Rob Orchard investigates an Irish collaboration that thinks it has the answer to replacing the Vario
William Cannon has been beavering away for years at his base in Strabane, in the west of Northern Ireland, developing bus chassis. In his own small way he has been quite successful building and selling a small number of chassis which those operators who have bought them have been very satisfied with.
William’s latest invention is the Variant chassis, a 10.0 tonnes gross unit with forward mounted Euro6 diesel engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmission. William believes this is the perfect replacement for the much missed Vario and he believes he can bring it to the market at a price operators will find attractive.
The problem for William has always been how to translate his dream into a viable project. It is OK building a few chassis a year by hand, literally in his back garden, but how do you turn that into a proper production situation, able to produce the chassis in reasonable numbers, unless you have serious investment?
Now William thinks he has found the answer to that conundrum in a unique project which has the backing of both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Government of the Irish Republic.
William has teamed up with Joe Ferrie, the well respected former owner of Euro Coachbuilders based at Gweedore in County Donegal in the Irish Republic, to offer a complete vehicle, the Variant Luxor.
Euro Coachbuilders was a successful company for many years, producing predominantly minibuses based on the Mercedes-Benz Vario chassis although it did also produce some larger vehicles, notably the Loxia and the Clady, based on larger Mercedes-Benz chassis.
Euro had a reputation for building very strong, durable bodies and their V29 and V33 models are still highly regarded, still widely operated and they still fetch good prices on the second hand market.
Sadly for Euro, the World financial crash of 2008 dealt them a savage blow. As is well known the Irish economy went into free-fall and drastic, painful austerity measures had to be taken to re-build the economy. The lack of available credit at anything like a sensible rate needed to fund the operation disappeared overnight and Euro was forced to close.
Now with the Irish economy recovering strongly from those dark days, there is a new impetus from the Irish Government and they are encouraging Joe to re-start the business.
The key to that as far as Joe is concerned is the link-up with William Cannon.
Both William and Joe worked together to produce a prototype vehicle which was shown at the Coach and Bus Live Exhibition in Birmingham and more recently at the Redbridge event. It.created a massive amount of interest.
Both Strabane, in County Derry, Northern Ireland and Gweedore in County Donegal in the Irish Republic suffer from similar problems. They are remote, not well connected and suffer from a lack of skilled jobs or indeed jobs of any kind. This leads to a loss of skills through population drift and the loss of younger people that are needed to secure long term economic stability. For Government’s on both sides of the border it is a problem they have both wrestled with for some considerable time.
In Gweedore for example the boom years saw the Irish Government investing heavily (mostly with EU money) in attracting companies, especially foreign ones to set up in the area. Employment reached its highest level ever and much of it was skilled work. Suddenly the area wasn’t suffering from a lack of employment or population drift instead it was attracting people to the area and the local economy received a massive boost. I remember visiting Euro in those days and the whole area was a hive of activity.
Then came the crash and as quickly as the factories had filled up they began to empty and the workers disappeared if they could. Today the industrial areas of Gweedore present a very different picture with plenty of empty units and little buzz. But things are beginning to change.
The Irish Government has a new programme to try and re-build the Gweedore economy and they are beginning to achieve real success with companies moving their operations, or setting up in the area, helped by generous grants. However, the Government seems to have learned its lesson, because it is trying, as far as possible, to make sure that the companies offer skilled work and have long term viability and sustainability and won’t pack up and head for the hills as soon as there is any dip in the economy.
The project is being handled by Udaras na Gaeltachta. I spoke to its Enterprise Development Director Cathal O Gallchoir about the Cannon Euro project and he is very enthusiastic about it, primarily because it achieves one of their main aims which is the retention of skills and the opportunities to pass those skills on to the next generation. They will assist Euro to re-establish and will provide grant funding to set-up the new facility and help it develop into a viable operation again.
Currently Euro are considering two possible sites. One is their old one, which is still empty, but a more likely contender is a larger unit which is clear spanned and would enable two efficient production lines to be set-up enabling modern flowline production techniques to be introduced.
One of the big factors encouraging Joe to re-open Euro is the fact that the core of his original highly skilled workforce still live in the area and are keen to get back to coachbuilding. Evidence of that is the Cannon Euro Variant Luxor prototype which was bodied in Gweedore by some of the former Euro team virtually in a garden shed. This means Joe can get the business up and running quickly. It will also enable him to set up a scheme to train young people in the art of coachbuilding thus keeping those key skills alive and provide continuity. It is something Joe is very keen to achieve.
The plan is that the chassis and the structural steel work for the body will produced in Strabane and these will be shipped to Gweedore for assembly and finishing. Key to the project is that there is already a facility in Strabane where William can set up a chassis production unit. Very importantly there is also an existing facility in the town which can offer the 500 degree Centigrade hot dip galvanizing process which both William and Joe see as being fundamental to the project.
