See how open top bus from Muhammad Ali's iconic 1977 visit to South Shields is restored to former glory

A remarkable piece of South Tyneside’s sporting heritage is back on the road.

Thousands of fans turned out to see world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali when he visited the borough in July 1977 as part of a visit to the North East to raise money for a South Shields boxing club.

The man they called The Greatest travelled through the streets of Jarrow and South Shields in an open-topped bus on his way to have his marriage blessed in the town’s mosque.

The bus, which had been decorated to celebrate the Queen’s silver jubilee in the same year, has since fallen on hard times.

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But now KBB 118D has been restored to its former glory thanks to a lot of TLC from the North East Bus Preservation Trust and a little help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The 1966 Leyland Atlantean is no stranger to sporting celebrities – it also carried Newcastle United’s losing FA Cup side in 1974 as well as 10,000metres bronze medallist Brendan Foster and other athletes when they came home from the Montreal Olympics two years later.

Originally owned by Newcastle Corporation Transport, it was transferred to the new Tyneside PTE in January 1970 and served the region until around 2000, when it was decommissioned and sold to Galway Tours in Ireland, who used it for sightseeing trips.

In 2016 it was donated to the trust by company owner Michael Healey, who brought it home to the North East himself.

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The refurbished KBB 118D on South Shields seafront

Trust member Peter Elliott said he and friend Ray Thornton had formed a bubble during lockdown so that they could work on the bus together.

"It was just the two of us locked in the workshop all the time,” said Peter, 74.

The work had been a major challenge: “It was really, really in a bad state – both floors were rotted all the way through,” said Peter.

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Sourcing the parts had also been tough but the trust had had some help from friends: “A lot of stuff was hard to find – brake pads, valves and the like – but we are pretty lucky, because we have had contacts within the bus industry since the 1960s,” said Peter.

Thousands of fans lined the streets

"It has taken four years, with the help of a Heritage Lottery grant – it wasn’t a lot but it helped.

"It feels really good to see it back on the road. We are quite chuffed with it.”

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Ironically, the bus only exists today because it endured a serious accident.

A hapless driver drove it through a low bridge in Wallsend and tore off the roof, which led Newcastle Corporation bosses to convert it to an open topper for the silver jubilee, saving it from being scrapped with the rest of the fleet.

Muhammad Ali abroad the newly-restored bus

When Stagecoach took over the running of the city’s bus routes in the early 1990s, the Leyland was again sent to a dump before being snapped up by Michael Healey.

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Trust member – and Metro maintenance technician – Steve Griffin said he and the team had not originally realised what they had on their hands: “Initially we were unaware that it was the Muhammad Ali bus,” he said.

"It was only when we had two similar buses and had to decide which one to restore that I did a bit of digging. I knew that model had been used to drive Ali around the North East and research showed it was this bus.

"I noticed the registration number was the same as the one Ali had travelled on, so that was when we knew we had that one on our hands – and it was the point that we knew we simply had to restore it.

“Muhammad Ali’s visit to the North East in 1977 was iconic, so we were truly honoured to have had the chance to restore the bus that he so famously travelled on when all those huge crowds turned out to great him.

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“We made sure the bus was repainted in its famous silver and yellow colours from the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Lots of people of a certain age will have a blast of nostalgia when they see it drive by.”

Even the Royal coat of arms has been restored

Work has included renewing the whole of the open top deck due to water damage, as well as fitting new brakes, seats, floors, dashboard, lights, panels, radiator and a complete engine service

“We are delighted with this project, which has preserved a little piece of bus heritage in our region,” said Steve.

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"The many hours of hard work that we all put in have really paid off.

“It has taken a lot of work to restore the Leyland back to its former glory. We had great support thanks to a lottery grant which allowed us pay for the bodywork, but the rest was all done in our own spare time.

“We are all current or former transport industry people, so we have a passion for public transport and its heritage. These are the type of buses many of used to work on in our professional lives. This bus is unique. There isn’t another quite like it.”

The fully-restored bus has already had its first run-out in public and will be making appearances at other events alongside other members of the trust’s 18-strong fleet of vehicles.

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“We were thrilled to get the bus back on the road over the Platinum Jubilee weekend and take it back to South Shields for people to see,” said Steve.

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North East Bus Preservation Trust members Peter Elliott, Steve Griffin and Raymond Thornton.
Peter Elliott takes in the view

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How the bus looked in the workshop
The restoration work has taken four years
A Heritage Lottery grant paid for new bodywork