Optare’s 35 years of ‘cutting-edge minibus design’ continues

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Optare’s recent re-brand to Switch could have seen the end of the well-known brand, but this is not the case. Richard Sharman looks at the Solo SR’s predecessors and visits Herefordshire to find out more about the future of the model

Sunday 26 October 1986 was a landmark date for the bus industry. It was the date that it was to be deregulated. In the months that followed, the streets of many of the UK’s cities were full of bright new coach and bus companies all wanting a piece of the deregulated bus scene action, many using van-derived minibus conversions. But in a factory in Crossgates, Leeds something completely different had been designed.

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Cutting edge minibus

The Optare CityPacer-bodied Volkswagen LT55 was the new design that would change the way the industry saw the humble minibus. With its sharply angled front end and driver visibility that was like nothing that had gone before in this class of vehicle, and it would set the standard for generations of Optare products to come.

The CityPacer went on to find favour with then recently-privatised bus companies, municipals, councils and independents, with nearly 300 produced between 1986 and 1992. However, its initial success was overshadowed by a more mainstream chassis in the form of the Mercedes-Benz 811D which Optare started bodying in 1989. The larger StarRider model offered a better seating capacity, room for a luggage pen and a double-folding ‘fast flow’ entry door, if so required. The StarRider had a relatively short production run of 171 examples between 1989 and 1991, with many of the subsequent deliveries being to coach specification on the 814D chassis until 1994.

Whilst Optare was busy designing its minibus bodies a company called Metropolitan Cammell Weyman (MCW) from Birmingham had also come up with a design that was offering an alternative to the Ford Transits and Dodge S26s. The MCW Metrorider entered the market as an integral minibus, firstly with a Perkins Phaser engine then the Cummins B-series. It was a successful model that was receiving major orders which saw MCW produce over 1,000 examples between 1986 and 1989. Whilst it was a success, issues with MCW’s coach products and a recession in 1989 lead to the company going bankrupt.

The Metrorider design was purchased by Optare in 1989, and it immediately went about making some changes to the model to improve build quality, comfort, the structure of the integral body and added air-powered doors instead of electric. In the 11 years of the model’s production, which ran from 1989 to 2000, the Optare Metrorider sold over 1,200 vehicles to a vast array of operators over four different series which saw longer and wider variants added as the years went on.

Low-floor revolution

Whilst the new, more reliable Metrorider was proving a runaway success, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 mandated the need for all public service vehicles (PSVs) over 22 seats to be low-floor by 31 December 2000. The Metrorider, with its Cummins engine mounted at the front, meant a new approach was required if Optare was to maintain its large share of the market.

It is hard to comprehend that it was 23 years ago that Optare first introduced the industry to the Solo. What made it so different was that the engine was at the rear, in a cradle which could easily be changed when required; it was low-floor; and it was available in several lengths and widths. The name Solo was a play on the fact that the entrance could be lowered to provide a step of just 200mm into the vehicle, this was achieved by situating the front axle ahead of the passenger doors. In 2000 the Solo design gained two awards in the form of the ‘Millennium Product’ and ‘Queens Award for Enterprise.’

From a driver’s point of view, the front axle being in front of the entry door meant that many who took one out for the first time probably took the front wheel over a curb or two whilst they were getting used to driving what felt like a larger single-decker with an elevated cab position!

Its modular design meant that it was easy to offer short or long-wheelbase models, in multiple widths. The shortest wheelbase was the 7.8m, also available as a SlimLine body of 2.33m wide instead of the standard 2.5m, with the longest being a 10.2m which featured the larger Cummins ISBe 6-litre engine. The standard fare for the majority of the Solos built was the Mercedes-Benz OM904LA engine, although Cummins ISBe and MAN D0834 became available later on. Over 3,800 Optare Solos were built to this body style, with 70 also being built in left-hand drive for the European and international market.

Ahead of its time

At the Euro Bus Expo in 2008 Optare was to reveal its most radical-looking bus yet, the Solo+. The promotional material handed out at the show announced that: “The Solo+ combines cutting-edge design and a series of impressive new benefits, as well as all the best aspects of the award-winning low-floor, easy-access Solo.”

