Fifty years ago today, on 12 April 1972, NBC Chair Fred Wood ended the annual General Managers’ conference with a press launch to introduce the new ‘Greyhound-style’ National inter-city express network to the public, with the new corporate identity at its heart.
FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY… The second, and final, day of the General Manager conference started with an open forum – taking the whole morning – on “The management style of the National Bus Company”, led by eminent professor of management Roland Smith. The NBC’s senior staff had spent the previous day listening to an introduction to the organising principles for the new Central Activities Group, which saw local companies acting as contractors, providing express and coach tours under the National brand. They weren’t happy. The change meant the removal of their own company brands and fleetnames from the industry’s most prestigious services. Over the coming months they would press for a compromise.
But for now, the stage was Wood’s and he used it to set out his vision for the new National-branded inter-city coach network. In the interview below, Wood gets his points across. In fact the journalist seems to get the impression that all of the country’s coaches are about to be replaced. The references to old, traditional practices and sweeping away the traditional colours of the operating companies must have confirmed the General Managers’ worst fears about the loss of autonomy and identity for their companies. But that battle lay ahead.
Wood gave a series of interviews in Leicester to the national newspapers and to the specialist press. Journalists were shown the prototype White Coach and National branding. This interview with Wood, by the London Evening News’ Iain Macaskill, gives an impression of the image of the industry Wood was aiming to make.
Super-bus challenges the train – Evening News, 12 April 1972. Iain Macaskill
‘Half-price’ super-bus challenges the train.
By Iain Macaskill, Evening News, 12 April 1972
Today, as rail travellers endure increasing chaos, Mr. Frederick Wood says he is in a position to make his dream come true interlinked motorway express buses which will face the railways with half-price competition. They will be equal to the world-famous Greyhound Services in the United States.
MR. FREDERICK WOOD rarely travels by bus. As a company chairman he is accustomed to the luxuries of a highly-polished, executive-class car.
Yet he is giving the British bus – the original motorised form of public transport – a new lease of life.
Until a year ago he had no real interest in the transport industry. He was comfortably seated behind a mahogany desk in the top executive suite of a chemical company. The idea even of riding in a bus was utterly remote.
Not so today. His high-speed talk about the British bus Is a temptation to clamber on to the nearest one to sample its delights.
For this latest whizz-kid in the transport world is performing a revolution which he hopes will put the long-distance coach way out in front of both inter-city rail and air services in the popularity stakes. To start all this by the end of the year – and see it through within five years.
How can he possibly make the bus, at present the bottom of the public transport league table, a money-making machine?
It all began a year ago when Mr. Wood was summoned to see Mr. John Peyton, Minister of Transport, and asked if he would like a top job in transport. Mr Wood said ‘Yes”, became a member of the board of the National Bus Company instantly, and its chairman in January this year. And it was then that the mammoth task of filling the depleted coffers of an ailing bus industry really began.
As a “commercial and marketing man” Mr Wood, 45, found many faults. The whole structure of the NBC was “disorganised”.
There was a conglomeration of companies all under the same umbrella and running multi-coloured buses in various parts of the country in their own traditional way.
In the south from Portsmouth to Margate, the Maidstone and District, Southdown, East Kent and the London Country buses were operating. Further north there were United, Midland Red and others, all of them still largely operating the same system of management which they had 30 years ago.
Now, it is all to be changed. “My first aim is to get the whole lot operating under one flag”, said Mr. Wood.
The first step will be to have a fleet of American style inter-city Greyhound coaches competing with British Rail and air traffic. “Air traffic is out as far as transport in this country in the future is concerned because the journeys are so relatively short between major centres. And most of our fares on inter-city services will be about half of British Rail fares, with little difference in the times.”
And, of course, the new luxury coaches, which will replace the 4000 express coaches at present operated by the multitude of regional companies will be in the new splendid white livery with the name ‘National’ in red and blue letters. Motorways will speed up the present timetables which were designed for the ordinary A class roads.
The irritation of buying two different tickets if you have to change the colour of a bus on a long journey will be dispensed with.
And there will also be a more secure future for the local bus services throughout the country, which regularly come under the threat of the axe. Success on the inter-city routes will mean cash for improvements rather than cutbacks on services for the country dweller.
As Mr. Wood enthused: “Air and rail transport are inflexible, but the bus is the most flexible and versatile form of moving people about en masse. And this is going to be the thing in the future.”
To prove it he quoted examples. London to Bristol in 2½ hours. Return fare £2.50. By rail the cost is £4.10 return with a single journey time of two hours.
“But don’t forget that the bus takes you from city centre to city centre, not from station to station” added Mr. Wood.
He means business. But when did you ever last look forward to having a long distance trip on a bus – even if it did cost less? That is the real battle Mr. Wood has to win.
There’s more to follow on the design and launch of the NBC Corporate Identity. Do you have memories of the adoption and roll-out of the NBC Corporate Identity? If so get in touch using the form on this page, or the contact page here: https://nationalbusmanual.com/contact/
The NBC Corporate Identity came as a surprise to London Country, in more ways than one.
London Country joined the National Bus Company from London Transport (LT) on 1 January 1970, forming NBC’s biggest subsidiary. On its departure from LT the company introduced its own new identity. Buses and coaches took on a new version of LT’s country-area green livery and a new fleet name. LT’s iconic roundel and Johnston lettering were replaced by a new symbol, nicknamed the ‘flying polo’, representing the shape of the new business’s operating area, which was effectively a ring around London itself. London Country had put a lot of effort into rebranding its services, publicity and buildings across the large part of the south-east of England that the company served.
