NBC’s televised corporate identity spectacular for Norwich Union left a bus fleet in disguise
In 1974, NBC did their insurers a favour. Following their contract negotiation to insure vehicles across the whole company, NBC agreed to help Norwich Union to stage a spectacular advert for television. Produced by advertising agency McCann-Erickson, it featured buses from across the company’s local subsidiaries, showing off the new corporate identity green and red bus liveries, and then forming up into the outline of the insurer’s logo, based on the shape of Norwich cathedral. It’s not clear whose idea the advert was, so perhaps it was just a coincidence that the underwriters for the NBC’s policy occupied part of Norwich Union’s headquarters building with a perfect aerial view of Norwich’s busy Surrey Street Bus Station.
David Slater tracked down a reference to the event in Buses magazine: “Several Bristol RLs, LHs and Leyland Nationals were used for filming a Norwich Union advert at Norwich Airport on 6 October 1974. A total of 50 buses were used, some of which were disguised as members of other NBC fleets such as Alder Valley, Hants and Dorset, United”. In fact, 39 vehicles are visible in the film, 20 red and 19 green. Eastern Counties provided the red buses, while neighbouring Lincolnshire and Eastern National supplied the green vehicles.
We recently tidied up the advert to restore the colours, sharpen it up, and provide a more contemporary (1971!) soundtrack. Taking a closer look at the sharper images, some of the red bus fleetnames show signs of having been stuck over something else. Look at the ‘Yorkshire’ illustration for example, where on close inspection the join is pretty clear.
Several members of the Eastern Transport Collection Society have memories of Eastern Counties’ supplying the red buses for the event. Norman Steels remembers that a number of Norwich drivers including Clive Sansby were involved in ferrying vehicles to the airport, and then in the elaborately choreographed bus manoeuvres for the advert itself. All drivers were required to wear their newly-issued NBC corporate identity uniforms for the occasion, and you can make out the octagonal drivers’ hats in the interior shots.
As well as six Norwich drivers, Eastern Counties drew in drivers on Sunday extra-overtime rates from Cromer, King’s Lynn and Ipswich, and having driven them across the Fens, Lincolnshire drivers took charge of many of the green buses. Eastern National’s Alan Tebbit remembers that their Chelmsford depot provided six Leyland Nationals, with Bristol REs from Colchester, Clacton, Harwich and Kelvedon, meeting up outside Colchester before travelling in convoy to Norwich, led by Alan in a Leyland National.
Tony Tate, who joined Eastern Counties as a conductor in 1962, was the driver of the lead vehicle, a red Bristol RE, in the advert. Under and arrangement with the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Tony remembers that all of the ‘performing’ drivers participating in the film were compelled to join Equity, the actors’ union, for the day.
The film shaping up into the Norwich Union logo was actually done backwards. An article located by Adrian Tupper in his archive of National Bus News explains that “good as the National drivers are, it would have been asking too much to expect them to tear around the airfield and form themselves into a perfect shape. So the crucial part of the action was shot in reverse. In other words, the symbol was built first, and the buses driven out of it, one by one.”
Tony’s role was certainly hair-raising. “There was a cameraman laying on the runway with his camera, and I was told to drive straight at him” he recalls. “The director told me ‘drive straight at the camera’, and not to turn until he waved his arm. I had to drive at speed, and I must have been only 10 feet away when he waved for me to turn. You can see in the film, I had to pull hard on the steering, and that was a real sharp turn to avoid him!”
Tony recalls a long day at the airport, though crews were well looked after with first class catering, a substantial cooked breakfast and a big roast lunch. As National Bus News put it: “Two days’ shooting… fifty buses… a full crew and a helicopter. It all adds up to thirty seconds of TV film. It’s not easy. But if you’ve seen the end result, we think you’ll agree that it was worth it.”
Chris Dugdell recalls that it was much talked about at the time – and that ironically, even though the company’s RL734 is one of two buses actually identifiable in the film (along with Lincolnshire’s brand new LH 1033), the name ‘Eastern Counties’ does not actually appear in the advert at all!
An update for November: manual pages, archive work, and some big news on the design of the NBC corporate identity.
First, thanks a lot to everyone who has helped and contributed, as well as to everyone who has signed up to the mailing list or followed on Twitter and Facebook. It’s great that there is so much interest in this project, both from the transport and design communities.
What’s in the manual?
I’m pleased to say that most of the manual’s pages have been tracked down and are ready to copy and reproduce. There are still some mysteries: with the help of the Bus Archive we are trying to iron these out as far as possible before we go to print. The manual was issued as a ringbound volume, with pages added and updated over time. The updates didn’t happen consistently, so each copy of the manual seems to have slightly different pages. There are also whole sections which we believe were prepared but never issued, and we are trying to track those down.
