Cleethorpes 54 in Preservation

This is the story of Cleethorpes trolleybus 54, one of the Park Royal-bodied AEC double-deckers built in 1937 to inaugurate the trolleybus service in the town. After 21 years of service it was sold to Hill’s Scrap Metal Merchants of Armstrong Street Grimsby and that should have been the end. It wasn’t, indeed in some respects it was just the beginning.

From Grimsby to Sandtoft

After being discovered by East Midlands Transport Society members in Hill’s yard in the summer of 1968, Cleethorpes 54 was purchased for preservation by Tom Bowden and Ted White and towed to Plumtree Museum near Nottingham. Whilst at Plumtree it was parked outside and suffered some vandalism. In 1970 Tom Bowden assumed sole ownership of the vehicle.

Plumtree closed in 1974 and 54 had to be moved to a farm near the A52 at Saxondale. During the journey, as a result of forgetting to slacken off the springs of the trolleypoles, the retaining hooks parted company with the rear dome and were catapulted, unnoticed, into a nearby field. The trolleypoles then wreaked havoc on any telephone wires in their path! As Tom later observed "We remembered to tie the trolleybooms to the hooks, but we didn't think to tie the hooks to the bus". A few months later 54 was again moved, to an aerodrome near Saltby where it remained for the next two years or so and suffered further vandalism. By the time it moved to its present undercover accommodation at Sandtoft Transport Centre near Epworth in 1977 it was looking very sorry for itself.

In 1981 Tom Bowden was looking for new owners for some of his large fleet of preserved vehicles so, having always considered it to be an attractive vehicle, I acquired 54. Restoration was going to be a big job but the vehicle had secure, long-term accommodation meaning that restoration work would not immediately start to deteriorate. An electricity supply and workshop facilities were available as were spare parts, help and advice. Moreover, the vehicle was based reasonably close to where I then lived.

Restoration begins

The formal signing-over took place in July 1981 and restoration work began immediately. The first job was to be the reframing of the missing back end, and lengths of seasoned English ash were ordered, suitably cut to size. I had hoped, after seeing the excellent condition of the timber body frame of another pre-war Park Royal-bodied trolleybus at Sandtoft, that only a small amount of reframing would be necessary. How wrong I was! Removal of some aluminium panels revealed that the body would have to be almost completely reframed. Work therefore began on the restoration of the cab. As it turned out this was one of the most difficult jobs as virtually every piece of framework required shaping, sometimes in three dimensions. It was also quite a frightening job with which to start. Before new wood could be fitted the old had to be removed and when the corner framework of the cab was dismantled all that was left was a yawning gap. Since many of the replacement sections had to be made using only parts of the originals as patterns I feared that I would be unable to rebuild the cab to the correct shape. In the event I think I got it right but that old fear returned whenever a gaping hole appeared.

In mid-1983 I applied to the DVLC to register the bus to regain its original registration, FW8990. They replied that they required an old style log book or an old tax disc or MOT certificate as evidence of identity. Of course I had none of these. I wrote to Grimsby-Cleethorpes Transport for help and was supplied with an official letter and a photograph of 54 in service. These were sent to the DVLC, who then supplied a V55/5 form to complete, following which I received the Vehicle Registration Document in early 1984.

Over Easter 1984 a trip to Autospares (scrapyard, now closed) at Bingley yielded a replacement driver's seat and a windscreen, both of which have been fitted. Wing mirrors were also acquired. By this time work on the cab had been completed and attention turned to the offside of the lower deck. The best of the old pillars was removed and used as a pattern for all of the replacements, which were fitted during one week in mid-1984. By the end of that week the appearance of the bus had changed more than it had done during the previous three years. This was clearly noticed by others because, during the 1984 Sandtoft Gathering, I was surprised and honoured to be awarded the Dare Progress Cup for the resident vehicle that has had the most work carried out on it over the last 12 months. After that the momentum continued: the waistrail and other framing was fitted over the August Bank Holiday weekend, followed by the offside rear wheelarch, the metal 'dog rail' and some lower deck floorboards. At last some significant progress was starting to become apparent.

