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The yellow buses: Latest addition to Maltese heritage

Tucked away to the side of one of Malta’s busiest roads, scores of yellow buses stand still in the old Malta Shipbuilding premises.

There were tears when drivers returned the buses

There are 90 of them, all locally built. They have survived the scrap heap after this summer’s complete overhaul of the public transport system, to be conserved for a planned museum of industry.

Inside, conservator Robert Cassar walks past the buses that Heritage Malta has decided to save and reflects on the challenges that this task presents.

“A lot of the owners thought their buses were going to be scrapped, so they took all the little badges and the chrome parts to keep them,” he points out.

This turned out to be a headache for the Heritage Malta team, as the chrome and the badges were precisely the little details that made the buses unique.

However, “once drivers realised that the buses wouldn’t be scrapped, a lot were very happy to give us the badges back. Others even gave us spare parts”.

Mr Cassar is the curator of the Armoury but his Valletta upbringing and consequent familiarity with the buses of yore made him the most viable candidate to build up a collection of old buses before they perish.

In so doing, Mr Cassar, a trained conservator, and his colleague Manuel Magro Conti, a senior curator at HM, found themselves re-evaluating criteria they hold to be sacred in other instances – such as originality.

“You realise that there were so many modifications over the years that you can’t say ‘this is the way the bus left the factory’.

“It’s not like restoring a car to factory condition, this is something else,” Mr Magro Conti says. “You had to see the story of each bus and respect that a lot of them were ex-military vehicles turned into coaches.

After 20, 30 years, they would give the vehicle a modern facelift. Even though the bus might look like it is from the 1960s or 1970s, it might be much older.”

Mr Cassar also sought to preserve at least one model from each local coachbuilder – of which there were about 20. Some of these, he says, produced a substantial number of coaches while others were just bus drivers who decided to build their own bus to save money.

Some buses started life in the UK and upon importation were changed to suit the local aesthetic.

Even though there is a clear idea of what a “Maltese bus” looks like, no two buses are the same. “All buses are individual, it was a big problem to select them.”

Buses were also retained according to route, as in the past they were painted in the colour of the route on which they served. A number of old coaches were also kept, considered as part of Malta’s bus history.

Heritage Malta faces another problem: Since, understandably, owners were reluctant to spend money on the upkeep of the buses they were about to abandon, paint and mechanical parts are beginning to show signs of wear. Additionally, rust is surfacing through the fading paint.

“Some buses had been handed down from generation to generation and were part of the family. I’m sure some drivers loved their bus more than they loved their wife. There were tears when they returned the buses,” Mr Cassar recalls.

While traditional painting (tberfil) adorns most of the old buses, one of the salvaged buses has a huge graffiti across its side reading “Keep the old buses alive.”

“Every bus has its story,” Mr Cassar says. A few of them, at least, will now live to tell the tale.

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