|The pride of Dundalk
- GNR Gardner buses
Here we recall the designing and building of true classic buses in Dundalk
|Since the establishment of the Irish Free State, there have been four indigenous builders of commercial vehicles. I hope to look at each of them during the coming year, this month's offering dealing with the first of these very special enterprises, every one of which is represented in the National Transport Museum's collection.
The Great Northern Railway operated its first buses in 1929 and over the succeeding years built up a fleet which in the mid-thirties settled down at a strength of about 160 vehicles. The GNR's operating territory lay roughly north of a line between Dublin and Sligo, an area containing more than its fair share of very bad roads. The AEC, Albion, Dennis and Leyland buses operated by the GNR were all more or less satisfactory. However, they were not quite what the company's engineers, who worked to the most exacting standards, considered ideal. There was also the reduction in punitive import taxes on vehicles and parts, making Irish manufacture and assembly an attractive proposition. Finally, employment at the famous Dundalk Railway Works would be expanded.
The best features of the various buses in the GNR fleet were taken into account when the new vehicles were being designed. It is said that the components for the prototype chassis were assembled on the workshop floor, the drawing for the production vehicles then being made. If this is so, the Museum is fortunate in having a blueprint of this drawing. The general specification included a five-cylinder Gardner engine and Kirkstall axles and vacuum brakes. David Brown gearboxes were used at first, but Leyland supplied the units for later vehicles. Bodywork was built at the railway works.
No. 200 (ZC 197) was the first of 53 GNR Gardners turned out by Dundalk Works between 1937 and 1942. All had timber framed bodies seating between 32 and 35 passengers and carried fleet numbers 200 220, 241-259 and 318-330. Most had roof luggage racks reached by a rear access ladder and had a characteristic cut-away roof beside the driver's cab. Another distinctive feature was the radiator; viewed from the front, the sides tapered in towards the top, the shape being similar to that of the contemporary Leyland Lion. There were two small triangles top and bottom, reminiscent of an AEC unit without the central vertical bar. Most important was the circular radiator badge, which disappeared from most buses over the years.
GNR Gardners almost turned out to be a bus operator's Holy Grail. They were economical, tough and reliable. The 53 vehicles built up to 1942 were joined during the years 1947-1952 by 42 more, numbered 361-402 and there was also a 1949 replacement for No. 327, destroyed in an accident. The post-war vehicles were divided into two very distinct batches. Nos. 361-384 (1947-1949) had body frames supplied by Metal Sections, the Birmingham firm with the famous slogan "We supply a bus in a box". These kits were assembled and panelled by Harkness Coachworks in Belfast, the vehicles being finished in Dundalk, which at that time was working to capacity. Most of the pre-war vehicles and those in the 361-384 batch were rebuilt during the 1950s; some bodies were transferred and the rather angular lines of the Metal Sections buses were softened considerably.
The last 18 GNR Gardners (Nos. 385-402) appeared in 1950-1952, with GNR bodywork on Park Royal frames. These were very elegant vehicles, with a full-width roof at the front and incorporating subtle curves in the window framing. Most of them were also very luxuriously fitted out with 33 extremely comfortable seats that made them eminently suitable for private hire. But when they entered service, they had a mechanical specification devised a decade and a half earlier and which was to be their undoing - they could theoretically expect to have working lives of more than twenty years but were obsolete even before they went to work. The first underfloor-engined buses entered GNR service at the same time as the last Gardners.
When CIE took over GNR bus operations in 1958, the acquired fleet included 55 Gardners. Among these were thirteen from the earlier years, Nos. 212 and 243 being respectively 21 and 20 years old and a remarkable tribute to the GNR and the Dundalk craftsmen. While the writing was on the wall for the Gardners, they were so highly thought of that some of the 33-seaters were even painted in coach livery - there was always a demand for vehicles in this seating category. However, the numbers declined rapidly and by the early sixties the last Gardner had been withdrawn from normal passenger service. In 1964, four GNR Gardners (Nos. 386-389) were rebuilt as ambulances for invalid pilgrims visiting Knock. Capable of carrying eight stretchers, they were based in Ballina and served until 1978 when more modern vehicles replaced them.
Regarded by connoisseurs as true classics, five GNR Gardners survive in preservation. Among these are two in the care of the National Transport Museum. One of these is the former Knock ambulance 387 (ZL 2718), which dates from 1950 and is in as-withdrawn condition; this vehicle is currently in store. The Museum also has No. 390 (IY 7384), a very original 33-seater built in 1951. In this instance, the description original covers a peculiar feature of GNR buses of a certain age. Like some of its contemporaries, No. 390 has hardboard external skirt panels between the bulkheads. A very original feature which every museum professional has begged us to retain, even if the material warps slightly in certain atmospheric conditions - and who are we to argue.
No. 390 has appeared in several films, as has No. 389, the former ambulance restored to normal service condition and now in care of the Cavan and Leitrim Railway at Dromod. Personally, I feel privileged to have involved in the preservation of Nos. 387 and 390, which represent so many highly important strands of Irish transport history.
Above: No. 390 disguised as a GSR Leyland Lion in "Caught in a Free State" Athlone in 1982
Below: Former ambulance No. 387 in use as an exhibition bus at TCD in 1988
Above: Interior of 390
Below: No.390 in "All things bright and beautiful when Doroghmore, Co. Laois doubled as a Northern Irish village of the fifties