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The rise of the white coach

Vision, compromise and change all played a part in the roll-out of the National white coach, reflected in the 1972 first edition of the Corporate Identity Manual.

Vision, compromise and change in the first edition of the Corporate Identity Manual

The NBC Corporate Identity developed from a series of discussions between incoming NBC chair Freddie Wood, and leading graphic designer Norman Wilson. Wood had been chief executive of Croda International, and had employed Wilson for many years to modernise the company’s image, undertaking a comprehensive rebranding in a clean, modern style, encompassing the Croda’s symbol, marketing, packaging and vehicles. Wood was impressed with Wilson, and the two got on well.

NBC Chair Freddie Wood (left, later Sir Freddie); and design consultant Norman Wilson (right). Photo: NBC.

Wood had spent part of his early 20s in the United States, and the American way of doing business fascinated him.  He was particularly struck by the extensive network of silver Greyhound coaches which he had used to criss-cross the US during his stay, offering a consistent reliable service and strong uniform branding.  So when Wood was asked by the newly-elected Heath government in 1971 to take the role of chair of the relatively new National Bus Company, with the objective of making it a more commercial organisation, he was immediately struck by two thoughts.  First, the Greyhound proposition of a uniform national coach network. And second, the need to ask for Wilson’s design advice in shifting the image of the long-distance coach, and the wider industry.

An iconic 1954 Scenicruiser, manufactured for Greyhound Lines by General Motors. Greyhound’s uniform branding created a strong image of a consistent and reliable national network across the United States. Photo: Greyhound Lines publicity department, in the Hemmings.com collection.
Greyhound Lines’ publicity emphasised the consistency and reliability of a uniform national network for business and pleasure travel across the United States. Source: Greyhound Lines.

Wilson was actually brought on board by Wood in 1971, before his chairmanship had been formally agreed. It was in this period that Wilson had the epiphany of the ‘N-and-shadow’ arrow symbol. Once appointed, Wood wasted no time in formalising the appointment of Norman Wilson as corporate design adviser to the NBC Board. There was a formal pitch to the Board early in 1972 using design boards explaining the National symbol, graphics and the white coach in preliminary version of the corporate identity. These will form the basis of a section in the NBC Corporate Identity book. It is not clear whether other design businesses were invited to bid – but Wilson’s appointment was announced to the business and its operating companies in a letter from the company secretary to the General Managers of the local subsidiaries in February 1972, stating simply that NBC was appointing a design consultant “to advise on all matters relating to a corporate identity for the NBC Organisation” – and cautioning against overstocking on existing designs of stationery which might soon become redundant.

After being persuaded that – because of production techniques and climate – a silver coach in the style of Greyhound would not last well in Britain, Wilson and Wood wanted the coaches to be purely white, with the National branding of the NBC symbol and the NATIONAL logotype in red and blue. Operating companies were to be solely suppliers to NBC’s Central Activities Group, which took responsibility for the National coach network. Local company identities were not to appear on the white coaches at all, except in the tiny mandatory ‘legal lettering’ identifying the owner at the bottom of the bodyside There was a degree of scepticism, and even push-back against the idea of a uniform corporate identity, particularly from operating companies whose local liveries in some cases could be traced back to the start of motor coaches at the start of the 20th century.

From the 1972 Corporate Identity Manual: Wilson and Wood’s intended National White Coach livery. The branding is purely National, with no local company fleetname, to give the sense of a single uniform national entity. Tillings Transport’s PWC 341K was the second White Coach. In the original concept presented to the NBC board, the National symbol always pointed to the right: consequently it pointed backwards on the nearside of coaches. This was replicated in the first two trial applications to vehicles, with the result that this illustration made it into the first edition of the Manual. The coach also carries a fleet number plate – in red for Eastern National’s Southend Prittlewell depot which maintained a large part of the Tilling coach fleet. This too was inconsistent with the manual’s instructions to use steel-grey lettering, transfers of which were set in Futura and supplied to each operating company. Photo: NBC, The Bus Archive.

