In Pictures: FirstGroup Liveries in Greater Manchester Through the Ages

A photographic journey of the many variations of FirstBus/FirstGroup liveries in Greater Manchester

Volvo Olympian, Alexander body, R622 JUB, First Pioneer, Ashton-under-Lyne bus station

Though the last week has seen First Manchester being reprimanded by Beverley Bell, the timing of FirstGroup’s new livery may be seen by some critics as a way to bury bad news. In the last week, I have seen one example in Ashton bus station on the 409 route. In my eyes, it was no great change on the ubiquitous Barbie livery, apart from the fact that 45˚ angle lines replaced the curved lines.

Prior to the introduction of the outgoing Barbie livery (which we shall be seeing for some time on our older vehicles), there was a number of regional liveries. In West Yorkshire, Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds sections of Yorkshire Rider had separate liveries and were known as Kingfisher, Calderline, Bradford Traveller and Leeds City Bus. In Greater Manchester, some vehicles had the FirstBus/FirstGroup logo though maintained the GM Buses North liveries. Pennine’s buses retained PMT’s yellow and red livery till October 2000.

The Barbie livery, and its variations has been with us for over 15 years. That is longer than the SELNEC and first Greater Manchester Transport liveries combined. Also longer than Ralph Bennett’s livery on Manchester City Transport’s Leyland Panthers and Atlanteans. Owing to its longevity, we will see generations who haven’t seen a First vehicle in a localised livery. At least till now…

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1996 – 2004: First Manchester ‘Tomato Soup’ livery

Tomato Soup liveried Leyland Olympian
One of a cast of 600: a freshly repainted Leyland Olympian in the tomato soup of FirstBus’ local livery. © 1997 Delta Bus

No round-up of Greater Manchester’s FirstBus/FirstGroup liveries is complete without the infamous Tomato Soup of First Manchester. When I first saw the livery, the first thing I noticed was ‘what have you done to the lovely orange of GM Buses North?’. Though the livery looked well on modern vehicles, particularly the R-reg low floor Darts, unkempt middle aged vehicles looked shabbier than they would have done in the previous livery. The tomato soup livery was quite a common sight in Halifax on the 562 service, where they were seen on Northern Counties bodied dual purpose MCW Metrobuses.

1996: First Manchester Tomato Soup Prototype

Prior to arrival of this livery, there was a short lived experimental version with tomato soup broken by a broad diagonal line of Metropolitan Orange. The line filled half of the bus and had the ‘Greater Manchester’ lettering and FirstBus logo in tomato soup red. The early incarnation lacked the dark blue lines. Now, both the Metrobuses which employed that livery and the colour scheme itself are a thing of the past.

1996 – 1998: Gold Service livery

First Manchester 561 980312 Wigan
At one time, the only national livery FirstBus had was allocated for their Gold Services, used on profitable routes and often furnished to a higher standard than other routes. This example is seen in Wigan bus station on a part route working of the 600 to Ashton-in-Makerfield. © 1997 Maljoe

Prior to the launch of the Barbie livery which we know and love (or loathe), the only national livery FirstBus had was a cream livery for its Gold Service routes. The Gold Service concept, and its livery, was influenced by practices within Grampian Regional Transport and the GRT Group. Popular services would be given the Gold Service treatment with first pick of the new buses and dedicated branding. In 1998, the mainly cream livery was discontinued, though the Gold Service concept continued into the 21st century. These subsequently formed part of the Overground concept launched in 2001.

1996 – 2001: First Calderline livery

00650-XBU17S-Leyland Fleetline FE30-(7221)-First Calderline
Though not strictly in Greater Manchester, yet a former GMT standard. This is XBU 17S, a Leyland Fleetline in preserved form photographed at a transport rally at Elland Road, Leeds. Its three piece indicator advertises the scenic and now defunct 562 route from Oldham to Halifax. © 2009 Day 192

Right up to the start of the 21st century the blue and yellow relief on First Calderline’s mainly white livery was a regular feature in Oldham and Rochdale on the 562, 528, 589 and 590 routes. What Calderline made up for in lacking new buses was enthusiast appeal, given the number of ex-GMT standards that moved across the Pennines. Then there was TJ Walsh’s minibus fleet and some of Skircoat Lane’s finest cast-off minibuses (appeasing Bread Vanophiles as well as lovers of proper buses).

1996 – 2001: First Kingfisher/First Huddersfield livery

First Huddersfield, 2001.
Identity crisis: a former London Metrobus in the later version of the green First Huddersfield livery approaching Huddersfield bus station. © 2001 Clare Pendrous

Just to confuse the spotter, or the passenger further, there was more than one variant of late 1990s First Kingfisher/First Huddersfield livery. One harked back to the Rider Group’s version of the livery. The other was FirstBus’ take on the Rider Group livery. The top picture shows FirstBus’ version. Seen below is the Rider Group’s livery, still seen on some vehicles up to the 21st century.

