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Last modified Sunday, July 22, 2001 10:00 PM PDT

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Endangered double-deckers sit in Murrieta field

    CYNDY SULLIVAN / Staff Photographer
    Don Vierstra of Murrieta owns three double-decker buses that he had hoped to use for a tour company. Three double-decker buses from England that Vierstra bought for $225,000 in 1993 now sit idle near his Murrieta home.


      HENRI BRICKEY
      Staff Writer

      MURRIETA ---- In the field next to Don Vierstra's home in the west end of town, a few things seem a little out of place. Amid the brown grass stubble, weeds and aging clunkers, sit several European classics.

      Vierstra admits his three double-decker buses turn a lot of heads.

      But if people knew the story behind the buses, they'd probably take a closer look and appreciate the triplet of transporters.

      Vierstra, 66, says he bought the buses for $225,000 in 1993 and planned to use them for tours in conjunction with the Western Entertainment Center, a western-themed entertainment and shopping center once planned for Temecula.

      "That's the only reason I bought them," Vierstra said.

      When the center went belly up in the late 1990s, Vierstra played with the idea of using the buses for a tour company, but the idea never took off.

      "I just ran out of gas," Vierstra said.

      Since then, weeds have grown around the buses' tires. Spider webs cling to the vehicles' circular stairways and a thick layer of dust covers the paint that once shined bright red.

      But underneath all the dust are three vintage vehicles and a story about survival.

      To the untrained eye, Vierstra's buses seem like typical double-deckers. But in the small world of double-decker bus enthusiasts, Vierstra's buses are special.

      Only 76 buses like Vierstra's were manufactured in the early 1950s to fulfill a special function for London Transport, the bus company serving England's capital city at the time.

      What makes Vierstra's buses unique are their height, a characteristic that distinguishes them as RLHs (Regent Low Height), a mutated double-decker built 14 inches shorter than its counterparts. Their specialized height enabled them to pass through tunnels in parts of London where bridges were built lower than in other areas.

      An anomaly among London's busing fleet, the shorter RLHs lived in the limelight and performed a duty no other bus could do. But their special place in London's history was short-lived.

      By 1971, London's bus routes had bypassed all the low bridges and the RLH double-deckers became expendable. They were forced to make their living another way.

      Almost half of them were exported across the Atlantic and used by restaurants and other businesses for advertising ---- like RLH 7, which was last seen at a movie rental store in Topeka, Kan., in 1987, according to a bus enthusiast club that tracks the stray RLH buses still in existence. Several such clubs have Web sites with "survivors lists" where buses are listed by model, serial number and last known location.

      Others buses, like RLH 59, fared worse. Fifty-nine made a long voyage across the ocean to Atlanta in 1969, only to be mutilated in a traffic accident several months later.

      Other siblings in the RLH clan held on longer, like RLH 26, which made it all the way to Hawaii before being sold to a junkyard in Kailua in 1984.

      Other RLHs seem to have simply disappeared.

      One Web site, posted by Timebus Travel, has whittled the number of remaining buses down to 25, including the three in Vierstra's field ---- RLH 53, 69 and 71. Only a handful of the survivors are operational.

      But it's the nature of a bus to move, and Vierstra says 53, 69 and 71 could still end up back on the road where they belong.

      "I will donate the buses to somebody if they'll pay the shipping charges," said Vierstra, who says he paid $15,000 to have each bus delivered to Murrieta from London.

      And if no one takes him up on his offer?

      "They'll just sit there," Vierstra says. "I enjoy driving by and seeing them."

      Contact staff writer Henri Brickey at (909) 676-4315, Ext. 2616, or [email protected]

      7/23/01

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