The two men are hoping to commence building the product later this year and are already accepting orders.
I mentioned earlier that one of the key reasons why Euro Coachbuilders products were popular was the strength of the body structure. To a certain extent this was borne out of necessity. Roads in Donegal are poor, so vehicles need to be strong to cope with these road deficiencies. Whilst much of the Irish Republic benefitted from major road improvements as a result of EU funding, Donegal missed out. Road communications between this remote area and the rest of Ireland remain difficult. The road between Londonderry in Northern Ireland and Gweedore in Donegal is key to this project and is a case in point. Although this road has been improved from the desperate state it used to be in, it is still far below what would be considered satisfactory in the UK. Improvements are promised but they will take time to materialise.
The Cannon chassis
The Cannon Variant chassis is a conventional ladder frame design with side members and cross members made of 6mm steel channel section. The chassis is bolted together. A really important feature of the chassis is that the engine is mounted well forward in the frame giving a similar layout to the Vario. This means that much of the engine is outside the saloon and the driver can be positioned opposite the vehicle’s entrance. This is difficult to achieve with other chassis such as the Atego because the engine is set further back in the chassis.
Power is provided by a Cummins ISBe four cylinder, direct injection, common rail, turbocharged diesel to Euro6 emission standards achieved by the use of AdBlue. Two power options are available 180bhp(135kW) which develops 700Nm of torque across a wide speed range and 210bhp(157kW) which develops 760Nm of torque. Engine at idle shut down after five minutes is standard.
The engine is matched to a ZF transmission, either a five or six speed manual or the AS Tronic Lite six speed automated unit.
The front axle is an Albion I beam unit with a design capacity of 4.0tonnes. It is fitted with parabolic leaf springs with double acting shock absorbers and anti-roll bar together with ZF variable ratio power steering.
The rear axle is again from Albion. It is a beam axle with single reduction and has a design capacity of 7.2tonnes. The axle is fitted with ECAS2 air and steel suspension, double acting shock absorbers and anti-roll bar. It incorporates an electronic system for raising and lowering the air suspension. The plated gross weight of the vehicle is 10.0tonnes. A Tyre Pressure Indication System is fitted as standard which gives an LED display on the dash of tyre pressures promoting longer tyre life and lower fuel consumption.
Braking uses a full air system with discs all round. It incorporates ASR and ABS. In addition there is an exhaust brake and the option of a Telma retarder. Emergency braking and lane departure systems will be fitted on production vehicles ahead of them becoming a legal requirement.
185 litre fuel and 45 litre AdBlue tanks are fitted. The electrics are 24 volt with a 140Amp alternator and two 175Amp/hr batteries. The vehicle has a CanBus system. Wheels and tyres are Goodyear 235 75R17.5 units on six stud rims.
Warranty will be covered by one of the largest international vehicle manufacturers and it is planned to have a comprehensive dealer network in the UK and Ireland.
The Luxor body frame is constructed of square section automotive, high grade steel tubing, hot dip (500 degrees C) galvanised. The structure meets all required legislation including R66 and is being further developed to R66.2 standard ahead of its legislative requirement, currently scheduled for 2017. The body is clad in moulded GRP panelling with aluminium locker doors. Spaces in the body frame structure are packed with high grade thermal and noise insulation materials.
The entrance is fitted with a Numatic glazed plug door. There are below floor lockers on both sides and a large illuminated rear boot with lift up door. Total luggage capacity is five cu.m. On the offside there are lift up flaps that give access to the fuel and AdBlue tanks and the batteries. There is an emergency exit mounted on the offside towards the rear of the vehicle.
The entrance gives access to three wide, flat steps which have red LED step edge lighting. These give entry to the saloon which has a flat floor throughout, except for the back row of seats which are mounted on a plinth. The floor is carpeted and there is yellow LED gangway edge lighting. Internal trim is in soft feel moulded GRP units.
The vehicle is fitted with tinted, bonded, double glazing. Windows are trimmed with burrwood veneer surrounds and full draw curtains are fitted.
Seating is provided for 33 passengers plus a courier using Brusa recliners trimmed in real leather. The three point belted seats are fitted with burrwood veneer arm rests on the aisle side, footrests, magazine nets and fold down tables. There is a USB charging point at each seat and the vehicle has Wi-Fi.
Full length racks are mounted on both sides of the saloon. These incorporate the usual passenger service controls, lighting and speakers. Lighting includes double LED strip lighting the full length of the vehicle mounted on the racks and individual reading lights together with lighting at the entrance and for the driver. There is a night driving light setting.
Heating uses an Eberspacher programmable convection system with radiators down both sides of the saloon and the vehicle is equipped with Eberspacher Diavia air conditioning.
The spacious cab is dominated by the large, laminated screen. The driver benefits from an Isri Air fully adjustable seat which has electric heating, dual burrwood veneer armrests, a three point seat belt and is trimmed to match the saloon seating.
