A Brief History of Bus Making in Leeds
Having made its mark in the construction of railway engines and road traction engines, it was perhaps logical that Leeds should progress to the construction of buses. The bus manufacturing industry has always been more spread out geographically than that relating to railways, the result being that only a handful of firms would exist in any one area, but it is perhaps telling that of the handful of British bus manufacturers that remain, one is still based in the Leeds area.
A few of the manufacturers that appear elsewhere on this site dabbled in bus production and other firms around the city produced buses on a small scale. Leeds was at the forefront of the development of the trolleybus with Railless Electric Traction Co operating at premises in the Balm Road area of Hunslet, close to many of the city's renown engine makers. R.E.T employee Charles Henry Roe went on to form his own firm on Balm Road but his business quickly outgrew the site.
The most successful, well known and long lived of the Leeds bus manufacturers was undoubtedly Charles H Roe Limited. The Roe works in Crossgates bodied Leyland buses until its demise in 1984 as a result of problems within British Leyland. Revived as Optare the following year the company went on to produce buses at the works until a move to nearby Sherburn In Elmet in 2011. After a number of changes of ownership the firm became part of Indian company and Leyland's former partners on the subcontinent; Ashok-Leyland. The company continues to innovate bus designs and develop electrical propulsion as those early firms had done a century before.
Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co
Robert Blackburn built his first aircraft in 1908, as fully covered on the aircraft builders page. In 1913 he moved to the Olympia Works in Roundhay Road, Leeds (formerly the Olympia Skating Rink) and the following year renamed his business as the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co., suggesting that there were plans to diversify the product range. Any such diversification was delayed by the demands of the First World war, however.
Initially the aircraft produced at Roundhay Road were test flown from nearby Roundhay Park, but as production stepped up this became unsuitable so, in 1915 a site was acquired at Brough, East Yorkshire, with facilities for testing both land and sea planes. In 1916 the Brough site was requisitioned by the Government, being returned to Blackburn's following the end of hostilities.
After the war Brough was briefly used by a subsidiary of Blackburn's, the North Sea Aerial Navigation Company, to operate a passenger and freight service to Holland, as well as resuming its testing duties.It was already becoming clear that it would make sense to move aircraft production to Brough (although it would be a number of years before this happened- the process was begun "by 1925" and completed in 1932) so the plans for diversification were dusted off, the intention seemingly being to keep the Leeds factory fully occupied by increasing the output of other products as aircraft production wound down.
The first manifestation was the production of a small number of luxury motor car bodies, beginning in 1919. It is stated that Robert Blackburn had financial links to Jowett Cars Ltd of Bradford; the latter was reformed as a limited company in 1919 so it is likely that this involvement was as a shareholder. Jowett had moved to a new factory (at Springfield Works, Idle) following the end of the First World War, but it was not ready to start production until 1920, the implication being that some production was carried out at Roundhay instead. It is not known if the resulting cars were branded Jowett's or Blackburn's.
In 1922 the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company produced its one and only trolleybus body. The chassis was constructed by an unspecified builder for Trackless Cars Ltd, Hepworth Chambers, Leeds, who were a supplier of trolleybus equipment. They could also supply vehicles using a similar system to Railless, whereby the various components (chassis/body/motors) were sourced from outside companies. Unlike Railless, Trackless Cars do not appear to have had their own facility to assemble the vehicles, the bus in question being assembled at Blackburn's factory. Whilst the chassis manufacturer was not recorded (possibly deliberately), it is known that the motors and controller came from Dick, Kerr.
The "Tramway and Railway World" described the body produced by Blackburn's as a "strikingly novel design" which seems to be a euphemism for extremely ugly. On a more positive note it also stated that the body was "in every way admirable" indicating that build quality and finish were to a high standard. The body produced was double- deck, 13 feet 10 inches in height and with a centrally- placed entrance door. The seating capacity in its later life was 35 upstairs and 28 downstairs, its initial capacity is the source of some confusion as it is quoted in a review as 34 upstairs and 30 down, with an accompanying diagram showing 29 seats downstairs(!) Unusually for the time, the front and rear roof domes were curved as was the leading edge of the first side window on each deck and the trailing edge of the last side window on each. Most trolleybus bodies of this era were very square looking, being based heavily on tram car practice, so these styling touches made the Blackburn product stand out. Unfortunately the cab area followed normal practice at this time; it protruded from the lower front of the body rather than being built fully into it, and this combined with a heavy- looking splasher over the rear wheel and a heavy, protruding line of what appear to be ventilators along the lower deck windows conspired to ruin the lines of the vehicle.
Registered NW 5550, the bus entered service as a demonstrator, touring various systems to try to drum up orders. In the event only Bournemouth and the London Underground Group (the latter at Twickenham) were tempted to try it. In December 1923 the vehicle was sold to Leeds City Tramways, entering service in January 1924 alongside three other double- deckers (with bodies by Leeds City Tramways themselves) on the Farnley route. It was given fleet number 513. All four were soon withdrawn, in 513's case in January 1926. The exact reason for this is unconfirmed, but appears to have been down to the archaic steering system employed on the vehicles; this being similar to the arrangement on a traction engine. It was stated that it took 36 revolutions of the steering wheel to perform the u turn at Farnley terminus and there were difficulties negotiating several bends en route and steering around corners in the City centre. Although single- deckers at the time employed the same steering system, their lighter weight appears to have mitigated some of the difficulties.
513 was stored for a year, being sold in January 1927 to a buyer in Horsforth. As was common practice in the 1920's the chassis and body were sold as separate lots (because the metal chassis could usually be re-bodied, whilst the wooden- built bodies after a few years service were often fit only for use as farmers stores, hen houses etc.). In this case both chassis and body passed to the same buyer, suggesting that they were not physically separated before sale. In 1932 a photograph appeared in the "Yorkshire Evening Post" of 16th May, showing the former car 513 in use as a caravan on Otley Chevin. The subsequent history of the vehicle is unknown, whilst that of its manufacturer is covered on the aircraft page; see link above.
Clough, Smith & Company Limited
Clough, Smith were a firm of electrical engineers which was founded in London in 1910 by Messrs Norman Clough and Sidney G. Smith with the intention of promoting, designing and installing trolleybus systems. The company designed and installed all the Cedes-Stoll systems in the UK, such as in Keighley. The Cedes-Stoll system utilised a trolley which ran above the overhead wires and was permanently attached to them, the trolleybuses connecting to the trolley by means of flexible cables. When two trolleybuses travelling in opposite directions met they had to exchange trolleys by removing the flexible cables from one trolley and attaching to the other. Slow, cumbersome and unreliable, it soon fell out of favour.
Shortly after the First World War the company purchased six Brush trolleybuses which had been mothballed since 1915 and immediately resold them to the Teesside Railless Traction Board. Based on these vehicles, the Teesside manager designed a "new" trolleybus which Clough-Smith agreed to arrange manufacture of. The chassis were obtained from Straker-Squire, London; the electrical equipment from British Thomson Houston (BTH), Rugby and the bodywork from both Roe (Leeds) and Brush (Loughborough). The vehicles were marketed under the name "Straker-Clough" and provided as part of a package which included design and installation of the overhead wiring and equipment. 63 vehicles were supplied between 1921 and 1926, however in 1925 Straker- Squire went into liquidation forcing Clough- Smith to find a new partner, at least when chassis supplies were exhausted.
The new partner was Karrier Motors of Huddersfield, who supplied a modified version of one of their existing chassis. Between 1926 and 1932, 44 Karrier-Clough trolleybuses were supplied to 5 operators; following which Clough, Smith appears to have exited the trolleybus market. Apparently, the above company had premises in Leeds where some manufacturing of electrical equipment was carried out and where component parts of vehicles were assembled, similar to the system used by Railless. Unfortunately, research in the Trade Directories of the time has failed to find any mention of the firm, including when the premises opened/closed or where they were located. For completeness however, the history of this concern is included here and further research into its Leeds links is continuing.
Greenwood & Batley
A firm that seemed to turn their hands to anything, Greenwood and Batley ventured in to bus construction in 1907 with a petrol electric bus. A French Mutel 40hp engine drove a generator powering two motors driving the rear wheels. The chassis was displayed at the Commercial Motor Show that year. It was subsequently leased to Provincial Tramways Co (Grimsby) for a few months in 1911 before being bought by that company. It was withdrawn in 1914 and no further examples seem to have been made. This firm also made a number of trams covered in the tram section
Above - Greenwood and Batley's Petrol Electric bus seen during its career with Provincial Tramways of Grimsby (Photo - Stewart Brett)
Charles Henry Roe was born in York in May 1887, the son of Charles Roe who worked at the North Eastern Railway's carriage works and later became a foreman at the plant. Charles Henry Roe served his apprenticeship in the carriage works' drawing office before starting his first job in the trade as a draughtsman at Charles Roberts and Company's works in Wakefield, a firm which became known for the manufacture of railway wagons. Starting there in 1912 he moved to Leeds a year later to take up a position with the R.E.T. Company (see the RET section). Exempted from war conscription by his profession, Charles H. Roe set up his own business as an engineer and coachbuilder in 1917. Various accounts suggest that he set up "next door to" or "nearby" the premises of his former employer, the R.E.T. Company, but it is more likely that he simply rented a corner of their yard.
