Thomas Henry Barton (later O.B.E.) used a Durham Churchill charabanc to start the company's first service, between Long Eaton and the Nottingham Goose Fair, in October 1908. (Many years later, in 1953, Barton built a replica of its original Durham Churchill vehicle, using a Daimler chassis dating from 1911.)
T. H. Barton had already had experience of operating a motorised bus, in Mablethorpe, some nine years earlier.
During World War I, the fleet was used to transport workers to and from the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell. Also during the War, Barton pioneered the use of town gas as fuel, converting the whole fleet to run on it. The gas was stored in a large "bag" on the roof of the bus, and the company also manufactured these bags for sale to other operators.
The 1920s saw fierce competition in the British bus industry. Barton imported Lancia chassis from Italy, which were lengthened by Barton. The vehicles were known as "Bartons Gliders" and their speed and smooth riding provided a competitive advantage.
Barton scored a first by operating the first diesel-engined passenger-carrying road vehicle, a Lancia, in 1930. T. H. Barton had earlier been an engineer at Hornsbys where he had worked on the early development of "oil engines" (he always refused to use the term "diesel"). Leylands were purchased from the mid 1930s and made up a large part of the fleet by the beginning of the Second World War. Starting in 1939, a fleet of Leyland Titan TD5 and PD1 double-deckers with stylish, front-entrance, lowbridge bodywork by Duple was purchased, which appeared very modern by the standards of the day.
Barton gained a reputation for having a varied fleet of vehicles during the 1950s and 1960s. Barton was a prolific rebuilder of buses, producing both coaches and double-deckers on rebuilt chassis. Ironically, the chassis of some of the BTS1 "Viewmaster" single-deck coaches had previously been double-deckers, whilst those of the BTD2 full-fronted double deckers were formerly single-deckers. Many new and secondhand buses also joined the fleet, and Barton kept up its modern double-deck image with Northern Counties-bodied AEC Regents which had wrap-around windscreens on both decks. Also built to the same style was a unique vehicle, no. 861, which had lowbridge bodywork on a lowheight Dennis Loline chassis, and was the lowest ever roofed British double-decker.
During the 1950s Barton had over 280 vehicles and 1000 employees. Numerous small companies were purchased, especially in the 1960s, including Hall Brothers of South Shields on Tyneside, and Robin Hood Coaches of Nottingham, whose emblem was retained and applied to the whole fleet
From the early 1970s, Barton began to standardise on new coaches for all of its purchases. Most were either Leyland Leopards or Bedford Y-series, and the large majority had Plaxton Elite Express or Supreme Express bodywork, built with a wide doorway and other minor modifications making them eligible for a Government grant towards their purchase. The wide variety of older vehicles was eradicated within a few years. By this time Barton was Britain's largest independent bus operator, and it was very unusual for such a large operator to use coaches on all of its local services, as well as on tours and express work. In 1981 the company joined the British Coachways consortium which competed with National Express on long-distance routes. The consortium was wound up in 1982.
In 1983, Barton bought five Leyland Tigers and five DAF MB200s with Plaxton Paramount bodywork, these being the company's first modern 12m coaches, although not its first 12m vehicles, since Barton had experimented with lengthening a Daimler bus to 40' before the First World War. From 1984 until the sale of the fleet in 1989, Barton standardised on the DAF MB with Plaxton Paramount bodywork, a further 26 being purchased.
On October 1, 2008, the journey of the first Barton bus, from Long Eaton to Nottingham's Market Square, was recreated to mark the centenary of the company. Buses and coaches from each decade of service travelled along the route, becoming more modern in turn.
Barton also had a road freight haulage operation for a number of years.
From 1929 until 1991, Barton owned 50% of the South Notts Bus Company, based in nearby Gotham.
Barton's fleet livery was red, cream and maroon. The fleetname (rendered as BARTON) was placed within a flag motif on the vehicle sides, and, from the 1960s onwards, a detailed picture of Robin Hood was placed alongside.
Barton operated from many depots and outstations over the years. The largest depot was at the company's headquarters in Chilwell. Others were: