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Nostalgia Express: The Plaxton Viewmaster

Almost five years ago, I posted about one of the buses that tool me to and fro of high school every day in the early 1990s. Its registration number was KJD58p and it had a pretty eventful life, reputedly ending its life as a spare parts donor for one of the open-top Daimler Fleetline sightseeing fleets in North America.

Inevitably, the vast majority of service buses meet their end on the scrapheap. There’s several tonnes of steel in a typical bus, so scrap value remains fairly once service life is over. As a result, most of the buses that I remember from school over twenty years ago have long been turned into Chinese refrigerators. A few weeks ago, though, I found myself climbing up the steps and embarking on a journey to the past.

To be honest, the above is a tissue of lies. For a start, it’s a coach, not a bus. A coach is intended for longer routes where comfort is more of a priority than capacity, and is designed with all-seated accommodation. The seats are usually high-backed, and the windows are typically single glass panels with no opening vents. Ventilation is instead supplied via a pressurised, ducted system, which might be air-conditioned on more recent coaches. The next lie was my mention of the word ‘journey’, which probably misled you into thinking that I actually travelled somewhere. In fact, I didn’t, but my mind was spirited away to a distant time.

This coach, for all you aficionados of British passenger vehicles, is a 1982 Volvo B58 wearing Plaxton Viewmaster bodywork. Plaxton of Scarborough, Yorkshire, spent a long time as one of Britain’s premier manufacturers of public service vehicles and weathered the storm of less expensive continental rivals,  It’s pretty likely that much of its continued success was a product of patriotism among British coach lines, rather than anything intrinsic in the quality or design of Plaxton coaches, but the brand remains extant today, albeit as a somewhat scaled-down operation.

That said, the Viewmaster was a fantastic piece of design. It was one of the first British high-floor coaches, with large underfloor luggage compartments and an elevated seating height that provided a panoramic view out, hence the name. The Viewmaster was a taller version of the Plaxton Supreme, and that was in turn an evolution of the Plaxton Panorama Elite. Follow the bloodline back further and you reach the Plaxton Panorama of the early 1960s.

Fascinating stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. But what’s really worth commenting on is the magnificently of-its-time interior decor. From the two images so far you’ll have noticed the glossy printed walnut effect trim on every vertical, horizontal or diagonal surface, the crackle-black finished Volvo dashboard panel and the 14-inch CRT colour TV set suspended from the ceiling. TV sets were far from a common sight in coaches of the early 1980s, and even when one was fitted you’d need phenomenally sharp eyesight to view it from the rear seat of the coach.

The brown, yellow and orange fabric on the roof is pretty unforgettable, too, but far from the most memorable aspect of interior design on board:

Just get a load of this seat fabric. I actually wouldn’t mind betting that if you fixed your gaze one of those seats, and concentrated in the right way, that fabric would come alive like one of those ‘magic eye’ stereogram images that were in vogue for five minutes at the turn of the millennium. There’s probably a leaping dolphin in there somewhere. The only function of this fabric design other than immediately creating nausea, is its ability to disguise same. I can’t think of any bodily fluid that wouldn’t be neatly concealed by that fabric.

And that’s fairly apt, because coaches just like this one would have been routinely used on school trips. I never had one of these as a school bus, but my primary school regularly employed the services of Kemp coaches ltd, a local operator, and we’d travel by Plaxton-bodied Bedford to Colchester Zoo, or Lavenham, or somewhere equally exciting. And then, after a day of ‘eduplaytion’ we’d return to the coach and make for home, and several of us would vomit copiously as the miles passed.

And, thanks to that seat upholstery, nobody would ever know.

So, do you have any school bus memories to share with the class?

(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2018)

  • That interior is fantastic. My bus memories are of the generic yellow boxes that are all over the USA filled with black or dark green plain vinyl bench seats. They haven’t changed substantively for 40 years.

    Any pictures of the exterior?

    • Unfortunately there were too many people milling about to give me a clear shot. There are dozens of pics online if you Google its registration number – VLF6X. It’s quite popular among bus enthusiasts.

