Paul McCartney tour bus feature for Coach and Bus Week magazine

By Jeremy Blackmore

The brightly painted psychedelic 1972 tour bus which launched Paul McCartney as a major solo artist in the wake of the Beatles’ split has been reborn as a travelling performance space inspired by the Beatles’ final concert on the roof of the Apple building in 1969.

The 1953 Bristol KSW 5G ECW open-top double-decker first entered service in 1953 with Eastern National Omnibus Company Limited in Chelmsford, ferrying passengers across the east of England, Eastern Counties and Great Yarmouth from 1968 to 1971 before finding rock and roll stardom during Paul McCartney’s first major tour with new band Wings.

Dubbed ‘Woodstock on Wheels’, WNO 481, the plucky bus that refused to die, has been lovingly and faithfully restored by Tom Jennings with first David Hoare of Chepstow Classic Buses and then Bradley Earl of Simon Morris Thorpe and both went above and beyone the call of duty with love and dedication to the cause after years decaying in a ravine in Tenerife. New owner Tom Jennings has reimagined and engineered the top deck so it can transform into a mobile venue for live performances at festivals and charity fundraisers. The new McCartney Stage now makes possible the former Beatle’s original vision of the top deck as a venue for live shows. The bus was unveiled at the Classic Motor Show at the NEC in Birmingham earlier this month with a host of special performances including musicians who played with McCartney in the seventies.

Now the refurbished WNO 481, which also boasts a Royal, a James Bond, Mary Poppins and FA Cup winners in its long history, is already attracting interest in bookings from musical festivals. Glastonbury has shown interest and wants to see photo’s of the now copleted McCartney Stage. It’s been a long and winding road and a labour of love for former pro-musician Jennings who became the latest custodian in 2019 after he went online looking for a Garth Brooks guitar and ended up with Paul McCartney’s bus!

As a lifelong Beatles fan, Jennings knew WNO 481’s provenance well. Fifty years ago, he was working towards his HGV 1 licence and harbouring romantic notions of being a driver for McCartney.

“It was the first I’d heard of the bus in years,” he says. “So many theories were flying around about what became of her, she became almost a myth!

“I knew the history of the bus; It was a wonderful thing. I turned the calculator off, because I couldn’t put a price on legacy. I regard this as being a legacy project. I don’t think there’ll be much in it either way, whether it makes a profit or loses a little bit. I’m okay with that. I adore owning it. I love having been its latest rescuer.”

In July 1972 McCartney leased the bus from then owners Halls Coaches and set off on a two-month tour of Europe. Evoking the spirit of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, the tour brought a taste of Beatlemania to European fans who had not seen McCartney live since 1966. WNO 481, emblazoned with the names of the band and its members, became the world’s most famous tour bus. With their young children accompanying them on the road, the band laid out mattresses and sleeping bags on the top deck as they snaked their way around the continent.

McCartney wanted the bus painted in a style influenced by the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine and tasked Tom Salter, promoter and owner of Gear boutiques in Carnaby Street to make it happen. The artwork was duly painted over three days at Uxbridge Transport Garage.

The lower deck was fitted out with coach seats and tables that came from a Plaxton coach body identical to the 1970 England World Cup Team coach. Halls also owned that coach, and it is possible they stripped the seats out and put them in WNO 481. Also installed was a galley kitchen and bunks for the McCartneys’ three children. The destination blind proudly announced the next venue on the tour, while the rear bore a giant Wings logo made of wood.

Throughout that heady summer, WNO 481, travelling at a sedate top speed of 38mph (which made for slow going on the German autobahns), carried Wings over 7,500 miles with the world’s journalists in hot pursuit.

After its brush with stardom, the bus was pressed into service by Tricentrol of Luton who repainted WNO 481 in their livery to run day trips across the south of England.

Put up for sale in 1982, it was saved from the crusher by Roger White of White’s Coaches in St Albans who stepped in when he spotted Oslo on the destination blind and realised the McCartney connection. The bus resumed its celebrity lifestyle, appearing twice on Cilla Black’s primetime Saturday TV show Surprise Surprise – on the second occasion with Trevor Brooking and the FA Cup at Wembley.
In 1989 it was photographed at the Southend Bus Rally in a bright red and white livery and took part in two BAFTA Great British Film Rallies, first to Cannes (1989), and then the London- Cardiff- Edinburgh rally (1990) where Princess Anne was a special visitor. It also served as a celebrity hospitality and transportation vehicle for the 1989 BAFTA tribute to Julie Andrews at the Empire Leicester Square hosted by Michael Aspel.

Back in its Wings livery, WNO 481 spent the early 1990s at a string of special Beatles events including International Beatle Week in Liverpool and a Beatles Convention in Amsterdam, one of the original venues for Wings’ 1972 tour.

In 1993, the bus was sold to a private buyer in the Canary Islands who owned it for the next 16 years and displayed it as a tourist attraction outside a rock café in Tenerife. But when the land was taken over for development, it slowly deteriorated under the relentless blazing sun in a private storage area in a ravine. Vandalism took its toll with windows broken and parts stolen. A positive note was the desert conditions helped to preserve the bus, free of the risks of humidity in such an arid environment.

