Post-war Britain experienced a rapid rise in the use of public service vehicles, and in particular demand for express coach travel. In the 1950s Ribble's General manager, Horace Bottomley, worked on a design that would increase seating capacity, require fewer refreshment stops, and exploit the planned construction of the motorway network. Working closely with Leyland Motors engineers, their joint efforts produced one of the most important developments in express coach services in the last century.
The 'Gay Hostess' class of vehicle was pioneering in many ways. It's design and production was bold, to say the very least. The prototype was one of the first production vehicles of the Leyland Atlantean type chassis. The Atlantean was designed to exploit the newly introduced maximum length of 30ft. This made it practical to place the engine across the rear of the chassis and entrance at the front, enabling safer passenger access under the driver's supervision. In service bus form, a maximum of 78 could be seated. The Atlantean made all other chassis layouts obsolete, and so was born the double deck bus as we know it today. The layout was adapted to seat 50 passengers (compared to the usual 41 on single deck coaches) in luxurious reclining seats with an on board servery and toilet.
The Ribble Group with it's head office in Preston, had some involvement with the local Leyland company in the development of the new Atlantean, a prototype 'integral' version having been run in public service. This chassis-less vehicle was developed into the simpler but more acceptable chassis that was launched at the end of 1958.
The use of double-deck vehicles on long distance services was rare up to this period, because the proliferation of low railway bridges in some parts of the country dictated the use of low height vehicles. Ribble did use low height double-deckers on some Lancashire express services, but these didn't reach the standards of comfort required for the longer routes.
The management of Ribble saw the fledgling motorway network as a means to revolutionize coach travel and uniquely saw the Atlantean as the tool to bring that revolution about.
The first 'Gay Hostess' as the class was marketed, was built with a body frame by MCW at Birmingham, being trimmed and finished at MCW's sister company Weymann at Addleston Surrey, to a design specified by Ribble. This design inspired by the revolution in air travel, incorporated such luxuries as a servery to the rear of the lower deck, providing hot drinks and sandwiches for the 50 passengers, who were seated in fully upholstered reclining seats, complete with folding tables and individual reading lights. There was also an on-board toilet compartment and luggage storage area at the rear downstairs.
The idea was to keep the vehicles moving to reduce journey times, and gain revenue for the company by providing catering. The prototype was tested on a selection of express services. As with all revolutionary concepts there were a few teething troubles, but the basic concept seemed to catch the travelling public's imagination, and an order was placed for the rest of the class for delivery in 1960/61. As the missing links in the motorway network were built, so the usefulness of these vehicles grew, and they became an eye-catching sight and an icon of the new motorway age.
As can be imagined, huge mileages were clocked up on these intensive services, and as regulations now allowed for 36ft long coaches, a replacement was developed to take advantage of the extra length and 20% extra carrying capacity. The choice for the replacement vehicle was the 60-seat Bristol VRL.
The replacement of the 'Gay Hostess' class was completed in 1972, but the Bristols, whilst attractive in appearance, did not have good reliability. Following a couple of unfortunate accidents and a change of management, the whole concept of double-deck operation was shelved. The Bristols, which never caught the imagination like the 'Gay Hostess' had done earlier were all sold, some being less than 5 years old.