Although the possibility of operating trolleybuses in Cardiff was first considered as early 1911, it was not until 1942, during the Second World War, when Cardiff became the penultimate system to commence trolleybus operations in the United Kingdom after winning the battle over motorbuses to replace the remaining tram routes. Ten AEC 6641T trolleybuses with Northern Counties 70 seat bodywork had been ordered and on completion of delivery of the first five, 201-205, Route 6A, between Wood Street and Clarence Road commenced operations on 1 March 1942. The other five, 206-210, were delivered between July and December 1942.
The bodies were built to standard trolleybus design and not to utility standards despite the fact they were built during wartime. They were the only 10 trolleybus bodies ever built by Northern Counties and they all entered service in a grey livery.
In 1946 at least four of these vehicles, including 203, were repainted in a streamlined crimson lake and cream livery. Others remained in grey until by 1949/50 all ten vehicles had all been repainted in standard motorbus livery.
In late 1958, it was given something of a light overhaul and repaint, at which time 203 lost its original rear upper deck emergency window, this being replaced by the familiar Cardiff style emergency window with two small windows. The original frame of the emergency window was retained, two extra vertical spars added, and ply board fitted between the spars. Smaller size glass was then fitted, together with a flap assembly that opened out over the glass to allow linesmen to stand on the emergency door to attend the trolley heads etc.
After just over 20 years in service, six of these vehicles were withdrawn, 208 being the first in September 1962 followed by 205 in October 1962 and then 201, 203, 209 and 210 in December 1962. During its last year of service 203 was also used extensively on learner duties, and for this purpose the sliding glass window in the front bulkhead was removed and replaced by a hinged opening window. During their period in service these vehicles were not rebuilt to any great extent and several of them, including 203, retained their distinctive three-piece front destination.
The RTS had expressed an interest in one of these vehicles and Cardiff Corporation duly presented 203 to the Society. The problem was where to store it. The RTS had already purchased Reading 113, and this was stored at Smiths Coaches garage yard in Basingstoke Road, Reading along with London 260 which belonged to two London members of the RTS, Tony Belton and Fred Ivey. Alfred Smith, owner of the coach company and RTS President, did not want any more vehicles stored at his depot at that time.
The owners of London 260 were joined by another London RTS member Don Jones and together they set up an associated group called the London Trolleybus Group (LTG) to oversee the future of Cardiff 203. The first thing they did was to find temporary accommodation for 203 in a yard at Chadwell Heath, on the outskirts of London, and subsequently the vehicle was towed there from Cardiff on 19 May 1963. The towing vehicle used was a preserved Southdown Leyland TS7 coach, DUF 179, owned privately by a bus enthusiast.
203 remained at Chadwell Heath until 8 March 1964 by which time Alfred Smith had agreed to the storage of more RTS trolleybuses at his depot. Tony Belton, Secretary of the LTG, had purchased a Dennis Lancet J3 coach, KJH 900, from Smiths Coaches, and it was this vehicle which eventually towed 203 to Reading on 22 March 1964. By this ime Bournemouth 212 (now 99), Reading 113 and London 260 were also stored at Smith Coaches depot yard. Soon afterwards the LTG members commenced restoration work on 203 by stripping the paintwork from the offside of the vehicle.
In 1967 the RTS offered to sell 203 to the LTG which by now was known as the London Trolleybus Preservation Society (LTPS) for a nominal sum. This offer was accepted and on 24 March 1967, 203 was towed by KJH 900 to undercover storage at a yard in Charing, Kent. The LTPS had, by now, formed an alliance with the East Anglia Transport Museum with the intention of eventually operating a fleet of trolleybuses at their Carlton Colville site. As a result of this the LTPS moved several of their trolleybuses to Carlton Colville, 203 being moved there overnight on 14 and 15 September 1968.
Further restoration work was carried out on 203 but by 1981 the pressure for space for storing trolleybuses at Carlton Colville was becoming critical. As a result of this the LTPS offered the RTS (by now the British Trolleybus Society) the chance to take over responsibility for 203 once again, which was accepted. Almost immediately, BTS member David Gledhill expressed an interest in becoming custodian of 203. After paying a nominal sum to purchase her from the BTS he transferred 203 to the premises of the Oxford Bus Museum at Lower Hanborough.
Between 1981 and 1993 David Gledhill had almost completely restored 203 back to original condition, including painting it in the regulation wartime grey primer livery. However, due to personal circumstances David could not continue to look after 203 and consequently it returned to the BTS fleet once again. With Walsall 872 departing from Sandtoft to go to the Aston Manor Road Transport Museum on 21 March 1993, the opportunity was taken to tow Cardiff 203 to Sandtoft where it took 872’s depot space. Throughout 1993 David Gledhill and others worked hard to finish off 203’s restoration and by June 1994 it was ready to operate at the Black Country Museum during their ‘Trolleybuses Galore’ event.
Following its stay at the Black Country Museum 203 was towed back to Sandtoft. The towing of 203 over the years has seen a few incidents take place and this tow was no exception. On the journey back a rear nearside tyre exploded causing damage to the underside on the vehicle and lifting out part of the rear wing! Repairs were carried out on arrival back at Sandtoft but sadly 203 saw little service after that as serious problems with its motor began to manifest.
203 remained in the depot until such time as funds could be obtained to carry out repairs and as a result the bodywork began to deteriorate. Following the restoration of South Shields 204 in 2005, Cardiff 203 was Mike Dare’s choice as the next vehicle to be restored when funds permitted.
Sadly, Mike passed away in 2005 as did another staunch trolleybus enthusiast, Geoff Griffiths in 2003, a Welshman and author of the Trolleybooks history on Llanelli Trolleybuses. Geoff was also well known at Sandtoft, Black Country Museum and Carlton Colville for all the electrical work he carried out at these museums as well as the Cardiff and South Wales Trolleybus Project team. The BTS committee considered it would be a good idea if Cardiff 203 was restored in memory of both Mike Dare and Geoff Griffiths and an appeal for funds was made.
With enough funds now in place, restoration work was started by Brian Maguire (bodywork) and Bruce Lake (electrical work) in early 2009. It has proved to be quite a costly restoration job as the electrical motor had to be sent away to repair a serious defect and all internal seating has had to be completely re-upholstered. 203 has been repainted into the streamlined livery it wore between 1946 and 1950 and was re-launched into service at Sandtoft on Sunday 30 May 2010 following a ceremony performed by BTS President Lord Stoddart of Swindon.
203 has been out of action in more recent times due to a persistent brake problem although it is hoped this will be fixed to get it back running in 2022.