Poor road surface, a haphazard click or the thought of checking these tiny mirrors in the dark?
This anti-clockwise loop is merely to introduce the equipment and its capabilities, and with first loops complete, we now tried the clockwise route in order to feel a different radius and be introduced to the overhead wire systems. Two poles, thirty feet in length articulately connect to the bus roof. Stiff springs ensure contact to the above wires and unless the driver gets too frisky with manoeuvres, de-wiring should not occur. By now, the left foot has become reasonably acquainted with the clicks. However, dead spots, where the electrical circuits have no power due to the system set- up or perhaps a signal turn, caused this rookie bus driver no-end of upset. An in-cab buzzer sounds if done incorrectly; derision, even in a lighthearted style, can linger like that buzzing. Struggling to engage brain, I muddled through, only once getting everything correct.
Disembarking akin to a sack of potatoes and slightly fried, the halt for the much needed (and sumptuous) lunch gave time to talk the morning through with everyone. Today’s foursome of novice TDE’s experience similar feelings. The drivers of the day required months of training – we had but minutes.
The afternoon would prove more rewarding as we began to string everything together – clicks, corners, buzzes (or lack thereof) and coasting. Competent was still too strong a phrase, but confidence and enjoyment swelled. We then attempted the trickiest performance, a right hand turn from the station where one has to apply two left foot clicks, engage the handbrake and prepare to heave on that wheel. The bus fights you, as does your brain once more, but it works – like a dream. Shifting eight tons of metal and wood never felt so rewarding!
In true civilised style, afternoon tea was then served – if only to let both bus motors and would-be drivers cool as the ambient temperature rose to a full 20° Celsius. A repast and back in the saddle accelerating and coasting with aplomb, the dead-spots a distant memory. Donny 375, a squeaking, clattering friend, with a forgiving handbrake and all too soon, our full and final drive was over.
Those awaiting their turn were offered the conductor rôle. Donning money bag and ticket machine (too warm for jacket and hat), ‘the dude at the back’ is actually in charge of the vehicle. The conductors were formidable characters, verbally chastising passengers and driver alike or metering out admonition to cheeky urchins. They would also bellow “Remain seated!” should you dare to alight just because the bus had slowed up, or press the bell twice, signalling the driver to go – just as you were a breathless six feet away from boarding.
Overall, an emotional drive. Along with a doffed chapeau to the volunteer staff of Sandtoft who keep these enigmatic and charming vehicles alive.
 Laden down with the other three expectant drivers, families, friends and the extra staff – about a dozen souls.
 A stripling thirty-five years old, Richard is an old hand driving trolleybuses and the museum’s chief instructor. His seat being the hard, wooden motor cover box.
 Trolleybus Driving Experience. Four drivers per day, events held six times a year, depending on, in the main, bus and staff availability.
 Low speed manoeuvring plays merry hell with the electric motors, even in the perennially cold northern climes. Such ancient vehicles need TLC.