Heritage Leyland Royal Tiger earns its keep for Belle Vue Coaches

By day, Belle Vue Coaches Engineering Director Kenny Walsh is in charge of the Manchester operator’s 60-strong coach and school bus fleet. Both he and Belle Vue were shortlisted at 2013’s routeone Operator Excellence Awards.

Kenny’s enthusiasm rubs off on his team’s younger members at the Heaton Chapel premises, and he and his fellow directors value youth and keenness over age and bad habits. .

Belle Vue has several youngsters coming through the ranks and being trained to DVSA standards in all aspects of coach and bus maintenance.

But in terms of vehicles, he’s equally at home working on anything from one of the operator’s TfGM-owned Optare hybrids, to something from a different generation entirely.

Kenny and his brother Ray are often found restoring old cars and commercial vehicles. Unfussy about what they might be, projects have varied in size from a Volvo recovery truck and an AEC coach to a Heinkel ‘bubble car’. The only proviso is that they won’t restore more than one of the same type of vehicle.

One of their best-known projects not only acts as a mascot of sorts for Belle Vue, but also brings in revenue for the business.

A 1951 Leyland Royal Tiger with a 41-seat Duple Roadmaster body, it spent over 20 years rotting in a North Wales field before rescue, but a ground-up restoration has returned it to almost as-new condition.

1 well spent

Kenny and Ray took ownership of the Royal Tiger in May 2011 for the nominal sum of 1, recovering it to Manchester with their Commer tow-truck.

Even though it had stood for two decades, the coach’s engine started with the aid of a boost pack and it was driven out of its Flint resting place.

As part of the brothers’ promise to sceptical former owner Arthur Collins, they committed to having the coach restored and made roadworthy with a Class 6 MOT within a year. If that wasn’t accomplished, they would give it back to him. The brothers came up trumps with a month to spare, and the Royal Tiger made its debut at May 2012’s Llandudno rally.

One of the most striking aspects of its restoration was the decision to remove the Roadmaster body from the chassis, done using Belle Vue’s set of column lifts and timber blocking.

The chassis was returned to as-new condition, including replacement of all rotten metal, shotblasting and a repaint.

Internally the body was completely refurbished, with seats recovered in red and white and the period glass light covers restored to their former glory. Perhaps most significant was the attention given to one of the Roadmaster’s most distinctive features: its two-piece sliding roof, which had been sealed shut by the coach’s last user, the British Legion.

Two-piece sliding roof admits much natural light
Two-piece sliding roof admits much natural light

It now opens again, although Kenny explains that creating a seal good enough to prevent it leaking was a difficult task.

When open, it creates a spectacular impression, and remarkably no wind enters the passenger area when moving.

Swansea saviours

Following reunification of body and chassis, the coach was ready for the attention of Belle Vue’s painter Robin Churcher, who treated it to a coat of red and white, similar to the operator’s own colours.

Kenny pays tribute to VOSA for its help in getting the Royal Tiger through its Certificate of Initial Fitness (COIF) and MOT. “They really pushed the boat out at Chadderton test station,” he says. “The people at Swansea faxed the paperwork straight to Chadderton. There were a couple of things which needed attention to get it through the COIF; it’s a very detailed inspection.

“We took it back to Chadderton the next day and the Royal Tiger passed its COIF and Class 6 MOT. It was ready to be taken to the Llandudno show, as we promised.”

Another part of Kenny and Ray’s task was to reunite the coach with its original registration number, LOE 300. That was accomplished, and also affixed was one of Leyland’s enamelled ‘roaring tiger’ badges. This sits slightly to the nearside on the front; it can’t go in the middle as there are two large opening doors, behind which sits the spare wheel.

Badge is almost as impressive as the coach
Badge is almost as impressive as the coach

On the road

The 9.8-litre Leyland 0.600 engine sits amidships and drives through a five-speed manual gearbox. Kenny says the coach is capable of 60mph, but when it’s taken on the motorway he and Ray choose to keep the speed lower.

Power is not found lacking, and with a driver accustomed to the gearbox at the controls the Royal Tiger is no slouch away from the lights.

Unsurprisingly, noise insulation isn’t on a par with today’s coaches, but the steel-sprung ride is more than acceptable for a vehicle of its age, and similarly its seats are very comfortable.

A manually-operated, in-swinging door is not as easy to negotiate as it may sound, but Kenny points out that the Royal Tiger was among the first front-entrance coaches; before its introduction, most retained a half-cab layout.

The Royal Tiger is a regular sight during milder months, as a tachograph combined with a Class 6 MOT means it has found a useful niche in Belle Vue’s fleet, being employed on wedding hires, where its roof layout is particularly popular.

Coach is a valuable member of Belle Vue's fleet
Coach is a valuable member of Belle Vue’s fleet

How do the economics of running a classic coach stack up? Better than you might think, says Kenny, although he stresses that work was done by keen volunteers drawn from among Belle Vue’s own staff, and suppliers’. A ‘chequebook restoration’ to as-new condition could have run into the high five-figure mark or more.

“The coach has paid for itself now and is making money for the business,” he explains, adding that it isn’t the case that any driver can handle the Royal Tiger’s heavy clutch and non-power assisted steering.

A number of things are clear about running a classic. It might need a bit more TLC than your everyday vehicles, and you’ll need to think carefully about who drives it.

But get them both right, and a vintage coach or bus can stand on its own four wheels as a working – and earning – member of your fleet.