A Brief History of the Bus Industry in Leeds
|Companies Manufacturing Buses in Leeds|
|Railless Electric Traction Company|
|Clough, Smith & Company Limited|
|Lockwood and Clarkson|
|Wilks and Meade|
|Charles H Roe Limited|
|External Website Links|
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.
Railless Electric Traction Company/R.E.T. Company, Balm Road, Leeds
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.
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)
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).
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 (see below). 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 it 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.
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.
Lockwood and Clarkson, Barclay Street, Sheepscar, Leeds
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.
Wilks and Meade
David B. Wilks and Harry Meade set up as “Coach and Motor body builders” at Hilltop Works, Buslingthorpe Lane, Leeds sometime prior to 1942. On the 22nd June of that year Wilks and Meade (sometimes shown erroneously as Wilkes and Meade) became a limited company. There is no evidence that they built any bus or coach bodies at or prior to this time, and it was to be a takeover several years later that saw the firm enter this market.
At some time in the mid- forties, most likely in 1946, Wilks and Meade were purchased by the legendary Leeds- based coach operator Wallace Arnold, for reasons explained below.
Following the end of World War 2, demand for new buses escalated rapidly as operators rushed to replace aging and worn out vehicles, supply of new buses being effectively rationed by the government during the war itself. Demand for leisure travel also increased markedly. 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, presumably in 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.
Above Right - The somewhat sad site that is Hilltop Works, Buslingthorpe Lane, today. Within this building was the original works of Wilks and Meade and, as the sign states, it is still home to vehicle related businesses today. November 13th 2012.
Below Left - This building is believed to have been the second home of Wilks and Meade, following the Wallace Arnold takeover. It is on Chadwick Street, off Hunslet Road, Leeds, and is located opposite the former depot building. Both are used today by Evans Halshaw, who purchased Wallace Arnold Sales and Service (WASS), the group's Vauxhall car dealership; in this case the building is used for servicing and repairs. November 13th 2012.(Photos - Martin Latus)
The bulk of Wilks and Meade’s production was to be coaches for Wallace Arnold itself, generally 33- seaters on Leyland “Tiger PS1” or Daimler “CVD6” chassis, and although production lists have so far eluded the author, sources indicate that around forty were built between 1947 and 1950. In addition, a number of vehicles were built for other companies, again almost all 33- seat single- deck coaches. The first two were delivered in March 1948, and were Daimler CVD6’s for Thomas Burrows and Son of Wombwell, near Barnsley. They were followed by three vehicles for Premier Travel of Cambridge; comprising two Daimlers and one Leyland PS1, and ten Leyland PS1’s for Sheffield Corporation. These latter were the only service buses (as opposed to coaches) produced.
1949 saw three more Leyland’s produced for Premier Travel, whilst in 1950 three Daimler CVD6’s were delivered to the same company. The Daimler’s, however, were luxurious double- deck coaches; the only double- decker’s produced.
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. 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- decker’s. The Sheffield Corporation buses were soon rebodied also, probably much to the annoyance of the manager.
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.
It appears that 1950 was the last year that any new bodies were produced by Wilks and Meade, after this date the concern 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.
Basically, 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, and this 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 Wilks and Meade name appears to have died out during the 1950’s, the facility becoming known simply as the workshops of Wallace Arnold. 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. Following this the Wilks and Meade workshop was transferred to another group company, WASS (Wallace Arnold Sales & Service), a Vauxhall car main dealer. WASS remained a familiar name in Leeds until fairly recently, when it was sold to Evans Halshaw, who still use the building as a car showroom and repair facility.
The above is an expanded and corrected version of the original feature on Wilks and Meade on this site and is the result of further research undertaken. Research is still on-going and any further information discovered will be added when available.
Charles H Roe Limited
The most successful, well known and long- lived of the Leeds bus manufacturers was undoubtedly Charles H Roe Limited.
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 above). 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.
