Ian Findlay reports on the rescue and return to England of former United Automobile Services Lodekka THN 263F
United Automobile Services are not well represented in the fleets of preserved vehicles. However, examples of most vehicle types operated by this company do exist, with the exception of one rather common vehicle.
The Bristol Lodekka was unveiled in 1949, and production continued until 1968. All the former Tilling Group operators received them, with United Automobile Services taking their first deliveries in 1955, the second last former Tilling operator to do so. The Bristol KSW6B was still being supplied to United when other operators had switched to the Lodekka, but WHN 701-5 (BL1-5) duly arrived in 1955 and were to be the first of many such double deckers operated by the company.
These early Lodekkas remained in service until the early 1970s. These vehicles were all Bristol engined, but the final FLF vehicles delivered in 1968 were fitted with Gardner 6LX engines, presumably destined for arduous duties.
A rear view of the final Lodekka for United THN 264 F on its first day in service in June 1968 in Scarborough. Photo David Hunt
The final batch was numbered L245-264 (later 545-564) and were considered by many to be the ultimate in front engined double deckers, and it was indeed sad that no examples of the United Lodekkas survived in the UK. The final batch did not stay long with United, eleven of the twenty passed to Northern General in 1972 (Northern’s 2862-72), and all moved on to the Scottish Bus Group in 1973 in exchange for Bristol VRTs which did not find favour north of the border. In total, 301 Lodekkas of all models were operated by United.
All United Lodekkas were withdrawn by the late seventies, a few found second homes with Top Deck Travel, some were shipped to the USA and others were reported in various European countries from time to time. However, none were to remain in the UK and this was considered a big gap in preservation history as this type of double decker ran for over 20 years in the region.
A view of the final Lodekka for United THN 264 F on its first day in service in June 1968 in Scarborough. Photo David Hunt
There were the usual grumbles about the lack of a United Lodekka on the preservation scene although most other regions had several such examples, and it was agreed that a United model should be sought. The information filtered through in 2009 that such a bus was still in a Belgian dealer’s yard, the information coming from a Dutch enthusiast, Barend Golverdingen. Barend came across THN 263F (L263 later 563) in Melle, near Gent and discussed the purchase with the yard owner, Paul Naessens, but the asking price of €2,500 was too much for what was to be a play item in his garden. However, Barend thankfully alerted Rob Sly at the Bristol Owners web site about this vehicle, and the information was picked up by members of the North East Bus Preservation Trust, still keen to see a United Lodekka acquired.
The PSV Circle records show that L263 was withdrawn by Western SMT (their 2409) in March 1980 and sold to Ensign, the London dealer by July 1980. Ensign exported this vehicle to Bruynoughe Koffie PVBA, Kortrijk, in Belgium in August 1980 and it obviously stayed in that country. The name on the side of the bus is Goddeeris, and an illustration of a section of a window frame on the panel suggests this may have been a double glazing company. The town of Kortrijk is about 30 miles from where the bus was resting, so the dealer may have acquired the bus direct from this area.
Contact was made with Barend, who fortunately, like most Dutch people, spoke very good English. In a phone call with Ian Findlay, Barend explained that the bus was in reasonable condition, having stood for 10 years in the open, and it was definitely worth saving. This was good news and bad news for NEBPT who had a collection of 18 vehicles and were looking to downsize the fleet to reduce costs. However, it was decided that the vehicle should be advertised around the area and through the membership in the hope that an individual or group would come forward to offer a home to this vehicle. Details were passed around but no-one offered to take the lead to acquire the bus. There were several offers of donations and loans, but this is not what NEBPT wanted, so for a while, nothing happened.
THN 263 F as discovered by Barend in Paul Naessens yard in Melle, near Gent
Then in January 2011, a decision was made to at least inspect the bus, and report back on the possibility of starting it up, and moving it to the ferry port of Zeebrugge, some 40 miles from the yard. An offer was made by Peter Elliott, a former United engineer to go on the overnight ferry from Hull, and drive to the yard at Melle, near Gent to inspect the bus and see if it could be safely transported back to the UK. However, there was a language problem, as the owner Paul did not speak English and Peter did not speak Flemish. The conversations which took place with Barend Golverdingen and the owner were possible as Flemish is mainly Dutch with bits of other dialects thrown in. Barend offered to meet up with Peter, to help with the translation, and Peter’s partner, Pat was able to help out too as she speaks the Dutch language very well.
