In 1961 the maximum length of single-deckers was increased to 36 feet. Bristol Commercial Vehicles and Eastern Coach Works designed their first rear engined single-decker to take advantage of this new length.

Two prototypes were tested in service in 1962. Production started in 1963, with two versions, RELL6G with a low frame for bus service work, and RELH6G with a high frame for coach work. Both versions used the Gardner 6HLX engine.

Eastern Counties RL680 (RAH 680F) Bristol RELL6G with Eastern Coach Works bus body new in 1968, comes over the Manningtree level crossing on 25 August 1980. (Bristol RE Buses and Coaches, Amberley Publishing)

In 1966 the series 2 Bristol RE was introduced, with options of manual or semi-automatic transmission, leaf spring or air suspension, Gardner or Leyland engines. In addition, shorter wheelbase RESL and RESH variants were introduced, for 32 feet length. Other body builders such as Alexander, Marshall, and Plaxton could also body the Bristol RE.

The Eastern Coach Works bus shell body was also used for a dual-purpose version, with comfortable semi-coach seats. This was available on the Bristol RELL6G, RELH6G, and RELH6L chassis.

1968 to 1972 were the peak production years for the Bristol RE, mainly for the ex-Tilling group companies, plus some of the British Electric Traction group companies, which joined the ex-Tilling group to form the National Bus Company in 1969. Several municipal operators also bought the Bristol RESL and RELL.

Bristol Omnibus Company 2069 (GHY 131K) leaving Marlborough Street bus and coach station in Bristol on 14 April 1982. Bristol RELH6L with Eastern Coach Works dual purpose body with semi-coach seats new in 1972. (Bristol RE Buses and Coaches, Amberley Publishing)

In 1968 Eastern Counties received their first Bristol RE with five speed semi-automatic transmission. They were RELL6G with Eastern Coach Works fifty-three seat bodies. So let us go for a ride on one of these, RL680 (RAH 680F) allocated to Ipswich depot. As RL680 pulls up at the bus stop, note the wide entrance, and shallow steps, which made boarding and alighting so much easier than on underfloor mid-engined single-deckers. There are inward facing seats over the front wheel arches. The saloon floor slopes gently up to the rear, and there are no more steps to negotiate. As RL680 accelerates away, upward gear changes can be made early due to the good torque of the Gardner 6HLX engine. The driver pauses the gear selector in neutral during gear changes, to give a smooth change, and reduce the wear on the transmission. Very soon we are cruising along in fifth gear, accompanied by the low noise from the Gardner engine and a melodious whine from the transmission. The Eastern Coach Works body does not rattle, except for the glass panel behind the driver’s cab. This is solved by the driver wedging a roll of unused Setright tickers between the glass panel and a stanchion!

Some operators such as Colchester Borough Transport specified Leyland 0.680H engines in their Bristol RELL, these gave a much deeper throated roar than the Gardner 6HLX engine.

Bristol RE
Crosville ERL266 (TFM 266K) in Northwich on 17 August 1985. Bristol RELH6L with Eastern Coach Works Mk II coach body new in 1972. (Bristol RE Buses and Coaches, Amberley Publishing)

Production of the Bristol RELL was greatly reduced from 1973 onwards, because National Bus Company subsidiaries were forced to buy the Leyland National for bus work, but they could still buy the Bristol RELH in dual-purpose or coach versions, with Eastern Coach Works or Plaxton bodies. Municipal operators continued to buy the Bristol RESL and RELL for as long as possible, until British Leyland withdrew the Bristol RE from the domestic market in 1975.

In the early 1980s the Bristol RE with Eastern Coach Works body could be found in many locations around the country. With Eastern Counties serving Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire, likewise Eastern National serving Essex. United Counties and City of Oxford had dual purpose and coach RELH6G on their express services to London. Colchester Borough Transport and Ipswich Borough Transport had their RELL6L on town services. Trent and Silver Service had Bristol RE serving the Derbyshire Peak District. Crosville had dual door RELL6G on Crewe town services and the Runcorn Busway, and single door RELL6G serving both Cheshire and North Wales.  Municipal operators in North-West England bought RESL and RELL bodied by East Lancashire of Blackburn, thus remaining loyal to their local bodybuilder.

Bristol RE
Pennine Blue UVL 874M leaving Hyde bus station on 11 April 1992. Bristol RELL6L with Alexander bus body new to Lincoln City Transport in 1973. (Bristol RE Buses and Coaches, Amberley Publishing)

By the time of bus deregulation on 26 October 1986, many Bristol RE had put in fourteen to nineteen years service, and had been withdrawn, but others gained a new lease of life in the new competitive regime for local bus services. Thus, there were pockets of Bristol RE operation to discover, such as Hastings and District in Rye and Hastings, Lyntown Bus Company and Pennine Blue in Greater Manchester, Busways in South Shields, Badgerline in Somerset, and Northern Bus in Dinnington and Sheffield.  

This book is my personal tribute to the Bristol RE. I have used 170 of my colour slides, and four black and white images to show the Bristol RE in service from 1970 to 1994, plus six more recent images to show restored Bristol RE.

Over the years I enjoyed many rides on Bristol RELL6G and RELH6G. Too many to list with Eastern Counties, but long journeys that stay in my memory include: Harwich to Colchester, Clacton to Ipswich with Eastern National, Cambridge to Biggleswade with United Counties, East Bergholt to Colchester with Carters Coach Services, Caernarfon to Blaenau Ffestiniog with Express Motors, Bristol to Yeovil, Wells to Weston-super-Mare with Badgerline, and Sheffield to Dinnington with Northern Bus. I never suffered a missed journey nor a breakdown. For Bristol Commercial Vehicles, RE simply meant Rear Engine, but for me it also meant Reliable Engineering!

Robert Appleton's book Bristol RE Buses and Coaches is available for purchase now.