The target is to produce as definitive a reproduction as possible, so when lockdown ends, we will be searching through the NBC’s records at the Bus Archive and at the National Archive in Kew to avoid missing anything important from the final publication. This archive work, and some research on the design (see below) means we have not yet set a target date for publication, but most of the things we need are now nearly in place.
What’ll be in the book?
The manual itself is around 90 pages – much smaller than its British Rail counterpart, but no less engrossing. So our plan is to include other interesting material in the book, telling the story of the corporate identity from early thinking and rationale, through the design and pitching process, to application and roll-out – and then to the impact it had on staff and users.
For me, one of the most intriguing parts of the project has been finding put how the NBC identity developed and what influenced it. After a lot of detective work, I’m delighted to say that for the first time in 50 years, we’ll be able to cast some light on the development of the designs.
I’m very pleased to say that – with the help of Nick Job of the BR Double Arrow project – we’ve tracked down the two designers who worked with Norman Wilson on the very earliest work on the NBC identity, and consolidated it into the Manual. They’ve kindly agreed to talk to me about the development of the identity, their and Norman Wilson’s influences, and how they worked with NBC. The book (and the blog) will bring you their recollections of the initial work on the project, the graphic design influences that inspired and shaped the National logo and identity and their pitches to NBC chair Freddie Wood.
We’ll also look at the challenges of scaling up their work to cover almost an entire industry – everything from stationery, paper cups and tie-clips, to some of the biggest vehicles on the road. And yes: the secrets of the NBC’s bespoke typeface will finally be unlocked. There’s a lot of material to work through, so I’ll write more on this in the coming months.
Help and support
I’m really pleased to have been able to draw on advice and support from some design and transport stalwarts: Ray Stenning of Best Impressions (whose National Bus Company Album I’ve owned for nearly 40 years); Philip Kirk, Director of the Bus Archive; Nick Job, designer and mastermind of the Double Arrow website, chronicling the development of the British Rail corporate identity; and Wallace Henning, the powerhouse behind the immaculate reproduction of the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual itself. Thanks to all of them. It’s a real pleasure to be able to work with such committed, interesting, good people.
Can you help?
If you have recollections you’d like to share – from your experience in the industry, from applying it in NBC service or in preservation, from operations or paintwork in the depots, from some of the adaptations made as the identity evolved through the MAP process and the development of National Express – please get in touch. We’re always happy to publish the best on the blog, and they could well make it into the book!
Northern General went beyond the usual red and green, stretching NBC’s corporate identity in the streets of the north east with a vibrant mix of colours.
The NBC years are remembered for their uniformity, with leaf green and poppy red dominating bus fleets across almost all of England and Wales. They are remembered with a mix of fondness for bold modernity thrust upon cities, towns and villages still shaking off the decay of the post-war years, and resentment from those with strong attachments to the variety of semi-independent bus companies with their roots in the local community.
While leaf green and poppy red dominated, there were a few parts of the NBC empire which were able to go their own way. Perhaps the most striking of these was Northern. There, managers connived with the new Passenger Transport Executive to strike out in an independent approach. The Tyne and Wear PTE had taken over municipal bus services across much of the north east of England – notably in Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead – and its own modernisation applied a livery of bright ‘cadmium yellow’ and cream, derived from the colours which had previously adorned Newcastle Corporation’s trams, trolleys and buses. Northern aimed to break away from the uniform red bus livery it had applied across its buses, suggesting initially to adopt the same Tyne and Wear PTE colours on its routes mainly within the PTE area.
As custodians of the corporate identity, NBC headquarters initially objected strongly. But at the same time NBC was trying to shape a new relationship with the PTEs as powerful arbiters – and major funders – of urban transport, including issuing subsidies and service contracts to NBC itself. So a compromise was struck. Northern could apply a yellow livery to the fleet for its urban routes, but not the PTE’s yellow. It had to be an NBC yellow livery, using the yellow specified in the Corporate Identity Manual, generally reserved for auxiliary and training vehicles. In all other respects the livery was to follow the manual – from the shape of the white bands to the position of the company identifiers, though these (and initially the NBC logo) were uniquely displayed in red, particularly striking on a yellow background.
To liven things up even more, Sunderland and District Omnibus – which had been a subsidiary of Northern General since 1931– had retained a separate identity with a blue livery, initially continuing to use its existing non-NBC dark blue. During a transition, Sunderland buses ran in their blue colours with a white band, with National-style company identifiers and double arrow applied.
