I have been photographing buses now for over fifty years. As well as following my local scene in London, in earlier years I used to use Rail Rovers to make holiday tours all over Britain, and so visited bus stations and garages through most of England, Scotland and Wales.

GBE 846 was a 1950 Bristol K5G, originally Lincolnshire 2136. On withdrawal it passed to Eastern National who fitted it out as a publicity vehicle and fitted it with a full front and Lodekka-style grille. The upper deck was fitted out as a cinema to show films of holiday tours. (Bus Company Service Vehicles, Amberley Publishing)

Of course, the bus scene has changed enormously over this period, not just in terms of the technical development of the vehicles themselves, but also in the ownership of the companies running the services. When I started taking photographs in 1969, the Government had just passed the Transport Act 1968. This would lead to the creation of the National Bus Company, bringing most of the large company operators under state control, whereas previously only about half had been. It also created Passenger Transport Executives in four of the large conurbations – Merseyside, SELNEC (Manchester area), Tyneside and West Midlands, merging the various local municipally owned fleets in these areas into single companies.

The National Bus Company would merge fleets and from 1973 adopted standard liveries in place of the previous variety, including the National Express brand for all coach services. Local Government reform in 1974 would lead to the creation of further Passenger Transport Executives and the merger or renaming of several municipal fleets.

Another towing vehicle from the South Yorkshire PTE, which unlike M58 still survives, is M10. This is a Roe-bodied Leyland PD3, but this time ex-Sheffield and with a concealed radiator. (Bus Company Service Vehicles, Amberley Publishing)

Changes in Government policy in the 1980s would see the previous system of regulation through area Traffic Commissioners replaced by Deregulation and route tendering, and by privatisation in the 1990s leading eventually to the current major groupings like Stagecoach, Arriva, and First Group. So, there has always been plenty of new variety to photograph.

In the days before deregulation and privatisation, many companies adapted old buses for a variety of specialist uses as service vehicles, using the skills of their own bodyshops. These might range from towing or recovery vehicles to information buses, tree loppers to mobile canteens. In the days when trams and trolleybuses were still in use there would also be tower wagons to maintain the overhead. There were also a range of lorries and vans in use. Many companies bought former Armed Forces vehicles such as the AEC Matador four-wheel drive ‘medium artillery tractors’ as towing/recovery vehicles. London Transport was the largest operator, which also had responsibility for the Underground, so inevitably it had the most service vehicles. I recall that there was almost always one of the Underground railway breakdown tenders parked on standby outside Baker Street station. Unusually these were built on Leyland Titan PD3A/1 bus chassis – a model not otherwise represented in the fleet.

Nottingham 802 (FTO 614), a 1939 AEC Regent 1 tower wagon, is preserved at the Sandtoft Trolleybus Museum. Here it was seen in 1986 posed with other preserved Nottingham vehicles; 161 (OTV 161) 1952 AEC Regent V/Park Royal and 578 (KTV 578) 1951 BUT 9641T/Brush trolleybus. (Bus Company Service Vehicles, Amberley Publishing)

In the 1970s and 1980s, before terrorism and Health & Safety legislation, many garages had open access and you could often walk round them unchallenged. If you were, an “Is it OK to take a few pictures around the yard?” would usually be answered in the affirmative. A garage visit would often reveal one or more service vehicles, and of course as those that were bus conversions were from vehicles that had already served their time, this meant older types that might have otherwise left the fleet.

One company still using their own recovery vehicle was bus operators and dealers Ensignbus of Purfleet, Essex. Their Volvo truck was towing Jersey Leyland TD2 No. 25 (6332 J originally J 6332) after it had been on display at Lakeside bus station during the 2016 Ensignbus Running Day. (Bus Company Service Vehicles, Amberley Publishing)

These days the practice of adapting old buses as service vehicles has virtually disappeared, and many companies no longer maintain their own towing/recovery vehicles, instead relying on commercial recovery companies. Fortunately, many of the old veterans of the past have survived into preservation and can be seen at bus museums and rallies. A few even get the chance to continue in their old roles – for instance as towing vehicles for preservation groups. At locations such as the National Trolleybus Museum at Sandtoft, and the Crich Tramway Village preserved tower wagons continue to maintain the overhead wires so that trams and trolleybuses can still give rides. 

In this book I have endeavoured to show a variety of the more interesting vehicles I have photographed, both in service and surviving in preservation.

Malcolm Batten's new book Bus Company Service Vehicles is available for purchase now.