The inspection took place on Thursday 10th February 2011, and Peter liked what he saw. The bus had been used by a double glazing company as a mobile showroom and hospitality unit, with some of the seats turned around and a few tables added, but the interior was reasonably intact. Externally there was damage and corrosion which was to be expected from all that time out in the open, but nothing which Peter reckoned could not be put right. It was not possible to start the vehicle, some items were missing from the fuel pump, and parts were not to hand to replace the missing items.
Negotiations on the price began with Barend suggesting €500, which did not go down well, but after a while a price was agreed and a handshake clinched the deal with no deposit deemed necessary. There was an offer by the dealer to move the bus to the port at Zeebrugge for an additional small sum and this was accepted.
Peter and Pat returned home the same day on the overnight ferry and a meeting was arranged with NEBPT trustees Ian Findlay and Bob Kell to see how the deal could be concluded. There was a problem with P & O Ferries who would not allow what they termed a “dead vehicle” onto the ferry. L263 could not be driven onto the ferry, so it was decided to send a tow truck to the port. That was not as easy as it sounds, as there would have to be two overnight crossings and a day in Zeebrugge, plus time to travel to and from the port. Several haulage/recovery companies were contacted, but none were keen to take the time to send a tow truck over on the ferry.
After weeks of fruitless phone calls, we turned to Paul Richman. Paul runs Stanways Coaches at Stoke on Trent and he and colleague Martin Hearson had collected a bus from Holland for enthusiast David Daniels a while ago. David recommended them for this job and this was confirmed by Ray Thornton, who had dealt with Paul on many occasions, so contact was made and a date finally agreed to make the trip.
THN 263 F emerges from Paul Naessens yard in Melle
The next question was how to pay the Belgian dealer for the bus. We finally came up with the idea of sending a money order to Barend in Holland, who agreed to cash this and pay dealer Paul Naessens in Euros for the vehicle and the tow to the port. All that now remained was the UK tow truck driver to find the bus at the port and hitch it up to the truck.
Barend agreed a location with P & O Ferries where the bus could be left at the docks and the vehicle was moved to the port on Friday 6th May. The outbound trip with the tow truck took place on Wednesday 11th May, and the bus was collected by Paul and Martin. It was decided that the return trip would be to Teesport, which is much closer to Gateshead than Hull. However, Teesport is purely a freight depot and the reception party who went to meet the ferry had great difficulty in first of all finding the correct exit where the bus would emerge, and initially were told that it would not be possible to photograph the bus leaving the ship.
THN 263 F returns to the North East for the first time since 1973
However, after convincing the manager that it was terribly important and a historic event, two members were taken to the quay and were able to see the bus reverse out of the ship’s hold. Paul was able to turn the vehicle around and head for the Border Agency Gate, where it was expected there would be a grilling about what was being brought into the country, but it was allowed through with no questions. There did not appear to be any concerns with customs. It had previously been established that free movement of vehicles within the EU was allowed, so there was no real cause for concern. It was also confirmed that there was no sign of the family of Belgian cats who had made the bus their home in Melle!
UK Border Control at Teesport – Will she fit under the canopy?
From Teesport it was along the A66 and up the A19 to Gateshead. The trip was uneventful and arrival at the Wardley depot was completed within the hour. Paul and Martin had suffered some pretty grotty catering on the ferry to Teesport, so a visit to a local hostelry allowed them to tuck into some decent grub before they headed back down to Stoke on Trent.
THN 263 F awaits the final part of her journey into Wardley
The Lodekka was inspected by the NEBPT members present and declared a magnificent specimen. Whether the enthusiasm will last remains to be seen, but for now L263 rests peacefully in the depot awaiting some much needed TLC to bring it back to life. Parts for the faulty fuel pump are being sought, and a steam clean and internal tidy up are on the agenda.
The cost of purchase and the ferry back to England were around £4,500, and NEBPT would be most grateful for any donations toward these costs. To donate online just go to our home page and click on the Donate button