Above - Unfortunately this bus is not a Leeds product being a Volvo B9Tl with Wright "Eclipse Gemini" body, assembled in Irvine, Scotland and Ballymena, Northern Ireland. Its relevance to our story is that it is passing the site of Balm Road Mills, Leeds home of the Railless Electric Traction Company and the first factory of Charles H. Roe. Part of the mill buildings survives behind the bus. (Photo - Martin Latus)
Early products of the firm included flatbed trailers for traction engines, lorry bodies (an increasing market after the end of World War 1 as ex-military chassis became available) and Char-a-Banc bodies. Business was sufficient to warrant increasing the size of the works, and at least one source states that Roe "took over" the R.E.T Company; we know this to be false however, as the latter concern had been taken over by Short Brothers. It is more likely that Roe simply increased the area it rented from R.E.T. until it accounted for the majority of the site.
By 1919 further expansion at Balm Road was impossible, the area being hemmed in by housing, the Balm Beck and the Middleton and Midland railway lines. Charles H. Roe and his wife lived in Cross Gates near to a WW1 shell-filling factory which promptly came up for sale. To fund its purchase, Charles H. Roe Ltd. was registered on 26th May 1920, the shareholders including Charles Roe Senior and various family friends.
Following the move to the "Cross Gates Carriage Works", which took place in April 1921, Roe built its first double deck bus bodies, for Birmingham Corporation Transport, as well as continuing to build lorry and Char-a-Banc bodies, and they also constructed bodywork on limousines.
The share value of the company proved insufficient in the harsh trading conditions of the 1920s, and despite efforts to keep going during 1921, the company was voluntarily wound up during November 1922. A major factor in this was a late payment for the Birmingham double-deckers.
Various payments were made to the receivers of the original company who were then able to pay off the debts and report a small surplus. In early 1923 Charles H. Roe purchased the assets of the company in a personal capacity and formed Charles H. Roe (1923) Limited, this time with an increased share capacity.
The reformed company found itself bodying some Trolleybuses for Charles Roe's former employer, Railless Limited. Indeed the firm would go on to build a large number of trolleybus bodies, although they would always form a small proportion of the total output.
The first and last trolleybuses produced went to the same operator, the Teesside Railless Traction Board (TRTB). The first appeared in 1920 on a Straker-Clough chassis; it was a single decker with a seating capacity of 36, a remarkably high figure for the time. The last appeared in 1965 and will be covered later in the story. Most of the trolleybus bodies produced were virtually identical to their motor bus equivalents, the main differences being the inclusion of a full-width cab (as there was no bulky engine to take up half of the space) and the addition of the trolley booms (the poles which collected power from the overhead wire) and a structure on the roof to accommodate them. Up until the late 1920s most double decker buses, both motor and trolley, had a protruding cab which meant that the leading edge of the body was set back from the front of the vehicle. On trolleybuses the booms were mounted at the front of the roof and thus were supported by the body's front end structure. When it became common for the cab to be incorporated into the body structure, the booms had to be placed above either the second or third side window in order to be in an equivalent position to those on the earlier vehicles; this being necessary to avoid putting the weight of the booms directly over the front (steering) axle and also as the geometry of the overhead wires had been based on the manoeuvring of those earlier buses. To hold the weight of the booms the window pillars in this area required reinforcing, and so trolleybus bodies could usually be distinguished by the presence of one or two thicker pillars on the upper deck side windows.
Some of the vehicles bodied for Railless were tested over the Leeds City Tramways trolleybus routes before delivery. Some other companies also sub contracted Roe to build trolleybuses on their behalf. One example was Karrier Motors, the vehicles in this case being badged as Karrier products.
Roe also produced a number of Lorries and char a bancs. Other excursions included a pair of railbuses on Ford chassis for the Derwent Valley Light Railway, supplied in 1924. These normally operated as a back to back pair with the front vehicle under power and the rear vehicle being hauled with the gearbox in neutral, although they could work singly between York and Skipwith at which places turntables were installed to turn the vehicles around, there being a cab at one end only. Despite impressive fuel economy, the railbuses could not save the passenger service on the DVLR. Following its cessation in 1926 the pair were sold for further service on the County Donegal Railways in Ireland.
Above - ROE bodied Model T Ford railbus on the Derwent Valley Light Railway (Photo John Pease Collection)
In 1928 Roe registered a patent for a machined continuous teak waist rail, which was designed to interlock with the vertical pillars of a bus body and with steel reinforcing strips, which when assembled bound it to the outer body panels. This was an early example of system-built bus bodywork in an age when most bodies were individually craft built.
Above - Early motorbus bodywork owed much to tramway practice, as shown by Roe bodied KH 6239. The bus had a Bristol "A" chassis and was supplied to Kingston upon Hull Corporation in 1928, becoming number 42 in its fleet. It had 56 seats. (Photographer unknown, M. Latus collection courtesy of the late Mike Pearson)
The chassis builder Bristol will feature more heavily later in our narrative, but makes its first appearance in 1929 when it exhibited a trolleybus at that year's Motor Show. Despite producing many thousands of motor bus chassis, this would prove to be one of only two trolleybuses that the firm ever constructed.
Following its time in the limelight, the chassis was despatched to Roe to be bodied. Strangely Roe only built the framework for the body, the vehicle then being sent to John C. Beadle of Dartford in Kent to have its panelling added. Why this was done is unclear, the only other vehicles that would be sent elsewhere for finishing would be the ones in build when the works closed, some 55 years later. The resulting bus was registered DT 2620 and entered trial service in Doncaster in 1930, being given fleet number 31. Doncaster bought the vehicle in 1932 and it ran until withdrawal in 1945.
A second excursion into the world of railway vehicles occurred in 1933 when Roe built a body on a Leeds built Hudswell Clarke chassis for the Army, for use on the Spurn Head Railway in East Yorkshire. Following the end of traffic on this line in early 1951 the Railcar was removed to Bicester Army depot, where the body was removed and the chassis used as a "runner" wagon, in which capacity it survived until at least the early 1970s.
The original company was finally wound up in 1934, following which the board of shareholders agreed to remove the (1923) from the new company's name. During the 1930s Roe concentrated more on its bus building activities gaining a reputation for solidly built and stylish bodies. An indulgence came in 1935 with the construction of a streamlined body on an AEC chassis for exhibit at the Commercial Motor Show and ultimately destined for Leeds Corporation, an ardent supporter of the local manufacturer.
Above - By November 1930 bus bodywork was looking a bit more, well, bus like. This is shown by Leeds City Transport 107 (UA 5856), a Leyland TD1 with Roe 54 seat body. The photo appears to have been taken on Otley Road, Headingley. (Photographer unknown, M. Latus collection courtesy of the late Mike Pearson)
Following the outbreak of World War 2 production of new buses was suspended by the Government in order to preserve materials for the war effort; those vehicles in build had their construction stopped. The Charles H. Roe factory initially concentrated on production of vehicle bodies for the war effort such as mobile kitchens and canteens. By 1942 however, operators were crying out for replacement vehicles due to increased traffic as a result of munitions, aircraft and other war-related factories in their areas; bombing losses or simply the expiry of pre-war bodies which were usually designed for a seven-year operating life. The Government thus decided to un-freeze the vehicles whose production had been halted, and these were then sent to wherever the need was greatest, irrespective of who had originally ordered them.
In 1943 this was followed by the production of "Utility" buses to fulfil the requirement for replacement buses. The chassis of these were fairly conventional if rudimentary, but the bodies were designed to use available materials such as "green" (un-treated) timber and were also shaped so that they could be constructed by unskilled workers, so that skilled panel-beaters etc. could concentrate on war production. Roe were selected as a "Utility" bodybuilder, eventually constructing 240 single and over 400 double-deckers. Following the end of the war, and when supplies of materials became available, demand for new buses rocketed.
Various companies had expressed an interest in acquiring or merging with Roe over a number of years. In 1939 both English Electric and Metro-Cammell Weymann had approached with a view either to amalgamation or takeover, whilst in 1945 amalgamation talks were opened with Mumford of Lydney, Gloucestershire. All were inconclusive and so it fell in 1947 to Park Royal of London to purchase a controlling stake in Charles H. Roe Limited, following which three Roe directors were replaced with Park Royal counterparts and Charles H. Roe joined the Park Royal board.
In 1949 Park Royal, and thus Roe, were taken over by Associated Commercial Vehicles (ACV), owners of bus chassis manufacturers AEC (Associated Equipment Company) and Maudslay, and of chassis and body constructor Crossley. Park Royal and Roe continued as independent concerns, but some rationalisation did occur. Production of composite (wood and metal) bodies was concentrated at Roe, whilst all-steel bodies were either constructed at Park Royal or by Roe on frames supplied by Park Royal.
Above - Jumping to 1952, Roe was owned by ACV and was cementing its reputation for building solid, stylish bodywork. This is demonstrated by preserved ex- West Riding Leyland Tiger PS2 733 (EHL 344), known as "Ethel" and seen at the Leeds Elland Road bus rally in 2009. (Photo Martin Latus)
In June 1952, Charles H. Roe resigned as managing director of the Leeds site and instead became company chairman. Throughout the 1950's Roe continued to supply robust and stylish products, notably the "Pullman" body for Leeds City Transport, which featured four large main side windows rather than the normal five small ones, and the "Coronation" trolleybus bodies for Kingston-upon-Hull Corporation, which had front entrances and centre exits long before such features became the norm. Roe also bodied some vehicles for East Yorkshire Motor Services featuring the "Beverley Bar" domed roof unique to this operator and specially shaped to pass through Beverley's North Bar (a medieval gate).
Above - Roe were prepared to build buses to customer requirements as shown here by East Yorkshire 652 (WAT 652), a 1957 AEC Regent V with composite teak/alloy bodywork seating 66. The most notable feature is the domed roof, designed to allow the bus to pass under the medieval North Bar in the town of Beverley. This was a feature of East Yorkshire buses for many years. In those days of manufacturing pride it was usual to photograph each completed vehicle prior to it leaving the works and this is one such "official" photograph. Copies of the pictures could be purchased by the customer. (Roe official photograph, M.Latus collection)
In 1953 the company experimented in tramcar construction, when two vehicles were produced for Leeds City Transport. Further details of these vehicles are included in the tram making article elsewhere on this site.
1953 also saw the first of sixteen "Coronation" trolleybuses supplied to Kingston Upon Hull Corporation. Based on Sunbeam chassis, these vehicles were little short of revolutionary. They were designed for one man operation (i.e. driver only) and featured an entrance door ahead of the front wheels and therefore adjacent to the driver's cab, and an exit forward of the rear wheels. Inside were twin staircases designed to improve the flow of passengers around the bus, with the front one for passengers going upstairs and the rear one for those coming down. A periscope was fitted to allow the driver to monitor the upper deck. Other modern features were an interlock which prevented the bus from moving with its doors open and "Earll Trolley Retrievers". These latter were two rotating drums on the bus rear (one for each trolley boom) around which was a rope attached at its other end to the relevant boom. Under normal operation the drums rotated to and fro, letting out and pulling in the rope to allow the booms to move as required. However if the boom came off the wire, the drum locked and prevented it from flying up and causing damage to the overhead. The lock could be overcome by pulling the rope up and then down, at which it released the rope and allowed it to be used to put the boom back onto the wire.
Due to the demise of trolleybuses in Britain (the last ran in 1972 in Bradford) the trolley retrievers never became commonplace, whilst the twin door arrangement and periscope would appear on motorbuses some fifteen years later. The door interlock would also reappear around that time on vehicles belonging to a handful of operators and usually only on the centre door, whilst twin staircases appeared spasmodically (see the "Rebuilt in Leeds" section at the bottom of this page) until finding their first mass market use on the Wright New Routemaster (or Borismaster) produced between 2012 and 2017.
The last Hull "Coronation" left the Roe factory in 1955. The vehicles never operated in one man mode; such operation of double-deckers was not legalised until the late 1960s. The Coronations were withdrawn in 1964 when Hull ceased running trolleybuses, sadly they were all scrapped by the following year at which point the oldest was just twelve.
Above - Kingston upon Hull Corporation Roe bodied Sunbeam MF2B "Coronation" trolleybus 114 (RKH 114) dating from 1955 turns from Prospect Street into Chapel Street in Hull City Centre whilst operating the final trolleybus route, the 63 to Beverley Road. As it does so it passes a Weymann bodied AEC Regent motorbus, number 334 (KRH 344). The latter was new in 1950 and highlights how futuristic the design of 114 and its sisters must have seemed just three years later, when the first of these trolleybuses entered service. Although the photograph is undated, these streets were only used by trolleybuses on the 63 between June and October 1964, the route having been diverted due to the introduction of a one way system, so the picture must have been taken in this four- month period. On 31st October the route was converted to motor bus operation and the last of Hull's trolleybuses were withdrawn. 114 met her end in a Barnsley scrapyard in 1965, aged just ten years, a fate shared by her fifteen sisters. What a waste! (M. Latus collection, original photographer unknown).
Off your trolley!|
The normal method of retrieving an errant trolleybus boom was for the conductor to use a bamboo pole which would be carried somewhere on the vehicle. The pole had a hook on the end which would be used to pull the boom down and place it back on the wire. As the Hull Coronations were designed to run without a conductor, the trolley retrievers were fitted to make the drivers life easier. They also had the advantage of stopping the boom from flying up too high and causing damage to the overhead equipment. The prototype Coronation carried a bamboo pole as a back up system, this being fitted in a specially created void in the chassis. Obviously the retrievers worked well enough, as the fifteen production buses dispensed with the back up pole.
1959 saw something of a bombshell for the bus industry in the form of Leyland's "Atlantean" double-deck chassis. This vehicle put the engine at the back and the door at the front, next to the driver-the exact opposite of the usual arrangement until this time. Concern was caused among bodybuilders due to the initial production being bodied only by either Metro-Cammell (Birmingham) or the associated firm of Weymann (Surrey), thus freezing firm's such as Roe out of the market for this revolutionary bus. One of the answers came from Guy Motors of Wolverhampton, who created the "Wulfrunian" chassis in association with Yorkshire operator West Riding. The Wulfrunian had a front engine which was angled over to create space for a front door and featured such radical ideas (for the early 1960s) as independent front suspension and disc brakes. Roe were approached for the bodywork, presumably due to West Riding wishing to support a local manufacturer. Suffice it to say the bus was not a huge success, but Roe bodied 131 of the 137 built. By 1961 the Atlantean had been made available to other body builders and Roe began constructing bodies on it.
Above - By 1967, Roe were bodying the rear-engined Leyland Atlantean. This is one of a batch supplied to Kingston-upon-Hull City Transport as its number 221 (JRH 421E), note the unusual single- piece windscreen. KHCT were also in the habit of taking "official" photos of its buses and this appears to be one such, possibly to show the bus in its new livery, introduced in 1973. Where did all that pride go? (Photographer unknown, M. Latus collection, courtesy of G. Emmett)
In the 1950s the British bus operating industry fell into three categories. Firstly there were the big groups; Tilling (who had been nationalised in 1949) and British Electric Traction (BET). Then came the Municipal (council owned) operations in most towns and cities. Finally came the independents (i.e. independent of big groups or councils). Many independents were quite small but there were exceptions, such as West Riding, who operated over 400 buses from six depots. Tilling also owned chassis manufacturer Bristol Commercial Vehicles and body manufacturer Eastern Coach Works (ECW, of which more later), and these concerns tended to supply most of Tilling's requirements, indeed supply of Bristol/ECW products to non-Tilling operators was forbidden between the early 1950s and 1965. This left suppliers such as Roe to look after BET, Municipal and Independent orders, Roe being particularly prominent in the latter two categories. The winds of change were blowing however. In 1962, ACV merged with Leyland Motors to form the Leyland Motor Corporation (LMC). In 1965 LMC sold a 30% share in Park Royal and Roe to the Transport Holding Company (THC - the government body which owned the Tilling group) in exchange for a 25% share in Bristol and ECW, this allowing the latter two builders products to return to the "open" market. In the meantime, Charles H. Roe had resigned as Chairman on 30th September 1962 and retired. He died on 30th November 1965 aged 78.
Something old, something new; a quick trip to Doncaster!|
Doncaster had received nine trolleybuses between 1943 and 1945 with utility bodies by Park Royal or Brush. They were sent to Roe between 1954 and 1958 to have new bodies constructed, the originals having worn out as was usually the case with utility buses. Roe also bodied ten new trolleybus chassis for Doncaster, beginning in 1955. Thus when Doncaster abandoned trolleybus operation in December 1963, it found itself with nineteen very youthful trolleybus bodies. Rather than try to sell the buses, or scrap them regardless, they sent them back to Roe to have the bodies fitted on new motorbus chassis. The work involved fitting a half-cab to the bodies to accommodate the engine and its bonnet. The buses could be identified by the thicker window pillar (see above) where the base for the trolley booms had been. They survived well into the 1970s, by which time Doncaster Corporation had become part of the South Yorkshire PTE.
Earlier in 1965 Roe had completed its last trolleybus body. It was a double-decker for the TRTB, and was constructed on a 1950 Sunbeam chassis. This vehicle had the last trolleybus body built for normal service in Britain. In the 1980s Alexander of Falkirk built a body on a Dennis Dominator trolleybus chassis for the South Yorkshire PTE, but the resulting vehicle was used only on a demonstration line in Doncaster and never entered ordinary service.
In 1967 BET sold out to the state- owned Transport Holding Company and West Riding followed suit. 1968 saw the Leyland Motor Corporation merge with the British Motor Corporation to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Also in this year an act was passed which enabled the formation of the National Bus Company (NBC), formed from the Tilling and BET groups and thus state owned, in 1969. In addition, the Municipal operators around Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Birmingham were formed into Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs), to be joined in 1974 by Glasgow, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire.