So during the early 1970s, Northern General’s buses were divided into red, yellow and blue fleets; and branded with separate NBC fleetnames for the metropolitan areas of Sunderland, Gateshead, Tyneside and Tynemouth. Venture Transport, based on the Consett area and taken over by Northern in the 1970s, also initially retained its own identity in NBC corporate style, adopting poppy red. Northern’s other subsidiary – Wakefields – was phased out as a separate company in 1969, prior to the NBC corporate identity period.
All this made life much more interesting for depot staff than their NBC counterparts elsewhere, and nowhere more so than in the paintshop. Michael Mccalla was a coachpainter at Northern’s Bensham works between the 1970s and 1990s. His job was applying the company’s multiple liveries, while sticking to the rules set out in the NBC Manual. Fortunately for all of us, he also kept a photographic record of a lot of his work.
“The first vehicle I worked on and helped paint as an apprentice coachpainter at Northern Central Works, Bensham, was Sunderland District’s Leyland Leopard 346”, recalls Michael, “in an NBC-style livery but using Sunderland’s old ‘Midnight Blue’, a much darker shade than NBC’s own approved blue”.
“It looked great at the time.” says Michael, “The problems came later. The blue was a nightmare to paint over when Poppy Red and Yellow were introduced.” Along with the other Northern subsidiary companies, Sunderland and District lost its identity in January 1975, requiring the whole dark-blue fleet to be gradually repainted, though many were rebranded ‘Northern’ and stayed in blue for many years. There were also transfers to other NBC operating companies: Eastern Counties (see photo) was one of the companies faced with the tricky challenge of painting a standard livery over hard-to-cover midnight blue.
But when they were reliveried into Northern’s standard Poppy red, or urban yellow, they were very striking on the streets of the north east. Michael was responsible for a number of the repaints, as well as painting Northern’s red Leyland Nationals into urban-area NBC yellow. “I must admit when newly painted these did look decent” Michael remembers.
Uniquely, the yellow livery featured company identifiers in dark red. As for all operating companies, company identifiers were supplied from NBC headquarters, using the bespoke National typeface, as photographic negatives, which were enlarged and reproduced locally. These were issued with the Corporate Identity Manual, with pages including wallets to hold the negatives, along with ‘sign-out/sign-in’ sheets to keep track of them. The use of pre-prepared negatives avoided any risk of the wrong typeface being used, and avoided inconsistent letter spacing. Northern General’s copies were unusual in coming with negatives for the many different fleetnames in use – Tyneside, Tynemouth, Sunderland & District, Gateshead, Venture, and Northern itself.
Like its buses, Northern General’s coaches came in a variety of liveries, with PTE, urban and non-urban dual-purpose, and full-coach National variants. There were even some variants that shouldn’t really have happened – such as the Bristol RE is a unique PTE dual-purpose livery. Michael Mccalla recalls: “I managed to get away with painting Bristol RE 4882 into Tyne and Wear PTE livery when it should have been all-over yellow. But this is what happens when the foreman is on holiday and you’re put in charge”.
For an era when public transport on the roads came in green, red or white in most of England and Wales, Northern’s flexible take on the NBC corporate identity added some colour and variety to the streets of the north east.
Special thanks to Northern coachpainter Michael Mccalla for his help with this article, and for providing the fascinating pictures of Northern’s colourful vehicles – many of them his own handiwork.
As part of its comprehensive rebranding, NBC’s corporate identity extended to what its staff wore.
The NBC Corporate Identity Manual is best known for its uniform bus and coach liveries. But it was also intended to address standardisation of a wide range of other aspects of NBC’s presentation to its customers, including clothing and uniforms.
Section 7 of the NBC Corporate Identity Manual dealt with “uniforms and related items” such as cap and jacket badges. But there is some mystery over section 7. We believe it was drafted – indeed NBC put a lot of work into uniform design – but may not have been issued: curiously the copies of the Manual we have seen omit it. We’ll be digging deeper into this over the coming months to make sure that a reissued corporate identity manual includes as much of the issued material as we can source. Please get in touch if you can help.
NBC’s constituent companies inevitably had a variety of styles, many unchanged since the 1950s. With a few exceptions – notably innovations in the coach market to reflect the speed and modernity of the emerging national motorway network – uniforms tended to be very traditional with heavy wear-resistant fabrics in black or dark blues, round peaked caps and occasionally traditional braid to indicate seniority. Coach crews often sported light-coloured overalls and matching caps. But – as with liveries – there tended to be substantial variation between local companies.
