Over forty years ago in January 1973 a small group of vehicles gathered in the staff car park at Brunel University on a surprisingly sunny day. It was surprising in that the furthest travelled vehicle, a Guy bodied Guy Arab singledecker dating from 1949 and originally with Burton on Trent Corporation Transport Department (Fleet number 63), had travelled down from the Midlands to Uxbridge battling through heavy snow on route! The dozen or so vehicles had been assembled by Brunel University Bus Society Chairman, Martin Isles, as part of the Society's contribution to the University's annual festival - Brunelzebub. The Guy was joined by four excellent vehicles from Cobham Bus Museum including the well known Dennis XX9591 of classic appearance, the Green Line Q and a Green Line T. Other preserved vehicles included a recently acquired Bedford OB/Duple coach (LTA904) which has visited many SHOWBUS rallies since, a rare Plaxton bodied Austin coach (ex Beeston), an RT and ex Portsmouth City Leyland Titan 78. The latter has not been heard of since, but made the front page of BUSES magazine in March 1973 in the post rally report - the only time that SHOWBUS photos have made the front page of BUSES!
Finding preserved buses to come to a rally in the middle of winter was not easy, so local operators were asked to bring along some modern buses too. Alder Valley presented Maidenhead depot's first new Mark 2 Bristol VR with ECW curved windscreen bodywork (No 927) and one of the first buses to sport the new National Bus Company's corporate livery in poppy red and white, courtesy of a young and enthusiastic, but now late lamented, David Howard, the Assistant Traffic Superintendent at Maidenhead. David later became known for his service with Northampton Transport, Eastbourne Corporation and Isle of Man Road Services. The VR was joined by LN15, one of the first Leyland Nationals - from London Country - in NBC corporate green colours. South Midland was persuaded to exhibit a recent Bristol LH/Duple touring coach, which was doing its annual rounds of the area bedecked with posters advertising the forthcoming summer tour programme. Local coach operator, Valliant-Silverline, exhibited the now much travelled ex Eastern National open
top KSW WNO481 then sporting the livery used in promoting Paul McCartney's Wings group's European tour, together with their newest coach NLU10L. Finally National Express loaned a 4 foot long model coach from Victoria Coach Station, to join the exhibition of model buses that accompanied the event.
So successful was the rally that a follow up was planned for 1974 and over 50 buses were expected as what was billed as Brunelzebus 74. However, 1974 was the year of the miners strike, power cuts and the three day week. So the Brunelzebub Festival was cancelled, but the rally was salvaged and transferred to the Hillingdon Show at the end of June, from whence the name - SHOWBUS. The first SHOWBUS was sponsored by Pickfords Removals and attracted nearly 100 entries.
In 1975 National Express (South East) were persuaded to sponsor the event, exhibiting their Coach of the Year from the Brighton Rally (Bristol RELH/Plaxton GJD199N). A long association with John Wilson (then General Manager of NTSE) started, he was Chief Judge at SHOWBUS for many years and has missed only two during that time! The rally also took on responsibility for the free bus service between the showground and Uxbridge Station and another association - not quite as long - was struck with London & Manchester Assurance, their London Country advert bus being used on the service, aided by several of Ted Brakell's RTs, suitably adorned with L&M adverts. Another feature of the early SHOWBUS rallies was the number of Thames Valley and Alder Valley buses exhibited - thanks to David Howard. The buses often posed together after the event for exclusive photos.
In 1976 the rally was termed the NATIONAL SHOWBUS RALLY.
In 1977, with the Queen's Silver Jubilee, we had the National Showbus Jubilee Rally, with a road run starting from Windsor across to Uxbridge. Many buses were decorated appropriately, and National's open top Regent V, PFN867, was painted silver and brought the Mayor of Windsor and his wife to have lunch with the Mayor of Uxbridge at the show. Unfortunately, in taking a short cut into the show site to avoid the traffic jam, the centre piece of the NATIONAL EXPRESS Showbus display struck a very low tree branch sustaining damage to the top deck and showering the Mayor and Mayoress of Windsor in broken glass!
1978 was the year of the new generation buses, entries included 3 Dennis Dominators from Leicester (one Marshall bodied, the others East Lancs), a Metrobus and Northern Counties bodied Foden from West Midlands, London Transport Metrobus M1, plus Volvo Ailsas from West Midlands, Derby and Maidstone & District!
