Bus-y getting Nippy

A Little beauty: Iain Frith and his Little Nipper
A Little beauty: Iain Frith and his Little Nipper
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WHEN he was a little nipper Iain Frith used to ride the Little Nipper.

It was the Sheffield bus which took him to his nana’s Firth Park house every weekend back in the Eighties.

“Theoretically it was an awful vehicle,” he says. “It had the engine of a van and suspension seemed to be an optional extra the makers hadn’t bothered with

“But I loved it. Getting on was the highlight of my week. My nan would say I looked forward to the bus ride more than seeing her.”

The years have passed and so have the days when the Nippers were a common sight on Sheffield’s streets - but Iain’s passion, it seems, has not.

Today, only two of those vehicles - a unique mini-bus built by South Yorkshire Transport following deregulation in 1986 - still exist.

One is in Edinburgh, half scrapped for parts. The other is currently in Iain’s garage. He has spent some £3,000 rescuing, restoring and regenerating it.

“It’s taken a year to get it roadworthy and decked out properly,” says the 30-year-old. “The first person who’s getting a ride? My nan of course. She deserves it.”

She may or may not be pleased with the honour.

Only 189 of the Little Nippers were ever made but, for many passengers, that was 189 too many.

The buses (not to be confused with their slightly larger predecessor, the Nipper) were uniquely inexpensive. Which is to say they were made cheap. A Renault Dodge chassis and Perkins engine, more often used for vans, were covered with a flimsy body and notably uncomfortable upholstery. The vast majority of the vehicles were taken off the road by the mid-1990s.

“There are plenty of tales of them breaking down mid-journey,” says Iain, who works on the trains, as a catering manager. “They replaced a lot of double-deckers because they could get down more back streets so a lot of bus enthusiasts don’t like them. Me? I think they’re as great now as I did when I was a kid. Plus I like the idea of preserving a bit of Sheffield history.”

It’s not been an easy job.

Since the last handful of Little Nippers were decommissioned in 2003, Iain has tracked and traced all 189 to find their fate. He has a spreadsheet.

The bad news? All but two are gone.

“Some 150 were scrapped in a single week by First,” notes the 30-year-old who grew up in Heeley but now lives in Leeds. “It was like Night Of The Long Knives for Sheffield buses.”

The good? He managed to find one which had been sold to a Welsh bus company and was in use until 2009.

“It was up for sale so I bought it last year,” he says. “It cost £400 and it’s needed a lot more to do up but it’s priceless to me.”

It’s not his first such project, either.

He’s been doing similar things with decommissioned buses since he was 16. This is the 15th he’s owned but he’s sold the rest on after doing them up. This one he’s keeping.

“No-one’s getting my Little Nipper,” he says. “What will I do with it? Drive it around and take it to conventions. She’s a beauty.”

A generation of passengers may not agree. But you can’t argue with passion like that.