Fifty years ago today, on 19 July 1972, NBC announced their plan to launch a new identity for local buses across England and Wales. Modernism was coming up your street.
On this day, 19 July, in 1972, NBC decided on its approach to bus liveries. NBC HQ had been experimenting with different approaches and colours since April, when it was announced that Alder Valley and Crosville would be taking part in trials to identify new, standard colours for local buses across England and Wales.
This was not a complete surprise. In his speech, launching the corporate identity and its first application to express coaches, chairman Fred Wood told General Managers that: “the great bulk of our business (say 85%) is still in stage-carriage. We must therefore continue to maintain pressure in this main area. … The traditional liveries and names will continue although we expect to propose a linkage via a common emblem for all NBC companies. … The livery of the Express Coach which you will see shortly is only one expression of the new corporate identity programme which will eventually permeate all the visual aspects of NBC.”
Though the identity acknowledged the preponderance of reds and greens in bus companies across the country, Wood’s emphasis on ‘retaining traditional colours’ was rather misleading, and understated the form and radicalism of the emerging design.
Wood’s design adviser, Norman Wilson had been working on the design of the bus livery since the start of the year, and though the striking and commercially-important roll-out of the ‘white coach’ took precedence, the visible impact of the new identity for local buses across shopping streets, rural roads, factories and housing estates was to be much more pervasive.
We will look in more detail in a future blog at Wilson’s design influences for applying the identity to buses, but it combined his three key elements: bold, uniform colours, his distinctive typeface, and a striking monochrome version of his NBC symbol, wordlessly conveying the nature of the business, all drawn together in a grid-based layout which brought a sense of uniformity and modernity across disparate companies and an enormous variety of vehicle types.
The purpose, as well as reminding people of the scale of NBC itself, was to project the sense of a welcoming, modern and reliable service to users and staff alike. It was an attempt to arrest the large modal shift from the local bus to the private car, a trend which was accelerating in the late 1960s and early 1970s, eating into the company’s core business, and eroding the commercial viability of public transport.
From May, Wilson lifted his experimental designs from the page and onto vehicles. Replacing the huge variety of traditional local colours, two new standard shades of red and green were adopted – each company generally adopting the new version of its previous colour for continuity – and minimal decoration in the form of bright white lines, with a common layout applied to buses across the country. Wilson and NBC HQ staff worked with Alder Valley’s Reading depot to trial the red livery; and with Crosville to experiment with the layout and different shades of green.
Though local company general managers had seen this coming, the move was highly controversial across the industry. Following the loss of the identity and management of their prestigious coach services, subsumed into the new ‘National’ express network of uniform white coaches, the extension of the new corporate identity would see the independent public profile of companies eroded further.
NBC’s Chief Marketing Officer Ron Whitehouse set out the approach in a letter from NBC HQ to General Managers on 19 July 1972:
“I write to advise you that, following discussion with regional directors, the Chairman and Chief Executive have decided upon a standard method of applying corporate identity to stage carriage buses together with rationalisation of livery colours.
“The corporate symbol and companies name (brief trading title) in corporate lettering is to be applied to buses in a common way throughout the group. Detailed specifications have been prepared and are in the course of printing. Copies will be sent to you shortly. Transfers are to be prepared centrally… There will be three livery colours only (with certain temporary exemptions) being – Red (BS series 2660 ref. 0-005); Green (BS series 381C, ref. 218), White (National W1) for relief (waistbands, symbols and titles). Creams will be discontinued.
“The exemptions for the time being may be ‘blue’ bus fleets, and Regional Directors will be talking with Chief General Managers regarding the future of this colour.
“Other exemptions might be the livery of fleets of vehicles operated in partnership with local authorities. However, all exemptions must be approved by Regional Director[s] in consultation with the Chief Executive.
“The desire is to see the symbol and corporate lettering applied to fleets within three months. Consequently, there has to be an interim application to existing deliveries of new transfers (in, say, cream to match current practice) followed by the adoption of standard colours at normal repaint stage. New bus intake will be painted in the new standard colours.”
This led to an interim phase in which Wilson’s new National lettering and NBC symbol were applied onto existing old-fashioned liveries. Though these generally appeared in white, in many cases the modern typography and symbol were applied in a cream colour to blend in with the existing cream relief decoration which had been applied traditionally by many companies. This blunted the modernising impact of the change, and was steadily phased out.
In future blogs we will look at Norman Wilson’s approach to designing the local bus identity, the curious decision to eliminate the existing corporate blue colour from the bus livery; and the challenges of a rapid roll-out.
If you have recollections of the roll-out of the new livery, how it was managed, or remember your initial reaction to it, please let us know. We’d be happy to include these in a future blog, and perhaps in the Manual book itself. Get in touch using the form on this page, or the contact page here: https://nationalbusmanual.com/contact/
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.
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.