Identity crisis 2: a former GMT standard in another version of the First Kingfisher livery. The lighter green diagonals appear to be a legacy of Rider Group ownership. © 2008 ManchesterBusMan

Spot the difference: with the above picture, there is greater use of lighter green vinyls.

1999: First Manchester Easylink livery

Dennis Dart, First Manchester Easylink livery, Meadowhall Shopping Centre car park, Sheffield
Nice and EasyLink Did It: First Manchester and North Western’s joint response to competition in Wigan and Leigh between FirstBus, British Bus and independent companies. Author’s collection.

As of now, competition in Wigan was between the successors of  a former PTE concern and a former National Bus Company subsidiary. Historically, there was competition between Merseybus and GM Buses. Furthermore, North Western (Mark 2) competed with GM Buses and Warrington Borough Transport between Chorley and Warrington.

British Bus, later Arriva, had – and still has – a fair presence in Wigan. In 1996 – 98, there was Leigh Line and numerous other local brands adopted by British Bus. First Manchester, successors to GM Buses North, responded to this with EasyLink.

1996 – 2000: Potteries Motor Traction/First Pennine livery:

PMT Hong Kong tri-axle Volvo Olympian K482 EUX. ©1999 Cliff The Milk

The yellow and red of Potteries Motor Traction was a common feature among Tameside and Stockport bus users as much as it was in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Pennine’s buses were repainted in PMT livery by 1994 following Badgerline’s acquisition of the one time independent. The rear of each bus had a cartoon style badger’s head on the sides. When I first saw the livery in 1994, it looked well on its then newly acquired Dennis Darts. At the time it had the red dotted arrow logo with ‘Pennine’ written in yellow on the arrow.

2001 – 2009: Faded Barbie Livery

30223 Volvo Olympian, Stalybridge (Armentieres Square)
Better on paper, but in service…? The faded vinyls put years on some older buses, as seen here with this former Capital Citybus Olympian seen on Armentieres Square, Stalybridge. © 2008 ManchesterBusMan

In 2001, FirstGroup considered the idea of two different versions of the Barbie livery. New buses would display the original Barbie livery whereas older buses would have a different version as seen here. Vinyls were used to achieve the fade effect seen at the bottom. On the first year of introduction, some vehicles were repainted into the Barbie 2 livery minus vinyls making for an austere and half hearted look.

1998 – to date: Standard Barbie livery

Scania N94UA OmniCity bendibus, YN05 GYA, First Manchester
Ever dependable: the nationwide FirstGroup livery.

Destined to be with us for some time on older buses, this is being phased out on more modern vehicles. The livery has been with us for over 15 years and stood its ground against the cow horns of Arriva and the swirls of Stagecoach. Given the poor weathering conditions of the Barbie 2 livery, this was later adopted on older vehicles, hence:

Volvo Olympian, P540 HMP, Northern Counties Palatine I body, First Manchester, Oldham
Beats the fade effect any day: the application of standard Barbie livery to older vehicles, as seen on this Volvo Olympian – late of Stagecoach.

There is a subtle difference in that indigo relief is applied below the windscreen.

2003: West Coast Main Line rail replacement buses

Rail Replacement Bus, First Manchester, Station Approach, Manchester Piccadilly railway station
Stylish: the then new buses for the West Coast Main Line Rail Replacement Bus service in 2003. Author’s collection.

Mention the three words ‘rail replacement bus’ and be very surprised to hear anything complimentary. The very name conjures up images of life expired buses even though some coaches tend to surpass the rail based rolling stock (especially so in Greater Manchester) in terms of comfort and quality.

Owing to the scale of engineering works on the West Coast Main Line, FirstGroup won the contract to supply rail replacement buses. Instead of the standard Barbie livery, a modified version with greater use of indigo was adopted. On completion, these attractive vehicles would later see service on the 26 route to Leigh.

2011: Hybrid Barbie livery

First Greater Manchester Hybrid Volvo B9TL, BN61 MWJ, Middleton
Tin foil beauty: The hybrid version of the Barbie livery.

Mattel’s favourite anatomically challenged doll had her conscience pricked when she found Ken couldn’t drive to Kendal Milne for his suit. Living in Alkrington Garden Village (yeah right), they were a short walk away from the 17 route, operated with hybrid buses. Barbie showed Ken this silver machine, though they wanted £9.00 for the privilege (two FirstDay tickets by the way).

The latest version of the outgoing Barbie livery seems to be a half way house between the old order and the new order being introduced this year. These hybrid vehicles eschew the white in favour of silver. Indigo is relegated to a swirl with the skirt painted in shocking pink.

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And the new livery…?

FirstGroup’s new livery has taken us full circle towards 1996, when popular liveries had to have – it seemed – one diagonal go faster stripe from the roof to the wheelbase. Paradoxically, swirled liveries were designed to suit the more curvaceous buses of the future, yet were applied on more boxy looking vehicles (like the GMT standard double decker). The Denim Barbie livery (my name, owing to its greater emphasis on the faded indigo) is being applied to curvy buses. Therefore, on that note, will the bus of the future opt for sharper angles as seen here with this mock up of a Nottingham City Transport vehicle?

