London Country Vehicles- SM/SMA/SMW


The AEC Swift - thrice-cursed spawn of London Transport's 'Reshaping Plan'......
London Country SM128

  • Cursed by the drivers who had to follow the trend to one-person-operation.
  • Cursed by the mechanics who had to keep poorly-developed vehicles on the road.
  • Cursed by the passengers who had to endure cattle-truck conditions if one actually arrived.
  • The AEC Swift as known by London Transport was a short derivative of the vehicle perversely named the Merlin by them. The "Merlin" was a Swift 690 with an 11 metre long body. When dificulty of manoeuvering such a length in traffic became an issue, a shorter body was proposed, but a 10 metre body with the same wheelbase did not have sufficient room for the AH690 engine, so the AH505 was substituted in a chassis based on the Leyland Panther Cub. This was a Swift 505 to AEC, and a Swift to London Transport, and everybody else who bought them.

    The 138 Swifts were on order at the time of separation from London Transport, and therefore formed the first deliveries to the new company. Registration marks were consequently Surrey BPH...H and DPD...J. Deliveries commenced in May 1970 with the early number series SM101-148 in 1970 which had Park Royal bodies seating 38. These were the 1SM3 class. Metro-Cammel bodied SM449-538 seating 41, the 1SM5 class, were delayed and not delivered until 1971. All were conventionally seated with dual-doors, unlike the earlier Merlins and examples for the central area which were a mixture of seated, multi-standing and single-door saloons. The first services commenced on 27th June 1970 on route 418/A, but the big-bang came on 1st August. The RLH class was withdrawn completely, as single deckers could negotiate their low-bridge routes 436/A, 461/A, 463. RT routes 426A and 476/A were also converted at the same time. A small number of SM remained in store, but SM146/7 had star turns at Stevenage where they operated to promote "Better Buses for Stevenage" alongside a Leicester Metro-Scania on free demonstration services from 26th October to early November.

    Superbus SM497 Deliveries of the second batch crawled along, until eventually by February 1971 enough vehicles had been amassed to start replacing RTs that were due for recertification. Crews operated the one-man buses on Amersham Garage's 353 and 362/A services from 1st February. On the 20th (the day before decimalisation) the following Hatfield-based routes went to one-man SM operation: 303/A, 315/A, 340/A/B/C. Amersham's SM routes also went one-man at this point, and thus became the first entirely one-man garage in the country area. From 20th March Stevenage converted its 809 to SM operation. Crawley recieved PRV-bodied Swifts for its takeover of ex-Southdown routes from April 1971, and in September the SMW class arrived from South Wales. Infiltration of SM vehicles was now intense, and Northfleet, Guildford, Chelsham and Dunton Green converted many routes from RT operation on 1st July. A dedicated fleet of Superbus vehicles in yellow livery was built up at Stevenage, intially comprising SM495-499.

    Now that the fleet was complete it was only possible to stand back and watch the havoc as buses crawled around laden with standing passengers, seriously late as a result of the extended dwell times on stops while handling unfamiliar change. I remember that the Hatfield Swifts were fitted with change-sorting equipment where coins were stored in a magazine in stacks from which the lowest could be ejected by a lever mechanism. Coins tendered were sorted by slipping them into the top of the appropriate stack through shaped entrances. When leaving the bus the driver simply unclipped the storage magazine and carried it away. However, the new coins were very light compared with their pre-decimal equivalents, and would stick sideways in the stacks, rendering the mechanism useless. Oh, what fun!

    Repainting into NBC livery of Leaf Green commenced in January 1972 with SM113, the work being split between Leatherhead Garage and Park Royal Vehicles. By the end of the programme in mid-1974 there were still several MCW-bodied vehicles in Lincoln Green and they would be withdrawn in that livery. The Swifts did not last terribly long in service with London Country, but wholesale replacement was simply not possible according to the method employed at London Transport, where they were scrapped as fast as possible and replaced by new DMS vehicles (re-establishing double-deck buses on the old RT routes in many cases). A start was made on overhaul and recertification, but few vehicles were dealt with before reductions in mileage and a surplus of Leyland Nationals allowed their complete withdrawal. There were considerable outbreaks of musical chairs as a number of PRV-bodied vehicles finally went north of the Thames to High Wycombe where they replaced MBs until that garage was closed in Ocober 1977. The allocation at Amersham was increased to replace routes operated by RMLs, but shortages continued until more Nationals were obtained later in the year.

    A fleet remained at Stevenage for the SuperBus, high-frequency, flat-fare services which were also worked by Metro-Scania and Leyland National vehicles before they were all replaced by double-decker Atlanteans. The last Stevenage SM vehicles were reallocated in April 1980. April 1981 saw the withdrawal of SM454/60 from St.Albans and SM501/2/36 from Addlestone - leaving just one LT-specified vehicle in the entire fleet (XF3 at East Grinstead). Note that SM128 has been relegated to driver tuition when caught at Stevenage Garage for the Green Line Golden Jubilee in July 1981.

    AEC Swift at St.Albans There were two other classes of Swift taken into stock at the time, both 36-foot Swift 505s, diverted from South Wales Transport. First were fifteen already in service - the SMW for regular bus work and then a diverted order for 21 SMA for GreenLine. The SMA vehicles had stylish Alexander bodies, with characteristic deep, wide windows and ramped floors. The 8.8litre engine was reputed to be underpowered, but the exhaust brakes made for interesting sound effects. I only rode one once, from Bromley to Gravesend on the orbital 725 route which was their regular duty from March 1972. They were soon replaced and demoted to bus work. Three survived - SMA3 was active in the AEC fleet of Knotty's Coaches, Stoke-on-Trent. The SMW vehicles were concentrated at St.Albans, where they were found on the 343 Dunstable-Brookmans Park and other southern Hertfordshire routes, and Crawley where dual-doored buses worked mostly on the ex-Southdown routes. Initially, the St.Albans buses were crew-operated. The SMWs simply faded away without any memorial, but ironically it would be SMA1 at East Grinstead that held the candle as the last country Swift until New Year's Day 1982.

    Green Swifts are rare beasts in preservation, just two Park Royal examples are known to survive, and none of the MCW-bodied batch. SM114 was converted to single-door configuration at Hants & Sussex before sale to an artist and gutted, leaving SM106 essentially unique as an unmodified example. Red, Autofare SMS369 is extant at Cobham Bus Museum and several other central examples with Marshall or PRV bodies exist in various states of dismantling in Malta. The story of the author's acquisition and restoration of SM106 can be found here.

    Click here for the 'Full Monty' on London Swifts courtesy of Ian's Bus Stop.

    A special mention for the documentary sources used here:
    London Bus Magazine 108 & 117 for their Chronologies of 1970 and 1971 - a critical period in the life of these buses. LOTS are at www.lots.org.uk. Thanks again.


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