The motor bus
Simple name : Fact sheet
Collection : Information
Reference number : 2008/1931


The red London bus is as important a symbol of the capital as St Paul's Cathedral or the Tower. Since the first motor buses began to replace horse-drawn omnibuses in the 1900s, the design and technology of the bus has developed greatly. London Transport and one of its predecessors, the London General Omnibus Company, could afford to design and build buses specially adapted to suit the difficult traffic conditions in the capital. In nearly a century, the London motor bus has carried over 150 billion passengers, and continues to be a vital part of the capital's transport system.

The need for the motor bus

By the end of the nineteenth century, transport on London's roads was still dependent on horses. The use of horses kept the companies' costs high; to replace them would make economic sense. The utilisation of electricity for the Underground and trams encouraged the bus operators to look for other sources of power. Experiments with steam power and electric batteries were unsuccessful, and the internal combustion petrol engine emerged as the most practical solution. In 1896, the repeal of the Locomotive Act abolished the speed restrictions of two miles per hour on 'horseless carriages' and further encouraged the development of the motor bus.

London's first motor bus

The first motor bus ran in 1898. The early motor buses were not an immediate success as they were unreliable. Within a few years, however, improvements in design and the technology of the internal combustion engine enabled new operators to run services. Horse bus companies were forced to modernise as competition for passengers became intense. The old horse bus associations, which had given operators some protection against competition, broke up and many small companies went bankrupt. Investment in new motor buses was expensive and some new operators began pooling their resources. In 1908, the largest bus operator, the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), bought out its main rivals and competition was effectively ended. As the largest motor bus company in the world, the LGOC had the resources to design and build its own vehicles rather than buying buses from commercial manufacturers. Frank Searle, the LGOC's Chief Engineer, realised that London's traffic conditions required a vehicle of rugged design to withstand frequent stopping and starting. The first purpose-built bus was the X-type, a 34-seat double decker, introduced in 1909. Further developments resulted in the B-type in 1910, built at the LGOC works in Walthamstow using mass-production techniques. It was relatively quiet, trouble-free and easily maintained and by 1913, 2500 had entered service. On 4 August 1914, London's very last horse bus, operated by Thomas Tilling, was withdrawn from service.

Improvements in design

Frequent breakdowns and accidents involving early motor buses prompted the police to enforce licensing regulations, which limited a vehicle's size, weight and speed. Covered tops were also prohibited, exposing passengers on the top deck to the elements. In order to increase profits, operators demanded more seats and better comfort for passengers. The LGOC sought to solve these design problems and set up a subsidiary, the Associated Equipment Company (AEC), at its Walthamstow factory. New vehicles such as the K-type and NS-type put AEC at the forefront of bus design. However, the vehicles were still far from comfortable, with their solid rubber tyres, open drivers' cabs and uncovered tops. In the 1920s, larger buses with covered tops, enclosed drivers' cabs and pneumatic tyres were introduced with the modified NS-type and the new LT-type. The LGOC also developed the diesel engine in order to reduce costs. Trials with the LT-type bus showed a saving of £120 per year on each vehicle's running costs. The LGOC decided to convert all of its buses to diesel and, in 1932, the first mass-produced diesel engine bus, the STL-type, entered service.

Regulation and unification

In 1912, the LGOC was taken over by the Underground Group. This virtual monopoly raised opposition in the press, but the co-ordination of services and subsidy of the Underground by the buses meant that the 'Combine', as the Group was known, soon proved to be an efficient and successful transport organisation. The number of bus passengers rose rapidly during the 1920s, outnumbering those carried by tram. In 1922, a wave of new, independent companies started business and challenged the dominance of the LGOC. Some were quite large and provided efficient services. Many others, however, were smaller operators with as few as a single vehicle. These 'pirates' turned up at peak times to 'steal' passengers with erratic, untimetabled services. The LGOC reduced its fares slightly, but fought this competition with the quality and reliability of its services. However, unfettered competition soon caused chaos on the roads, so that bus regulation became essential. The 1924 London Traffic Act set clear limits on the number of buses allowed to operate on certain routes. This also helped the LGOC beat off competition from the smaller operators. It was able to use its to develop the motor bus, rather than to fight its rivals. In 1933, all London's bus companies were merged under the London Passenger Transport Board, generally known as London Transport (LT), thereby forming the largest bus fleet in the world. LT upheld the LGOC's policy of fleet standardisation (adopting the STL-type as its standard vehicle), its use of diesel engines and mass production, and centralised vehicle overhaul at Chiswick Works. The RT-type, introduced in 1939, was to be the flagship of LT's fleet, combining all the elements of modern bus design and setting a benchmark for future designs. However, only 150 were built before the Second World War interrupted production.

Second World War

Bus production was halted as the transport industry turned its attention to the production of military equipment, including Halifax bombers. Bus, tram and trolleybus services were severely disrupted by bomb damage, but despite these problems, LT played a major part in keeping London moving throughout the War. Buses were brought in from the provinces to replace damaged vehicles and, as petrol was in short supply, some buses were converted to run on gas. By the end of the War, London's buses had carried 5.7million passengers per day, although six years of strife had left many of London's 6400 buses in need of repair or replacement.

Post-war rebuilding

The first post-war RTs were delivered in 1947. Production was stepped up as buses began to replace trams in the 1950s. By 1952, the bus fleet had grown to 8400 vehicles. A new factory was opened at Aldenham in 1956, to facilitate increased production and maintain a fleet of 12 000 buses. Chiswick Works was relegated to overhauling mechanical parts.

The Routemaster

The RM-type (or Routemaster) was designed to replace London's trolleybuses and represented a new level of sophistication in bus design. Introduced in 1956, it remains the world's idea of the typical 'red London bus'. It was designed to maximise the use of interchangeable parts, and to allow straightforward maintenance and overhaul. With only minimal modification and refurbishment over the years, the Routemaster can still be seen on many busy bus routes in central London. Although the last brand new Routemaster entered service back in 1968, a programme of refurbishment has kept a fleet of 500 on the roads into the twenty-first century.

Mounting problems

The end of petrol rationing in 1950, and the beginning of post-war prosperity, encouraged more people to switch to cars. Between 1950 and 1965, the number of private cars in the LT region rose from 480 000 to 1 920 000, taking passengers from the buses and adding to road congestion. The growth of television as a leisure pursuit also meant that people made far fewer journeys to places of entertainment. At the same time, rising labour costs and the fall of London's population further reduced bus profits. Cuts to services were made in the late 1950s as LT started to lose money. To reduce labour costs, one-person-operation (OPO) was introduced in 1967. This demanded a new type of bus, with a driver collecting fares at the front entrance. Today, OPO accounts for 80% of London's bus services.

Does London need its own bus?

From the 1960s, instead of producing their own vehicles, LT purchased buses 'off-the-peg' from commercial builders, in particular Leyland, ending LT's long partnership with AEC in developing purpose-built buses. London had problems with its first OPO single- and double-deck buses. Breakdowns were frequent and spares hard to obtain. In 1989, LT passed the running of bus services over to 12 subsidiary bus companies. These companies competed with each other and some 20 independent companies for the contracts to run London's bus routes. In 1994, the subsidiary companies were privatised, whilst LT remained the 'umbrella organisation' for bus services in London. The reality of a standardised London bus fleet has disappeared; even the traditional red livery is no used longer used by all operators. A wide range of new vehicle types has been introduced to meet different specifications; for example, the Midibus. Bus manufacture and operation in the capital has changed radically since the days of LT's mass-produced standard vehicles. Transport for London took over the capital's public transport management in July 2000.

Record completeness :
Record 90% complete

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