If... Greater Manchester Transport opted for Nottingham City Transport style Leyland Atlanteans

S.V., 12 February 2012.

All copyrights retained by the original photographers where stated herein.


13 thoughts on “In Pictures: FirstGroup Liveries in Greater Manchester Through the Ages

Add yours

  1. I read about it in the Oldham adverterier it does not suprise me its about time something is been done about it but the other day was waiting for the 350 from Uppermill at 14.25 it came and slowed down as if to stop at bus stop then sped of luckly the 353 was behind so got that and so did some others who wanted 350

    yestaday me and my father waited for one to Uppermill that was 20 mins late and today I was waiting for one from Uppermill it was 4 mins early and would not wait to time

    I think if they carrying on acting like this they should lose the services would love to see stagecoach get the routes on centrebus in the area good on Beveley Bell


  2. Hi Mike,

    The main issue for me regarding First Manchester’s officially sanctioned slapped bottom is how it took so long for VOSA to take notice.

    The launch of the new livery is part of a nationwide rollout. However, for us Mancunian bus users, it does seem like a way to bury bad news owing to the timing of their announcement (and Beverley Bell’s action against them). Therefore a mere window dressing exercise isn’t going to make our conurbation’s buses any better.

    Returning to the actual subject, I miss the local liveries in the sense that it gave passengers and myself some idea as to whether they were in Huddersfield, Manchester, Weymouth or Aberdeen. It added colour to our streets compared with the Barbie liveries, swirls or cow horns. If anything, a standardised livery avoids the need for repainting jobs whilst buses are being cascaded and nothing else. Therefore all it takes is a change of ownership particulars and indicator equipment (or paper and felt tip pens).

    Bye for now,



  3. Wright Gemini 37452 made it into Central Mcr Sat in the new livery seen on Oldham St just before operating a journey on Service 83 to Oldham.
    The local fleetnames didn’t last long! None to be seen on this one!
    Apparently they’ll be 9 buses done for Oldham depot to be launched on one route at the end of Feb/early March, a main trunk route into Manchester (also quoted elsewhere as the 409).
    These are part of a broader campaign to relaunch three services in the North region of First: SY X78, the Dewsbury Road corridor in Leeds and 409 in Oldham. The re-launches are to happen in March as the start of a two year programme. Not just a livery change, but every part of the route, buses, drivers, cleanliness, timings etc.


    1. Hi Paul,

      If the gamble pays off on the 409, I would be happy to see it extend to other services. I hope it doesn’t peter out Mr Toad of Toad Hall fashion like the Gold Service and Overground concepts. After 16 years of indifferent to diabolical standards, I hope they succeed in turning this around, though it may take some convincing the travelling public.

      First and foremost, the product (timekeeping, state of buses, friendliness) more than anything needs changing, something which no change in livery alone can acheive. Nationally, all eyes will be on Giles Fearnley, and if he can work the same magic he did with Blazefield Holdings, who knows? (though I wouldn’t expect leather seated and branded 409 buses by 2014)

      Bye for now,



      1. I think you’re going to have to eat your words on that last comment 1001, as it seems to have happened a full 2 years before you thought it probably wouldn’t! 😉


  4. and hopefully on time aswell polite drivers new Ticket manchies in Pioneer and Oldham buses today been told that 31952 is back at Dukinfield for good and joined by 40408


    1. I’ve often found the drivers on First Pioneer services quite polite. The new ticket machines will also be rolled out onto Bury and Queen’s Road buses by next week.

      On my Twitter feed, I have shared a link on First’s new ticket machines. For the benefit of those who haven’t followed me yet on the said social networking site, here’s the link: – everything you needed to know about First Manchester’s new Almex Optima BL machines.


    1. I think they seem to be phasing the machines in slowly but surely. I know for sure that the whole of First Manchester will have them by the end of this month. Further Almex Optimas have already been fitted on their Scottish and Welsh operations.


  5. Just found this article and had to point out two errors:

    1) Easylink was a branding/livery applied to the buses used on the Easylink network of routes in Wigan – 624, 630, 664 and 674. The livery was a tender requirement, it was used by both North Western and Springfield Coachways when they had the contract (in fact the buses First used were previously owned by Springfield and were taken on by First when they got the contract after Springfield’s license was revoked). It was done to make the buses more obvious at a time when low floored buses were still a rarity… the North Western buses were step entry Darts with a lift attached. Think of it as a later version of LocalLine. The livery was dropped when SLT gained the contract as low floored buses were much more commonplace.

    2) The West Coast liveried buses were used on the 26 *during* the period of the rail replacement works. Most of the work was carried out at the weekends, so the buses were deployed on the 26 during the week, with Queens Road (instead of Trafford Park) running it at weekends using an eclectic mixture of buses. After the WCML upgrade had finished, Trafford Park closed and the 26 moved to QS full time.


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