25 years of Bus & Coach Buyer
Stuart Jones looks back
It’s a whole quarter of a century since Steve Cole and I decided that we could give the bus and coach market a better weekly magazine alternative to what was available at the time. With Joy Osborne joining us as a Director we set up Glen Holland Ltd to launch a new title called Bus & Coach Buyer
For contractual reasons to do with his departure from our previous employers, Steve couldn’t sell the advertising on that first issue, so the task of convincing our potential advertisers that we were the medium in which they needed to invest their advertising budgets initially fell partly to me. Consequently, during that pre-launch period before our new advertising team joined, in addition to researching the articles we needed to fill our pages every week, I also sold series advertising to customers including Mel McGrath of what was then Hughes DAF and is now Arriva Bus & Coach, the late Trevor Wigley, John Dunn at DSB Sales and Vernon Edwards, then of LAG Viewbond, among many others. The trips to meet these important people were all made in the cheapest reliable transport we could buy, a bronze coloured Mini Metro that set us back £1,000 but had rather a dusty interior as somebody had used it to carry bags of potatoes in a previous life.
Though it has developed since, we saw ourselves as the ‘Exchange & Mart’ of the bus and coach industry. Value for money coupled with honest, accurate editorial, a comprehensive circulation list and good service was the cornerstone of what we wanted to deliver from the outset and we had some novel ideas for keeping the cost down. It seems unbelievable now but the difference in cost between printing in black and white and printing in four colour was such that we printed three issues a month in black and white with optional spot red at extra cost, with the option of four colour advertising every fourth week. That continued for a while before we became convinced that colour in every issue was the way to go. Even then, it was around eight years before we had our first editorial in colour.
We had very little clue about design, and though all of the editorial was written and ready for the pilot issue that went out three weeks before the actual issue number one, when our typesetters asked what our masthead looked like we had to admit that we hadn’t thought of that. When you look back at that first issue the lack of thought about that particular aspect is all too evident, though the one we had designed subsequently, which was set against a background that resembled a gingham tablecloth, perhaps wasn’t all that much better.
It is easy to forget how much publishing has changed in the years since April 1989 when that first pilot issue went out. In those days press releases arrived by post accompanied by photographs that were likely to be in black and white. We got through acres of fax paper that would then fade rapidly and we did have computers that took little floppy discs but there was no internet, and what a difference that was to make. Our cameras all took film which we would have to change every 24 or 36 shots. These required two trips to the photographic shop, one to drop them off and another to collect them a couple of days later. Sometimes they didn’t come back when you needed them or the picture you thought you had did not come out. Today with digital cameras you know what you’ve got within seconds of taking it and you can download directly from the camera to whatever device you like and send it to the other side of the world almost instantly. At least, you can when everything works perfectly and when you can’t Charlie Gray, our computer wizard, can usually fix it. I don’t remember whether we had mobile phones to begin with, I think probably not, but if we did they didn’t do the things that the portable computers we have today accomplish.
I can’t remember who it was who said that the number of bus manufacturers halves every ten years, but I know that the players in the current market are a very different group to those of 1989. It wasn’t long after we started that MCW ceased producing the Metrobus II along with the rest of its products, though you still see a surprising number about on schools work. Duple was sold to Plaxton and closed. The Dartline body on the Dennis Dart illustrates the way of things. Developed and initially built at Blackpool, it was sold to Carlyle who later sold their designs to Marshalls who are also no longer in the bus market. Willowbrook, who latterly did more rebodying than bodying, closed. Northern Counties became part of Plaxton and both became part of Transbus International along with Dennis and Alexander. When the parent company failed Plaxton became an independent again, developing its own bus range to compliment its coach products before selling out to Alexander Dennis Ltd (ADL) shortly after celebrating its centenary with a spectacular weekend event in Scarborough. Though it has had turbulent times, ADL has emerged as a tremendous success story, trebling its turnover in recent years under the leadership of Colin Robertson, exporting in large number and even buying the Custom Coach manufacturing operation in Australia.
Wrightbus has also grown, diversified and moved into overseas markets. It has done so organically, though the Wright family did recently acquire NuTrack, and is now a vehicle manufacturer in its own right rather than a bodybuilder.
Optare was a very young company, barely three years old, when we started and it has been through a roller coaster ride of different ownership that included independence, membership of the United Bus group, acquisition by the Hungaro-American NABI organisation, merger with East Lancs and LPD within the Darwen Group and ultimately it has become part of the Indian owned Ashok Leyland empire. It’s still going though, in its new Sherburn factory, and will have new developments to announce in the very near future.