NBC’s corporate identity sought to do away with all that, and to introduce a standard look for crews and bus station staff. Crews and staff were to be the human face of the business, so their attire needed to reflect the modernity the business aimed to project. NBC and Norman Wilson’s team wanted staff to project the company’s modern image as much as the vehicles, and investigated overseas practice as well as drawing inspiration from constituent companies’ innovations in the coach market.
Out went dark colours, and in came lighter blue-grey suits with a relatively modern cut, greater comfort and incorporating larger pockets to assist with carrying paperwork. Out went the traditional round peaked caps and in came a modern, Germanic-looking octagonal cap in the same shade of blue-grey, sporting a smart metal ‘double-N’ arrow badge.
Office and counter staff at bus stations counted among them many more women than the drivers and crews. Various uniforms were created for women over the years, typically in brighter hues of the corporate colours, with styles evolving with fashion more than the men’s uniforms.
Whereas the changes in bus liveries are well documented, pictures of the changing uniforms through the NBC period are relatively few and far between. If you have any photos you’d be happy for us to use to illustrate the evolving staff attire for bus and coach crews and for bus station staff, do let us know. We’ll add any photos and stories in the coming weeks.
Rapid roll-out of the new identity led to some odd compromises
Nearly a year passed between the introduction of the NBC corporate identity and the launch of Norman Wilson’s fully-fledged Corporate Identity Manual. Wilson had been clear-minded on the importance of consistency from the start. However NBC chairman Fred Wood saw advantages in getting staff and passengers to identify with the new uniformity of presentation and service to the public, as a way of beginning to change the culture and perception of the NBC and its subsidiaries.
Across publicity and advertising, and things like timetable leaflets, company names began to appear in Wilson’s new bespoke NBC typeface – with the words “Associated with the National Bus Company” added as a strapline. This needed to be matched by the main projection of NBC’s identity into the high streets and housing estates of England and Wales – the buses themselves.
The solution was to start applying the strikingly modern NBC logo and fleetnames ahead of making other changes. This could be done faster than waiting for a full repaint into the new colours of poppy red or leaf green with white, or even the halfway house of painting white bands over cream and black lining and using the existing base livery, for example the darker Tilling red or green. But a strange consequence was that the modern fleetnames were for a time applied in a more traditional cream colour, as part of the existing colour schemes, rather than the clean, modern white of the new corporate identity.
Hants & Dorset were quick to get into the spirit of the new corporate identity – if not its precise application. The picture below shows an attempt to match the bus to the new NBC identity shown on the bus’s advertising panel. The differences between advertising illustration and application are pretty obvious now, but probably weren’t to the casual observer, so the early brand application probably did the trick. By 1972, former Wilts & Dorset Lodekka KMR608, had been absorbed into the Hants & Dorset fleet as their no 401. It retained the Tilling red of Wilts & Dorset, which was extended over the black lining, and gained cream-coloured NBC-style fleetnames and double-N arrow to match its cream band.
Devon General’s main livery was red, in spite of being a subsidiary of green-liveried Western National. In 1970 it took over the buses of Exeter Corporation Transport, and once the corporate identity was initiated in 1972 this Guy Arab retained its Exeter ‘green and magnolia’ livery but gained while NBC-style Devon General fleetnames. It contrasts with Exeter vehicles in the background which Devon General had already repainted into NBC poppy red and white.
Something has gone wrong with the rebranding of Western National’s no. 1923 seen here at Weymouth in 1973. 1923 retains Tilling green livery, and though the black lining has been painted over and cream replaced with white, the NBC-style fleetnames and logo have been applied in cream.
How a bus station blaze led to a great example of the corporate identity in preservation
Trevor Shore MBE, founder of Dekkabus in Poole, was a conductor for Hants & Dorset based in Bournemouth in 1975 when the NBC identity roll-out was being completed.
Trevor recalls “We had two semi-automatic Bristol Lodekka FLF’s in the fleet at the time. In June of 1976 Bournemouth bus station burnt down.
“As an 18 year-old lad I was out and about in town looking for females, but hearing the station was on fire I rushed to help. The fire was in the underground coach station, but the floor of the bus station above was starting to shift in places. Although I only held a full car licence, I drove three buses out of the station while it was alight, the last one being FLF no 1254, KRU224F.
“Two friends bought it on retirement from Hants and Dorset in 1981. They had it for over 30 years then sold it on. When it came up for sale again in 2015, I purchased it. 1254 was the last Hants and Dorset double-decker to be repainted from green to red in 1975. Restoration involved replacing all of the window rubbers, a full exterior refurbishment into NBC Poppy Red and a class 6 MOT.
“With Dekkabus, I’m proud to have put her back in service as a heritage vehicle, serving the same town where she spent all her working life. Having saved her once in 1976, it was fitting to save her again four decades later.”