In front of the driver is a curved dash with all the important instruments and controls in the driver’s view. The adjustable steering column carries the usual hand controls including cruise control and retarder (where fitted). The steering wheel is a multi-functional unit trimmed in burrwood veneer and leather. To the right of the driver is a unit finished in burrwood veneer containing all the body system controls, transmission control and spring park brake lever. It also houses controls for the full width electric sun visor, the controls for adjusting the heated rear view mirrors and operating the electric driver’s side window.
The vehicle is fitted with front and rear parking sensors and a CCTV recordable surveillance system including a rear view camera. The driver’s view screen is mounted at the top of the quarter light.
The vehicle has a comprehensive Actia sound and vision entertainment system with radio, DVD and 22in monitor. A PA system is incorporated with an at seat adjustable microphone for the driver and a separate handheld microphone for the courier with operating socket mounted in the pillar adjacent to the courier seat. In addition the driver benefits from handsfree mobile phone and Bluetooth facilities, USB charging point and cup holder.
Alongside the driver on the nearside is a top opening fridge. At the front of the racks, lockers are provided for the storage of equipment.
The specification as described above represents the top of the range model and can be adjusted to suit individual customer requirements.
Impressions and driving
The Cannon Euro Variant Luxor is a very stylish vehicle. I particularly like the very clean simple lines. I think the styling of both the front end and the rear are excellent, especially the rear. The GRP mouldings are to a high standard. The vehicle also has good luggage accommodation with the large boot and the underfloor side lockers.
The vehicle I was inspecting was, of course, the prototype and as it had been built for a show, it was built to a very high specification. Customers will have the option of tailoring the interior to suit their own requirements.
The quality of styling and finish was carried through into the interior producing a really inviting vehicle. Some might feel that the extensive use of burrwood veneer for such things as armrests and window cappings is a bit retro but I rather liked it.
An area I particularly like on the vehicle is the cab. I think the dash layout is excellent with all the instruments and controls well positioned and all controls to hand. I also liked the way the body system switches and controls had been grouped together on the driver’s right.
The Isri Air seat is very comfortable but also with good support where you need it i.e. the lumber area, the shoulders and the back of the thighs. Its wide range of adjustment meant that achieving the perfect seat position was easy. I certainly appreciated its soft suspension on some of the rougher Irish roads.
I drove the vehicle part of the way back from Gweedore to Londonderry and it was impressive. The large screen provides excellent forward vision and coupled with the large side windows gives good clear all round vision. The rear view mirrors give good clear images and were rock steady even on rough roads.
The thing that strikes you very early on when driving the vehicle is how quiet it is. With part of the engine in the cab I did expect it to be noisier but it was as far removed from the noise level of a Vario as you can imagine. The other factors that strike you early on are the power of the engine and its smoothness. The vehicle had the ZF AS Tronic Lite six speed automated transmission and this was beautifully set-up giving smooth transition up and down the box with almost imperceptible changes.
The vehicle sat well on the road with no hint of wander, it stayed precisely where you wanted it to be, giving a feeling of total security.
The road from Gweedore is a bit of a switchback with some quite severe climbs. The Variant Luxor just dismissed them as if they weren’t there. Once off the mountain road and on to the better Londonderry to Sligo road I was able to give the vehicle its head and it cruised beautifully. Smooth, quiet and totally on top of the job. Throughout the drive I noticed the taughtness of the body, no shake, no shimmer, no squeaks and no rattles. I tried it as a passenger too, it was very comfortable and smooth. The in-saloon ambience on what was a cold day was perfect. Thanks to the very comfortable seats, I nearly nodded off; it had been a long day!
Braking was also excellent, straight, true and rapid. The addition of the efficient exhaust brake or the optional Telma retarder mean that in the main you don’t need to use the foundation brakes very much.
Into the busy suburbs of Londonderry gave me a chance to see how the vehicle coped in town. The answer is docile. It just quietly went about its business without any fuss, highly manoeuvrable and precise.
This really is a very nice vehicle. Well done William and Joe.
This is a project that deserves to succeed. Initial plans are to commence production towards the end of the year and the initial target is to produce around 15 vehicles in the first year and then building up from there. The relatively slow build up is important to both William and Joe because they want to retain as far as possible that handbuilt quality that they have achieved. This gives them the ability to tweak the vehicles so they give the customer just what they are looking for and enabling them to deliver vehicles on time!
If you get the chance to drive the Variant Luxor don’t miss it, you will be impressed.
Initial vehicles will be Type Approved under IVA but the plan is to achieve Small Series type approval in the future. It comes with a three year warranty on the body and a three year warranty on the chassis which can be extended to five years. In the high specification form of the vehicle I drove, it retails, excluding VAT, in the region of £125,000 in the UK and dependent on exchange rates, around €150,000 in Ireland.
PS: William also has a rear engined chassis under development, but that is for another day!