On 8th February 1956, exactly fifty years ago today, bus passengers travelling from Golders Green to Crystal Palace on Route 2 were no doubt surprised by the appearance of a strange-looking prototype omnibus with rear platform and chugging engine. Little did they know, that cold snowy morning, that they were the first passengers ever to board a future London icon. History does not record whether any old men in wheelchairs or young mothers with perambulators stood cursing at the kerbside as this new inaccessible omnibus pulled up. But suited commuters and warmly-wrapped ladies alike stepped bravely aboard, greeted the cheery conductor and took their seats about London's very first Routemaster, RM1.
RM1 plied its way between north and south London for a full six months, testing this unique modern vehicle under strenuous working conditions. The growing number of privately owned motor cars provided stiff competition for the nippy new Routemaster, both through the urban streets of Victoria and Brixton and through the leafy suburbs of Swiss Cottage and West Norwood. Drivers had to get to grips with the revolutionary power-assisted steering, while the new integrated heating system also proved extremely popular during that chilly 1956 winter. Independent front suspension provided passengers with a much more comfortable journey than was usual at the time, but only once the bus's seat cushions had been padded out somewhat following customer complaints.
On 8th August RM1 returned to Chiswick Garage for minor tweaks and a major overhaul, re-emerging in 1957 to spend a couple of years running on another cross-London route between Cricklewood and Surrey Docks. Meanwhile furtherprototypes were built and a final design was selected, with mass production Routemasters rolling off the production lines at Southall and Park Royal from 1959 onwards. Poor old RM1 was relegated for use only as a training bus, right through until 1972, before being taken off the roads and into storage. The bus was donated to the London Transport Museum in 1986, since when it's only been out on the streets in regular service on a handful of special occasions. My photograph above shows one of those extremely rare runs, departing from my house in Bow on the last day of Routemaster service on Route 8. I wonder whether those pioneering passengers aboard RM1, precisely fifty years ago, enjoyed their very special journey across London as much as I did.
A full history of RM1