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Bristol Commercial Vehicles & their RE chassis

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The Bristol RE was the first of a new generation of Rear Engine single deck bus and coach chassis designed by Bristol in the early 1960s. It took advantage of the revised Construction & Use Regulations (1962) that permitted 36 foot long buses in the UK for the first time.

By 1960 Britain’s bus operators were suffering a reduction in passenger numbers (due to rising car ownership and changes in people’s leisure, work and shopping habits). Bus companies wanted vehicles with a higher seating capacity and which offered the possibility of one-man-operation ‘OMO’ (there were very few women bus drivers in those days)!

Bristol engineers put the engine at the rear of the new chassis so that the floor of the bus could be lower towards the front and a wider door would be possible. This made it easier and quicker for passengers to get on and off. Having the engine at the back also makes the bus quieter for the driver and most passengers.

In this respect Bristol were years ahead of the rest of Britain’s bus and coach manufacturers. The Bristol RE became the forerunner for all of today’s low-floor buses – with the engine at the back!

In late 1962 and early 1963 Bristol Commercial Vehicles produced three prototype RE chassis:-

REX001 - the prototype RELL chassis. A 54-seat bus which was delivered in Tilling red and cream to United (Darlington) in December 1962 (reg. 7431 HN).

REX002 - the prototype RELH chassis. A 47-seat high-floor coach which was delivered in the maroon and cream livery of South Midland (Oxford) in April 1963 (reg. 521 ABL). This was the forerunner of our coach.

REX003, another RELH which BCV used for testing. In 1967 it was sold to West Yorkshire reg. OWT 241E.

The RE was produced in three chassis lengths and two chassis heights, as follows:

RESL = Short (32 foot) Low chassis, for arural bus;
RESH = Short (32 foot) High chassis, for a rural coach;
RELL = Long (36 foot) Low chassis, for a city bus;
RELH = Long (36 foot) High chassis, for an express coach;
REMH = Max (39 foot) High chassis, for a motorway coach.

The RE was a successful and reliable vehicle, which worked “out of the box”. Its success (compared with other first-generation British rear-engine saloons) was that Bristol put the gearbox in front of the rear axle.

This helped weight distribution on the chassis and overcame problems with high levels of stress on short prop-shafts. Other 1960s rear-engine single decker’s (which shoe-horned the engine and gearbox behind the rear axle), suffered from regular damage to the short prop-shaft and very light steering (caused by too much weight at the back).

Bristol engineers designed the RE to use their ‘Lodekka’ (double deck bus) drop-centre rear axle to run the prop-shaft over the axle and into the gearbox (which is located in front of the axle). This arrangement improved weight distribution and made the RE’s road-handling superior to its contemporaries.

Another practical design feature was putting the radiator (for engine cooling) at the front of the chassis, to take advantage of natural air flow. This also helped weight distribution and meant that REs didn’t suffer the sort of embarrassing over-heating problems that other first-generation rear engine buses often did!

The original concept and the first few years of production, was for the RE to have a Gardner engine, manual gearbox and air suspension. From 1966, when Leyland influence on Bristol became greater, Leyland engines (O.600 and O.680) were offered and pnuemo-cyclic semi-automatic gearboxes (made by Self Changing Gears, a Leyland company) became normal.

Strangely and mainly to keep the initial purchase cost low, cheaper leaf springs became standard, with the more expensive air suspension becoming an option.

Between 1962 and 1983 a total of 4,629 Bristol REs (of all types) were built. 976 were of the RELH type.

3,242 REs were sold to Transport Holding Company, British Electric Traction companies and their successor the National Bus Company. The last RE for a British operator was built in 1975.

RELL

Bristol (as it’s usually known) was a bus and coach chassis manufacturer based on Bath Road, Brislington, Bristol. During its existence it also produced small numbers of truck and rail-bus chassis (and complete luxury cars).

George White and a partner started Bristol Tramways Company in 1875. They first used motorbuses in 1906 and two years later they built their first bus chassis.

The Motor Department was initially based at the tram depot in Brislington, on the Bath Road. During 1907 the bus fleet was transferred to a site at Filton. Then in 1910 the company decided to build aeroplanes. The best place for this work was the sheds at Filton, so motor repairs and construction returned to Brislington. The tram depot had become too small, so a new 4 acre site, known as the Motor Constructional Works, was established nearby, off Chatsworth Road. This became the site of the Bristol chassis factory.

In May 1914 Bristol supplied its first bus to another operator, a C50 charabanc for Imperial Tramways at Middlesbrough. After WW1 volume chassis production got underway. The company soon established a good reputation as a builder of solid, reliable vehicles.

In 1929 the Great Western Railway bought a controlling interest in the tramway company, but the bus operations were transferred to Western National in 1931. This brought Bristol Tramways and its manufacturing activities into the Tilling Group.

Other Tilling companies started buying Bristol bus chassis. Most of these were taken to another Tilling concern Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, for bodying.
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Bristol Commercial Vehicles (BCV) was created in 1943 as a subsidiary of Bristol Tramways. The 1947 Transport Act saw the nationalisation of the Tilling Group into the British Transport Commission (BTC). So, BCV and ECW found themselves restricted to selling vehicles to state-owned BTC operators. In 1955 BCV became an separate company owned by BTC.

BCV’s first underfloor engine bus/coach was the LS – (Light Saloon) an integral model new in 1950. Then in 1957, in a bid to reduce weight and hence operating costs, they introduced what would become the very successful MW (Medium Weight) chassis.

In 1960 Bristol built the SU (a Small Underfloor engine) chassis for rural operations. Finally in 1962 come the now legendary RE (Rear Engine) model.

In 1965 Leyland Motors bought a 25% shareholding in Bristol (and ECW), so that their vehicles could again be sold to operators in municipal or private ownership.

By the mid-1970s Leyland owned all of Bristol and its product range had shrunk to the VRT double deck bus chassis, LH single deck small-bus chassis and RE bus chassis (by then built for the export market only).

All work ended and the factory closed in October 1983 when the final Bristol-built Olympian chassis was sent to ECW to receive its body. It became Devon General reg. A685 KDV. Olympian chassis production was then moved to other Leyland factories (in Lancashire).

JAX 117E n2

Below is a picture from late 1966 of a BRISTOL RE chassis being driven out of the Bristol Commercial Vehicle factory gates and along Chatsworth Road (towards the Bath Road/A4). Ahead of it is the 265 mile trip to the Eastern Coach Works factory at Lowestoft (Suffolk).
Look what little protection the driver had for this epic journey!

Bristol RE chassis 1966

BRISTOL RE's in the RED & WHITE fleet

Click here to view details of the Bristol RE fleet that RED & WHITE had, including some great original pictures of each body style.

The images above are pages from a 1966 brochure produced by Bristol Commercial Vehicles Ltd to encourage bus companies (particularly municipal and private sector operators) to buy their RE chassis.

Click on each image to view the brochure page full size and to read the caption. You can scroll through the pages too.

British companies that provided parts to Bristol Commercial Vehicles:

  • Burman – supplied steering boxes.
  • CAV - electrical components, light units.
  • Ferodo - brake linings.
  • Gardner – diesel engines.
  • Hardy Spicer - supplied propeller shafts.
  • Leyland – diesel engines.
  • Self-Changing Gears – provided gearbox components.
  • Simms - electrical control panels.
  • Westinghouse – air brake components.

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