It was to be available in 8.8m and 9.5m lengths and had the same engine options as the standard Solo, and also the option to use the full electric Enova drive.

When Optare said that it was cutting-edge in design, it was 100% right. I was at the NEC on the day of the reveal and recall thinking that the Solo+ and the double-decker Rapta that was revealed at the same time were the most modern-looking vehicles on display. The problem was that the industry was not ready for such an advance in styling, and unfortunately, only the prototype models were made – although I still believe that even 13 years on, that styling would fit right into the marketplace now; that is how advanced Optare’s designs at that period were.

Two prototypes were built by Optare but went on to be rebuilt as standard Solos and used as demonstrators. YJ09 EZR received an Enova electric drivetrain and YJ10 EZB was a standard diesel-powered variant.

What could have been: the Solo+. It was shown at the NEC in 2008, but the industry was not ready for such radical styling at the time. KARL OAKLEY













Introducing the SR

The current incarnation of Solo was launched as the Solo SR in 2007 at the Coach & Bus Live Show at the NEC. Despite managing to maintain its 2.5m width, the SR model introduced several changes to the Solo which benefited both the passengers and the operator. The most obvious was the remodelled exterior styling, with a dramatic roll-over front windscreen and destination glass and curved saloon side windows to eliminate flutter on tick-over.

The sweeping front profile, which flattened out after the entry door, was designed to reduce aerodynamic drag thus increasing fuel economy. It also allowed Optare to extend the front overhang so that ancillary equipment could be relocated.

The initial offering of the SR retained the familiar engine offering but in two lengths of 9.0m and 9.37m. A SlimLine model was also an option. The introduction of the SR was not to be the end to the original Solo though, it carried on in production until 2012, giving operators a choice between the two different style models.

Sargeants’ new Solo SR will join a fleet that has standardised on Optare products. RICHARD SHARMAN












Time to Switch?

Fast forward to 2021 and the Solo SR is still going strong, with over 1,800 produced so far for the UK and international markets. But is it the end of Optare as we know it? The answer is no, as Customer Service Manager, John House explained: “After much consideration, we have decided that diesel products will continue to be badged at Optare products, whilst all electric vehicle (EV) products will carry the Switch name. Optare has a long history with the diesel product, and we wanted to respect that by keeping the EV and diesel range separate. Looking to the future, our main supplier of diesel engines is Mercedes-Benz, and it has informed us that it will have a limited supply of the complete packs that we normally purchase. It has advised us of our quota; we already have orders in the pipeline, so that doesn’t leave many units left.

“Looking at our allocation, there is a possibility that it may only last until the middle of next year, although in terms of the Solo SR, the other option is the Cummins engine and that is well-liked in the patch that I look after in the South West, so there is a good possibility that this offering will go on longer than the Mercedes-Benz option. Ultimately, the lack of supply will determine when we will cease to offer diesel products, and concentrate on only offering zero-emission electric buses under the Switch brand.”

Stephanie Baker, Regional Sales Manager at Optare added: “In regards to engine supply, we have a certain number on order in regards to Mercedes-Benz and Cummins engines. It is worth noting that the Cummins 112kW engine is only suitable for our Solo SRs in 7.9, 8.5 and 9.2-metre variants. The longest 9.9m variant is designed around the Mercedes-Benz OM934, an engine which is suitable throughout the range. If an operator were to order a brand new Solo SR now, we would be looking at a lead time of around four months from point of order to delivery.”

To differentiate its product options, Optare has updated its website and all of its diesel products can now be found at optare.com, which also links to Optare’s Parts Portal.

Standardising on Optare

Herefordshire-based Sargeants is a big supporter of the Optare range, and you may recall that I previously tested the MetroDecker with the operator. Matt Evans, Director of Sargeants, commented on his latest purchase: “We have very much standardised on Optare products over the last four years, and see the Solo SR, MetroCity and MetroDecker the backbone of our fleet. The service support and backup we receive is excellent and Stephanie Baker, Optare’s Regional Sales Manager, is always on hand with anything we need. The new Solo SR will be our third vehicle with e-leather seating, and the first to feature USB charging points. It is also specified with white LED destination equipment, which all new vehicles will now be specified with. We very much believe in elevating the customer experience at Sargeants, and this vehicle delivers on that.

