If you want a people carrier that will really turn heads, buy a Routemaster, says Philip Thornton

They are the ultimate people-carrier - they can legally carry eight people in comfort, will turn heads on every street corner, and cost from as little as £6,000. And if that is not enticing enough, the current owners are getting rid of them as fast as they can. They are, of course, the last working versions of London's majestic fleet of 50-year-old Routemaster buses.

They are the ultimate people-carrier - they can legally carry eight people in comfort, will turn heads on every street corner, and cost from as little as £6,000. And if that is not enticing enough, the current owners are getting rid of them as fast as they can. They are, of course, the last working versions of London's majestic fleet of 50-year-old Routemaster buses.

The No 36 route, a circuitous nine-mile ramble from Queen's Park in north-west London to New Cross Gate in the south, became the latest route to fall prey to conversion to one-person operation on 28 January.

Enough words have been written in praise of the Routemaster - including the paean to the "peculiarly cockney" vehicle by Motoring's own Brian Sewell - to paper the 36 route in both directions. But if their abolition really causes that much pain, why not buy one so that that majestic, curvaceous, crimson form can be sitting within walking distance of your front room?

Routemasters - or RMs to aficionados - have changed hands since the early 1980s, when London Transport started to cut costs by converting two-person buses to the modern vehicle where the driver collects the fares. Examples have turned up in the United States, India, Hong Kong and even Lebanon's Bekaa Valley - showing they really were built to last.

But with the welter of publicity over the final six routes being converted, interest is rising. Steve Newman, a director of Ensignbus, which has the franchise for retired RMs, said he sold 150 last year. "If it were a building, it would be listed," he says. "It is not just a vehicle, it is a brand. It is an iconic piece of engineering."

Anyone thinking of buying one should bring a checklist: cost, insurance, fuel, maintenance, storage and actually driving it. Second-hand RMs tend to have a basic price of between £6,000 and £10,000, which buys a fully roadworthy vehicle in varying states of décor. To convert one back to its true 1960s look would cost up to £30,000. Paul Almeroth, heritage vehicle engineer at Blue Triangle Buses, says: "If you want to buy one and play with it, that's fine, but to put in the original specifications will cost a lot."

Experts and owners agree the priority is to work out where you are going to store it. At 27ft 6in long, 8ft wide and almost 15ft tall, it is not something that can be parked on the average London street. All the owners contacted by The Independent have stored theirs either on their own or a friend's farmland. Although RMs are made of a corrosion-proof aluminium, it is best to keep them under cover.

The first piece of good news is that since RMs were all made at least 30 years ago, they are exempt from road tax - a saving of £500. As private vehicles, they can be driven by anyone with a normal driving licence, as long as they carry no more than eight people. Otherwise, the buyer would have to pass the test for a PCV licence.

The bus should be exempt from the congestion charge and use bus lanes - although check this with Transport for London or the local highways authority. Insurance is surprisinglycheap, at about £150 fully compre- hensive. Insurers include AON, Adams Tingle and Footman James. Most buyers also get vehicle recovery insurance at £80 a year.

Maintenance is likely to be the largest drain on resources and one of the biggest practical hurdles. Mr Newman says: "You should budget for £750 a year over five years. It should come in for less, but every five years you can get a bad one."

It is a good idea to work out what MoT test centre can cope with an RM bus. Alan Gregory, of the Routemaster Association, says: "Get into a local bus garage, introduce yourself and ask for help. They may have never seen an RM, but they'll know about them."

An RM uses 8-10mpg in passenger services but this rises to between 12 and 15 - better than an SUV - on the motorway with only a few passengers. It has a 29-gallon tank, so it will go for 300 miles for a £120 fill-up. Mr Gregory adds: "The RM is like a giant Meccano set - simple and effective, and the reason it has lasted so long is because it is a simple design. It won't have a computer crash like a modern bus."

Choosing a bus can be the trickiest part. Mr Newman says one buyer picked one after finding some graffiti on the inside that made him laugh. There are types - the RM, 27ft 6in, and the RML, 2ft 6in longer. Most people prefer the shorter one; those who want to carry passengers like the longer version. Gavin Chapman, managing director of an IT services company and owner of RM 1400, says: "I didn't want an RML. I wanted an RM because they are the real thing."

Ultimately the aim of the whole operation is to drive the bus - even if just once a week or for trips to the seaside. Judging by my brief test drive, it is remarkably simple. The gearbox is automatic, the acceleration is controlled and the braking is progressive, with no sudden jolts. Power steering and an enormous steering wheel make turning easy - despite the seven-tonne weight. Andrew Green, a composer of theatre and film music, who jointly owns RM 2179, says: "They are wonderful vehicles, a real apotheosis of form and function."

Buying an RM could also be a sound investment. Mr Newman says the going rate was £12,000 before the recent programme of closures started in 2003. "On the last day of RM operation and on the day the last one leaves here for private ownership, the price will go back up to £12,000, as most private owners will not want to sell in the short term," he says. "But just doing it for investment is a poor reason. They like to be used."

www.ensignbus.com www.bluetrianglebuses.com www.routemaster.org.uk

'Since I was 12 I'd always wanted one'

Brian Jennings brought little practical experience with him when he bought a Routemaster for £3,000. "I am no Fred Dibnah," says the 54-year-old county council lawyer. "I take my car to the garage for servicing." He was one of 32 buyers - whittled down from 400 applicants - who were given the right to buy a bus from Ensignbus last year.

His winning ticket was for RML 2302, which had just come out of service on the number 12 route. "I bought a ticket machine when I was 12 and always wanted the bus to go with it," he says.

He organised temporary storage on a farm near his home in Northallerton, North Yorks, and later moved it to a secure yard. He spent four days learning to drive a single-decker bus in York to pass the test for a PCV licence - although he says this is not mandatory.

"It was hard to get used to. But the Routemaster is much easier than the single-decker and my brother has driven it, when the biggest thing he had driven before was a Mercedes van."

He spoke to local bus garages to check out arrangements for servicing and got insurance for £140 and vehicle recovery for £80. Since the 238-mile trip back to Yorkshire, he has driven 70 miles in and around Northallerton. He used it in 21st birthday celebrations for his daughter Claire and hopes to use it to raise money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association charity.

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