Why Are London Buses Red?

By M@ Last edited 87 months ago
Why Are London Buses Red?
Image Andrew Smith in the Londonist Flickr pool.

As a symbol of our city, the red double-decker is up there with Big Ben and Tower Bridge. But did you ever wonder why the colour was chosen?

One theory holds that early prototypes were painted red as a warning to other drivers — as though to say 'keep your distance; this thing's experimental'. These German test vehicles were known as 'Rotmeisters' (translates as red master [vehicles]), a name corrupted to Routemasters by the British public when the buses were put into active service without a colour change.

It's an intriguing theory. Unfortunately, we just made it up, and the truth is more prosaic.

A 1920s bus, recently spotted by the author on Bishopsgate. Then, as now, a stately red.

You have to go back to 1907, when most buses were still horse-drawn, to witness the crimson dawn.

Before that time, buses came in all manner of shades, with rival companies operating different routes. In 1907, the London General Omnibus Company rouged-up its entire fleet in an effort to stand out from the competition.

The LGOC soon became the largest bus company, and its livery came to dominate the streets. When London Transport formed in 1933, it extended the convention to most (though not all) London buses, a decision whose effects remain with us today.

What's the shade?

A quick glance through Transport for London's colour standards guide reveals that buses under its purview should be coloured in Pantone 485 C (which corresponds to RGB 218, 41, 28; see here).

This popular hue is also used on the tube roundel and Central line, as well as by Royal Mail, Kit Kat, McDonald's and the Russian flag.

Actually, London buses aren't all that red

But there's a snag. The surfaces of London buses are mostly not red. This becomes clear when seen from above. Here's a view we somehow managed to get from Victoria station.

As you can see, bus roofs are largely white, to reflect sunlight and thereby reduce heating in summer. We've never checked, but we'd be willing to bet that their underbellies aren't red, either.

Now subtract the area taken up by the windows and adverts — the latter can encanker the whole backside of a bus. We'd guess that the typical vehicle is only 30-40% red.

New Routemasters, like the one leading the pack in our photo, are decidedly more crimson than their stablemates. Seen from behind, they also look a lot like the alien from Alien, though that's neither here nor there.

Finally, we have to acknowledge those buses that get the all-over, wrap-around advertising. You can see a black example, lurking at the back of the Victoria image above. Here's another.

At any given time, a small percentage of London's buses don't feature any red at all.

This symbol of our city is in danger of disappearing. The London red bus might actually be a red herring.

Last Updated 06 September 2016