Above - The largest single customer for Roe products was Leeds City Transport and its successor the West Yorkshire PTE. One of 361 Leyland Atlantean's supplied to the latter from 1975 onwards, 6211 (JUM 211V) is seen here in Eastgate, Leeds in November 1998. By this time the PTE had been replaced by Yorkshire Rider which in turn had become Leeds City Link and then First Leeds. The two buses behind are also Roe products, sister bus 6244 (KWY 244V) and 6433 (KPJ 291W), the latter having been supplied new to London Country Bus Services (part of the National Bus Company) and later acquired by Yorkshire Rider. (Photo Martin Latus)
During the 1970s most of Leyland's single deck chassis were phased out in favour of the integral (i.e. all one structure, no separate chassis and body) Leyland National which was constructed in a purpose built factory in Workington. To fund its construction, the National Bus Company were sold a 50% share in Bus Manufacturers Holdings Ltd (BMH), to whom ownership of Bristol, ECW, Park Royal, Roe and the Leyland National factory was transferred, Leyland retaining the other 50%. Roe maintained a market share supplying the West Yorkshire PTE, South Yorkshire PTE, Independents and Municipals, and as previously mentioned its bodies were based on Park Royal designed frames. This latter fact gained some importance from 1978 as a result of tinkering by Roe's parent British Leyland who now sought to replace its double- deck range by introducing the integral Leyland Titan. This was to be assembled at Park Royal's London works, so to create space Park Royal's traditional body on chassis production was transferred to Leeds. These vehicles were mainly Leyland Atlanteans destined for NBC fleets as an alternative to the "first choice" Bristol/ECW VRT model. Most of the production had been badged as Park Royal - Roe products and it is impossible to tell without reference to the builder's plate within a particular bus which buses were built where, some being constructed in London, some in Leeds and some in Leeds on frames built in London.
Above - The Roe bodies supplied to National Bus Company (NBC) subsidiaries were all of this style which had been first produced by Roe's former parent, Park Royal. Leeds City Link 6428 (KPJ 257W) was another ex- London Country bus acquired by Yorkshire Rider, seen in York Street, Leeds in October 1997. (Photo B. J. Latus)
The Titan was beset with problems caused by industrial disputes at Park Royal, many operators severely reduced or cancelled their orders due to long delays in delivery, and most of those who did take delivery found the bus to be a horrendously complicated machine. Park Royal closed in 1981 with the Titan being offered to ECW at Lowestoft who declined to take it on. Production eventually moved to Workington, although by now only London Transport was interested. To protect its market share, Leyland incorporated the running units of the Titan into a conventional chassis known as the Olympian. This became the new NBC standard, bodied by ECW for the usual "low height" (13'8 tall) variant or by Roe for the "high bridge" (14'6 tall) version. Roe also supplied Olympians to West Yorkshire PTE.
Other products built at Cross Gates as the 1980s dawned included six articulated buses built on Leyland DAB chassis using modified Leyland National body sections and a number of Executive coaches semi integrally built onto a Leyland "Royal Tiger" chassis and known as the Roe Doyen. In 1982 Leyland had purchased the NBCs 50% share of Bus Manufacturers Holdings so that it now owned 100% of that concern. Bus orders were falling rapidly, partly as a result of uncertainty over the impending deregulation of the bus industry and the privatisation of the NBC, and partly due to the ending of the grant, instigated in 1968 whereby the government paid up to 50% of the cost of a new bus provided it was suitable for one man (later one person) operation. Leyland had also been rocked by the demise of its Austin car manufacturing subsidiary, and faced with the need to economise announced that it would be closing the Roe works in 1984.
The announcement in May of that year sparked a campaign by Leeds City Council to save the works and the 440 jobs within it, but despite various meetings, press coverage and hopes that funding would come from the West Yorkshire Enterprise Fund, the factory closed on 14th September 1984. Around 1/5 of Roe's production since 1928 had gone to Leeds City Transport and its successor, West Yorkshire PTE (1,307 and 646 buses respectively), so it was perhaps fitting that the last complete vehicle to leave was West Yorkshire PTE Leyland Olympian number 5144 (B505 RWY) on 31st August 1984. A further six buses were present in the works at the time of closure, also West Yorkshire PTE Olympians, 5501- 5506 (B141-5/506 RWY), these were sent to ECW at Lowestoft for final finishing consisting of fitment of seats and exterior painting, all departing Cross Gates within the first two weeks of September 1984. Thus the curtain fell on the Leeds bus manufacturing industry. Or so it seemed..
Above - The last complete bus to leave the Roe works was this vehicle, West Yorkshire PTE Leyland Olympian 5144 (B505 RWY), seen in later life with Leeds City Link departing Bradford Interchange in November 1997. (Photo - Martin Latus)
Lockwood and Clarkson
Lockwood and Clarkson, Motor Engineers, appear in the Trade Directory for 1921 at an address in Barclay Street, Leeds, which is now a truncated stub near the Sheepscar Interchange. Little is known of the firm's origins, but they were briefly active in the bus body construction industry during the First World War as sub contractors to the Railless Company. Possibly the usual suppliers to this concern were busy with war work. Two trolleybus bodies were supplied to Railless during 1915 for fitting to vehicles destined for Ramsbottom Urban District Council, becoming their fleet numbers 5 and 6. Between 1915 and 1917, a further four bodies were supplied as replacements for earlier Milnes Voss bodywork on Ramsbottom numbers 1 to 4, which had been new in 1913. As far as is known no other bus bodies were constructed by this firm. Lockwood and Clarkson were still in business in 1931, but as with their origins, the subsequent history of the firm is unknown.
Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Co
Mann of Pepper Road, Hunslet, produced steam lorries and a few of these formed the basis of steam buses. Their first was for export to India in 1905. In 1906 a steam bus was constructed for the home market for Westfield Coal Merchants of Doncaster and was used to transport miners to a pit several miles out of Doncaster. G.W.Leggott & Sons of Clayton, Manchester also had a 5-ton steam wagon converted to a charabanc around the time of the first world war.
The last known steam bus was supplied to Africa in 1922, based on the 5 ton steam wagon it also had a 4 wheel trailer with additional seating.
In the mid '20s Mann advertised a bus version of its Express steam wagon but by this time petrol powered buses where the norm and it is not thought that any examples were built.
Following the demise of local bus maker Charles H. Roe in 1984 efforts continued to revive the former works, these came to fruition in February 1985 when it was reopened by the Optare company. This concern had been formed by a group of former Senior Managers at Roe, led by Russell Richardson, who had pooled their redundancy money and also received some assistance from the West Yorkshire Enterprise Fund.
This was a bad time to start a bus manufacturer, uncertainty caused by impending deregulation and privatisation of the bus industry, combined with the ending of the bus grant (see above) meant that new bus orders had nose- dived. The only large orders around were for "minibuses"; smaller vehicles with around 16 to 20 seats which were operated at a high frequency and were becoming in vogue at this time. Most of these vehicles were converted from parcel vans by simply punching windows in the side and fitting seats. Generally speaking the traditional bodybuilders failed to get a hold in this market.
The PTEs were in the main too conservative to take these converted vans and so had demanded a small bus which was engineered like a big bus. Roe had designed a body for such a vehicle but had been closed before it built any. The design was dusted off and the first Optare built body was one of these on a Dennis "Domino" chassis, one of fourteen for South Yorkshire PTE. The bus, SYPTE number 45 (B45 FET), left the factory in July 1985.
Above - The first bodies built by Optare were Midibuses for South Yorkshire PTE. Similar bodies were later supplied to West Yorkshire PTE on Leyland "Cub" chassis, depicted by preserved 1807 (C807 KBT) at the Elland Road rally in 2009. The bodies were actually designed by Roe but never built by them. As can be seen they used many parts from the contemporary double- deck bodies. (Photo Martin Latus)
Below - Optare then continued production of the Roe double deck body, with minor detail differences. The first to be completed was this bus, West Yorkshire PTE 5507 (C507 KBT), in Eastgate, Leeds in November 1998. (Photo Martin Latus)
Following the Dominos, a batch of Olympian double deckers was constructed for the West Yorkshire PTE to the former Roe design. The first of these to leave the factory was 5507 (C507 KBT) with body number 17, 5508 to 5511 followed suit with bodies 18 to 21. A month later, bodies 15 and 16 left the works, the delay being due to these two being convertible open- top buses. They were supplied with removable upper deck and roof; these could be lifted off using a crane and replaced with an open top arrangement of rails and Perspex screens. Body 15 on bus number 5146 (C146 KBT) was delivered to Halifax with its roof in place, 5147 (C147 KBT) went new to Leeds with its open-top and was promptly used for Christmas light tours.
After the Olympians the company tried its hand at converting parcels vans to minibuses, producing one Renault Master for Leeds City Council and fifteen Freight Rover Sherpas for West Yorkshire PTE. Fifteen more of the bodies as fitted to the South Yorkshire Dominos were produced next, this time on Leyland "Cub" chassis for West Yorkshire PTE. A few minibus conversions and a gaggle of Olympian bodies were produced, but the company needed a new product range to increase its market share.
