Northern General went beyond the usual red and green, stretching NBC’s corporate identity in the streets of the north east with a vibrant mix of colours.
The NBC years are remembered for their uniformity, with leaf green and poppy red dominating bus fleets across almost all of England and Wales. They are remembered with a mix of fondness for bold modernity thrust upon cities, towns and villages still shaking off the decay of the post-war years, and resentment from those with strong attachments to the variety of semi-independent bus companies with their roots in the local community.
While leaf green and poppy red dominated, there were a few parts of the NBC empire which were able to go their own way. Perhaps the most striking of these was Northern. There, managers connived with the new Passenger Transport Executive to strike out in an independent approach. The Tyne and Wear PTE had taken over municipal bus services across much of the north east of England – notably in Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead – and its own modernisation applied a livery of bright ‘cadmium yellow’ and cream, derived from the colours which had previously adorned Newcastle Corporation’s trams, trolleys and buses. Northern aimed to break away from the uniform red bus livery it had applied across its buses, suggesting initially to adopt the same Tyne and Wear PTE colours on its routes mainly within the PTE area.
As custodians of the corporate identity, NBC headquarters initially objected strongly. But at the same time NBC was trying to shape a new relationship with the PTEs as powerful arbiters – and major funders – of urban transport, including issuing subsidies and service contracts to NBC itself. So a compromise was struck. Northern could apply a yellow livery to the fleet for its urban routes, but not the PTE’s yellow. It had to be an NBC yellow livery, using the yellow specified in the Corporate Identity Manual, generally reserved for auxiliary and training vehicles. In all other respects the livery was to follow the manual – from the shape of the white bands to the position of the company identifiers, though these (and initially the NBC logo) were uniquely displayed in red, particularly striking on a yellow background.
To liven things up even more, Sunderland and District Omnibus – which had been a subsidiary of Northern General since 1931– had retained a separate identity with a blue livery, initially continuing to use its existing non-NBC dark blue. During a transition, Sunderland buses ran in their blue colours with a white band, with National-style company identifiers and double arrow applied.
So during the early 1970s, Northern General’s buses were divided into red, yellow and blue fleets; and branded with separate NBC fleetnames for the metropolitan areas of Sunderland, Gateshead, Tyneside and Tynemouth. Venture Transport, based on the Consett area and taken over by Northern in the 1970s, also initially retained its own identity in NBC corporate style, adopting poppy red. Northern’s other subsidiary – Wakefields – was phased out as a separate company in 1969, prior to the NBC corporate identity period.
All this made life much more interesting for depot staff than their NBC counterparts elsewhere, and nowhere more so than in the paintshop. Michael Mccalla was a coachpainter at Northern’s Bensham works between the 1970s and 1990s. His job was applying the company’s multiple liveries, while sticking to the rules set out in the NBC Manual. Fortunately for all of us, he also kept a photographic record of a lot of his work.
“The first vehicle I worked on and helped paint as an apprentice coachpainter at Northern Central Works, Bensham, was Sunderland District’s Leyland Leopard 346”, recalls Michael, “in an NBC-style livery but using Sunderland’s old ‘Midnight Blue’, a much darker shade than NBC’s own approved blue”.
“It looked great at the time.” says Michael, “The problems came later. The blue was a nightmare to paint over when Poppy Red and Yellow were introduced.” Along with the other Northern subsidiary companies, Sunderland and District lost its identity in January 1975, requiring the whole dark-blue fleet to be gradually repainted, though many were rebranded ‘Northern’ and stayed in blue for many years. There were also transfers to other NBC operating companies: Eastern Counties (see photo) was one of the companies faced with the tricky challenge of painting a standard livery over hard-to-cover midnight blue.
But when they were reliveried into Northern’s standard Poppy red, or urban yellow, they were very striking on the streets of the north east. Michael was responsible for a number of the repaints, as well as painting Northern’s red Leyland Nationals into urban-area NBC yellow. “I must admit when newly painted these did look decent” Michael remembers.
Uniquely, the yellow livery featured company identifiers in dark red. As for all operating companies, company identifiers were supplied from NBC headquarters, using the bespoke National typeface, as photographic negatives, which were enlarged and reproduced locally. These were issued with the Corporate Identity Manual, with pages including wallets to hold the negatives, along with ‘sign-out/sign-in’ sheets to keep track of them. The use of pre-prepared negatives avoided any risk of the wrong typeface being used, and avoided inconsistent letter spacing. Northern General’s copies were unusual in coming with negatives for the many different fleetnames in use – Tyneside, Tynemouth, Sunderland & District, Gateshead, Venture, and Northern itself.
Like its buses, Northern General’s coaches came in a variety of liveries, with PTE, urban and non-urban dual-purpose, and full-coach National variants. There were even some variants that shouldn’t really have happened – such as the Bristol RE is a unique PTE dual-purpose livery. Michael Mccalla recalls: “I managed to get away with painting Bristol RE 4882 into Tyne and Wear PTE livery when it should have been all-over yellow. But this is what happens when the foreman is on holiday and you’re put in charge”.
For an era when public transport on the roads came in green, red or white in most of England and Wales, Northern’s flexible take on the NBC corporate identity added some colour and variety to the streets of the north east.
Special thanks to Northern coachpainter Michael Mccalla for his help with this article, and for providing the fascinating pictures of Northern’s colourful vehicles – many of them his own handiwork.