At the start of the 20th century, London’s buses – or omnibuses, as they were then known – were run by different companies, each operating different routes and using colour to distinguish their buses from those of their competitors.
The year 1907 saw the merger of the Vanguard Motor Bus Company and the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC), then the dominant force in the London bus business. The company took the LGOC name but retained Vanguard’s robust red buses. Bizarrely, however, no record was kept to explain why the cardinal colour was initially chosen.
So to answer the question, ‘Why are London buses red?’ – essentially, nobody knows. And if somebody claims they do know, they’re probably making it up.
There is some speculation, however, that the colour may have been chosen for reasons of practicality. Red is not only particularly durable, it is also symbolic of strength and national pride.
When London Transport was established in 1933, they newly formed transport authority decided to retain the radiant red of the Vanguard/LGOC buses and the rest, as they say, is history.
All we know is that any attempts to change the colour of London buses would likely be met by fierce resistance from Londoners and tourists alike, as we have all become somewhat emotionally attached to our iconic red buses over the years.
Want to know more about the history of transport in the capital? Visit the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.