Reframing, reglazing, repanelling

Reframing continued throughout 1985 and the first new aluminium panel, on the access hatch to the compressor, was fitted. In early 1986 I moved to Wiltshire. My new neighbours soon became familiar with the sound of power tools in action as I began to make the pillars for the offside of the upper deck and during the Whitsun week the entire offside of the upper deck was reframed. In the following months the wooden beading round the windows was replaced where necessary, otherwise cleaned and varnished and the curved ceiling panels and interior light fittings were stripped of their old paint. Unfortunately this meant the loss of the two surviving interior paper advertisements. One of these was for Lawson & Stockdale Ltd. of Grimsby, "Sole agents in this area for ‘Benbro’ bendeasy corsetry, every garment fully guaranteed".

All these jobs, although important and time-consuming, did little to alter the appearance of the vehicle. However, in July 1986 I fitted new panes of glass in the offside of the upper deck, much to the disgust of other enthusiasts at Sandtoft who felt that if 54 could be fitted with new windows then nothing was sacred! Almost as if to add insult to injury the time had come to begin repanelling and during the autumn and winter the entire offside was repanelled. At last, at least one part of the trolleybus began to look something like presentable. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, accumulation of essential replacement parts was taking place. Some of these came from Sandtoft’s own stock and others were donated by fellow enthusiasts but most, such as light fittings, bell pushes, AEC wheel nuts, drivers seat, hand rails and a windscreen came from buses in scrapyards.

By now I had established a routine which resulted in the reframing of the nearside of the lower deck in 1987 and the front and nearside of the upper deck in 1988. Progress was helped by the fact that I had moved slightly closer to Sandtoft. Further repanelling and reglazing, together with the fitting of aluminium strapping, beading and various fittings served to give much of the bus a deceptively "finished" appearance. In 1989 I replaced the back end which had been destroyed in 1968. A new platform was built on top of the previously projecting chassis members and the splintered remains of the original framework provided the pattern for new pillars. These replaced the "temporary" supports which had been in place for 21 years. Later that year I finished the reframing of the vehicle and built a completely new staircase out of galvanised steel and plywood. Some colleagues stripped the upper deck ceiling of 50 years of paint and a start was made on the cleaning and repainting of the metal seat frames. This latter job was one of those "as and when" tasks that eventually took about five years. There have been plenty of those!

Getting down to detail

During 1990 attention turned to the roof and the trolley bases were found to be in need of replacement. Thus, all of the trolley gear, including the bridge, was removed for renovation. Fortunately, most of the roof panels did not require replacing but consequently they had to be stripped of old paint – what a tedious job that was! The rear dome however was very badly dented and this was repaired at the Grimsby-Cleethorpes Transport depot in Victoria Street by a panel beater who came out of retirement especially to do the job. Exterior steel hoops provided rigidity to the roof and a couple of them had rusted badly. These were welded up in 1991 and exterior woodwork on the roof was replaced. The freshly-repainted bridge and some replacement trolleybases were reinstated in 1992 whilst the original trolleybooms together with some trolleyboom retaining hooks (replacements for those lost during towing in 1968!) were installed in 1993.

It was nice to be going through a phase of fitting things to the vehicle. In 1993 the panel beater made a brand-new rear, offside corner panel and the remaining exterior panels around the cab began to be fitted. The entire vehicle was painted in primer and the roof was gloss painted. Interior light bulbs were donated (and placed in store). Someone kindly lent me a genuine Cleethorpes trolleybus destination blind as a pattern from which I had new ones made. These are just some examples of the tremendous goodwill I have experienced from many sources whilst restoring 54. I also purchased new number plates of the correct type. The slider windows were refurbished, reglazed and reinstated and the two rear mudguards were fitted. The exterior of the bus was almost complete at last.

