The London Bus Page In Exile

Monday 4 June 2007

Last of the Merlins

Filed under: Special Events, Vehicles — londonbuspageinexile @ 6:42 pm

Preserved AEC Merlin MB 641 (AML 641H) at London Colney, 20 May 2007 Like the DMS, the Merlin was another grand failure of its time that only now is starting to be appreciated as their rarity value grows. All buses, whatever their reputation, should have at least one example in preservation so that people of today can see what they were like.

MB 641 (AML 641H) has been in preservation for some years, after the typically short career spanning just seven years between 1969 and 1976. Though now immortalised as a Potters Bar bus, it never worked from there, seeing service at Bromley (routes 126 and 138), Merton (152), Walthamstow (275) and Cricklewood (268). The 84 did see MB operation for a spell, so the depiction is theoretically correct.

It was working shorts on the 84 during the Potters Bar running day of Sunday 20th May, and performed competently throughout. The seating capacity is impressive by comparison with today’s full-size buses (50 are seated in this single-door bus) and the Merlins in general were always attractive, with a clear physical lineage to the RFs of two decades earlier – except in conditions other than Red Arrow standee services, they didn’t work. Then and now, Londoners don’t like to be treated like automatons, and accordingly refused to get to grips with the automatic fare systems provided, and nor did they ever appreciate standing. Just like the modern incumbents on today’s Red Arrow routes, the Merlins worked there perfectly but nowhere else. At least back then the powers of the day knew when to admit they were wrong, and replaced the vehicles as soon as they could without feeling they had to save face. We’re still waiting for the same courtesy from today’s lot…

Very few Merlins (or Swifts, for that matter) are left at all, and MB 641 is the only one people can really ride on when the event warrants. Despite the spiteful and narrow-minded legislation that is the Low Emissions Zone, they just escape the ban and can still run into town. Thanks to Brian Nash for turning out MB 641 on the 84 that day, and to all who brought their buses to Potters Bar – it was a good day out!



  1. I moved to London in the early 70s, when the Merlins were in their ascendency (and there were still plenty of RTs in the outer suburbs, while the rest of the country had already gone largely to one man (as it was called then) operation). My main memory of the Merlin was its atrocious heating – many long journeys on winters evenings I was huddled in my overcoat just trying to keep vaguely warm. Did the driver’s cab have separate heating, or was the driver made to suffer as well?

    I was at Potters Bar last month, and as you say it was a good day out. Thanks to the organisers and the enthusiasts who made it possible.

    Comment by Peter — Tuesday 5 June 2007 @ 8:01 am

  2. I think that the 50% bus grant and the fact that the taxpayer would foot the bill for the other 50% of their replacement costs was a factor in the early demise of the Merlin’s, Swift’s and Fleetline’s, that and the fact that London Transport’s engineers never really got to grips with them. The standee Merlins were totally unsuitable for the routes that they operated though and I remember well the sigh of relief when DMS’s replaced them on my local route (the W8) in 1974, but on routes where a fully seated single-decker was adequate they could and should have survived much longer, even though their numbers would probably have had to be reduced as the busier routes needed double-deckers and it is doubtfull that there would have been enough work for those displaced. The fact that about 50 SM/SMS’s (most heavily re-built in the 1990’s but a handfull not) are still in use in Malta and that a large number of DM/DMS’s remained in service with operators such as China Motor Bus, Midland Fox, Stevenson’s and indeed London Buses (once the taxpayer was no longer expected to pay for operators to update their fleets) until the mid-90’s is proof that they could have been made to work if LT had been inclined to do so. Incidently, MB641’s registration is AML641H not VLW641G.

    Comment by Phil McCavity — Wednesday 6 June 2007 @ 4:46 pm

  3. I was in my teens when the Victoria Line and the “W” routes were introduced. Being young, I was on the side of “innovation” and could never understand why the older generation just didn’t like the new “Standee” (lovely word) MBSs.

    The RTs had exuded the confidence of the bus designers of their time and to some extent so did the RMs which were built by the same lot. But by the time the XAs and XMBs/XMSs came along there had been a generational change and I think these vehicles exemplify how little aspiration that wartime generation had and how accustomed to austerity they had all become.

    These vehicles were badly built, with next to no heating, apart from in summer when they regularly went up in flames, useless windscreen wipers, in fact they either rattled apart or shot out oil like geysers and I suppose it wasn’t surprising that they didn’t last too long in London.

    All that said, I liked them a lot, especially the sound of their engines or looking at them from behind when they turned sharp corners when the rear end of the bus seemed to stand still, they looked good and for me as a school kid, I just couldn’t believe my luck at being able to ride all the way from Northumberland Park to Finsbury Park on the W3 for 3d!

    It’s a shame so few have survived……

    Comment by IsarSteve — Wednesday 6 June 2007 @ 7:15 pm

  4. Registration corrected – thanks Phil.
    It’s worth mentioning that it was booked as WMT 641G, but August 1st (1969) had come and gone by the time it came to be registered. Most of the first batch had SMM-F registrations booked but were stored until needed, and by the time that came about (7/9/68) there’d been a registration change and the vast majority (barring a few Country Area MBs that had been put into service already) received VLW-G marks. They wouldn’t let you do that today, I don’t think!

