A Brief History of Bus Making in LeedsAll | Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Co | Charles H Roe | Clough, Smith & Company Limited | Greenwood & Batley | Mann's Patent Steam Cart & Wagon Co | Optare | Railless Electric Traction Company | Switch Mobility | Wilks and Meade | Yorkshire Patent Steam Wagon Co | Rebuilt 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.
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.
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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This article was produced by Martin Latus
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