As of October 2020 Optare had built in excess of 10,000 buses. Less well-known is the fact that in 1986 they also constructed two large vans. The vehicles in question were ordered by Leeds City Council, and presumably the order went to Optare in an attempt to support local enterprise. They were mounted on Ford chassis, but despite Ford still being active in the UK light truck market at this time, most notably with the "Cargo" range, these two vehicles were built on R1115 bus/coach chassis. Unlike the trucks these did not come with a cab ready-constructed, so Optare used various parts from its contemporary Leyland Olympian double-deck bus body to form the cab area. Most obvious of these were the front panels and windscreens, whilst less immediately recognisable were the driver and passenger doors which were emergency exit doors from the same body. As a result these were much narrower than usual. Aft of the doors was a small window, again taken from the emergency exit door of the Olympian. The van bodywork was constructed using ribbed metal, and whereas the cab area was painted red this was left unpainted. This gave the vehicles an appearance akin to a horsebox.|
Body numbers were allocated in the bus series; body number 64 left the factory in April 1986 carrying registration D911 HWY, body 63 following in September with the registration D170 LWR. The fate of the two vans is unknown, but the author visited Leeds regularly from the early-1990's and lived there from 1999 and has never seen either of them.
Minibuses were becoming a victim of their own success, stimulating passenger numbers to the point where they weren't big enough to carry the loads. This success had been achieved in spite of, rather than because of the design of the vehicles. In June 1986, Optare launched a coach-built minibus (as opposed to a van conversion), on a modified Volkswagen LT55 chassis. This, the company's first new design, featured a stylish raked-back front windscreen, 25 seats and room for 5 standing passengers. It was christened the CityPacer, and found reasonable success. A similar, but larger design was launched in August 1987, the StarRider, which featured up to 33 seats on a Mercedes- Benz 811D chassis.
Above- The first Optare designed product was the CityPacer minibus body on a Volkswagen LT55 chassis. Preserved former Yorkshire Rider 1700 (D901 MWR) shows the stylish lines at Dewsbury Bus Museum in November 2011.(Photo Martin Latus)
Below - One of the last StarRiders in service is seen here in the form of Lincolnshire Road Car 369 (F369 BUA) in Grimsby in 2003. The bus was supplied new to London and, due to the difficulty in obtaining blocks of registration numbers in the Capital, was registered by Optare in Leeds prior to delivery. (Photo Martin Latus)
The trauma of deregulation was beginning to be left behind and the industry began to want full- sized single deckers again. This led to the introduction of the Optare Delta, the first of which appeared in September 1988. The bus was built on a DAF SB220 chassis and the body featured the bolted aluminium "alusuisse" construction system, for which a licence had to be obtained.
In 1989 Optare purchased the designs of Metro Cammell Weymann (MCW), a Birmingham based manufacturer which had gone bankrupt. Initially it produced only one of these, the "Metrorider" mini/midi bus, reworking this in the early 1990s and keeping it in production until 1998. 1990 saw Optare become part of a group called United Bus, which also included chassis manufacturer DAF. Two new products appeared in this period, the Vecta in April 1991 and the Spectra in February 1992. The Optare Vecta was a smallish single decker with seats for around 40 people and was constructed on a MAN 11.190 chassis. It was developed primarily with the North East Bus Group in mind (owners of United/Tees and District/TMS), who had a need to replace a large number of older 43 seat buses. A large proportion of the Vecta's produced did indeed go to this group. The Spectra was based on an acquired MCW design, the Metrobus, but was heavily reworked. A double decker, it featured DAF running units and a stylish body.
In 1993 United Bus collapsed and Optare was bought back by its management. Although DAF also survived, uncertainty prompted Optare to seek alternative chassis providers. Thus versions of the Delta body were built on Dennis "Lance" and Mercedes "0405" chassis first appearing in May 1994 and June 1995 respectively and christened the Sigma (Lance) and Prisma (0405). The bus industry was changing again, this time with the introduction of low-floor buses, which allowed a wheelchair user to board the vehicle directly from the kerb. Initial designs were reworked ordinary chassis, generally with a low- floor front section tacked to the original design rear section. This meant that passengers at the rear of the bus towered over those at the front, many steps had to be negotiated to get to the rear seats and once there most passengers found that they could not see out as their eye line was above the top of the windows.
Ever innovative, Optare began work on a purpose designed low floor bus, the Excel, which appeared in October 1995. An integral vehicle (no separate body and chassis), the exterior was stylish whilst the interior was far less awkward than existing low floor designs. Powered by a Cummins B series engine driving through Allison transmission, both proven makes, the Excel should have been a market leader. Unfortunately, reliability problems meant that it never fulfilled its true potential, even after a "mark 2" version with Mercedes engine was launched several years later. Nevertheless sales were steady.
Above - The Optare Excel was the first purpose designed low floor bus. An integral model (all one structure, rather than separate body and chassis), its looks were striking as shown by East Yorkshire 295 (S295 RAG) in Willerby (near Hull) in October 1998. Sadly the reliability did not match the looks!
1996 saw Optare buy Rotherham based Autobus, who had specialised in the luxury minicoach market, and their "Nouvelle" design joined Optare's range following a slight redesign. 1997 saw a relationship start with Spanish manufacturer Ferqui, whereby Optare imported and sold their luxury coaches in the UK. Two "firsts" also appeared in 1997 as Optare cemented its reputation as a leader of the pack. The Optare Solo was the first low- floor midibus (a bit bigger than a minibus but not as big as a single- decker) to enter production. After winning various awards for innovation, the Solo settled down to become a market leader and is still in production 15 years later. Optare also managed to produce the first low-floor double-decker, a reworked version of the Spectra. This was begun during 1997, but did not appear until January 1998.
Above - The first low-floor midibus was also an Optare product, the now-ubiquitous Solo. A fairly standard example is K-Line, Huddersfield 354 (MW52 PZE) seen exiting the bus station in its home town in August 2009 (Photo Martin Latus).
Optare were bought out by Hungarian-owned North American Bus Industries (NABI) in 2000, for £21.5 million. A year later the Alero low-floor minibus appeared. Aimed at community and welfare transport operators, a few did appear on normal bus services, but proved quite unreliable and were mostly soon replaced. In 2004, the Excel single-decker was replaced by the Tempo, which used the same basic structure but with new styling.
NABI ran into trouble in August 2005, and Optare was once again purchased by its management, this time for £11.8 million. Shortly after this another new model appeared in the form of the Versa, a large midibus/small single-decker featuring a curved front with a streamlined "hump" at the front of the roof. Next, a restyled version of the Solo appeared, the Solo SR which grafted a Versa-style front onto the Solo body.
In March 2008, Optare was sold again, this time to Jamesstan investments, led by Roy Stanley, who was company chairman at Darwen Group, the owner of Blackburn based East Lancashire Coachbulders and Leyland Product Developments, one of the last surviving parts of the once mighty Leyland empire, and re christened Darwen LPD. Jamesstan purchased Optare for £10.5 million and immediately resold the Cross Gates factory to Manston Lane Investments for £2.8 million, renting it back for up to three years at a rate of £280,000 per annum.
In July 2008, a reverse takeover of Jamesstan was undertaken by the smaller Darwen Group, the new group becoming known as Optare PLC. Production of the former East Lancashire "Esteem" single-decker was moved to the former Autobus factory at Rotherham, but the model ceased production in 2009 and the Rotherham plant closed. Plans were afoot to build a new large factory in Blackburn and a smaller one in Leeds, but these failed to come to fruition.
In summer 2010 Indian-owned Ashok Leyland purchased a 26% stake in Optare and the need to move to a new factory, due to the imminent expiry of the lease agreement with Manston Lane Investments, was addressed. In October 2011 production moved from Cross Gates to a new factory at Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire; production of buses at the former East Lancashire plant at Blackburn ceased at this time, the Lancashire premises being given over to the bus repair and refurbishment division of the business.
Optare products not built in Leeds and non-Optare products.|
Some Optare products that were not constructed in Leeds are referred to in the main text, such as the former East Lancashire "Esteem" body. Whereas production of this briefly moved from Blackburn to Rotherham before ceasing in 2009, other ex-East Lancashire designs continued to be built at the Blackburn factory. From the time of the Darwen group takeover of Optare in 2008 to the ending of new bus manufacturing at Blackburn in 2011 these were badged as Optare products. The vehicles involved were all double-deckers; the Olympus on Alexander Dennis, Scania or Volvo chassis, the latter two of which were also available with an open-top or partially open-top version of the body, christened the Visionaire; and lastly the Omnidekka, which was only available on a Scania chassis and differed from its stablemates in that Scania supplied the lower front panels and windscreen. Although various customers had purchased the Omnidekka in East Lancashire days, the only ones produced under Optare's auspices were supplied to Nottingham City Transport.
However this was not the first time that Optare products had been built elsewhere. Back in 1987 an agreement was reached with Japanese technology company Itochu and Sri Lankan vehicle manufacturer Ceymo to build a semi-integral vehicle christened the "Columborider". Note that although the capital of Sri Lanka is Colombo sources are unanimous that in the name of the bus it was spelt Columbo, as in the detective played by the late Peter Falk. According to one source the prototypes for this model were built in Leeds, but it has proved impossible to verify this.
The sides of the body were similar in design to those of the Starrider, whereas the rear (including roof-mounted "pod") were taken from the forthcoming Delta; as a result it can be concluded that design work on the latter was fairly advanced at this stage. Although sales of the Columborider were strong, the model was expensive to produce. When the former MCW MetroRider entered production it was discovered to be suitable for operation in Sri Lanka, and therefore examples of this model were exported in preference to manufacturing any more Columborider's in Sri Lanka itself.
The bodywork of the Columborider was more durable than the running units; as a result a number of the bodies were transferred onto new Ashok Leyland chassis in later years. This appears to have been a coincidence rather than a plan by Optare's new owners.
