Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

| 7 Jul 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

Transport Museum Wythall has has enjoyed a sharp increase in visitor numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic, from a previous best of 10,000 to last year’s record 15,000.

Given that we’re talking about a bus-spotters’ paradise here, and one that you’d imagine would appeal to a fairly niche, older demographic, a 50% increase in attendance seems remarkable.

But thanks to a canny repurposing of the museum, Wythall has successfully managed to retain its loyal supporters while introducing a new breed of younger visitors into the mix.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

A Birmingham City Transport bus stop from the 1950s

And for 2023, the former RAF airbase site just south of Birmingham, which houses 90 buses – many of which are operational – as well as a collection of historic electric commercial vehicles, expects to be even busier.

“We could no longer rely on the traditional enthusiasts to sustain the museum,” says Wythall’s Denis Chick.

“So we’ve broadened its appeal by telling the social and manufacturing stories behind the buses, which brings great educational benefits for children, as well as linking with their own family histories: ‘This is the sort of bus your grandad would have gone to work on’ – that kind of thing.

“In fact, we’re now seeing some children returning to the museum with their grandparents in tow.”

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

The 1950s milk floats are a popular attraction at Transport Museum Wythall

The volunteer-run collection’s roots stretch back 50 years, after the Birmingham Omnibus Preservation Society – Transport Museum Wythall’s predecessor – was formed by a group of bus enthusiasts committed to preserving what was left of Birmingham’s pre-war service bus survivors.

Five years later, in 1978, 1.17 acres of the current Wythall site was purchased and, after becoming a registered charity, the museum has gradually evolved, acquiring more land and constructing the three main display halls that now house a majority of its pre- and post-war exhibits.

Whether or not you are consumed by an overwhelming enthusiasm for public transport, the social stories behind them are compelling, and can strike a personal note.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

Visitors are captivated by the early EVs, such as this airline-style Electricars CY2

Most of what you see displayed at Wythall started life on West Midlands streets, but, as I wander around its Midland Red collection, I find a restored 1965 D9 double-decker with my old school’s name on its destination screen.

It turns out that in the late ’70s it operated in my part of Leicestershire; I could have ridden on this very bus as a teenager.

Further Midland Red buses vie for your attention.

There’s ample space to walk around all of them in the display halls, with some in a pre-restored state to show the magnitude of work required to bring these relics back to life.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

The 1927 SQS Queen (left) was a remarkably light 37-seater, alongside a 53-seat 1949 Guy Arab III double-decker

Midland Red designed its own buses for nearly 50 years, and the sheer breadth of its output is all here.

I spot a 1913 Tilling-Stevens TTA2 double-decker, running on solid tyres and powered by a 40hp petrol engine.

This machine was in service for 11 years, covering 6000 miles per month, and all at a top speed of 12mph.

Then there’s an advanced and very rare 1960 prototype D10 double-decker, with its 10.5-litre motor mounted below the floor, optimising passenger space compared to fashionable rear-engined rivals; alas, only two were produced.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

A rare Wales & Edwards ‘Loadmaster’ semi-trailer

In the end, Midland Red relented and adopted the revolutionary, Michelotti-designed Leyland National single-decker, represented by a lovely 1976 example here.

I always admired its open-gated gearshift as a Ferrari-obsessed youth.

Every bus has its own storyboard, and each describes a vivid social history of the regions in which it operated.

Long-defunct coachbuilders’ names proliferate: Willowbrook, Brush, Duple, Metro-Cammell – with Plaxton and Alexander (now Alexander Dennis) the only two names recognisable today.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

The restored AEC Regent stands before a Birmingham City Transport Bristol VRT, Guy Arab IV and a Leyland Titan (left to right)

Wythall’s Birmingham City Transport collection matches the quality and spread of the Midland Red buses, and includes perhaps the star of the entire museum: AEC Regent 486.

Featured in Classic & Sports Car’s February issue and here, this 1931 ‘piano-front’ double-decker, painstakingly restored over many years, was one of the last service buses to be powered by a petrol engine, and is now Britain’s oldest working metal-framed bus.

Joining it in this part of the hall are a number of Daimler Fleetline double-deckers that most people over the age of 40 would remember travelling on, tracing the post-war refinements to the half-cab design, then the first of the rear-engined buses, right up to a 2002 Dennis Trident 2 double-decker, its design showing little evolution from an ’80s bus: if the formula works, why change it?

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

A pair of ‘Wumpty’ toys from National Express West Midlands

It’s interesting to note the many other car manufacturers who have dabbled with bus design in the past: Crossley, Sunbeam, Bristol, Morris and Volvo all sired businesses building the buses seen here, with only the likes of Guy, Leyland and AEC remaining as true commercial specialists.