    Comment by londonbuspageinexile — Wednesday 6 June 2007 @ 9:23 pm

  5. I can’t let an entry about my favourite bus go without comment.
    Yes, they were cold and unreliable, and I agree with many of the above negative comments, but boy, did they shift when they wanted to!
    I was but 10 or so when I first glimpsed a new type of bus type training in my local area in readiness for the 235 conversion, they even had a green one out as well (XMB?).
    They were SO long (to a 10 yr old!) and looked so fresh against the old fashioned RTs & RMs taking many styling cues from the RF and not boxy at all – that came with the DMS.
    I was fortunate, yes, fortunate, to have to travel on them to school and despite the appalling traffic delays associated with the M11 construction it was rare that one packed up on us. They worked very well as the single door 50 seat variety, basically a big RF, and were not that rattly due to the absence of a automatic ticket machine.
    The SM/S’s were far more unreliable even if they did look the same from the inside and outside.
    It was a sad site to see airfields full of them at a time when LT could have kept a few on (a bit like the Jubilee Line stock) but they were at least something that Evel Knievel could jump over!
    Incidently, I found MB641 and made an offer on it when it belonged to a company in Sandy, Bedfordshire. I doubt if I would have been able to do such a good job on it as it’s current owners.
    I too wish more had survived, especially a Strachans bodied example.

    Comment by PVC — Thursday 7 June 2007 @ 12:51 pm

  6. #5, I enjoyed reading your recollections PVC. One thing missing in them, was the “”young “MB crazy” enthusiast”” who used ride around on my 235. Remember him?

    In Hindsight, we were fortunate to be able to experience the MBs on the 20/235/275 & 276 .. Ah! the “good Old Days” 😉

    Comment by IsarSteve — Thursday 7 June 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  7. #5, I nearly forgot, the green versions were XMFs. I think and they looked like LTs version of the Cortina !!

    Comment by IsarSteve — Thursday 7 June 2007 @ 2:10 pm

  8. XMB15 must have held some kind of record for different registrations, carrying JLA57D, then NHX15E before entering service with SMM15F. There were no XMF’s however, although many different codes were allocated to the Merlins (XMS, XMB, MBA, MBS and MB) with some buses changing codes more than once (e.g. XMS4 became MB4, then MBS4). The country Merlin’s differed from the red ones in having no emergency door fitted in the rear window and green MB’s were always dual-door while the red ones, with the exception of those converted from XMS’s and MBA’s, were all single- door buses. I agree that they could shift though. I never appreciated that on a stop-start route like the W8, but riding on Blue Triangle’s MBA539 and Hants & Sussex’s MBS217 on the faster roads that they worked on in the late 80’s/early 90’s they certainly proved their pedigree. Perhaps it was because they were basically a rear-engined Reliance?

    Comment by Phil McCavity — Thursday 7 June 2007 @ 6:59 pm

  9. #8, Thanks for the correction. I checked out my “Library” and you’re quite right. No XMF to be seen.
    BUT something in my head tells me that in an IAN ALLAN Bus Spotters book in 1965 there was an article on London’s New Buses,
    giving a listing of XAs (Experimental Atlantean), XFs(Experimental Fleetline), XMBs(Experimental Merlin Bus), and XMSs (Experimental Merlin Standee) that there was also an XMF type listed… maybe to match up with the Green D/Ds (XFs)? Unfortunately I lost that book somewhere along the way to now. It is a long time ago so maybe my memory is just playing tricks with me..??

    Comment by IsarSteve — Thursday 7 June 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  10. #9, That may be so, London Transport has certainly had its share of class codes that were either never used or short lived. A few off the top of my head are CRL (RMC), ER (RML), RMR (FRM), SB/SBS (SM/SMS), DF (AF), TN/TNS (T), MT (M), TC (DB) and SG (MR). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were many other examples of classifications that were altered at the eleventh hour.

    Comment by Phil McCavity — Friday 8 June 2007 @ 9:28 pm

  11. I remember the 235 which went from the Bakers Arms, to Wood Street.
    I started In September 1968 at Cardinal Wiseman Senior High School in Shernhall Street. Which may have been the first day the new 235 service ran. I wonder can someone confirm this I think the new Victoria line may have opened the same day, but it is such a long time ago that I may be mistaken.

    Comment by John Mc Elhinney — Monday 15 September 2008 @ 7:20 pm

  12. A very interesting little site, dedicated to what was actually one of my favourite buses to drive. Indeed, my screen name on several bus sites is merlinbus. I liked the Merlins/Swifts of London Country, in spite of their rubbish heaters. I even had the pleasure of driving XMB1, which turned into XMB15, then turned into MBS 15, when it was at Tring Garage in the early 70`s. The 3 things that set it apart from the MB/S was it`s low driving position and the PA system left in and still operating, from it`s Red Arrow days, as well as it`s “proper” AEC 3 spoke steering wheel Another little oddity was it`s centre door preselect button. This could be pressed prior to the stop and the centre doors opened when the bus stopped. It`s a shame that none of the Strachan bodied vehicles survived.

    Comment by Brian Keating — Wednesday 8 April 2009 @ 7:57 pm

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