40th film anniversary for Beaulieu's veteran bus

This November marks the 40th anniversary since the 'Beaulieu Bus' made its screen debut - but there is more to the story than you think. In fact, the bus hides a secret...

November 23, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the film debut for a very famous bus, one that was part of the first experience of historic motoring for so many automotive enthusiasts.

In 1978 the National Motor Museum’s famous replica of a 1912 B-Type London General Omnibus co-starred with Robert Powell in the third screen version of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps.

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The book was set prior to World War One, but the previous cinematic adaptations updated the story to a contemporary setting. The 1935 Alfred Hitchcock version featured a splendid Vauxhall 20/60 and the 1958 version boasted an equally impressive Jaguar Mk. VIIM police car, alongside a Ford Zephyr Mk. II that transformed into a Consul from shot to shot.

Twenty years later, the Rank Organisation decided to set the narrative of The Thirty Nine Steps (as the latest film was titled) in period, and the bus helped to convey an image of London circa 1914 – even if its underpinnings were of a slightly more recent origin...

So it's not actually from 1914?

This magnificent vehicle was commissioned in 1973 by Lord Montague and constructed by S J Mitchell Limited of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame, more of which we'll feature later this year. It was based on a Ford K-series lorry and the coachbuilder’s template was the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) B-Type, which made its debut in October 1910 as the first mass-produced and standardised bus in the capital.

One year later, the LGOC withdrew its last horse-drawn transports from service, such was the impact of the B-Type, and during the Great War 900 buses served as troop transport. In 1920 King George V became the first monarch to board an omnibus.

53 years later, the 'Beaulieu Bus' offered the best of both worlds – it looked authentic but had the robust engineering that was essential for regularly transporting visitors to Beaulieu between Palace House and the Museum building. Today, it is as an essential aspect of a visit to the New Forest as a ride on the Monorail and, during Autojumbles, purchasing those essential back issues of Motor and Autocar.

It is also one of the three main elements that people tend to recall from the 1978 film, the other two being Robert Powell’s very non-1914 hairstyle and the 100 ft. tall replica of Big Ben that was constructed in Pinewood Studios.

Asides from the bus, the film offers a chance to appreciate the joys of various fine motor cars – an Albion A6, a 12 HP Newton-Bennett and an exceptionally handsome Vauxhall “Prince Henry” C-Type. The cast is definitely from the top drawer – Karen Dortrice, Eric Porter, David Warner, John Mills – and Powell creates his own interpretation of Richard Hannay who is quite unlike either Robert Donat or Kenneth More.

The bus received a major engineering upgrade in 1995 – by that time the Ford K-series itself was fast becoming a collector’s item – and it is still very much ready for service. As for its starring cinematic vehicle, The Thirty Nine Steps makes for agreeable afternoon viewing, although we would strongly advise readers not to attempt any recreation of the Big Ben scenes…

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