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Steel Wheels & Rubber Tyres Vol 3


Geoffrey Hilditch, General Manager at Halifax, received a rude awakening when he read he was to lose his job thanks to Barbara Castle. His subsequent time as Engineering Director at West Yorkshire PTE was difficult, throwing money into the unknown was alien to him, and his reign was short. Moving to Leicester should have put matters right but it seems he had moved out of the frying pan into the fire. This turbulent period of his career forms Part 3 of his fascinating autobiography.

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Steel Wheels & Rubber Tyres Vol 3

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An eagerly awaited municipal memoir Review by Alan Millar - Buses
The first two volumes of Geoffrey Hilditch's entertainingly readable memoirs of his life in public transport — from pre-war childhood in Oldham to the relatively dizzy heights of municipal general managership in. Great Yarmouth and Halifax — appeared in 2003 and 2004.
He left readers eager to learn what happened next, but other priorities took up his next phase of retirement. Happily, he was persuaded to dig out his diaries, photographs and other records and commit his thoughts and memories to words, which he completed during 2013. Sadly, he died the following year, aged 88, before either of these could be printed.
This is the first of them, taking his story from 1974 to 1984. The fourth volume, which is promised soon, will cover the next 12 years.
There also has been a change of publisher. Oakwood Press produced the first two books, but Venture Publications has made the switch look almost seamless. The pages are 27% bigger, but the cover design and typography inside are true to the original.
Hilditch realised a lifelong ambition of becoming a municipal general manager and enjoyed the status that went with it: his name on the sides of a town's buses (even if he was too young to have it on any trams), a prestige private car and facilities, as he puts it in this book, to dine at work in 'baronial splendour'.
So it was a blow when local government reform bundled the Halifax undertaking into West Yorkshire PTE in April 1974 along with those in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield. As the youngest of the four general managers, 48-year-old Hilditch was bottom of the pecking order for the top jobs, becoming director for engineering with the lowest salary on the board.
He nearly escaped in 1973, offered the chance of becoming GM at Plymouth, but had accepted the PTE job and refused to break his word that he would stay for two years. He left in October 1975, accepting a pay cut to return to general managership, at Leicester where he saw little risk of PTE taking over.
Besides his status, he despaired of where political leaders were taking WYPTE, not least in saddling it with a bus/rail interchange built in Bradford on top of a new city centre bus garage. That cost £16million to build and £2.3million a year to operate after it finally opened in March 1977.
He says it would have cost more had the PTE not dropped ambitious features like underfloor heating and automatic platform doors in the bus station and a sophisticated signalling system in the garage. None of that stopped the garage roof from leaking, as the boots of the workers laying the bus station tarmac fractured the supposedly watertight membrane.
It was at West Yorkshire that he encouraged Dennis — from whom he had bought Loline III double-deckers while at Halifax — to return to the bus market, though none went to that PTE.
In autumn 1974, Leyland made him aware that it wanted to kill off the Fleetline, the Atlantean as well, and compel customers to take the new Titan instead. With little credible competition, the dominant manufacturer reckoned they would have nowhere else to go.
Hilditch thought otherwise. He was unimpressed by either the high fuel consumption of the Scania/MCW Metropolitan, of which WYPTE bought 60 because anything non-Leyland was worth a try, or the layout and small power unit of the front-engined Volvo Ailsa, of which it bought one of 10 pre-production vehicles originally destined for Greater Glasgow. Or indeed the driveline of its one of the seven Foden-NC prototypes built around the same time.
He reveals that he would have liked to put a Dorman V8 engine into another Ailsa, a project that 'never went farther than being a gleam in my eye'.
He rang Dennis out of the blue and reached managing director John Smith at a perfect moment, as the Guildford factory needed to fill a gap in production once a government order for airport crash tenders was fulfilled.
They worked up a specification for what became the Dominator: a Gardner engine matched to a robust Voith gearbox. And in a final West Yorkshire contribution, he provided Dennis with an ex-Leeds Daimler CVG6 to test out the driveline in public service and off road.
Painted orange and cream (it later ran for London Transport in all-over red), it was variously nicknamed the Clockwork Orange and the Denditch (for Dennis-Hilditch). We can be fairly sure that Hilditch preferred the latter.
Finding himself with around 100 fuel-hungry Scanias in Leicester, he took the Denditch on test and went on to make Dennis the operator's main, though not exclusive supplier. Besides Dominators, it bought Falcon, Lancet and Dorchester single-deckers.
He encouraged other innovations, buying the first double-deck bodies from Marshall's of Cambridge (but was disappointed that they looked old fashioned) and trying as well as brokering government financial support for the Maxwell gearbox designed for rear-engined buses by ex-Daimler engineers.
Expansion beyond the Leicester city boundary came with the acquisition of Gibsons of Barlestone in 1980 and its route to Market Bosworth, but that year's Transport Act also brought the first stages of deregulation, removing the Area Stop Sign system that gave the municipality a monopoly in most of the city.
Halifax had acquired Hebble bus operations from the National Bus Company and Hilditch hoped that Leicester might acquire Midland Red's local routes. The response, he says, was 'a not very polite negative' and NBC broke up Midland Red, with Midland Red East — soon renamed Midland Fox — taking over in Leicestershire and launching new cross-city services.
The undertaking would never be as strong again, but took advantage of the 1980 Act to join Burnley & Pendle and Maidstone in launching the City Flyer coach service in May 1983, linking Blackpool and Dover via London. With full deregulation expected in 1986 when Hilditch would be 60, he took early retirement in August 1984, but his days in transport management were far from over. Volume Four will relate how he helped the Department of Transport implement deregulation, then returned to municipal management at Cynon Valley in South Wales, became a director of Drawlane and ended up back in Leicester.
(Posted on 25/05/2016)

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