While I was restoring Hamilton the first time, I kept a fairly comprehensive journal, stored all the receipts and took lots of photographs and one day I might add them to this blog. But for now you’re going to have to put up with the shortened version, because I want to get on with restoration number three ………
However if you are interested in the first bus restoration, then this is what happened next.
There we were with a rusty bus to move and no way to move it, so we let our fingers do the walking (It was 1988 after all) We opened the yellow pages and came up with S&M recovery, a local firm who couldn’t have been more helpful. They turned up in bright orange Guantanamo bay overalls hooked us up and five miles later we were deposited neatly at the entrance to Marks field and all we had to do was start the engine and reverse into place.
We were really lucky to be able to use Marks land, it was about two miles away from where we lived and had originally been the corner of a ploughed field which Mark bought from a local farmer when he worked for him in the early seventies. He installed a caravan planted lots of trees and lived the good life for a few years until he eventually moved to a house along the road from us and we became friends. He had rented the caravan out to several people over the years but when we happened along it was empty and a bit overgrown. An amazing place for kids to play complete with a rope swing over the stream, lots of firewood for bonfires and a readymade camping ground.
Which possibly isn’t ideal when restoring anything, So once the bus was chocked up and protected from the elements with a tarpaulin the first thing was buy a secondhand petrol generator so we could power the kettle and then we could start stripping the monster down.
Now as anybody who has done any form of restoration will tell you when you start taking anything to pieces it just reveals more and more problems and Hamilton was no exception.
First to go were the seats and the interior lining, all the beautiful fabrics had rotted away because everything had been soaking wet for a long time so the only things salvageable were the mahogany cappings from around the windows and half a dozen seat frames with a deep patina of rust. Taking everything out revealed the wooden framework and the true extent of the task ahead, I was beginning to think my estimated completion date might be a little optimistic but never mind, kettle on and carry on.
It turned out that the framework at the back of the bus was fairly solid, which was a stroke of luck because most of the front had rotted away. The roof at the front was also on the point of collapse. The wooden framework for the sunroof and the sunroof itself had both rotted away.
Now at this point I wasn’t massively confident in my abilities as a carpenter so I got a local chippie to make some new oak frames to support the front wheel arches and a friend of Marks (John) volunteered to make a new drivers door (Because the frame had rotted and it fell in half when I took the trim off) but I did remake a lot of the framework in oak and made metal brackets to support the roof joints around the sunroof. I also removed the rusty steel side panels and had some new ones bent up at Eastern National engineering in Chelmsford. I seem to remember it cost me the price of a couple of pints. (Which is probably why they went bust several years later)
One of the problems with doing a part time restoration in a field is that we were fairly limited in the amount of actual time we could spend on it. Apart from having to work to earn a living, we could only work in dry weather and not at all during the winter. So the restoration was taking some time and the end was a long way off yet.
Now you may be thinking that this was a fairly haphazard kind of restoration and you would probably be right but we never set out to create a museum piece, Our original intention was to get it on the road and possibly convert it into a housetruck and go travelling. We had some vague idea of driving round the coast of the UK and making a travelogue for TV and tried to raise money from several sources and even pitched the idea to a couple of producers but never got it off the ground.
As time passed we began to realise that that there was a lot more to this restoration lark than we had originally thought. I was coming to the conclusion that if it was worth doing at all, it was worth doing well. So before tackling a lot of tasks I had to develop the skills to do them properly or find people to do them…..
We were restoring the bus just inside the gateway of Mark’s land, in full view of the main A130 and quite often people would stop for a chat. I think at one point I was a fairly popular local attraction. From the people that stopped to chat I would hear stories about how they once went to the seaside on a bus just like Hamilton, or about so and so who might have some seats or spare parts I could have cheaply. They were mostly interesting and made a welcome break from the monotony of rust and rot removing and it was through one of my more regular visitors that I found out about another Dennis commercial abandoned in a bush at a nursery nearby.
It turned out to be the chassis cab of a 1951 Dennis Pax gulley cleaner. I went to see it and meet the owner and found a very rusty wreck slowly returning to nature but there were a few useable parts so I bought it for £150, removed any useable spares and left it to it’s fate, although several years later I was contacted by a man who wanted to restore it. I said he could have it but I don’t know if he ever did.
However my most fortuitus meeting at the gate came late one evening as I was packing up to go home. An old man stopped in his car and introduced himself as Vic Palmer. He asked to see the bus and told me that he had been involved in the development of the engine when he was a young man. He had been told by a friend that there was a Dennis coach being restored in a field and came to have a look. I uncovered it and he was obviously very knowledgable, so we ended up chatting for over an hour.
Then he asked me whether I would let him rebuild the engine at his workshop. It turned out that he owned Thurston Engineering in Ongar a local engineering firm with an excellent reputation. I was a little dubious at first because I had been looking forward to stripping the engine, but when he offered to do it for just the cost of any new parts I could hardly refuse. So out with the engine, onto the trailer and off for a rebuild.
Now the engine was out the front end was nicely exposed with lots of rusty chassis sticking out. Time for either some hard graft with a wire brush or a sandblaster….. After more finger walking through the yellow pages I met other Dave….