Wood was resolute in his determination to apply a uniform white livery. He had been dissuaded from adopting a silver livery, US-style, on the grounds that that bodysides would corrode. When operators next objected to all-over white on the grounds that they would show dirt, Wilson retorted, in characteristically blunt fashion, that “they’ll just have to wash them more often then, won’t they?”

With the overall colour beyond doubt, the use of local fleetnames became the next area of controversy and compromise. The first trial application of the NBC white livery, on an Eastern Counties coach at the Eastern Coach Works in Lowestoft, had omitted the local company’s fleetname, showing only the National brand. General Managers of NBC’s operating subsidiaries were horrified, complaining that their local identities and pride in the service would be lost, and that coach users would be confused by multiple identical-looking coaches and would find it harder to locate their service.

Norman Wilson, designer of the NBC Corporate Identity, applies his NATIONAL lettering to the very first ‘white coach’ at Eastern Coach Works (ECW), Lowestoft, April 1972. Consistent with the initial presentation to the NBC Board, his ‘double-N’ symbol is pointing to the rear on the nearside of the coach in this trial application of the new identity to Eastern Counties’ RE858. This was altered in the 1972 Corporate Identity Manual, which specified that it should point in the direction of travel on either side of the vehicle. Behind Wilson, assisting with the application, is ECW’s Alan ‘Casey’ Crisp, described by Eastern Counties’ Stephen Milne as “the best coach painter I ever knew – the best at lining-out and an excellent sign-writer.” Casey spent his entire working life at ECW, retiring at 65, three years before the Coachworks closed in 1987.
Wilson’s first response to demands from operating companies’ General Managers that a local fleetname should be applied was perhaps deliberately obtuse. He added tiny light-grey lettering to first ‘white coach’ – Eastern Counties’ RE858 – at about the same size as the legal lettering and ‘fuel’, ‘oil’ labels, albeit in his heavier National lettering. This achieved his objective of interfering as little as possible with the uniformity of appearance which he and Freddie Wood sought – but with lettering so small as to be almost unreadable at any distance. General Managers were not placated. The picture shows Eastern Counties Bristol RE Plaxton-bodied coach RE858 at Cheltenham early in 1972. Photo: Richard Price collection.
A similar experiment was conducted with Eastern National’s Plaxton-bodied Bristol RE number 425, seen here in Southend in 1972: a tiny fleetname in grey National Alphabet lettering was placed underneath the window behind the cab. Photo: Bernard Watkin, Eastern Transport Collection Society.

Wood and Wilson relented, marginally, in response to the latter argument and a compromise was attempted. First, a local fleetname was applied as a trial to the Eastern Counties coach used in the initial trial application of the identity, using Wilson’s bespoke National lettering, but at a height barely larger than the legal lettering and in a very light grey. It was almost invisible, and the General Managers were not placated.

Wilson therefore adopted a different, more visible approach for the initial roll-out of the Corporate Identity. Local company fleetnames were applied on National coaches above the wheel arch, set in Wilson’s new National lettering, at the slightly larger letter height and in a more legible dark grey. They were further emphasised by a bold underlining, the line being the same height as the letters giving an overall height of 3½ inches, in the colour adopted by the local company for its buses. This was codified in the first edition of the Corporate Identity Manual of May 1972.

From the May 1972 Corporate Identity Manual, drawn up by Norman Wilson and colleagues, this diagram shows the ‘compromise’ initial NBC standard white coach livery, with small operating company fleetnames underlined in the company colour – in this case Royal Blue’s royal blue – with an overall height of 3½ inches. The vehicle used for illustration is a Plaxton Panarama Elite II. Source: NBC, The Bus Archive.
Wilson’s design of fleetnames had a neat logic, consistent with his approach to corporate identity. It combined two of the main elements of the NBC identity, using the National Alphabet for the local company’s name, and at the same height as the lettering, a block of the NBC corporate colour identified with the operating company, usually that adopted for local buses. See our previous blog article to read about Norman Wilson’s view of the key elements of corporate identity.
Royal Blue’s ECW-bodied Bristol RE number 2387 is seen in Newbury in 1973. Instead of adopting the green colour of its parent Western National, Royal Blue chose to underline its fleetname in blue – along with the National symbol and logotype, this is the only blue remaining of the company’s trademark livery. Photo: Richard Price Collection

So Eastern Counties and United coaches had a small fleetname underlined in their corporate red; as did Standerwick, a coach-only business which adopted the bus colour of its parent company Ribble. Crossville, Southdown and Eastern National coaches meanwhile appeared with fleetnames underlined in green. Other non-bus coaching businesses were given latitude, so even though their historic colours were eliminated, Royal Blue used a blue line on their National coaches, while Black and White used black.