During the North American Bus Industries era (2000-2005), a couple of Optare designs were produced by NABI in its Hungarian factories. Optare Solo's were manufactured for North American operators under the less catchy model name 30-LFN, whilst a small number of Excel bodies were built for the domestic Hungarian market; unlike their UK counterparts these were mounted on Scania L94UB chassis, the finished product being sold as the 700SE.
Reference is also made in the main article to various products of other manufacturers which were marketed by Optare. To these should be added the DAF-powered Bova Futura coach, which was supplied from United Bus days (DAF and Bova also being members of United Bus) and for several years afterwards. As well as supplying new coaches Optare provided aftersales care for the model, including spare parts and servicing.
During the NABI era an agreement was reached to finish bodies on Irisbus Agora Line single-deckers for the UK. Irisbus was formed from the bus divisions of Fiat, Iveco and Renault, and the Agora Line was a former Renault product constructed in France. The extent of the finishing work undertaken at Cross Gates is unknown, but such work would normally include things like fitting seats. Unfortunately the Agora Line failed to secure much of a foothold in a market dominated by established products from Volvo and Scania; between the start of the agreement in 2002 and its ending in 2007 only twenty-three required the services of the Leeds workforce.
Above and Below - The former works in Cross Gates shortly before demolition (photos Martin Latus)
Due to delays in introducing new models, specifically a long- promised double deck design, and also due to upheaval resulting from the move to Sherburn, the value of Optare shares fell steadily throughout 2011. This prompted rival Alexander Dennis to request information during December 2011 with a view to mounting a takeover bid. Alexander Dennis discovered that Ashok Leyland were unwilling to sell their stake in Optare, regardless of the price offered, and as such withdrew their interest by January 2012. Incidentally it was revealed that this was the second time that Alexander Dennis had investigated taking over Optare, the first being just prior to the 2008 Darwen takeover.
In order to refinance the business, it was agreed that Ashok Leyland would increase its shareholding in Optare to 75.1%, this being agreed by the shareholders in early January 2012. Thus the Leeds Company basically became owned by Ashok Leyland, bringing stability and an end to the rollercoaster ride of takeovers and management buy outs that have characterised its history.
Above - Stagecoach North West Versa 25226 (PX08 FMV) shows the type off well as it performs a circuit of Preston Bus Station in February 2010.
One area where Optare has made something of a name for itself is in the field of alternative propulsion, whereby increasing concern over diesel engine emissions has caused operators to look at diesel/electric hybrid or all- electric vehicles. To this end hybrid versions of the original Tempo single-decker, Solo mini/midibus and Versa midibus are or have been available along with battery electric versions of the Solo, Versa and new models the MetroCity and MetroDecker, of which see below.
Above - Optare has established a reputation for its electric and hybrid electric vehicles. Here we see First York 49903 (YJ14 BHE) a Versa EV (Electric Vehicle) approaching York railway station in July 2016. (photo M.Latus)
The bulk of Solo orders remained for the original design despite the introduction of the SR model described above. An attempt was made to restyle the bus in 2008 when the "Solo+" was unveiled. Operator response was lukewarm to say the least, and the two prototypes were rebuilt as normal Solos before sale. However in 2012 Optare announced that the original style would be phased out and all production would in future be standardised on a design featuring slightly modified SR front and rear ends.
Also in 2012 the Tempo single-decker was restyled as the Tempo SR, whilst more significantly the former East Lancashire Coachbuilders site in Blackburn closed in May, with all production now centred on Sherburn-in-Elmet. A new model was also announced; the Bonito minibus, which used a Fiat Ducato chassis with bodywork constructed from plastics by Plastisol, a company in the Netherlands. The Bonito would be imported as a complete bus and was therefore only really distributed by Optare.
In 2013 the MetroCity was launched. This was based on the Versa and could be produced as a midibus or small single- decker, with lengths ranging from 9.9 to 11.5 metres. It was originally intended for the London market.
The following year saw the realisation of the ambition to add a double decker to the range, with the introduction of the MetroDecker. Two versions have been produced, one for the London market and one for the provinces. Back in 2008 the Solo+ (see above) had been unveiled alongside a double- decker known as the Rapta. The show bus was an unfinished prototype/mock up. Nothing further was heard of it until an announcement was made late in 2009 that the project had been abandoned. The vehicle itself was stored in the factory for a period of time before apparently being dismantled. However parts of the design were carried over to the later Metrodecker, including the sides and the short rear overhang (the bit between the rear wheels and the back of the bus).
A recurring theme in any story of the British bus industry is things not working out as planned, and so it has proved for some of Optare's models. Firstly the Bonito minibus failed to win any orders and was dropped from the range in 2014. The Tempo SR suffered from disappointing sales and is currently retained as an export model, principally for the Australian market, although realistically there is nothing to stop a UK customer from ordering the bus. Indeed Manchester Airport took delivery of four during 2017. The Tempo has been replaced in the domestic market by the long version of the MetroCity, which has ended up being made available to operators outside London. Finally the Metrodecker was slow to gain its first order; by 2017 only four had been produced and these were all manufacturers' demonstration vehicles. The original 2014 bus was converted to all electric power during 2017.
Above - MetroDeckers YJ17 FXX on trial with First York and carrying temporary fleet number 39500 for its stay. The London red livery gives a clue as to its intended market. This bus was built as a diesel powered vehicle in 2014 and carried "registration" OP14 ARE for display purposes. It was rebuilt in 2017 as an electric vehicle and registered properly for the first time when the work had been carried out. (photo M.Latus)
Reports from customers who have trialled the MetroDecker have been positive, and it should perhaps be stressed that the lack of orders is likely due to the difficulty in breaking into a market already well catered for, rather than reflecting on the vehicle itself. In any case the Solo, Versa and MetroCity along with export versions of the Tempo SR continue to keep the company well occupied.
In December 2012 a bus was turned out of the Sherburn factory. Known as the 01030 it was a double-decker, and was an engineering prototype for the forthcoming Metrodecker (see main text). Registered YJ62 FNR, it was presumably used by its manufacturer to test features of the new model. It was eventually sold to an operator in Gozo (Malta) who converted it to open-top.|
Whereas the Metrodecker as eventually produced bore some resemblance to the Rapta of 2008, the 01030 had bodywork based on the former East Lancashire Olympus design, and because of this it is likely that it was actually constructed at Blackburn before the factory there closed and was moved across to Sherburn to be finished.
As well as the Sherburn-in-Elmet factory, Optare has premises for its Unitec after-sales service division in Thurrock (Essex) and in Rotherham (South Yorkshire) on part of the site of the works it acquired from Autobus, not bad for a company whose origins lie in a corner of a yard in Balm Road!
Ashok Leyland increased its shareholding in Optare again, firstly to 98% in October 2017 and then to 99% in 2018.
Although production of the Solo, Versa and Metrocity continued steadily, sales of the Metrodecker remained at zero. However in 2019 the double-decker finally began to find its feet, assisted by a renewed interest from operators in alternative methods of propulsion. This was heightened in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and specifically the desire to retain the lower pollution levels which arose from the country being placed in lockdown. As a result Optare's early decision to offer a fully electric version of the Metrodecker began to bear fruit.
In 2019 and 2020, 69 Metrodeckers were built, of which 64 were electric. The five diesels were ordered by Reading Buses, but unfortunately were cancelled by them during summer 2020 due to covid related cutbacks in investment. As the vehicles were already in build Optare finished them, and as of December 2020 the quintet were looking for a buyer.
At the end of November 2020 Ashok Leyland announced that Optare Group Ltd would be renamed Switch Mobility, Optare Group Ltd being the original Optare company from 1985. Two other subsidiaries would continue with the Optare name, these being Optare UK Ltd and Optare plc which were respectively Darwen Group Ltd and Darwen Holdings plc (see above).
The announcement also stated that at a future date the electric versions of Optare's Metrocity, Metrodecker, Solo and Versa models would be rebranded as Switch products, and eventually the Switch name would be applied to all of Ashok Leyland's electric vehicle production from all of its factories worldwide, encompassing light commercial vehicles and personal transport pods as well as buses.
Diesel buses would continue to be marketed as Optare products, though with the UK government announcing the end of petrol and diesel car production by 2030 and Transport for London, First Bus and National Express West Midlands announcing that they will not introduce any more straight diesel buses (as opposed to hybrid, electric or gas) either with immediate effect or, in First's case from 2023, the future for diesel buses seems limited.
Railless Electric Traction Company/R.E.T. Company
The Railless Electric Traction Company was established in London in 1909 with the intention of introducing the "trackless tram" (later better known as the trolleybus) to the UK, following the successful introduction of the type on the continent and abortive attempts by various councils to introduce this form of transport for their own use.
At some point prior to 1911, an office and works was established at Balm Road, Leeds, presumably to encourage business in the north of England. The Railless Company bought the UK licence for the Max Scheimann system of current collection, which used two wires (negative and positive) from which the vehicle collected power by means of two booms (poles) attached to its roof.