If like me, you’re wondering how Bournemouth had a coach station underneath its bus station, this photo of the fairly unique layout will help. The 1959 bus station replaced an elegant 1930s art deco building. Though damaged in July 1976, Hants & Dorset’s head office remained there, and the open air section continued to see partial use until 1980. It was demolished in 1982.
For most of the lifetime of the corporate identity, its application was strictly policed by NBC from its London 3746AEheadquarters in New Street Square. But initially there was no manual. The identity and rules for applying it developed over the course of 1972 and 1973, as Norman Wilson oversaw the development and initial roll-our by NBC’s subsidiary companies, before being formalised in the Manual.
There were some differences in the rules in the very early days, as well as various interpretations and mishaps, mostly stamped out quickly by HQ. These included overuse of white bands where local staff felt the main blocks of unrelieved green or red gave larger buses a drab look, and attempts to replicate the cream and black lining from the traditional liveries with additional white bands, particularly on double-deck vehicles.
A more common occurrence – initially sanctioned by Wilson and HQ – was the ‘interim livery’, where to accelerate the roll-out of the new identity, buses not due for a full repaint into the new corporate colours would simply have white or cream ‘thick’ bands painted over the original cream and black waistbands and applying the new NBC-typeface fleetnames and logos over the existing darker shades of red and green. Remarkably – given the later strict policing of the new corporate colours – cream NBC logos and fleetnames were used by many operators, to match the cream waistbands of the traditional liveries.
This was stamped out later in 1972. As Norman Wilson said in the Manual, “It is of vital importance to the overall maintenance of the National Bus Company image that colour schemes and usages are strictly followed. The use of red, per se, is not the same thing as the use of the correct red.”
Though initially approved, this half-way solution undermined the all-important consistency of the new Corporate Identity, so was frowned upon by HQ, and had largely disappeared within a year.
Sydney Eade was a conductor working at Lowestoft for Eastern Counties in 1972 when the new livery started to be rolled out, and remembers the early mixed livery attempts, as illustrated by Bristol MW LM944 at Ipswich, “just after ‘conversion’ to NBC livery by painting put the cream band and black lining in ‘fat white’. The old fleetname has vanished but the new double ‘N’ white one has not yet been employed.”
Sydney, an active preservationist with the Eastern Transport Collection Society since its early days, remembers the arrival of the first repainted NBC red Bristol Lodekka to arrive at Lowestoft – possibly LFS86 or 87. “I got to work on it on the first day of service”, he says. “I thought it was amazingly smart and gave the bus a new life, and I had no feelings of regret that Tilling red was on the way out at the time.”
Thanks to Sydney Eade for permission to use the photos of Eastern Counties vehicles on this page.
Can you help us to tell the story of Norman Wilson and the NBC Corporate Identity?
In 1972, Sir Fred Wood was appointed chair of the National Bus Company, with a mandate to take a more commercial approach to the corporation’s management, with a business-oriented focus on halting the decline in NBC’s market share and financial performance in both coach and bus markets. Wood had been impressed by his experience of Greyhound Coaches during his time in the US, with its consistent ‘pan-continental’ branding. As part of his new approach to turning around NBC’s fortunes, he called for a root-and-branch rebranding of coach and bus operations.
Before even taking up his role as NBC Chair, late in 1971 Fred Wood approached Manchester-based designer Norman Wilson – who had worked with him at his family business, Croda – to develop a new corporate identity. It is Wilson’s NBC Corporate Identity Manual, which formalised the identity he developed over the course of 1971-72, that this project has been launched to reissue.
But unlike the development of British Rail’s corporate identity, remarkably little is documented on Wilson, his business Norman Wilson Associates, their influences or the creative process.
Can you help us to fill the gap? Were you involved, or did you work with Norman Wilson, or know of Norman Wilson Associates’ work for NBC or elsewhere? If so, please do get in touch with us using our contact form.
Help us to tell the full story of the NBC Corporate Identity.
Welcome to the NBC Manual blog. The project is at an incredibly early stage – though we’re delighted to see that more than a hundred have already signed up to our Twitter feed (@BusManual) – even before we’d actually tweeted anything! This seems a good sign, and is hopefully an indication of enthusiasm for both the project and NBC’s design heritage.
If you’d like to keep in touch with the project, please enter your e-mail address in the form on the main page, or ask us a question via the contact page or our Twitter account.
If this is the only blog post you can see – then we’re still planning and devising more content.
On the way to reproducing the 1975 Corporate Identity Manual, we’re hoping to tell stories behind the application of the identity, what it was like to work with, apply to buses, and to talk to some of the preservation community who are faithfully recreating it on buses today.