But WNO 481 was not finished yet.

Justin James came to its rescue in 2010 when he became the latest in a long list of owners. James hired a crane to lift the bus from its dusty slumber and freighted it back to home soil in Oxfordshire. In the process it was spotted by Paul McCartney’s team who tweeted asking about her whereabouts.

Enter: Tom Jennings, in many ways the perfect man to preserve this one-off vehicle and take it into its next chapter. Alongside careers in music and accountancy, Jennings has always had a passion for motor vehicles. His first Saturday job was in a motorcycle repair shop where he learned how to fix bikes and he later repaired cars from his own garage.

Despite the parlous state of the bus, Jennings didn’t see a wreck and his interest was piqued. He checked back and was shocked to see not one bid. As an exercise, he wrote out the sales pitch he felt the bus deserved – and ended up selling it to himself, ‘an international treasure on wheels firmly parked at the intersection of timeless chart-topping music and classically beautiful automotive design heritage’.

Owning and restoring such a classic vehicle though was no small undertaking and he did some serious research first.

“I was so pleasantly surprised to see internet forums full of good karma, fun and affection for bus WNO 481. To read the enthusiasm of the bus preservation societies and restorers and their work to keep these buses alive for future generations to enjoy, the bus fans, the McCartney fans, all those on the forums, all helped to talk me into possibly buying it. For Paul to tweet he was looking for the bus 45 years later was remarkable, and I took it as a sign if nobody else was going to do anything, then I suppose it had to be me.”

He made contact with William Staniforth, head of the Chippenham bus rally, described as a ‘guardian angel’ to the restoration project, who put him in touch with David Hoare of Chepstow Classic Buses who got to work in November 2019.

Due to the extent of the deterioration, Hoare needed to rebuild the platform, which was completely rotten. He also rebuilt and panelled the back end, damaged when it was lifted out by the crane in Tenerife. Urgent work on the staircase was necessary too plus the diesel pump needed a full overhaul.

Jennings was delighted to receive a call from Steve Broughton who had repainted the bus several times in both its Wings and BAFTA liveries during its time with White’s Coaches. Indeed, the blue paint Broughton last used was synthetic, using a hot pot system, meaning the blue paint was heated up in the tin until it had thinned out. He then poured it into his gun and sprayed the bus with hot paint. As it dried it went back to its solid state which gave the bus a lot of protection and may be why it has lasted so long.

Broughton wanted to know if he could work on the bus one more time and joined forces with Bradley Earl at the latter’s workshop in Clacton, bringing the bus back to its Essex roots. The pair worked with a group of artists adding a modern day take on its 1972 McCartney colour.

“What they have achieved is a 2022 remix of the artwork,” says Jennings. “Of course, it’s a nod to the class of 72. But it’s a 2022 reissue. I didn’t want a photocopy. I could have got that because I’ve got the original artwork, digitised. I had a fabulous group of talented digital artists. It was a joy to see it come to life.”

Jennings has ambitious plans for the bus and is adamant its use should stay true to its McCartney heritage.

“The Beatles and Wings were very busy bands, did gigs everywhere. Paul McCartney has been busy his whole life. So, I want the bus to be busy.

“Obviously, there’s a cost attached to taking the bus to events. We’ve got to work out what the cost is. But we want to preserve the exclusivity of the bus, we’ve got to strike a balance. I will never do an event, for example, that Paul McCartney wouldn’t approve of. So, I keep in contact with his office.”

WNO 481’s appearance at the Classic Motor Show (by invitation of the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs) is just the first of many exciting events Jennings is lining up. It’s clear the addition of the McCartney Stage has proved inspired in opening up opportunities.
Says Jennings: “That idea came pretty soon. Constructing a 3D model was amazing for the development of my understanding of the bus and its construction. It’s been an amazing process. I used a fabulous 3D programme called Blender. You can create anything. One day, I just thought, I wonder if I could make the side drop down. I dropped it down and I went, that’s a stage!

“I want to use it at events and music festivals. We had bands appearing on the stage at the NEC including Howie Casey [who played with Wings in the mid-seventies and with the Beatles in Hamburg]. What an honour, what a beautiful coming together. If the bus can attract those kinds of people, I think we’re going to be alright.

“I’ve had some very exciting and lovely offers. But the lifeblood of music are the youngsters, the teenagers. And so, I would love the bus to work with record companies and PR companies who work with young musicians.”

He is eying up a visit to the Beatles’ home city of Liverpool and has approached the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (founded by McCartney), offering their students the chance to perform onboard.

A heritage bus company has offered the bus permanent storage near Clacton, keeping it close to its Essex roots but an offer has also come in for the bus to spend time in Suffolk.

“That’s a very exciting possibility,” says Jennings. “Then the bus can be there all the time, apart from when it leaves to go and do something amazing. If there’s a charitable thing we can be involved in, that we can bring the Beatles/McCartney stardust to via the bus, that’s what we’d be looking to do.

“There are loads of things being mooted. They involve some incredible people. We shall see – but she’s showtime ready!”