      • The exterior isn’t as interesting as the interior, to me.

  • Zentropy

    Did they hand out anti-seizure medication to passengers as they boarded? The rest of the coach is fairly tasteful, but I couldn’t spend more than a couple of minutes looking at that seat fabric without triggering a migraine.

  • tonyola

    Strange, I always associated Viewmaster with this…

    • Yeah, I wondered who would bring one of those up!

  • Widirstky Matt

    I used to be a school bus mechanic. The only real memories I have, are that you could get a really good slide going when it was snowing, and that was scary to do in the transit style of bus (the ones where your feet are a good four feet in front of the wheels)
    And, the real buses are far easier for me to drive. The short buses, a pain in the ass. The reason? Full size, width = form one window to the other. The mini buses? Add in another 16 inches that you can’t see. I think I dented probably 160% of them, one bus I dented at least four times.

  • outback_ute

    I only have memories of school buses from excursions because I used to ride to school. Those were I think 1960’s era forward control, front-engined buses so had a giant engine doghouse between the driver and a front passenger seat. Interior trim was vinyl (usually orange-brown), steel seat frames and grab rails, and I think a sort of vinyl or laminate floor. A slightly newer version of the bus pictured.

    Seeing the interior shot reminded me of the Denning coaches that were used for long-distance services and charter hire. They had ‘mouse fur’ type trim with fadeaway orange/red-to-grey on the seats and roof lining, then slip-on headrest covers (found a picture of this online!). They had the same TV setup with a VCR on the luggage rack adjacent. Some of the coaches would have a bulge in the roof to accommodate the TV too!

  • Batshitbox

    Analog clocks and CRTs! Is there also an Atomic Toaster on board?

  • Story time.
    Young Nanoop went to school once, and in 8th or 9th grade, I don’t recall, every pupil was placed in a local company of her/his choice (after writing an application and all) for a week and “work.” I was working in a company that, by then, installed VCRs and CRTs into coaches. The VCRs were from Sharp, and the CRTs from Nokia.
    Original manufacturers may have offered something (MB did, Neoplan didn’t by then, don’t know about Kässbohrer Setra (who were bought by MB/EvoBus only one decade later)), but too expensive or too outdated, so the majority of customers passed by that shop with brand new coaches to install this. Only about a quarter of the coaches we fitted were older than a year.

    The other big product the company had were these video stations with hand-held speakers used in waiting areas to entertain children without blasting sound into the lobby/shop/whatever. The machines and the content were rented, because revenue. I got to use a video copy machine with a continuous loop as source, buffered in a transparent, air-flushed cabinet, in order to supply hundreds of copies of a talking elephant to thousands of children. I also got to sort and pack hundreds of video cassettes, meh.

    They paid me 50 Deutsche Mark although they didn’t have to, which I invested into guitar strings and some tab book. I think they were not encouraged to pay, since this would spoil
    the expectations of future generations of working placements. I’m outing myself and them for the first time, not even my parents knew.

    I don’t do anything with buses or guitars, but the company is still alive, fitting USB chargers, WiFi, cameras and still TV systems into today’s vehicles.

  • Harry Callahan


    During my college years in southern California, I drove a school bus as a part-time job. Since I was one of the few drivers who knew how to handle a non-synchronized 10-speed manual transmission, I was often assigned one of our Crown Coach tandem axle buses…which we called “Twinkies” due to their shape being very similar to the snack cakes.

    The one’s I drove were built in 1976 and seated 90 students (3 to a seat) with the 90th place being on the rear bench. The engines were Cummins BigCam 270bhp, mounted amidships in a “Pancake” horizontal position under the floor. The transmission was an Eaton RoadRanger. It was equipped with Jacobs exhaust brake. I looked forward to driving these units. They were very unique to the west coast region of the USA. Extremely well made vehicles which routinely served for 30 years..before emissions regulations forced many of them to the scrapper…or export to Mexico or South America where I am sure many still operate daily.

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