Interior work

Also in 1993 I began the fabrication of new seat backs and bases in readiness for upholstering, another job that continued for many months. I found a supplier of suitable leathercloth in Grimsby and a source of moquette of the right colour and pattern. A friend who lives near Lincoln and for whom upholstery is a hobby offered to help without, I think, realising that the job, which we started in 1994, would still be ongoing seven years later! Still, it is one that can be done away from the museum; in the depths of winter sitting in a warm house is far preferable to working on a cold, windy former airfield, even for the most die-hard enthusiast.

The upper deck interior was gloss painted in 1995, the window pillars were trimmed with leathercloth and the floor was completely replaced, eliminating the trampoline effect of the old floor. Electrical wiring for the interior lighting was fitted. In 1996 I purchased new linoleum which I fitted in the upper deck, allowing the seat frames to be reinstated. This proved to be one of my few major catastrophes (so far). I glued the linoleum to the floorboards and eventually it began to bubble up as it expanded and contracted at a different rate to the wood below. It will have to be replaced again, at a cost of several hundred pounds. Some original, some second-hand and some brand-new hand rails were plastic-coated and fitted. From 1996 similar work began on the lower deck saloon and here I didn’t glue the linoneum.

Work on the driver’s cab began in 1996 with gloss painting and the fitting of a replacement dashboard. The master controller, located under the driver’s seat, was overhauled in 1997 and a new cab floor was installed in 1999. New wheel arches were built and fitted in 2000 and now some electrical wiring is all that is left to do here. By and large, therefore, the interior of 54 is complete except for the fitting of seat backs and cushions, which will only be done when 54 is ready to enter service.

The chassis

Readers will be forgiven for assuming that, in view of the terrible condition of the bodywork, the chassis of 54 would be in very poor condition. In fact an inspection in 1996 found it to be complete and its condition remarkably good. The main job has been cleaning off the mixture of mud and oil and repainting and I have spent many a long day lying on my back doing this over the past few years. There is not much to do on a trolleybus mechanically (there is no engine, of course). The brakes needed relining but it proved possible to purchase linings of the correct type from a commercial vehicle supplier in Romford. Some brake pipes will need replacing and new tyres will be required but otherwise I am hoping that the list of mechanical jobs will be short.

Also in 1996 someone donated a genuine electrical manual wiring diagram for the vehicle. Thankfully Cleethorpes had specified a fairly basic vehicle with very few "optional extras" fitted. This in turn will make the task of overhauling the electrical equipment, including motor and control gear, an easier task than it might have been. The resistance bank is located under the cab floor and this was removed last year, cleaned up and reinstated this year. However, in view of the fact that trolleybuses run off 600 v DC, electrical work is the one job I will not do myself, but will have to entrust to specialists. The contactor panel has been overhauled at a cost of several hundred pounds and was refitted to the bus in August 2000. As funds permit this will firstly be connected to the resistance bank and master controller and then the other electrical jobs will be carried out. There is just a chance that next year 54 will run under its own power for the first time since 1958.

The final lap?

Each year I have tried to carry out some work on the exterior of 54 as for many people this is the only way in which they can judge whether I am making progress. Headlights and sidelights were fitted in 1995. In 1996 I gave the upper deck window frames their first coat of (dark blue) gloss followed by the various other small panels each year until 2000. This year, all the small panels having been done, I painted the large panels on the front of the cab and for the first time it was possible to imagine what 54 will look like when it is finished. Being honest, the standard of my painting is still poor but I hope to improve before the whole vehicle is completely rubbed down and given its final coat of gloss before entering service.

Even when all of the big jobs are done there are bound to be numerous small jobs to do before the vehicle is complete. Application of fleet numbers and coats of arms is one example. Just recently someone provided me with details of the correct coat of arms used by Cleethorpes Borough Council, complete with "on a rock a pelican argent vulning herself gules". However, having solved almost every conceivable problem over the past 20 years, hopefully nothing will prove insurmountable.

Then what? Cleethorpes 54 will be used in public service during open days at Sandtoft. However I look forward to bring it back to Grimsby and Cleethorpes and posing it in front of the depot in Victoria Street and the former depot in Pelham Road. But most of all I look forward to parking it next to the surviving traction pole at the former Bathing Pool terminus, recreating a scene that was so familiar to many people more than half a century ago.

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