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Applying the identity Gateshead Northern Sunderland District Tynemouth Tyneside Venture

Poppy yellow

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. 

Northern Routemaster 2087 with hastily added NBC style fleetnames while still in BET Red, seen here at Hartlepool bus station. (Photo: Michael Mccalla)

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.  

Northern Routemaster 3071, recently painted into NBC yellow, accompanied by a Leyland Atlantean in poppy red, outside its home depot of Park Lane, Sunderland, early 1970s. (Michael Mccalla)

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.

Sunderland’s Roe-bodied Leyland Atlantean 3174, in Sunderland and District’s blue and white livery, with NBC symbol and rebranded to Northern.

Sunderland District Park Royal bodied Atlantean 171M is seen leaving Park Lane bus station, Sunderland, in its dark blue livery, painted to NBC corporate identity configuration. Photo: Michael Mccalla

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.

Venture’s Alexander-bodied Leyland Leopard no 295 in the standard NBC dual-purpose livery, departing Newcastle’s Marlborough Crescent bus station. Photo: Michael Mccalla.
Tynemouth adopted NBC red as its main livery colour, but like the rest of Northern General, used yellow for services mainly within the urban PTE area. This is Tynemouth 2863 at North Shields on a service to Tynemouth, a former United Lodekka FLF. Photo: Michael Mccalla

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”.  

Michael’s first vehicle: Sunderland District’s 36’ Leyland Leopard 346, freshly painted by Michael Mccalla and colleagues at Northern’s Bensham works, in around 1971. Photo: Michael Mccalla.

“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.

Eastern Counties bore the brunt of the challenging dark-blue-to-poppy-red repaint on the transfer of Bristol VR series 1 NGM 174G, which started life at Central SMT and was one of the vehicles involved in the complicated swaps of VRs and Lodekkas between the NBC and SBG in 1974.  The bus arrived in Norwich as Eastern Counties VR319 – but not before a brief stay on Tyneside where Northern’s Michael Mccalla started to paint it into the NBC version of Sunderland’s midnight blue livery. Here it is awaiting its next repaint into poppy red at Eastern Counties’ Main Works, Cremorne Lane, Norwich. (Photo: Tim Moore)

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. 

Northern MK1 National 4609 in NBC Yellow livery complete with white relief. Photo: Michael Mccalla.
Recently re-branded from Gateshead, and with the post-1976 NBC symbol in a white panel, Northern’s Roe-bodied Leyland Atlantean no 0191 is seen on a cross-Tyne service in Newcastle. (Michael Mccalla)

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.

From the Corporate Identity Manual itself: each operating company’s copy of the Manual included wallets for photographic negatives of the ‘National symbol’ (the double-N arrow) and the relevant local ‘company identifiers’ (the fleetnames). Photo: Matt Harrison.

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.

Former Venture Alexander bodied AEC Y-Type 266 seen straight out the paintshop in NBC yellow at the High Spen depot. 266 has Northern company identifiers in red, but with the later style of red-and-blue NBC logo on a white panel, introduced from 1976.  Photo: Michael Mccalla. 
At Heworth bus station, ECW-bodied Bristol RE no 4882, shortly after Michael Mccalla’s rogue repaint into a dual-purpose version of TWPTE’s cadmium yellow. Photo: Michael Mccalla.
One of only two white National coaches carrying the Sunderland name, this is Plaxton-bodied Bristol RE no 122L, in Sunderland. Photo: Michael Mccalla.
Leyland PD2 no 1763 was the only one of its type to be painted in NBC poppy red, seen here at Chester le Street depot in the early 1970. Photo: Michael Mccalla
Venture Transport’s Leyland National 167M, later Northern’s 4501, in NBC poppy red without white bands, in around 1972.  Photo: Geoff Coxon.
The NBC-blue version of Northern’s distinctive liveries has featured in preservation. Leyland Olympian 3653, seen here at an enthusiasts’ event, appears in a lighter shade than the ‘midnight blue’ used on Sunderland and Northern vehicles in the 1970s, though closer to the ‘authorised’ colour used by other NBC subsidiaries. Many former Sunderland buses were rebranded ‘Northern’ in the mid-1970s when Northern General’s sub-brands were phased out. As a relatively new bus, new to Northern in 1985, 3653 would not have worn this precise livery, with the pre-1976 monochrome double-arrow, in service – but wears it well in preservation nonetheless. Photo: Martin Isles, showbus.com
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Applying the identity Bristol Design East Kent London Country Staff

National uniformity

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.

NBCs constituent companies had started experimenting with uniforms as part of their coach branding – in this example, East Kent adopted bright orange uniforms for coach hostesses with a cut and cap reflecting fashions of the era during the late 1960s. The driver on the other hand sports a contrasting very traditional uniform.

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.

Bus crew uniforms saw a radical change. Adopting a much more modern look, Wilson and his team adopted a sleek modern-cut in a blue-grey serge, with a similar lightweight version for summer. The cut of the uniform for women was very similar, but with a simpler cap. In this NBC publicity shot, a crew poses next to an AEC Regent in the new corporate colours, with a driver in a contrasting traditional uniform.

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.

Two London Country staff pose for a publicity shoot in 1972. The uniform for men incorporated a radically different octagonal cap design, almost unseen in Britain but more common in northern mainland Europe. For women, a cleaner-cut pillbox hat was adopted.

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.

A Bristol Omnibus Company driver wears his octagonal crew cap, during a driving demonstration for the NBC training film ‘They don’t grow on trees’, made in 1979.
The women’s coach uniform came used various combinations of the corporate colours – here is an early variant in corporate blue and lined in red.

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.

NBC’s corporate identity picked up on the best of its constituents’ designs – shown here, an early coach hostess uniform, similar to the East Kent National Travel version above, but in the NBC colours.

While the men’s uniform changed relatively little until the 1980s, women’s uniforms were more regularly updated as styles changed. This version shows a variant of the bus station staff uniform from the early 1980s.
Coach staff saw more change during the NBC period than their bus counterparts. Here we see the male and female uniforms adopted in the early 1980s for National Express drivers and crew.

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Applying the identity Buses Devon General Hants & Dorset Western National

Cream on the side: the transition to the new identity

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.

NBC’s objective was to use its new corporate identify to achieve rapid and radical change in public perceptions of bus and coach travel.

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 Lodekka KMT 608, fleet number 401, in Salisbury late in 1972. Tilling-red and cream with cream NBC fleetnames, and National Bus corporate identity advertising. The blue dot over the yellow fleet number shows that it is a Salisbury depot bus.

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.

A Devon General Guy Arab in Exeter Corporation green and magnolia, with NBC fleetnames in white, at Exeter bus depot in 1973.

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.

Western National’s 1923, Lodekka UOD 477, at Weymouth in 1973.

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Applying the identity Buses Eastern Counties

New for old

Interim colours and a half-way house

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.

Eastern Counties’ Bristol MW LM944 at Ipswich in 1972 illustrates the ‘half-way’ rebrand. Its cream and black lining has been replaced with an NBC white stripe, but it retains its darker Tilling red. Photo: Michael Woolnough, Eastern Transport Collection, provided by Sydney Eade.

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.”

Eastern Counties Bristol RLs at Lowestoft in 1972. On the right, RL522 and RL520 were the last to be delivered from the town’s Eastern Coach Works in Tilling Red livery. RL734 is also in Tilling Red, but has faded, and has had the white band treatment. Photo: Sydney Eade.

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.