In 1979 the sponsorship passed to Grey-Green and the free bus service started another SHOWBUS link - with bendibuses! MAN were importing a fleet of articulated buses to work the city circle service in Sheffield. Before the first bus reached Sheffield - DAK301V - it was carrying record loads of passengers on the Show service!
Entries grew in number steadily, and rapidly the event outgrew the site and many will recall the nightmare traffic jams when trying to leave after the rally. Thus in 1980 Grey-Green helped move the rally to a new location, the recently opened Thorpe Park, the buses gathering inside the Park itself, with entries topping the 200 mark and the rally moving to the first week in September. The MAN bendibus provided a link from Staines. Ex London DMS vehicles were a major display feature.
1981 saw the rally combine with Grey-Green's London Bus Rally at Brockwell Park, part of the Lambeth Show, which had been a copycat event started a few year's earlier. The event was billed as the London Showbus Rally and sponsored by Ensignbus. It was scheduled for July, the weekend the nearby Brixton riots erupted. At very short notice the rally was transferred lock, stock and barrel to Ensign's recently acquired Purfleet premises, where DMS vehicles abounded in various states of attire!
A new home was found for 1982 with strong support from Leyland Bus and coach insurance specialists, Chapman Stevens - Woburn Abbey. Leyland enjoyed the association with the Safari Park's Tigers as their version of the Tiger was very much alive at the time. Chapman Stevens took advantage of the prestigious location to offer appropriate hospitality to their clients. Operators and enthusiasts enjoyed the magnificent setting and prizes were presented by Lady Tavistock, whilst Red Rover buses conveyed families on Junglebus trips to the Safari Park. Leyland bendibuses linked to Aylesbury railway station - as courtesy of Ken Livingstone you could get to Aylesbury from any London tube station on a Sunday for about £1 return!
The curse of Showbus descended on the Woburn venue - only one year can be recalled when it did not rain. Many images of tractors towing out buses of all ages abound, and rarely was the ground in a good enough state to take advantage of the acres of display space available. The ultimate humiliation was in 1992 - Bedfordshire floods made national news the week before the rally and the Abbey authorities wanted to call the rally off on the Thursday beforehand. In the end, courtesy of the Safari Park, half the buses were accommodated on their site, but the nightmare of these last minute arrangements was the last straw for Rally Organiser, Martin Isles.
1992 was very nearly the last SHOWBUS, but strong support from junior helpers, Bob Passaway, Dave Reid, Charlie Nicholson and - at that time - Jon Hurst, resulted in a new location and revitalisation. The first SHOWBUS at the Imperial War Museum site at Duxford in 1993 saw the entries rocket past the 300 mark. The following year major sponsorship was secured from model makers EFE and with their help the rally grew in size and quality and became without a doubt the largest event of its kind in the world.
1997 saw the 25th rally in the series on Sunday September 21st. It was supported by the major bus operating groups in the country - FirstBus, Stagecoach and Cowie (now Arriva). Scania provided rally plaques for all entrants. Courtesy of Classic Bus, a quality programme and museum guide was available. Motts Travel, who have supported the event since 1982 supplied one of their coaches, recently used by Oasis, as a base for the Rally Team over the weekend. Making an appropriate welcome return - since exhibiting at the first Hillingdon Show SHOWBUS - Wallace Arnold provided their hospitality Ailsa decker for use as Rally Control. BUSES magazine also lent support. Particularly good was new support from Optare, organising a display of 8 Excel buses and providing 'Rally Control' banners for the event and Plaxtons chipped in with £400 of cash prizes.
Millennium Showbus was a huge success in 2000, with prizes for the best vehicles of the New Millennium. No less than four vehicles visited from Holland and this lead to the event adopting the international tag in 2001. The 2001 event managed to escape the effects of the national fuel strike by a whisker.