I spy an eye-catchingly stylish 1958 Bedford SB3 among Wythall’s smaller, non-service bus set, and wonder at its streamlined shape, coachbuilt by Duple.

This was clearly an era when no small amount of pride was taken in penning a coach’s lines, compared to those of today’s vulgar giants plying our motorways; it even sports an orange glass roof for passengers, giving the impression of permanent sunshine inside.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

The Wythall collection extends to period signage

There’s a 1965 AEC Routemaster, too, but its Park Royal body is resplendent in green, not red.

It was operated by Green Line, and originally serviced routes from Central London to the outskirts of the capital during the ’60s and early ’70s.

Modified suspension, coach seats and luggage racks made its longer journeys more bearable for travellers, but, despite its exceptional build quality, an industry shift to rear-engined, low-floor buses ultimately signed its death warrant.

Of the 90 buses resident here, around 60 are operational, with some of the others awaiting full restoration or recommissioning.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

An EV postal van (furthest) and a three-wheeler Wales & Edwards

As an accredited museum, Wythall has to adhere to strict guidelines when any work is undertaken, maintaining each vehicle’s appearance as closely as possible to that when it was in service (a perfect example being AEC Regent 486).

Funding comes from a variety of sources, with major donations marked with a plaque in the vehicle, engraved with the donor’s name.

For the museum itself, Wythall relies on a combination of legacies and wills, visitor donations, Arts Council and National Lottery funding, with the last two requiring an emphasis on supporting the local community – another reason why school engagement is a priority nowadays.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

A Midland Red double-decker (left) sits next to a Willowbrook AEC

One other welcome donation came from Scania AB, after Wythall restored the very first double-decker the company had produced for London Transport, the 1973-’78 MD60.

Scania, in return, covered the hefty cost of constructing and cladding the collection’s Hall 2, with the restored bus returning to the Swedish firm’s own museum.

In stark contrast to the large combustion-engined leviathans in the main halls is a somewhat quieter group of machines, equally important to public service in years past.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

A 1957 Smiths SS electric milk float is one of the exhibits with delightful signwritten names

Wythall’s collection of battery-powered road vehicles started in 1986, and now numbers 28 vans, trucks and milk floats, dating from as early as 1935 and up to 1982.

For those of a certain age, the wagons’ signwritten names bring back youthful memories: United Dairies, General Post Office – and, for me, Leicester Co-op.

The electric vehicles from the ’50s are the most glamorous, with a chunky little 1954 Frears & Blacks Wilson BMW van (unrelated to the car company), equipped with a 60V battery and capable of hauling 10cwt (508kg), bearing an uncanny resemblance to the loaves of bread it would have carried.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

This Smiths two-tonne float was an EV heavyweight

Nearby, an 80V 1969 Royal Mail van sits alongside a 72V 1956 Midland Counties milk float, both of them beautifully presented, their designs attractive and evocative for such utilitarian devices.

Small wonder that younger visitors are captivated by the EVs, which relate so closely to their transport futures.

It’s ironic, though, that these machines, which offered such clean and efficient stop-start delivery solutions, died out years ago and have never really been re-adopted in our new age of electric power.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

The loaf-shaped Wilsons BMW breadvan

Another great hit has been the integration of Wythall’s miniature railway, operated by Elmdon Model Engineering Society.

For a supplementary charge of £1.50 per passenger (over-3s only), the dual, 5in- and 7¼in-gauge railway operates a range of scale replica engines, from mainline steam locomotives to narrow-gauge and freelance styles, pulling coaches through a charmingly landscaped route, including a tunnel, a viaduct and two stations.

Free bus trips in one of the museum’s exhibits has also helped Wythall transform itself from a collection of static displays to a genuine visitor attraction for the whole family.

Classic & Sports Car – Classic shrine: Transport Museum Wythall

Local signs add to the museum’s ambience

The buses operate between midday and 3pm on weekends, as well as on Wednesdays during school holidays, giving visitors the chance to experience classic bus travel – complete with crash gearboxes and the roar of an old-school diesel engine – in a 30-minute round trip from the museum.

Passengers even start and finish their journey at Wythall’s period bus stop.

Recognising the overlap in enthusiasm for both classic cars and buses, Wythall is also hosting an increasing number of automotive gatherings.

Images: Luc Lacey

The knowledge

  • Name Transport Museum Wythall
  • Address Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcs B47 6JA
  • Where? South of Birmingham, minutes from the M42 jct 3
  • How much? Adults £7 (£6 for parties of 10-plus), 5-16s £4, families (2+2) £18
  • Opening hours 11am-4pm, weekends 1 Apr-29 Oct, plus Wednesdays in school holidays
  • Tel 01564 826471
  • Web

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