A brief history of London’s famous red buses

A look at how the iconic design has changed through the years

London buses 1927

They have always come in threes. London general omnbuses in 1927 Photo: Stokholm Transport Museum

Without buses, London would fall. London is completely dependent on these red beasts. In fact, Londoners use buses so extensively that more than half of all bus journeys across England are made in London.

According to Transport for London, 2.4 billion passenger journeys were made on buses between April 2014 and March 2015. This is a whole billion more people than used the Tube network during the same period.

The red double decker has become a global icon, and along with our red pillar boxes and red telephone boxes, is a constituent part of the Holy Trinity of the red things of Britain.

Early years

Buses have been used on London’s streets since the early 1800s. One of the first public bus services was operated by an enterprising fellow named George Shillibeer, who began ferrying people about using his horse-drawn omnibus which he ran between Paddington and the City.

His clever idea caught on, and soon, London was bus town.

By 1855, the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) was born, and soon official buses were available to the public.

The last horse drawn public bus service in London ran on October 25th 1911.

After horses, London flirted with the concept of steam-powered buses for a bit, but by 1909, motor buses were the new kids on the block.

A hundred years later, and despite the building of the London Underground and the indispensable Emirates cable car, we’re still dependent on these brutes.

Let’s take a look at some of the greatest and strangest London bus designs, as we take a ride down memory lane, or perhaps that should be history lane for most of us.

LGOC B-type

Bus omnibus b type

Image via Flickr

This example of the LGOC B-Type lives in the Imperial War Museum in London. Apparently it is called “Ole Bill”.

Ole Bill was built in 1911, and ended up being used in France and Belgium during the First World War.

AEC Q Type

bus AEC Q Type

AEC Q Type bus. Photo: James Race

Not all of London’s buses are doubledeckers donchaknow. Here’s the AEC Q Type, which was launched in 1932.

AEC Regal

Bus AEC Regal

Another AEC bus, this one almost looks like a double decker. But we’re not there yet.


Bus Regal iii

Here we go. Things are starting to look right. There’s even a Woolworths in the background. London Transport, as it was then known, ordered 132 of these in 1939. By 1954 there were over 4,600 Regent model buses on the roads of the capital.


Routemaster bus Chris Sampson

Routemaster bus in 2004. Photo: Chris Sampson

Here we go - London’s most famous bus - the routemaster. The first models were delivered in 1954, and production continued right up until 1968. It is a design classic, and was continuously in service until 2005. Over a thousand remain in existence, and TfL still operates a “heritage route” using an old Routemaster.

Daimler Fleetline

Bus Daimler Fleetline

Daimler Fleetline in Chingford in 1980. Picture: Martin Addison

This rear-engined model was produced between 1960 and 1983.

Leyland Olympian

Leyland Olympian

A Leyland Olympian eases its way through High Wycombe in 2009

The last Leyland London bus that was ever produced, the Olympian was built between 1980 and 1993.

The Boris Routemaster

Bus boris

The new routemaster bus, introduced by Mayor of London Boris Johnson is a hybrid-electric bus that was designed by Heatherwick Studio - the same company behind the Garden Bridge project. It is manufactured by Wrightbus, and has a similar open rear platform to the original Routemaster model.

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