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Unitrans original back home in London

1.18.2013

By Dave Jones

Mike Quillici graduated from UC Davis in December 2006 and left his job at Unitrans a few months later. But, after all these years, he still cares about those buses — especially RTL 1014.

“It’s not every day you get to drive an all-original 1950 double-deck,” said Quillici, who would train a dozen more people to operate the right-hand-drive bus with manual transmission.

Read more about Mike Quillici and how he contributed to RTL 1014's historical accuracy in London.

The red double-decker from London was one of the University Transit System’s first two buses in 1968, and would serve the campus and the city for 40-plus years, until last January when Unitrans dispatched the bus back to London. Quillici visited there after Christmas, and — in a reprise of his job as Unitrans operations manager in 2005-06 — checked in to ensure that the bus had completed its run.

And there it was, this UC Davis icon, safely back with Ensignbus, the successor company to PVS Bus Sales, which had sold RTL 1014 to UC Davis in the first place. In recent years Ensignbus has “repatriated” a number of London buses from Australia, Canada and the United States, bringing them home as artifacts of London’s transit history.

RTL 1014’s new home is the Ensignbus Transport Museum, which organizes public "running days" and also rents buses — including RTL 1014 — for wedding parties and such.

Today, RTL 1014 has a new coat of red paint and still sports “ASUCD-City of Davis-Unitrans” lettering on the sides and a California license plate in an Aggie frame. And why not? The bus spent more than two-thirds of its life in Davis.

In its previous life, RTL 1014 worked in the London transit system for 17 years, until 1967 when the ASUCD acquired 1014 and a sister bus, RTL 1194, at a time when London was swapping out its Regent buses for Routemasters.

The ASUCD launched its transit system the next year and subsequently bought several more London double-deckers — which would become symbols of the university. Three of them are still in regular service alongside more than 40 modern buses in a fleet that carries more than 3.5 million passengers a year.

‘A Californian accent!’

“They sold RTL 1014 to a bunch of students, and I’m sure they never expected it to come back the way it did — still running,” said Anthony Palmere, Unitrans general manager.

The ASUCD paid $3,000 for RTL 1014; 45 years later, Ensignbus got it back for $7,000 plus shipping.

Today, the 63-year-old bus is in the Ensignbus Vintage Fleet, which has a Web page that describes 1014 as “a London bus with a Californian accent!”

Ensignbus embellished the Unitrans logo with an American flag — as a backdrop for the lettering — and promotes RTL 1014 “for any event that needs a trans-Atlantic feel.”

There’s a UC Davis feel, too, with the Aggie license plate frame and a Unitrans route sign in the rear window. A sign, by the way, that was historically inaccurate — referencing the L Line instead of the G Line — until Quillici came to visit. See separate story.

63 years on one engine

Unitrans had sold its other original double-decker in the 1970s — RTL 1194's whereabouts (and condition) today are unknown to Unitrans — after taking parts off the bus to help keep 1014 in service.

Basically, though, RTL 1014 is the real thing. Unitrans had replaced some of the wood in the bus shell, but never replaced the engine — which is what makes the bus even more valuable as a historic vehicle. Palmere and his predecessor, Geoff Straw, wanted to see the bus maintain its integrity.

But to keep RTL 1014 on the street, Unitrans would have had to replace the diesel engine to comply with state air quality rules. That is what Unitrans did with three other Regents — two have cleaner-burning diesel engines and the other Regent runs on compressed natural gas.

“A conversion like that wasn’t the right thing to do for RTL 1014,” said Palmere, considering that the Unitrans maintenance staff had kept the engine going for more than four decades. He credited the following:

Wally Mellor, maintenance manager, 1984-2005, a Liverpool native “who used his knowledge and English connections to keep 1014 and the rest of the vintage fleet running for more than 20 years.”

Dave Orca, who worked with Mellor for 15 years and then succeeded him as manager until 2011, and “who loved the old buses.”

Andy Wyly, today’s maintenance manager, a student mechanic in the 1990s who worked with Mellor and Orca.

• And all the other student employees who worked on the bus “and who have an attachment to it similar to Mike’s perspective as a driver.”

Unitrans goes global

Without a new engine, RTL 1014 had been tucked away in the Unitrans yard since 2007 — and hardly anyone saw the vintage vehicle. Unitrans tried to find the bus a suitable new home — a museum, preferably — close to the campus, but nothing came of that effort; after that, Unitrans listed the bus with the Bargain Barn, and Ensignbus submitted the winning bid at the 11th hour — beating out a Hollywood production company.

"We found a good home for this historic bus," Palmere said. "Now, even though 1014 is thousands of miles away, it’s a lot more visible than it was here"

Not only that, but Londoners and the millions of people who visit there — especially Aggie alumni — have a chance to see “ASUCD-City of Davis-Unitrans” on the side of a historic bus.

In throwing a bon voyage party for RTL 1014 last January, Unitrans said farewell at the same time to then-General Manager Straw, who had his own connection to 1014 — it was the first bus he drove as a student employee.

“He made all the arrangements for the sale, working with the Bargain Barn and Ensignbus, and it worked out so nicely that we could send them off together,” Palmere said.

After seven-and-a-half years in charge of Unitrans, Straw headed south to San Luis Obispo County to take a job as the executive director of San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority.

'A pretty good returns policy'

RTL 1014 went south, too, to the Long Beach harbor. Wyly followed along to drive the bus onto a cargo ship — remember, RTL 1014 has a right-hand drive, and that can be tricky for novices behind the wheel, Palmere said.

The ship reached England in March — and Ensignbus Chairman Peter Newman went to the dock to complete a round trip he began in 1967: He drove RTL 1014 to the dock when his company shipped the bus to Davis, and 45 years later he drove the Regent back to Ensignbus.

“A pretty good returns policy, we reckon!” the folks at Ensignbus wrote in their online history of RTL 1014.

Earlier coverage

“Double-decker bus gets send-off for London,” news release (Jan. 19, 2012)

Reach Dave Jones at dljones@ucdavis.edu.

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Twitter.


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