Of all the things one might stumble across in the slowly dying steelmaking city of Johnstown, PA (you may remember it as the fictional Charlestown from the movie Slapshot), a British double-decker bus seems pretty far down the list. Yet here one is, and it appears to be a runner.
A product of Bristol Commercial Vehicles, based in the brand’s namesake city, approximately 5200 Lodekkas were built over an impressively long run: 1949 to 1968. Sold exclusively to state-run operating companies, they nevertheless were quite popular with dozens of operators across the UK, on both urban and country routes (but not in London City operations).
Lodekkas may be best known (at least in the UK) as 1970s TV stars: the type featured prominently in the long-running (seven series and three movies) Reg Varney sitcom On the Buses, representing the fictional Luxton & District Line.
Built to a similar configuration as the later and better-known AEC Routemaster, the Lodekka’s odd name refers to its low floor in the downstairs passenger compartment. This was enabled by a drop-center axle installation at the rear that eliminated the awkward step-up or side-aisle arrangements required in previous double-deckers. This in turn allowed a small but significant reduction in overall height, useful in dealing with tight overhead clearances found throughout the UK.
Lodekkas were equipped with a variety of in-line diesels, the most common being 5- or 6-cylinder Gardners, ranging from 85 to 180 HP. They could be ordered in lengths varying from 26 to 31 feet, seating from 58 to 72 passengers, in front- or rear-entry configurations. Some rear-entry models had doors, as on the featured machine, others open decks.
Early models featured a conventional leaf-spring suspension with a beam axle up front and the complex drop-center axle at rear, both bejeweled with tubular dampers and vacuum-assisted mechanical brakes. Later models (post-1959) received air suspension at the rear and air-over-hydraulic brakes. Non-synchromesh 4- and 5-speed ‘crash’ gearboxes no doubt provided musical entertainment for weary passengers.
A distinctive feature seen on some Lodekka versions was a pair of rectangular openings in the upper carbody, as shown in the vintage shot above. These were inlets for something known as the Cave-Browne-Cave (CBC) system, which housed small radiators for engine cooling while simultaneously allowing the warmed air to be tapped for passenger compartment heating when needed. CBC-equipped machines retained their nose grillwork, but with no radiator or fan behind.
I was unable to determine from my research the purpose of the ‘whiskers’ that show up above the radiator opening on some models; they seem to be something more than just decorative touches.
The original operators began phasing their Lodekkas out of revenue service from the mid-’70s onward. Some were retained by their owners for training, but many were sold on to the public or tour operators, and a number have been restored for museums or heritage operations in the UK.
Among the most notable secondary operators was Top Deck Tours, which from 1973 to 1996 operated Lodekkas fitted with kitchens and sleeping quarters on epic, multiweek overland journeys from the UK to places such as Morocco, Afghanistan (see above), Kathmandu, the USA and even Sydney, Australia. Presumably there was some non-bus travel involved on those last two, of course. My mind is thoroughly blown just trying to imagine what a trip on one of these rolling youth hostels must have been like.
During their post-service diaspora, around 350 Lodekkas made their way to the USA, nearly all during the late ’70s-early ’80s. Surprisingly few of this group have been scrapped.
The Johnstown bus was found parked in front of a biker bar located in part of the old Pennsylvania Railroad freight station on the edge of downtown. Perhaps it’s eventually to be used as a party wagon, but right now it’s still configured purely for passenger hauling. According to my research, it was built somewhere in the 1956-58 timeframe, originally worked for Lincolnshire Road Car as number 2344 and was retired in May 1975. The model designation indicates it’s most likely powered by a Gardner 6LW diesel displacing 8.4 liters, good for 102 HP. What it was doing in the decades between retirement and turning up here, as a mobile bar fixture, is not clear.
As one can see, the driver’s compartment is pretty basic. It’s also closed off from the passenger cabin, so the bus required a second crew member to handle ticketing when in revenue service.
The interior shots above (not of the example machine) show views of the lower deck, looking forward from the rear, and the upper, looking back from the front (text edited for clarity).
With its manual steering, not-exactly-fade-resistant brakes and a non-synchro gearbox, a Lodekka apparently takes considerable skill to drive well. When one considers the steep hills around Johnstown, I can only hope the driver has strong arms and legs, knows how to double-clutch on shifts and doesn’t terrify easily. On the other hand, I guess if these things could be horsed over the Himalayas, a few Appalachian hills aren’t that much of an obstacle.
Given the lighting conditions and the rather old-world flavor of the surrounding architecture, it does sort of look at home after all, doesn’t it?