|The AEC Regent
ahead of its time
Introduced in 1929, and designed by the famous J.G. Rackham, the AEC Regent double-deck and single-deck buses became particularly well known in Ireland as they plied their routes around the countryside
|The origins of AEC go back to the London General Omnibus Company's B-type motor bus of 1910. Manufacture of these celebrated vehicles, which saw off London's last horse buses in record time, became the responsibility of the newly formed Associated Equipment Company in 1912. Like the LGOC, this concern was owned by the Underground Group, thus explaining the presence of the familiar circle and bar on the triangular AEC badge. While its principal function was to supply the Underground group, AEC also sold on the open market. With the transfer of all London's public services to the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, AEC became an independent manufacturer. It continued thus until it merged in 1962 with Leyland, which finally extinguished the famous marque in 1979.
Following a decade of highly regarded models, a whole new range of AECs appeared in 1929. These were designed by the famous J. G. Rackham, who two years earlier had introduced the epoch-making Leyland Tiger and Titan. It has been said that in detailing the AEC models, Rackham eliminated whatever minor defects he perceived in his earlier work for Leyland Motors. The new AEC buses had R names - Regal, Regent, Ranger, Renown. The Regent double-decker and Regal single-decker were to become particularly well known in Ireland and AEC was represented in the then Free State by Thompsons who occupied premises at the corner of Lower Abbey Street and Beresford Place in Dublin.
The Great Northern Railway, with a railway network on both sides of the border north of a line between Dublin and Sligo, began operating buses and lorries in 1929. Following the acquisition of its vehicles and road services north of the border by the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board in 1935, the GNR fleet in the south settled at around 160 buses and 100 lorries until incorporated into CIE in 1958. During the intervening years the GNR, proud of its well deserved reputation for excellent service, constantly strove for higher standards in its vehicles. The company's first double-deck buses were AEC Regents which went to work on their Eden Quay-Killester-Howth service in October 1937.
Several batches of Regents were subsequently placed in service by the GNR, most of them having bodywork built in Dundalk on Park Royal framing. The first ten were Mark Is with 7.7-litre engines and crash gearboxes, but later deliveries were far more sophisticated. A new model, the RT, which had been developed for London in 1938, became the basis of the Mark III Regent, available from 1946 onwards. This had a 9.6-litre engine, fluid flywheel, preselector gearbox and air brakes, offering new standards to operators, drivers and passengers. The GNR placed ten such vehicles in service during 1948.
At that time, when new buses were needed urgently in huge numbers all over the country, indigenous body-building capacity was severely stressed. Because the CIE body shops at Spa Road (Inchicore) and the GNR Dundalk Works were working flat out, the Government sanctioned the importation of up to 200 complete vehicles. Thirty-seven AECs - all Mark III models - brought in through Dublin Port for the GNR included seven Regent double-deck 56-seaters with Park Royal bodywork A further three buses of the same type were later built at Dundalk, and the last nine Dundalk-built Regents, in 1953, were 66-seaters.
A feature of GNR bus operations was cross-Border services that led to several complications. Construction and Use Regulations in the two jurisdictions differed slightly, as did some legal requirements. The Customs authorities watched constantly for the slightest infringement of their outlandish rules which became ever more onerous and time wasting - buses held up interminably at Border Customs Posts were an endless irritant. Triptiques, bonding, plating and a requirement to have some vehicles registered on each side of the Border made life interesting for GNR busmen who always tried to shield their passengers from the worst excesses of the system.
GNR buses at work displayed a host of unusual features, the double-deckers being especially noteworthy. They were used extensively on country services, the vehicles being fitted with platform doors and heaters; luggage racks were also installed in the lower saloons. There were only three places in the world where double-deckers operated across land frontiers requiring customs examination, and two of these were in Ireland. One was on the Lough Swilly services out of Derry into Co. Donegal, the other on the route between Dundalk and Newry.
AEC Regent No. 438 (ZH 3937), one of the 1948 imports costing £3,879 was one of three double-deckers that worked between Dundalk and Newry for nearly twenty years. It passed to CIE with the rest of the GNR fleet on 1st October 1958, acquired a CIE logo and parliamentary lettering, and was withdrawn at the end of 1967. When donated to the museum by CIE it carried a notice advising passengers of the foot and mouth regulations then in force. Vandalised after coming into the museum collection, it was rebuilt and restored to the full glory of the GNR blue and cream livery in 1986.
In addition to its highly symbolic radiator badge, a magnificent crest adorns the sides of No. 438. In this, a traditional garter belt bearing the company's title encircles a shield displaying heraldry representing four of the principal places served by the GNR: Dublin, Belfast, Enniskillen and Derry. In the case of Derry, the London arms form part of the insignia, commemorating an important event in our history, while the skeleton below is said to be that of a nobleman walled up in his castle by his enemies even further back in time. In the centre of the shield a smaller one shows the Red Hand of Ulster.
While every vehicle in Howth is a rich repository of history, this bus excels in the scope of the symbolism carried in its badging, which fascinates visitors.
However, No. 438 really comes into its own when, occasionally, the engine is started, enabling people to hear the highly distinctive sounds of the transmission. It is at times like this that the atmosphere of times past really comes alive again, but one is also reminded that this bus, now over fifty years old, was technically ahead of its time.
(Above) CIE 1946 AR1; a Mk.1 Regent 58-seater built by CIE to Leyland design
(Below) Dundalk was one of only three places in the world where double-deck buses operated across land frontiers