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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Local companies adapted the NBC corporate identity to service vehicles, producing some interesting (and occasionally wild) innovations.
Michael Hitchen, author of the leading book on the subject (see links at the end), presents a guest blog on the way NBC’s corporate identity guidelines were adapted (and widely ignored!) for local companies’ service vehicles.
Although the National Bus Company had existed since 1969 it would not be until 1972 that detailed Corporate identity instruction were issued. These included every facet of the organisation activities, including livery instruction on the Service Fleet, a mixed range of vehicles from vans, lorries, recovery vehicles, trainer vehicles and a range of miscellaneous types.
Reference to the appropriate page shows a medium size van as an example for the prescribed application. Unlike PSV vehicles where interpretation was relatively restricted, the Service Fleet was far more varied and the NBC allowed this one illustration to guide all other types of vehicle. This should have been straightforward as basically it was a variation on the Central Activities Group (CAG) coach livery, all-over white with red/blue NATIONAL lettering. Oddly, apart from the small legal lettering, there was no advice for the fleetname, which for CAG coaches initially had been a very small ‘company identifier’ underlined in the local company’s bus fleet colour, so if followed as per the manual, these vehicles would have been left anonymous across the NBC fleet.
While that was the official guidance, in practice each fleet choose its own interpretation. A few did follow guidelines to a certain extent: Trent was a good example of compliance, with white applied to most of its ancillary fleet apart from its tree-lopper, which received all over yellow.
Ribble followed for its Trainers and some Breakdown lorries. East Kent and Alder Valley also had white vans, though Alder Valley replaced NATIONAL with its fleet name, as did Oxford South Midland.
The rest of the fleet contained a huge variety, rule of thumb was the use of the fleets base colour, ie Grass Green or Poppy Red, though I have no evidence of NBC Blue being used on Service Vehicles.
Variation of this application depended on the company, Crosville choose unrelieved Green on its vans and lorries and a dual-purpose livery for its recovery vehicles including it impressive AEC Matador Heavy Recovery Vehicle. National Welsh treated its vans in dual-purpose red/white but used yellow for its Recovery and training vehicles. South Wales often used red or yellow but with no fleet name. With these vehicles, variation was the running theme across the corporate NBC! The livery of Training vehicles depended on the fleet, Western National, Maidstone, Hants & Dorset, Eastern Counties use all over yellow, with variations on lettering; Eastern National and latterly Bristol, had used all over dark blue, Crosville applied a broad white band between the decks, as did Lincolnshire.
Occasionally this lack of strict abidance would see the discreet way of continuing pre-corporate practices, initially Bristol applied Orange/Cream to much of its SV fleet, Southern Vectis applied underlined gold serif fleet names on its dual-purpose liveried van for a time and West Yorkshire perpetuated its use of non-standard green to the majority of it service fleet (apart from Trainers) throughout the 1970s!
It would not be possible to list the huge variety of interpretation that companies used, many changing within the corporate period! As time progressed particularly into the 1980s livery guidance changed as well, yellow became the standard livery for Heavy Recovery lorries, possibly because of legislation, vans could be seen carrying adverts to promote commercial activities, and vans could be seen in standard factory colours, possibly a cost saving measure, or just white as they where meant to be from the start!
Many thanks to Michael Hitchen for providing this guest blog, including the photographs from his own collection. Michael is an authority on NBC’s liveries, and his book on NBC’s service vehicles is available from Amberley Books here: National Bus Company Service Vehicles 1972-1986 – Amberley Publishing ; and also from Amazon in hard copy or Kindle format.
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 in 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.
For most of the lifetime of the corporate identity, its application was strictly policed by NBC from its London headquarters 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.