North Western’s Leyland Leopard SJA 404K is seen in Stockport in 1972 on an express service from London to Manchester via Birmingham, with a small fleetname underlined in National red.
Eastern Counties’ CB845 – a Duple-bodied Bedford VAM70 at Great Yarmouth in 1972 – illustrating both the small operating company fleetname, underlined in poppy red, and displayed in the illuminated panel; and also the challenges of fitting the key elements of the new Corporate Identity around decorative chrome bodywork. Norman Wilson’s team were supplied by coachbuilders with hundreds of coach drawings as they tried to get a reasonably uniform application of the new identity across a huge variety of vehicles. (Photo: Bernard Watkin, Eastern Transport Collection Society).
Uniquely, Black & White Motorways, having no standard bus colour, adopted black underlining for its fleetname. Here Black & White coach DDG 260C – a Duple Commander-bodied Leyland Leopard – shows off the early version of the white coach identity, in Cheltenham in 1973.
Standerwick – the coaching branch of Ribble – operated the largest coaches of the era, a fleet of thirty Bristol VRLL double-decker coaches – providing an express service between Manchester, Birmingham and London making full use of the new national motorway network. Standerwick’s fleetname is underlined in the Ribble bus colour of poppy red, in a vast expanse of white. Photo: Tony Whitehouse, NBC Publicity.
Southdown’s Leyland Leopard LCD 232F in February 1973, with a small fleetname underlined in National green, and a small ‘National’ logotype in the illuminated panel at the front. Photo: Richard Price Collection.
Eastern Counties’ Bristol MW coach LS830 shown in April 1974 in the early National livery, with local fleetname underlined in poppy red. In the bus shortage of the early 1970s, front-line express coach LS830 has been pressed into service on a local Norwich city route. The clock tower of Norwich City Hall towers over the Bell Hotel in the background. (Photo: Bernard Watkin, Eastern Transport Collection Society).
From the 1972 Corporate Identity Manual: these two illustrations show the appropriate positions of the NATIONAL logotype and the operating company fleetnames on two Bristol RE coaches with different decorative bodyside mouldings. Norman Wilson’s team worked through hundreds of coach body designs to work out how to get a consistent application of the new identity across a huge variety of different vehicles. Both United Counties and Crosville fleetnames would have been underlined with a bar in NBC green, the bus colour used by both companies. Source: NBC, The Bus Archive.

The result was a bit more colour and variation of appearance than Wilson had intended, and served to differentiate the coaches to some degree. It did not however last long. The small fleetnames and coloured bands were considered both untidy, and were too small to serve the purpose of making vehicles identifiable to customers. Wilson developed and implemented a tidier approach, more consistent with the uniform look he and Wood aimed for, while also going some way to placate the General Managers. From November 1972 a revised livery was adopted, overruling the instructions in the first Corporate Identity Manual issued in May, just a few months earlier. Regardless of the company colour, local operating company names were now to appear in National-red letters 3⁵/₈ inches tall without incorporating a coloured band, displayed more prominently between the wheel arch and the windows. A letter of 9 November 1972 to General Managers from Ron Whitehouse, NBC’s Group Public Relations Officer, formalised the change of approach: “a revision to the specification regarding the size of company name. The name of the operating company should appear over the front wheels in corporate style lettering 3⁵/₈ inches high in National red.”.

This gave much more prominence to the local businesses, but in a style which fitted more consistently with the overall uniformity of the National ‘white coach’.  It was this look, rolled out widely through 1973, that was to become the standard for the next two decades, and which was reflected in the 1976 second edition of the NBC Corporate Identity Manual.