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 already 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 workload of the new company consisted largely of motorbus bodies with a few trolleybuses (some sub- contracted from other firms such as Karrier Motors, these badged as Karrier products) and a handful 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 points turntables were installed to turn the vehicles, there being a cab at one end only. Despite impressive fuel economy the railbuses could not save the passenger service on the DVLR, this ceasing in 1926. The vehicles were sold for further service on the County Donegal Railways, Ireland.
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)
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 binded 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.
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, 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 this capacity the chassis 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)
A brief excursion was made into the world of tramcar construction in 1953 when two vehicles were built for Leeds City Transport. They were designed by the Leeds General Manager A. B. Findlay who had come to the City from Glasgow. They were basically a single- deck version of the Scottish City’s “Cunarder” double- deckers and were intended for evaluation in connection with a proposed modernisation of the Leeds tramways, which would have included an underground section through the City Centre. Both were built on Maley and Taunton trucks (bogies) and had Crompton Parkinson electric motors, built at their Guiseley factory. The first, Leeds number 601 featured conventional controllers whereas the second, 602, had VAMBAC (Variable Automatic Multinotch Braking and Acceleration Control) controllers. Both had Leeds’ standard bow type current collector. The comparative trials of these trams were cut short when a new leadership at the council announced that they intended to abandon Leeds’ tram system, following which the two vehicles eked out their short lives on the City- Hunslet route. They were withdrawn in 1957 and both were preserved, although 601 was subsequently destroyed by vandals in the 1960’s. 602 is happily preserved at the Crich Tramway Museum. Leeds City Transport usually built their own tram bodies, so the allocation of this order to Roe is somewhat mysterious, possibly the Transport department doubted their ability to produce a sufficiently stylish body. The Roe bodies featured many bus parts and were every bit as eye- catching as their contemporary bus bodies. Despite this, and because of the impending abandonment of British trams, they remained unique.
Above - Roe bodied Leeds tram 602 at Crich in 2012 (Photo Kris Ward)
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.
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 (PTE’s), 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 NBC’s 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)
Efforts continued to revive the former Roe works, and 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 PTE’s 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 Domino’s, 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 Sherpa’s for West Yorkshire PTE. Fifteen more of the bodies as fitted to the South Yorkshire Domino’s 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.
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.
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 is now basically owned by Ashok Leyland; this should hopefully bring stability and end the rollercoaster ride of takeovers and management buy- outs that have characterised its history. As well as the new Sherburn bus assembly plant and the Blackburn refurbishment/repair workshops, Optare has premises for its Unitec after- sales service division in Essex, Yorkshire and Scotland. Not bad for a company whose origins lie in a corner of a yard in Balm Road!
Above - Optare continue to introduce striking, stylish products. One of the latest is the Versa, a small single- decker. Stagecoach North West 25226 (PX08 FMV) shows the type off well as it performs a circuit of Preston Bus Station in February 2010.
As a footnote, the former Cross Gates works of Charles H. Roe and Optare were demolished in 2012; it is to be redeveloped for housing.
(photos Martin Latus)
External Website Links
Archive images on Leodis.net
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Brown, Stewart. J; Buses Yearbook 1992 and Buses Yearbook 1997. Ian Allan 1991 and 1996 respectively.
King, J. S; Bradford Corporation Trolleybuses. Venture publications 1994.
Klapper, Charles; The Golden Age of Tramways. Routledge and Kegan Paul 1961.
Reading, S. J; The Derwent Valley Light Railway, Locomotion papers number 37, editions 1 and 3. Oakwood Press 1967 and 1978 respectively.
Hartley, Kenneth. E & Frost, Howard. M; The Spurn Head Railway. Industrial Railway Society 1988.
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Old Ordnance Survey Maps, The Godfrey Edition. Hunslet 1905.
PSV Circle fleet history PB22, Kingston Upon Hull City Transport. PSV Circle/Omnibus Society 1987.
Trade Directories held in Leeds City Libraries reference library, with thanks to the staff.
This article was produced by Martin Latus