The 30th rally in 2002 saw entries hit a definite 400 for the first time, often that figure is exceeded before the day, but the Golden Jubilee occasion verified a 400+ display on the Sunday. Some regular entrants missed the occasion as every coach company in Britain was working flat out on Showbus day because of the Countryside Rally in central London. For the first time in many years a road run - the Gold Run - from Trumpington Park & Ride allowed a select group of Golden Jubilee associated vehicles to parade to Duxford. Adding to the international element Kowloon Motor Bus entered one of their Alexander ALX500 bodied Dennis Tridents in the event. EFE SHOWBUS international was an official Golden Jubilee event in 2002 and the display of gold liveried vehicles was a great tribute to Her Majesty the Queen. KMB's gold Trident formed part of the Jubilee display.
The 2003 event became the most international event ever with vehicles from KMB in Hong Kong again, the unique Bus & Car Eagle from Holland, one of Optare's NABI Solos bound for Miami and a prototype Neoplan Skyliner from the Auwarter Museum in Germany. Konrad Auwarter himself presented the prizes. Excellent new full colour rally plaques were provided by Transbus International and, though it was late on the scene, the rally programme was provided for the first time by Bus & Coach Buyer and achieved a record circulation through being a supplement to their weekly magazine.
In 2004, the 12th rally at Duxford, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the London Routemaster with another Gold Run - of Routemasters - from Trumpington.
In recent years we have seen many anniversaries celebrated with special displays at Duxford including Plaxtons centenary in 2007, BUSES 60 years in 2009 and Maidstone & District's centenary in 2011. There have been special displays of Neoplan vehicles, the 2011 Enviromania display, and so it goes on - and hopefully will continue to do so. The event also topped 500 buses actually on display in 2008. International entries have come from France, Switzerland, Belgium and Eire in addition to those mentioned already.
In 2011 the main sponsor changed to TTCDIECAST.com and the Showcase mini trade show, a feature of Woburn Abbey events was introduced. D&G Bus replaced First in providing rally prize money and Go-Ahead sponsored the rally plaques, but strong support continued from Bus & Coach Buyer, Plaxtons, BUSES magazine, Motts Travel, Red Rose and Ensignbus. An Ian Allan publication featured an article on SHOWBUS, dubbing it "THE BIGGEST SHOW ON EARTH".
In 2012, the 40th display at Duxford, we celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the centenary of AEC, the London Olympics, and officially hosted celebrations of 40 years of the Leyland National and fifty of the Bedford VAL.
2013 saw a major change for SHOWBUS with the move to a new venue at Long Marston near Straford-upon-Avon. The move linked nicely to several Midlands anniversaries with three companies which have supported SHOWBUS over the years all celebrating their centenaries - City of Oxford, Trent and United Counties. Birmingham bus builder Metro-Cammell was founded 150 years ago and Wolverhampton based Guy's Arab model had been around for 80 years and their London GS for 60. The Volvo Ailsa, of which 100 served the West Midlands is 40 years old and its rival the MCW Metrobus pitches in at 35. The new site offered acres of hard standing for display and tiered seating to view the arrival cavalcade. Site tours proved very popular and Red Rose provided a free shuttle from Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was always the intention to return to the Imperial War Museum in 2014 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Routemaster, and obviously more reside closer to Duxford than Stratford. The 2014 was very successful with TfL providing a New Routemaster on hire to Motts Travel to operate the Duxford village tours. sadly the event made a loss in 2014 and no accommodation could be reached with the Museum authorities to get a share of the ever increasing gate money. The Museum decided that SHOWBUS had run its course at Duxford, despite SHOWBUS being its biggest gate after the annual air show (one year when it rained on the air show we did beat it). The Stratford site was considered, but a number of visitors expected the site to be of the same standard as Duxford, even if it was nearly half the price. So the search was on for a new venue. Several were visited and Woburn Abbey emerged as a possibility with the increased hard standing available since 1992.
It was almost a perfect year for SHOWBUS at Woburn in 2015. The quality of the entries was superb with an amazing number of pre war vehicles, helped by the fact that many lived close by. The weather on the day was superb, however on the preceding Thursday the Abbey had been treated to an exceptionally heavy downpour rendering parts of the site unuseable. Despite having tractors on standby to assist any buses getting stuck in the mud, probably the heaviest vehicle, a doubledeck Setra got stuck and the driver refused assistance from the tractor. After disagreement between the two drivers and a fruitless effort by the coach driver to shift his charge a truce was negotiated and the Setra finally moved after blocking access to the site for an hour. Not only were buses queueing in the Park for an hour, the Abbey authorities struggled to cope with the car and bus flow, following a last minute change of plans as to where cars would park, meaning cars and buses entered by the same road. Beyond Woburn it was later discovered that compared to 1992 the local road network struggled to cope with the road traffic.