By the end of 1974, Eastern Counties had rebranded coach Bedford Duple-bodied CB845 to their Mascot National subsidiary by applying the new fleetname revised standard red 3⁵/₈ inch fleetname style, but without removing the 3½ inch Eastern Counties fleetname and band in the previous style. It is seen here on a relief service in Norwich in December 1974. Photo: Bernard Watkin, Eastern Transport Collection Society.
Ron Whitehouse’s letter of November Sept 1972 specified a number of alternations to the initial white coach livery set out in the Corporate Identity Manual issued in May of that year. The revised operating company fleetnames – or ‘company identifiers’ – were enlarged to 3⁵/₈ inches, in Wilson’s National lettering, and were set in poppy red, regardless of the company colour. This gave a greater uniformity to the National coach fleet. Preserved Eastern Counties Bristol RE coach RLE747 illustrates the revised style of local company fleetname. Photo: Richard Price.
Futura was the typeface used in Norman Wilson’s initial work on the NBC corporate identity late in 1971. A thickened version of a heavy weight of Futura was used in the mock-ups shown to the NBC Board at the start of 1972. Before the early trials on vehicles in April, however, Wilson had switched to Akzidenz-Grotesk, on which he based his National lettering, using a thickened version of a heavy weight as the base and incorporating elements of Futura. For most signage, standard Akzidenz-Grotesk was adopted and is specified in the 1972 Manual. Nevertheless, Futura was retained on vehicles throughout NBC for labelling, fleet numbers and the ‘legal lettering’ to show ownership, and is still widely used for these purposes today. Though the Manual specified only ‘lettering in steel-grey’, NBC supplied all companies with standard labels and lettering transfers set in Futura. Photo: Richard Price.
In the revised white coach livery, with larger NBC-red operating company fleetnames: Western Welsh’s coach 172, a Plaxton Panorama-bodied Leyland Leopard, at subsidiary Rhondda Transport’s Porth depot in April 1978. This standard version of the NBC livery endured for more than a decade. Photo: Richard Price Collection.
Uniformity was not quite achieved with the new approach. Interpretation was often needed to reflect the different shapes and mouldings of coach bodysides. The revised instructions were ambiguous on the precise positioning of the company name ‘above the wheel arch’ and local discretion was applied, bringing the occasional reprimand from NBC headquarters. This Everall Ford R226, seen at Marble Arch in 1976, unusually has the company name almost touching the wheel arch. Photo: Richard Price Collection.

At the start of 1972, in the early development of the Corporate Identity, Wood and Wilson focussed largely on the design and implementation of the white coach as the iconic representation of NBC on the roads, and the most urgent commercial challenge to address. Thoughts turned only later in the year to the application of the identity and roll-out to local buses and mixed-use coaches. In the next Corporate Identity Blog, we will look at the early implementation of the Corporate Identity to local buses, how this was described in the first Manual, teething troubles and oddities in the early roll-out. 

Photographs from the Bernard Watkin collection appear by kind permission of the Eastern Transport Collection Society. Many thanks to The Bus Archive for access to NBC records and correspondence. This article draws on conversations with Jean Horsfall, John Oldfield and Anthony Dawson – to whom many thanks.

Did you experience the early years of the NBC Corporate Identity? Please post any comments or suggestions using the box below.

7 replies on “The rise of the white coach”

The North Western coach featured is not SJA411K which coincidentally was later transferred to my erstwhile employer Shamrock and Rambler.

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I have seen a photo of a NBC white coach used by Provincial with a green fleetname in a thin typeface possibly hand painted, Provincial had very few DP coaches and even less in NBC Central Activities Group white.

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The ones that I caught mainly from the north east to Bristol, Birmingham and London so mainly owned by United or Northern had the NBC owning company under around where the front passenger window and sometimes on the front too usually only United had it on the front.To a person who wasn’t interested they would conclude however that National or a bit later National Express owned the buses and wouldn’t notice the ownership company.

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A very interesting read. Minor point about PWC341K – the fleet number plate in the photo is standard ENOC (red) colour, the depot code plate (PL) is missing. ENOC were one of several companies to defy NBC about changing to grey vinyl numerals although the coaches transferred from Tillings Travel (NBC) Ltd and ENOC to NT (SE) Ltd lost their fleet numbers at that point anyway.

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