Like the Mini, the Routemaster bus is rather an unexpected vehicular British icon. After all, the double decker is boxy, sluggish and old fashioned, and rather cramped to ride in. But its years of service, distinctive bright red colour scheme and ubiquity have endeared it to the nation, and particularly to Londoners; it's become as much a symbol of the city as Nelson's Column.
The Routemaster went into service in 1956. Its design was revolutionary for the time: most daringly, and controversially, there was an open platform on the back, which meant anyone could hop on or off, even when the bus was moving - a great boom for the young and athletic, though a menace to the disabled or infirm. The driver, encased in a cab at the front, above the engine, never interacted with the passengers. Tickets were dispensed by a conductor who walked up and down the central aisle. The bus could carry 64 seated passengers (there was no standing room), was made of lightweight aluminium and featured power steering and an automatic gearbox. In all, around three thousand were built, and around a thousand are still around.
Sadly, the routemaster has proved impractical for the twenty first century. It's much cheaper in terms of running costs to have passengers pay the driver rather than employ a separate conductor, and the open platform falls foul of disability access and health and safety laws. Still, the bus is so popular that they still run on a couple of heritage routes through the centre of London - the number 15 goes from Trafalgar Square along Fleet Street and ends at Tower Hill, while the number 9 goes from the Royal Albert Hall to Picadilly Circus then the Strand, and ends at Aldwych. Of the decomissioned old buses, many have found a second life as novelty vehicles, particularly for weddings and parties, as sightseeing tour buses, and there's even one being used as a vegan restaurant (Brick Lane's ‘Rootmaster').
Now it looks like this much loved icon will be updated and given a new lease of life: London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, has promised that a prototype new Routemaster will be working the streets by 2011. So it's ‘ding ding, all abroad' this popular British icon once more.