Showbus came perilously close to not happening in 2016 until we discovered the Donington Park site. It was a reluctant move with the venue being even more remote than Duxford from the team's Buckinghamshire base, but the site offered huge amounts of hard standing in an attractive setting and a central and accessible location. Local enthusiasts and operators welcomed the event with fullsome support and a special cavalcade of Barton buses, travelling for the last time from the soon to be demolished Chilwell depot topped off the event. There were inevitable teething problems with the Park underestimating catering provision, toilets centralised rather than spread about and tight parking in places all of which were easily solved for a return visit in 2017. Ownership of the Park changed before the 2018 display and clearly the new owners wanted more money out of the event, which simply was not there. It ran at a small loss in 2016 and broke even in 2017, so once again a new venue was sort.
For 2019 Showbus came home to the Hertfordshire County Showground, a venue evoking overtones of the Hillingdon Show and being only a stone's throw from Woburn Abbey and many enthusiasts and operators in the locality welcomed its return to the Home Counties. With Whipsnade Zoo only twenty minutes away the scene was set for a great day out with the Zoo offering 50% off their usual prices for SHOWBUS visitors. What should have been a great day out was scuppered by a doom laden forecast from the Met Office, and whilst many parts of the country endured a wet day, for the most part it was dry at the County Showground, and even the sun came out in the afternoon! It had rained most if the week leading up to the event and the team was fearful of another Woburn style mud bath, but the Showground enjoys the benefits of French drainage. Having had to cancel the County Show some years earlier due to heavy rain and the state of the grounds they invested in the drainage system and it is amazingly effective. Expecting the Volvo B7TL kindly loaned by Motts to sink axle deep when it ventured on the grass on the Friday before the show we were pleasantly surprised and our Plan B to park all buses with either their nearside or offside wheels on one of the many roadways that criss-cross the site, or even to park the buses on the grass facing downhill - and away from the sun - were unnecessary. We are looking forward to celebrating the 50th show at the new venue.
Floods, riots, three day weeks, pandemics, SHOWBUS has battled through them all, with most of the enthusiast events cancelled for 2020 it looked like the crowds and social distancing problems would put paid to SHOWBUS international 2020, but, whilst it would not be a normal SHOWBUS the SHOWBUSflyby was dreamt up with participants taking to the road. The road in question being the A40 between Oxford (Wheatley) and Beaconsfield motorway service stations, calling in at Thame and High Wycombe with multiple photo opportunities along the route through the Chilterns. It made SHOWBUS not only the biggest bus event of the year as usual, but very nearly the only one.
SHOWBUS battles were not over! With the pandemic still raging the decision as to whether or not to do a normal SHOWBUS at the Herts Showground or another SHOWBUSflyby was not taken until less than seven weeks beforehand. A big attendance at short notice was not expected, espcially with many vehicle owners affected by the pandemic, two or three dropped out on the day with the need to isolate. In the end nearly 200 were booked in, but another problem added to the list of floods, riots, three day weeks and pandemics: the almost self-inflicted national fuel shortage caused by people panic buying petrol reduced both vehicle and overall attendance. A week later and it would have had minimal effect! A behind the scenes crisis was a severe lack of understanding of the event for Hertfordshire County Council's Graham McMillan, their COVID – Senior Events Enforcement Officer. He was wanting hand sanitiser on board every bus expecting visitors to be clambering aboard every exhibit and totally at odds with national pandemic restrictions on public bus services at the time. He threatened on the Thursday to cancel the event using the powers he had from Westminster which expired at midnight on Sunday! Common sense, which had been lacking, eventually prevailed. On the plus side the weather was great and the seond Enviromania display attracted 25 buses covering a huge range of models, including two Enviro500!
Hopefully 2022 will be less of a problem as we celebrate the 50th event. On Sunday 18th September the much acclaimed SHOWBUSflyby is back, but extended east to where it all started in January 1973, at Brunel University. The Hertfordshire County Showground display is the following Sunday celebrating Her Majesty's Platinum Jubilee, fifty years of SHOWBUS, National Express coaches and the Leyland National.