Dave the sand ran a small business sandblasting bridges and the like and had several men working for him but he really liked the bus and decided to do this one himself. He turned up on the hottest day of the year with a massive compressor, blast pot lance and a stack of aluminium grit, dressed himself in a thick protective suit and helmet and crawled underneath to clean the chassis.
I was sweating just watching him but he didn’t seem to mind. Several gruelling hours later he had cleaned the whole chassis and engine compartment and together we painted it with a bitumen based paint to prevent the rust from getting hold.
Originally I hadn’t planned to sandblast the rest of the body but when I saw what a good job it did of the chassis and when Dave demonstrated a soft grit that would be good for gentle paint removal and wouldn’t damage the aluminium panels on the roof I changed my mind. Unfortunately Dave had other commitments and couldn’t do it himself but he left me the compressor and blast pot and kit for a week or two and I did it myself. It was great.
About this time Mark rented the caravan to a builder who had been doing some work on his house, He was also called Dave and was a carpenter by trade ( Just what we needed! ) he soon got stuck in, fitting the drivers door and redoing some of my wilder attempts at woodwork and over the next few years he gave me invaluable help with Hamilton and with our next purchase…..
A Bedford SB3 mobile cinema!
I spotted the Mobile Cinema in an advert in the HCVS magazine. The transport trust who owned it couldn’t store it anymore and were planning o scrap it if nobody gave it a home. It’s a beautiful vehicle with a history. It was originally built in 1967 for the Ministry of Technology and used to showcase new technology in the sixties and it once toured the UK with the Flying Scotsman. We planned to restore it and use it in a TV programme about archive film (Read more about it here) but in the meantime we used it as a storeroom while we completed the restoration of Hamilton.
And we needed a storeroom. Up to this point we had stored everything in the bus itself but now we were beginning to put it back together we needed it empty.
There was a lot to do first though. I received a call from Vic who invited me over to Thurston Engineering to see the engine stripped down and I found that he had been as good as his word.
The engine was totally stripped and laid out on benches and the apprentices were cleaning all the components prior to reassembly. They had discovered a crack in the block which they had repaired, rebored it, fitted new piston rings, valves and shells and virtually created a new engine and all they charged me was a measly £500, amazing.
When it was all back together again I collected the engine on the trailer from Thurstons, hired an engine hoist from Dale hire and reinstalled it into the newly painted engine bay. Then we fitted the manifolds, dynamo, carburettor and fuel pump and wired up a temporary ignition circuit. Then with fingers crossed I cranked it over on the electric starter and it fired up first go. Hamiltons new engine was running on the 11th July 1996.
Once the engine was back in and the sandblasting was completed I etch primed the aluminium panels gave the bodywork five coats of primer using an old petrol driven compressor I had bought from an advert in the farming section of the local paper. Which was quite probably older than the bus itself. It had a small tank with a very limited air capacity so I had to keep stopping to let the pressure build up enough to spray. I needed to get a bigger compressor which I couldn’t afford so in the end I got a bigger airtank from an autojumble. I plumbed it into the old petrol compressor and it worked a treat, and still does.
Hamilton was my first serious paint job, I had helped friends paint cars several times. Usually rubbing down and filling. I had also put a couple of cars in primer, but I had never topcoated anything before, so it was going to be fun.
Hamilton was originally painted in a colour called Golden yellow, which as luck would have it is the colour used by Essex County Council to paint their highway maintenance trucks so I was able to get it from a local supplier quite easily. I flatted down the primer, remasked the windows and waited for a warm sunny day. When it came I prepared everything as well as you can in the middle of a field and set to work with the widest spray pattern I could achieve. It took all day but gradually it turned from grey to a dazzling shiny yellow, I was amazed at how good it looked ………. ,
Once it was finished I stood back to admire my handiwork and it was at this point that I discovered that yellow paint attracts flies. Lots of them, The sky above the bus was a dark mass of buzzing things many of whom I was to pick out of the paintwork over the next few days with a pair of tweezers. I watched in horror as the sun set and they move closer to the reassuring warmth of the big yellow thing, touched down and stuck……. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad in the end. Most of them polished out, but I’m sure that even today there are tiny little footprints all over the roof.
At this point although we had a working engine and painted bodywork there was still a lot to do Trim,Brakes,Windows,Doors.Interior etc. My mother helped me rebuild the brakes (she was a WAF driver in the war and knew about these things) I also rewired the ignition fitted all the chrome trim and panelled the interior in new plywood. It looked amazing….
Now it was time to try it out. Dave cut back a branch that had grown over the gate and with the whole family aboard we roared out of the gate up the bank and onto the road.
Pausing only to pick up Dave we drove off up the lane like a scene from St Trinians with everybody hanging on for dear life . We didn’t go far, after about a mile we turned round and headed back to the field where we wrapped it up and prepared for winter.
And that was it! I wrapped the bus up in tarpaulins for the winter in 1999 and due to unforeseen circumstances ie: work, thats how it’s remained. Until now.
Now it’s time to do it again.