Most of the early UK trolleybus systems were ordered from Railless, who designed the overhead equipment and vehicles. The actual construction of vehicles was sub- contracted in three parts; chassis, bodywork and electrical equipment, these were then delivered separately to Leeds where they were assembled into complete vehicles before being delivered to the customer, usually being towed to their destination. Thus a vehicle listed as a Railless product was in fact the work of several other firms, for example the first trolleybuses delivered to Bradford Corporation (which were also the first to be delivered in the UK) were built by Alldays and Onions of Birmingham (Chassis), Hurst Nelson of Motherwell (bodies) and Dick, Kerr of Preston (electrical equipment).
Above - One of 10 single-deck trolleybuses built in 1915 by RET Construction Co. Ltd., Leeds, for the Bloemfontein Municipality, South Africa. Regular service started in January 1916. (Photo - Wikimedia Commons)
The outbreak of World War 1 adversely affected the development of the trolleybus as much of the equipment used in the early vehicles was of German design and/or manufacture and thus fell foul of trading with the enemy laws. As a result of this and other problems, and despite undertaking some war work, Railless Electric Traction went into receivership in 1916. The other problems included the apparent disinterest of the company in what would now be called "after sales service", as evidenced by the approach of Bradford Corporation in 1913. They were seeking replacement of their first trolleybuses, supplied in 1911, following reliability issues. The Corporation wanted a quote for new vehicles which would take into account a part- exchange figure for the two old buses and also a discount equivalent to the amount that the Corporation had spent on repairs over the two year period. Railless declined the Corporation's request and so the business went elsewhere.
The company was eventually purchased from the receivers by Short Brothers of Rochester, Kent and relaunched as either Railless Ltd. or R.E.T. Company Ltd, depending on which source you read. The Leeds office was retained and employed one Mr Charles Roe, who left in 1917 to set up his own business, Charles H. Roe. Shortly after this, the Railless works was apparently requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corp, presumably for the production of aircraft parts; if this is correct it was returned soon after the end of the war.
As well as trolleybus and related infrastructure design work, the company also designed and possibly built van and lorry bodies. The Railless trolleybuses used a tram-style hand operated controller, which the driver was expected to use whilst also steering the vehicle. Some also had a brake handle (as found on a tram), whilst others featured a more conventional foot pedal brake. After WW1, other manufacturers became active in the trolleybus market using foot pedals for acceleration and braking and thus making the Railless vehicles seem antiquated and cumbersome. The resulting reduction in market share would eventually cause Short Brothers to pull out of Trolleybus manufacturing.
Despite evidence that the Leeds site was active by 1911, it was 1921 before it appeared in the Trade Directories, former employee Charles H. Roe having first appeared in the publication the year before. By this stage the company was listed as the Railless Electric Traction Construction Co. Ltd, and it appeared as such in the directories for 1922, 1923-4 and 1924-5. It appears that the Leeds site closed in 1924, as it is not listed in the 1925 directory. Railless itself was wound up in 1926, as Short Brothers decided to concentrate on more lucrative areas of its business. Incidentally Short Brothers are still active in the Aircraft market and will be well known to any RAF personnel who have trained in a "Tucano" aircraft.
Wilks and Meade
Above - 1948 Wilks & Meade Advert (Photo - Graces Guide to British Industrial History
It has proved difficult to research the history of Wilks and Meade, as references to the company tend to be somewhat brief and the few sources of information that exist contradict each other to a great extent. What follows is the third attempt at telling the company's story, but as with other sections research is continuing and updates and corrections will be added as information becomes available.
David B. Wilks and Harry Meade set up as "Coach and Motor body builders" at Hilltop Works, Buslingthorpe Lane, Leeds, sometime prior to 1942. One source states that they had premises in Millwright Street in the Mabgate area of the city, but there is no mention of this anywhere else. It is possible that the original premises were in Millwright Street, that one of the proprietors lived there and gave his home address for some correspondence, or that the company took temporary premises there whilst the Buslingthorpe Lane site was rebuilt, which according to an advertisement in Grace's Guide, it was during the mid-1940s.
Above - The somewhat sad site that is Hilltop Works, Buslingthorpe Lane in 2012. Within this building was the original works of Wilks and Meade and, as the sign states, it was still home to vehicle related businesses.
Wilks and Meade (sometimes erroneously shown as Wilkes and Meade, including on official advertisements as we shall see) was registered as a limited company on 22nd June 1942. There is no evidence that they built any bus or coach bodies at or prior to this time, indeed it was to be a change of ownership which led the company into this line of work.
At some time in the mid-forties, most likely in 1946 (although sources vary), Wilks and Meade was bought by the legendary Leeds-based coach operator Wallace Arnold.
Following the end of World War 2 demand for new buses escalated rapidly as operators rushed to replace aging and worn out vehicles, as supply of new buses had been rationed by the government during the war. Demand for leisure travel, and in particular coach trips, also increased markedly as wartime restrictions eased and people became eager to exploit their new-found freedom. As a result the existing bus body manufacturers struggled to cope, leading to long delivery times for new buses, and also leading operators to rebuild and refurbish older vehicles to address the shortfall. The purchase of Wilks and Meade allowed Wallace Arnold to carry out this refurbishment work in house, and would also allow them to build some of their own bus bodies and therefore avoid the long waiting times.
The main Wallace Arnold depot at this time was in Chadwick Street, off Hunslet Road, Leeds, and it was to a site further along this street that the Wilks and Meade business was moved in around 1947. The original premises at Hilltop Works were sold and at the time of writing several motor vehicle body repair and MOT firms are listed as occupants of the building.
Below - This building is believed to have been the second home of Wilks and Meade, following the Wallace Arnold takeover. It was on Chadwick Street, off Hunslet Road, Leeds, located opposite the former depot building. (Photo - Martin Latus, November 13th 2012)
Most sources suggest that the bulk of Wilks and Meade's production was coaches for Wallace Arnold itself, but in terms of new-build vehicles this is not true. Wallace Arnold rebuilt many coaches at this time, either by refurbishing the bodywork or by swapping bodies between vehicles, both practices allowing the fleet to be refreshed until suitable amounts of new vehicles could be obtained. This probably made up the majority of Wilks and Meade's work under its new owner.
The first new bodies were produced in 1946, these being two coaches on Leyland chassis for the parent fleet. 1947 saw fourteen bodies manufactured, of which ten were for Wallace Arnold.
This was the last year that production for WA outnumbered that for other operators; 1948 saw twenty-six vehicles leave Chadwick Street bound for everywhere from Jersey to Northumberland, of these only two were for the home fleet. 1949 was the peak year of production with no fewer than twenty-nine coaches manufactured, again only eight of these were for Wallace Arnold. Just two WA vehicles were constructed in 1950 from a total production of fifteen. 1951 was the last year any new vehicles were built at Wilks and Meade, of just four produced two were for Wallace Arnold. These were mounted on secondhand chassis and there is some doubt as to whether the bodies were actually new or older bodies reclaimed from other chassis. The other two coaches produced in 1951 were definitely new and both were first-time customers of Wilks and Meade; Harman of Wolverhampton and Mills of Gornal Wood (near Dudley) each taking a Daimler CVD6. The Mills vehicle had a full-fronted body (see below) as had a couple of coaches for Wallace Arnold in 1949 and the double-deckers for Premier Travel (again see below) in 1950.
The vast majority of the ninety vehicles manufactured were 33-seat coaches on a variety of chassis, but there were some notable exceptions. Four of the 1948 vehicles were service buses, all on Leyland Tiger PS1 chassis; two 35-seaters for Jersey Motor Transport and two 34-seaters for Sheffield Joint Omnibus Committee. The latter are the cause of some confusion, as several sources state there were ten of them. It is likely that Sheffield JOC ordered ten vehicles but that Wilks and Meade could not build them in time, so some of the body order was switched. Certainly PS1's with Cawood (Sheffield) and Weymann (Surrey) bodies entered service in Sheffield at around the same time as the Wilks and Meade buses did.
1950 saw probably the best known Wilks and Meade bodies leave the factory, in the form of three double-deck coaches for Premier Travel of Cambridge, the only double-deckers produced. Although stunning in appearance and luxurious in their appointment these were not happy vehicles. Wilks and Meade had underestimated the cost of the bodies and had to ask Premier Travel for more money than the original quote. Premier deliberately made their last payment late in protest. Once on the road the operator had to modify the front suspension to improve the ride due to the immense weight of the bodywork.
Worse was to come however. Wilks and Meade bodies quickly developed problems due to the use of unseasoned "green" timber for the framework, as a result of post-war materials shortages. This timber soon rotted and required expensive repair work, usually tantamount to a complete rebuild. This was not a problem for Wallace Arnold, who were in the habit of rebuilding or rebodying their vehicles at frequent intervals, usually around every three years, in order to keep them looking fresh and modern. And of course they had their own coach works to do it in! It did cause trouble for Premier Travel who, having bought nine Wilks and Meade bodies endured some financially very lean years due to the cost of repairs, especially to the flagship double-deckers.
These problems were by no means confined to Wilks and Meade; many body manufacturers sprang up in those heady early postwar days, and most fell by the wayside within a few years as build quality issues caught up with them and the established, higher quality, manufacturers found their feet again.
Notably some of Wallace Arnold's 1949 and 1950 coaches were sent to another Leeds bodybuilder, Roe, for rebodying as double-deck service buses for the subsidiary Farsley Omnibus fleet, whilst at least one coach body, when removed from its chassis to allow the latter to be rebodied, was attached to an older chassis and put back into service.