It came as something of a shock to me looking back to realise that the Berlin Wall was still standing when Bus & Coach Buyer first went to press. European built products had been increasingly popular in the UK, especially in the coach market, from the advent of deregulation at the start of the 1980s, and even before that and their popularity has continued, with once small concerns such as Irizar growing to become huge global players and many others falling by the wayside. The major European brands such as Mercedes-Benz, who absorbed Setra; MAN, who absorbed Neoplan and are, together with Scania, owned by Volkswagen; Volvo, who had earlier absorbed Leyland; and Iveco, whose bus and coach interests were briefly badged Irisbus have all become global in their scope, with a considerable proportion of their production moving to lower wage economies in Turkey and the former Eastern Europe. Van Hool will officially open its new plant in Macedonia in the coming weeks and even the Spanish mini and midi specialist Indcar has a plant in Romania. An exception is VDL Bus, which absorbed Bova, DAF Bus, Berkhof, Jonckheere, Smit and Kusters among others, and resolutely builds all of its products in the Benelux countries.
As well as Turkish and Eastern European countries becoming bases for Western European manufacturers, we have seen the presence of existing manufacturers from these areas including Ikarus, TAZ, BMC, FAMOS, Temsa, Otokar and others, not forgetting MCV from Egypt which has earned a niche in the UK. We didn’t predict it but China has become massively important in world bus and coach building with companies that didn’t exist when Bus & Coach Buyer started now building ten of thousands of units annually. King Long, Ankhai and Yutong have a presence in the UK and it would be surprising if they were the last.
Just as radical as the changes among the manufacturers is the way the buses we use have altered. Within the lifetime of our publication low floor buses have seen off step entrance models, buses and coaches have expanded in length to as much as 15 metres and engine outputs have grown to the point that some now exceed 500bhp.
More radical still have been the changes in engine technology as Europe has dictated ever stricter emission controls. We’re now up to Euro6, well Europe is, we seem to be lagging behind a little, which in most cases means that we now have to add something called AdBlue. Now if you’d told me we’d be putting what is essentially cow pee in our vehicles 25 years ago I’d have thought you were taking the pee. And while the limits for diesels have tightened, there has been the growth in the importance and availability of alternative fuel options. After a first unsuccessful one we’re now on a second wave of gas buses, we’ve got all manner of hybrid systems, we’ve had and have fuel cells, we’ve got hydrogen too and the economic case for electric buses has never been stronger. If Leeds has its way we’ll have trolleybuses too, though why they think they are a good option escapes me.
Alongside these developments, in the ongoing quest for greater efficiency, many buses have become lighter in weight, which makes sense as the price of fuel continues to rise.
The latest exciting development in the Bus & Coach Buyer story has been the acquisition on 24 May 2013 of the magazine and its sister Glen-Holland Publishing titles, Coach Tours UK and Market Trade News, by Peterborough based AT Graphics Ltd. This was followed by relocation from Spalding to the new offices in Milnyard Square, Orton Southgate, just over the A1 roundabout from the Peterborough Extra Service Area. Hopefully you will have already noticed the step up in design and production that their expertise has brought to the magazine.
With this anniversary issue we are taking the next step forward with a sparkling new look for the magazine that we believe will make it even easier to read and more attractive to the eye.
We’ve been conducting a major market research programme that has involved calling many of you by telephone over the past couple of months as we seek to fully realise the potential of the magazine. We’ve been listening to what you’ve had to say and acting upon the suggestions that have come up most regularly, so hopefully you’ll find that the content is even better tuned to your needs in the coming years. In such a diverse industry it is inevitable that some articles will appeal to some readers more than others but hopefully we can ensure that more of you find more of interest in each future issue. We have also gradually increased the editorial ratio within our pages so there’s more in there to enjoy.
It won’t stop with these latest developments; the process of change will be ongoing as it always needs to be. The internet represents both a challenge and an opportunity and we’ll be continuing to develop our presence to maximise our usefulness to our readers, in both our printed and online editions.
As I look back at the past 25 years, I feel privileged to have been part of a fabulous industry, the contribution of which has been consistently undervalued by people, especially politicians, who are far less in touch with the people we serve. If I’m not careful I’ll launch into a tirade about concessionary fares reimbursement, something I’ll not do except to say that the consequences of Gordon Brown’s irresponsible tinkering will have to be addressed, and the sooner the better in the interests of all passengers, including those it set out to win the votes of.
To close I’d like to say a big thank you on behalf of everyone at Bus & Coach Buyer for your support over the years. Those who have advertised; those who have sent in stories; those who have bought vehicles, products and services from our advertisers; our own suppliers; those who have welcomed me to their homes, premises and events to gather the information needed for articles; and everyone else who has contributed, thank you to you all: we couldn’t have done it without you and we plan to keep doing it for you for many years to come.