Having invested heavily in the new company brand there was frustration at the requirement, after just two years, to replace it wholesale with the new NBC corporate identity in 1972. “Another change so soon was not really welcomed, particularly as the time it took to repaint the fleet meant that several liveries were being carried at the same time” recalls Bernard Davis, who at the time was Commercial Manager responsible for publicity and public relations in the Traffic Department, and is now a volunteer at the Bus Archive. Bernard was at the centre of both phases of rebranding: “It meant that things looked messy, as well as giving the impression that we didn’t know what we were doing. All this at a time when reliability was declining because of staff shortages and the economic crisis of the 1970s.”
Some lamented the end of London Country’s short-lived independent identity. As a contributor to the London Country staff magazine, Bernard himself captured the sense of disappointment – a move which was frowned upon at the time by NBC headquarters and senior management.
The adoption of a new livery was the biggest and most striking change. The previous dark London Transport country-area green and the green/yellow London Country identity was replaced by the much lighter shade of National green, with white NBC symbol, fleetnames and relief stripe. Out went the familiar London Transport Johnston typeface, replaced on vehicles by Norman Wilson’s chunky modern National lettering with detailed labelling in Futura. This was not, in Bernard’s view, an improvement. “The shade of green chosen seemed to be very insipid compared with the older colour. Moreover it faded very badly over time, giving an inconsistent pale blue-green shade. This eventually improved as better-quality paints were sourced by NBC.”
There was a significant gap in the early thinking on the new NBC identity. “At first, the importance of regional long-distance coaches was not understood by NBC and its designers” Bernard recalls. “’Just paint them green’ they said. But regional coaches needed to be distinguished from local bus services – they were a very different proposition for customers.” The need for a distinctive appearance for what NBC called ‘semi-coach’ or ‘dual-purpose’ livery was largely overlooked until later in 1972 – well into the roll-out of the new coach and bus liveries. Indeed, the use of those terms – rather than ‘regional coach’ – perhaps reveals a lack of appreciation of the importance of regional express services both for customers and commercially.
For London Country, its Green Line coaches represented a significant part of the business. The company lobbied hard for an approach which differentiated these services. There were increasingly anxious requests for guidance on what to do from several NBC operating companies through 1972, as instructions emanated from headquarters to accelerate the roll-out of the new liveries in all-over white, green or red – but without acknowledging the regional coach category.
Some companies proposed to use the white livery with a thin mid-height band in red or green; or to use all-over white with the local operating company name. London Country was influential in the development of the approach eventually adopted by NBC – with ‘semi-coaches’ using a variant of the local bus livery, but with the upper half painted white above a lower half in National green or red – and in London Country’s case, Green Line branding.
In the late 1970s, London Country was influential in a further re-branding, for a re-launch of its Green Line coach network. The company got special dispensation from NBC headquarters for a new regional coach livery – a white coach with a broad green band incorporating the red and blue National symbol on a white background, and Green Line branding in large white National Alphabet lettering. Similar designs for regional coach services were later adopted by other NBC subsidiaries – for example, Eastern Counties’ ‘Eastline’ network in the early 1980s.
As the manager responsible for producing all of the company’s publicity material, Bernard found the corporate identity’s guidelines on publicity helpful. “The new identity – the symbol, typefaces and so on – was helpful in many ways as it provided a good framework for our own creativity. NBC, like the Tilling Group before it, had a central publicity department in the 1970s which was there to help companies with material and design, but they never dictated what was used. At the time I poked fun at the new concept, but I embraced its value in virtually everything we produced.”
NBC produced a catalogue of standard advertisements and graphics each year which could be used locally in press, leaflets and bus-side advertisements, but operating companies were free to adapt them for local circumstances. “There was no real pressure or constraint on local publicity” Bernard recalls. “While the use of advertising for National services was totally standardised, there were few rules for local advertising – other than the use of the NBC symbol and typeface for company names, and a few specific rules such as the size and format of local bus timetables.
Bernard was party to a strange incident at the very start of the roll-out of the new identity. As for all NBC companies, photographic negatives of the NBC symbol and the company’s fleetname in the new National lettering were sent to London Country, so that they could be faithfully produced on stationary, publicity and signage without anomalies. (The vehicle transfers were supplied centrally by NBC for the same reason.) “Ours arrived, and I had to get straight on the phone to NBC headquarters.” Bernard remembers. “I rang up and asked if they had decided to rename the company.” In slight disbelief, Bernard found that the negatives he has been sent for use across the entire company read not ‘London Country’ – but ‘London Counties’. A few moments of horror followed at the other end of the telephone line. After rapid consultation, the instruction from NBC headquarters was: “Destroy it!”. Happily for posterity, this stern instruction somehow slipped Bernard’s mind, and the negative is still in his possession. For this project – and for the first time in nearly 50 years – Bernard used the negative as intended to give a faithful reproduction of an exceptionally short-lived official NBC fleetname: LONDON COUNTIES.
Many thanks to Bernard Davies for talking to us about his experiences at London Country and for sharing items from his collection; to the Bus Archive for access to the NBC publicity catalogues and to Michael Ellis of the Purley Transport Preservation Group and John Atkinson, for the photographs of RT604.
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.
A public announcement was made in May 1972, with that month’s Design Journal reporting that “Norman Wilson, Manchester based design consultants, have been retained by the National Bus Company to design a visual identity programme for vehicles, signing, stationery and related graphics.”
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 beginning 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.