After 1951 Wilks and Meade concentrated on repairing and rebuilding Wallace Arnold's coaches. Notable in this period was a large number of "full-front" conversions on coaches with various makes of bodywork, including Duple and Burlingham (see box below).
Half-cab and full-front explained|
Most pre-war and early post-war coaches had a "half cab", i.e. the cab occupied the offside half of the front end, the nearside being the location of the engine and its bonnet. The arrival in the early 1950's of coaches with engines under the floor allowed full-width bodywork to be fitted at the front, referred to as full-front or full-fronted.
The arrival of full-fronted underfloor-engined coaches made the half-cabs look old fashioned. At an image conscious company like Wallace Arnold this would never do, so Wilks and Meade were set to building full-width front ends on half-cab bodies, with an arrangement of access flaps to allow servicing and repair of the engine. For most of these the firm copied a frontal design from Yeates of Loughborough, and as such these conversions are often wrongly credited to them. The full-front conversion usually made the coaches heavier and more awkward to repair, but this was considered a small price to pay for the benefit of a more modern appearance.
As the beginnings of Wilks and Meade are somewhat ethereal so is the ending. Wallace Arnold set up a car dealership in the 1950s known as WASS (Wallace Arnold Sales and Service) and in 1958 the Wilks and Meade workshops were amalgamated with this to provide body repair facilities. When exactly the workshops ceased dealing with coaches is not known, but it appears that car repairs became their sole business. The Wilks and Meade name appears to have died out internally at around this time, although it was still being marketed externally to motorists for their bodywork repairs in 1967; a photograph exists from this year of a Farsley Omnibus (a Wallace Arnold subsidiary) double-decker with an advertisement for Wilkes and Meade car body repairs (note the incorrect spelling, proving even the in-house sign writers didn't always get it right!). Ironically the bus in question had been new as a coach with Wilks and Meade bodywork!
The name appears to have become dormant around the end of the 1960s, although the company wasn't officially wound up until 28th November 2000, by which stage its registered address was in Sunderland.
In the mid-1960's Wallace Arnold vacated its Chadwick Street depot for a temporary home in nearby Donisthorpe Street (a former Leeds City Transport bus repair works which was rented from them), and ultimately for a purpose built depot, works and coach station in Gelderd Road, leaving the Hunslet Road depot and Chadwick Street workshops to WASS.
WASS remained a familiar name in Leeds until fairly recent years, eventually becoming part of Evans Halshaw, who still used the building as a car showroom and repair facility until recently moving to new facilities, resulting in the redevelopment of the former Chadwick Street site.
Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co
Next door to Mann on Pepper Road, Hunslet, Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co advertised a bus version of their steam lorries in their catalogues. One example was built in 1918 for Provincial Tramways in Grimsby. It saw less than a year in use as a bus before being converted to a tramway service wagon.
Leeds City Tramways built several trolleybus bodies at its Kirkstall Road works to mount on David Brown chassis, but the latter were delayed. As a result, a body which had been started in 1915 became a spare time project which was finally completed late in 1917. By this time, its intended chassis had still not arrived and as a result it was sold on 31st January 1918 to the Provincial Tramways Company, Grimsby. On arrival it was mounted on a "steam wagon chassis" and used as a bus. The chassis in question was Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co chassis number 947. This was ordered by Provincial Tramways and was a variant of the standard 3 ton steam wagon chassis designed to take the Leeds City Tramways body. The completed steam bus entered traffic in June 1918, however a collision with a tram in May 1919 saw its use as a steam bus short lived. The vehicle was rebuilt as a tramway service wagon, pretty much identical to standard Yorkshire steam lorries. The bus body was re used on a petrol bus chassis.
Above - Yorkshire PSWCo 947 in its short lived steam bus days in Grimbsby (Photo - Stewart Brett)
Compare the above image with the earlier picture of the vehicle when it was first completed on the Yorkshire PSWCo article It was fitted with opening windows in the passenger saloon in September 1918, presumably it got hot in the passenger saloon during summer. It also aquired a makeshift enclosed cab, or is it a means of extending the coke bunker?
Another Yorkshire steam bus was created in preservation when Y1443, a 6 Ton tipper supplied to Northern Transport Service, Tasmania, was fitted with a bus body.
Rebuilt in Leeds
In the 1950s and 60s it was not unknown for buses to be sent to body builders other than the one who had originally constructed them for refurbishment, and indeed this practice surfaced again for a period in the 80s and 90s. It was far less common however for a vehicle to go to another manufacturer for repair, but this happened in 1961 when Hull Corporation sent a number of vehicles to Roe.
The buses in question were AEC Regent chassis with bodywork by Weymann of Addlestone, Surrey. They were new in 1949 and 1950, and around ten years later began to show defects around the rear end structure. The problems were serious enough for the vehicles to be taken off the road, during which time their place was taken by ten secondhand buses from Newcastle. The latter were needed for trolleybus replacement, so the pressure was on to get the errant Regents back out. As such some were repaired in the corporation's own workshops whilst others were sent to Roe for remedial work. It is not known whether Weymann were approached or not, but if they were it appears they were unable or unwilling to accommodate the buses in the timescale required.
It seems that Roe did not consider the work extensive enough to allocate their own additional body numbers to the buses involved.
More normal was repair work on Roe buses that had suffered serious damage in service, indeed all manufacturers would have done such work (and still do) on their own products. Examples from Hull are three Leyland Atlanteans which were repaired after suffering fire damage in arson attacks when still quite new and a further Atlantean that suffered a low bridge accident when only five months old.
One vehicle worthy for mention here for an extensive rebuild that took place in Leeds is V3. This bus, registered A103 SUU, has a Volvo-Ailsa chassis with Alexander double deck bodywork, built respectively in Irvine and Falkirk, Scotland. It entered service with London Buses in 1985 and featured an unusual two door layout with the entrance door at the front and the exit at the rear. It also had twin staircases, again front and rear, the idea being to improve passenger flow around the bus, i.e. passengers alighting would not get in the way of those boarding.
The layout of the bus was not unique, as Walsall Corporation had tried the same idea back in 1968 with a Daimler double- decker. This bus had been fitted with an early version of CCTV to enable the driver to monitor the rear door when running without a conductor, but reliability was such that the vehicle always ran with a two man crew. CCTV had not developed too much further by 1985, so V3 had a system of mirrors for monitoring the rear door. The union was not happy with this as the driver's view of the door was severely compromised, and therefore the bus entered service with a conductor. In 1986 the bus had its rear door removed at Potters Bar garage, subsequently entering service as a conventional one man operated single door vehicle.
The story almost ended in August 1992 when V3 skidded off the road and became impaled on a tree. The bodywork was twisted out of shape and the chassis damaged; as a result the bus was written off. It passed via a Barnsley scrap yard to Black Prince of Morley, ostensibly for spare parts for its then large fleet of Ailsa's. On arrival, however, owner Brian Crowther decided to attempt to rebuild the bus. The work was done as a spare time project and the combination of the extensive repairs needed and the day to day pressures of running a bus company meant that it was September 2004 before V3 emerged from the workshop and re-entered service. In 2005 Black Prince sold out to First Group. Brian Crowther initially kept V3 as a preservation piece before selling it on for continued preservation. It is now with the London Bus Company.
Above - On 12th February 2005 Black Prince V3 passes the Corn Exchange in Leeds on its regular haunt, the long 54 from Ireland Wood to Morley (Asda) via the City Centre. The blank panels for the twin staircases can be seen, as can the sliding driver's cab door necessitated by the Ailsa chassis having a front engine, meaning that it was not possible to access the cab from inside the bus. The excellent condition of the bus demonstrates the skill of Brian Crowther and his team; you would never believe that it had once been a write off! (Photo Martin Latus)
Internal Website Links
List of buses and trolleybuses bodied by Leeds City Transport
List of Wilks & Meade bodied buses
External Website Links
Leeds Transport Historical Society
Dewsbury Bus Museum
Crich Tramway Village
Bus Lists on the Web
Wikipedia article on R.E.T. (in German)
North East Check
Archive images on Leodis.net Search Results for 'Roe'
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Trade Directories held in Leeds City Libraries reference library, with thanks to the staff.
Pease, John. The History of Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Company, Landmark Collector's Library 2005.
Berry, Michael; Leeds Trams and Buses. Amberley Publishing 2013.
Buckley, Richard; Trams & Trolleybuses in Doncaster. Wharncliffe Books 2003.
Kennedy, Mark; Streets of Belfast. Ian Allan 2003.
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Otter, Patrick; Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War. Countryside books 1998.
Twidale, Graham H. E.; Leeds in the Age of the Tram, 1950- 59. Silver Link Publishing 1991 and 2003.
Wells, Malcolm; Kingston Upon Hull Trolleybuses. Trolleybooks 1996.
Roger Davies and Stephen Barber; Glory Days - Wallace Arnold. Amberley Publishing 2019, ISBN 978-1-4456-9463-4
Malcolm Wells and Paul Morfitt, Hull Corporation Buses, Amberley Publishing 2017, ISBN 978-1-4456-6754-6.
This article was produced by Martin Latus
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