Meet Edinburgh ‘paint shop pro’ John Dickson - Lothian Buses’ last ever signwriter

PAINT brush in hand, one Edinburgh man spent a career clashing with Titans and enhancing the bodies of Olympians.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 6th April 2019, 1:40 pm
Updated Saturday, 6th April 2019, 1:44 pm

But John Dickson was no scholar of the epics and odysseys of Ancient Greece. The double-decker “deities” he laboured over were of the madder and white-liveried Leyland variety.

For more than three decades, Royston-born John was a paint shop pro at the Shrubhill depot, honing his skills in the noble signwriting and coachpainting trade for Edinburgh Corporation and Lothian Regional Transport.

John spent his working life on the buses, painting and decorating the fleet with adverts, numbers, destinations and registration plates. He was the last signwriter standing when Lothian made the job redundant at the turn of the millennium.

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Joining Edinburgh Corporation Transport (ECT) aged 16 in 1963 as a parcel boy, he worked his way up and fulfilled his dream of becoming a signwriter for the firm by the end of the decade.

But, according to John, you couldn’t get a job with ECT unless you already had a relative employed by the firm.

“A friend of mine was a driver, so I made him my uncle,” says John, explaining the corporation’s nepotistic approach to hiring fresh faces.

“I was offered a few jobs, office department, mechanic, but I saw the painters having a great time. I waited for that.”

John Dickson started as a parcel boy with LRT/Edinburgh Corporation Buses, and went on to be a sign writer, painting the advertising banners and company logos on the buses.

In 1965, John was handed a couple of brushes and began his apprenticeship in the main workshop, learning how to paint loose panels. After six months or so he moved up to the paint shop and joined a team of six men, working two buses at a time.

He quickly gained confidence and became an integral part of the team. Some jobs, however, left a little to be desired. “As an apprentice, we got all the rotten tasks; the dirty jobs, like painting inside the cabs and under the front canopy,” explains John, “really mucky tasks. “Me being wee, I always got picked on to do under the staircase.”

Painting the bus advertisements was what John enjoyed the most. This involved rolling out some fablon and making up a ‘pounce’, as the painters called it, and then tracing through the advert and painting it, before applying the finished panel on to the body of the vehicle.

John’s team was also responsible for painting the destination boards and, perhaps most intriguingly, the bus registration numbers. The letters and numbers were reverse painted on to glass panels that could be lit up at night.

John Dickson has a large collection of LRT-related ephemera and memorabilia.

Having been a keen artist since his school days, John loved his profession and took great pride in it. “It was so relaxed”, he says, “you weren’t harassed, you did your job and got well paid for it. The painters got paid more than the drivers and I got more for being a signwriter.”

It’s not the first time John’s work has warranted column inches in the Evening News. Back in the late seventies, he made a very visible spelling gaffe that, rather ironically, was linked to one of literary legend Sir Walter Scott’s best-known works.

“I’m not very good at spelling,” John reveals, “And I mind once I did an A board for the tour buses up on Waverley Bridge. Of course I spelled Waverley wrong and the Evening News picked it up and did a story.”

John saw a great deal of changes during his time working on the local bus fleet. New models, such as Leyland Atlanteans were introduced, which consigned the rear entrance door to the history books and allowed for one-man operation and the loss of the legendary conductors.

John Dickson painted the first LRT logo on the side of a bus in Edinburgh

When ownership of Edinburgh Corporation Transport was passed on to the city council’s department of public transport in 1975, the firm was renamed Lothian Regional Transport. This meant a rebranding and John was responsible for painting the very first of the company’s new ‘LRT’ logos, that would become ubiquitous in Edinburgh.

“They wanted to see how it looked. So rather than get them all printed first they got me to write it on side of a bus and see what it looked like,” explains John.

Sadly, John’s 37-year career with Edinburgh’s local bus service came to an abrupt end in 2000. He was the LRT’s last signwriter, just as the firm was being rebranded as Lothian Buses.

“It was when the vinyl adverts came in, they were already printed so we didn’t have any more adverts to do.

“They actually closed the paint shop. The management was taken over and they wanted to trim the place down. They offered us early retirement. I chose the money.

“The thing was I really loved my job... It was quite sad to go.”

John Dickson and the rest of the painting team

Now aged 70, John takes it easy, but his fixation with painting buses has never waned.

He is an avid collector of all sorts of ECT and LRT related ephemera and has a collection of more than 100 miniature models of corporation buses that he painstakingly paints himself.

This year marks the centenary of Lothian Buses and part of the celebrations includes a vintage running day next Saturday, so there’s a fair chance the “art” of John Dickson will return to the streets of Edinburgh.

And thanks to John’s own handwritten notes from his days as an apprentice, which detail the work he undertook and the date it was done on, he’ll know with absolute certainty if his handiwork is on display.

John at work.
John Dickson at work
John Dickson painting number plates
John started as a parcel boy in 1963.