The NBC Corporate Identity was launched fifty years ago in 1972. It was the product of a series of political, commercial and design decisions. In this post, we look at the timeline of events and the context which gave the Identity its purpose.
25 October 1968
Barbara Castle’s Transport Act gets Royal Assent, legislating to set up the National Bus Company, instead of her original plan for regional transport corporations. Taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity to bring the bulk of the English and Welsh bus industry into public ownership, the creation of NBC offered a relatively straightforward route to establishing a national body to help to coordinate public transport.
1 January 1969
National Bus Company formed, merging the bus and coach businesses of the nationalised Transport Holding Company and British Electric Traction.
NBC makes attempts to adopt common marketing and a house style for coach liveries and publicity, using the modern-looking Microgramma typeface.
19 June 1970
Heath government elected, determined to make NBC a commercial body, rather than the coordinating public authority envisaged by Castle. John Peyton appointed Minister of Transport.
Peyton approaches Frederick Wood, chair of chemicals business Croda International, to become NBC’s chair. Wood accepts.
Wood asks designer Norman Wilson, architect of Croda’s corporate identity, to work with him to develop a corporate identity vision for NBC.
Wilson – with his talent for letterforms – draws the iconic ‘N-and-shadow’ National arrow symbol one evening over dinner and formalises it into an 8×8 grid. With Wood’s approval and vision of a uniform national ‘silver coach’ express service, Wilson expands on the symbol to develop a framework for the identity.
1 January 1972
Wood takes up the Chair of NBC, along with a new Board. Outlines his thinking on the express network and NBC’s identity, inspired by the silver coaches of Greyhound’s iconic brand in the US. Dissuaded from a plain-chrome livery for practical reasons, the idea of the White Coach is born.
Wilson is invited to set out his thoughts to the NBC Board, using display boards to set out the concept of the National symbol, the white/red/blue corporate colours, the white coach and consistent typography. Wilson is appointed design consultant to the Board.
3 February 1972
The Corporate Identity project is announced internally in a letter to General Managers – “NBC has asked a Design Consultant to advise on all matters relating to a corporate identity for the N.B.C Organisation” suggesting it will be rolled out within six months.
Wood decides to mark the end of his first 100 days at April’s annual General Managers’ conference for the bosses of NBC’s subsidiary companies, at which he will outline his plans.
First week April, 1972
With preparations for the General Managers’ conference going down to the wire, at the start of April 1972 Wilson makes the trek from Manchester to Lowestoft, in a car packed with red & blue vinyls. He prepares the ‘prototype’ White Coach at the Eastern Coach Works, assisted by respected ECW coachpainter Alan ‘Casey’ Crisp.
More to follow. 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/
Portraits of Frederick Wood and Norman Wilson: NBC. Portrait of John Peyton: National Portrait Gallery. Extracts from NBC correspondence and photograph of NBC’s General Managers in 1969 courtesy of The Bus Archive.
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.
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.