“In addition, Optare has built and delivered this new vehicle at pace. We could have taken delivery of it a month earlier, but wanted to register it on a 71-plate so decided to wait.”

Natalie Amos, Transport Manager at Sargeants, added: “We have recently started to operate commercial bus services in Hereford City Centre and now have two routes, the A and B, and these are growing in popularity daily so we have increased the service with additional journeys to get people to and from work. These services are operated by our Optare Solo SRs and our new customers love them.”

Road Test

I am no stranger to driving Optare Solos, having driven them in service and run a depot that had an 80% allocation of them. They are a good dependable vehicle and well suited for both rural and city applications, I have seen how the product has evolved from the early S-plate examples to the full-length variants and the relatively rare MAN D0834-engined versions.

But Sargeants’ Solo SR 71-plate example is the result of 23 years of the evolution of the Solo product. The SR has had some tweaks since it was first introduced in 2007, with a sleeker front and rear design, low emission technology and improved passenger comfort.

Exterior design

The SR is still very much a modern-looking vehicle. The tweaks that have been made to the front include a revised lower centre panel that has now had the chrome strip removed from the centre allowing for the operator to have a prominent position to display its fleet name.
The front top LED marker lights have been moved from inside the destination box to stalks on top of it instead, improving visibility.

One of the key benefits of the Solo SR over the original Solo is that access to the batteries, wiper motors, headlights and other ancillary units is greatly improved due to the front panel folding down rather than lifting. This is achieved by pulling a simple handle under the windscreen, no need for a t-key.

Moving to the side of the vehicle and the curved side glazing, which is designed to reduce window flutter on engine tick over, is a clever design that looking from the outside is not obvious unless you are looking for it. The quick-change side panels remain in place, which is a major benefit when it comes to reducing vehicle downtime due to minor scratches and dents that may occur on the road.

The fuel tank remains in the traditional place of under the cab area, whilst the Adblue filler is behind the rear axle. Coolant and oil fillers are on the offside rear corner of the vehicle behind a large flap that also allows a view of the level of the header tank. The side emergency engine stop is also located here.

The rear of the vehicle remains unchanged in the last few years, although the rear LED cluster looks like it has received a refresh with updated units now used.

Access to the batteries, headlights, wiper motor and screen wash is good. RICHARD SHARMAN












The Mercedes-Benz OM934LA engine. RICHARD SHARMAN












Interior quality

Stepping onto the platform of the Solo SR you get a feeling of space and a quality build, particularly in this specification. The Altro Iron Bamboo silver and grey gloss flooring sets off the interior against the light grey and burgundy e-leather Rescroft CT Lite seating with padded headrests and three-point seatbelts. The seat rear-mounted USB ports are mounted high up in the seatback, meaning they are less likely to get damaged than being lower down.

Twenty-nine fixed seats are fitted, with three tip-up seats without seatbelts in the wheelchair bay, to which the access up the ramp and into the bay is good. The benefit of the curved side glazing is more obvious when looking at it from the inside and it assists in making the interior feel light and airy, as does the roof light that also double as an emergency exit. The curved roof panels finish off the interior with smart LED uplighting.

Heating is provided by ducts built into the rear panel of the vehicle, which has two access panels to the rear of the engine bay, but caution needs to be taken by engineers when removing them as they are in cream, so a clean pair of disposable gloves is a must! In regards to the interior heating, the driver no longer has control of the rear fans, they now cut in and out automatically to ensure a consistent temperature of 15°C, although the operator can specify its preferred temperature.

The comfortable KAB drivers seat and ergonomic cab area. RICHARD SHARMAN













The smart interior of Sargeants’ Solo SR. RICHARD SHARMAN












On the road

The cab is one area that has always remained very similar to the original model, but more creature comforts have been added in recent years. The belted KAB714B air suspended driver’s seat is comfortable and offers plenty of back support. A recent addition is a powered full-width sunblind, which has the switch located just behind the push button Allison gear selector.

The steering wheel, indicator and wiper controls remain unchanged, as does the shape of the dashboard and the switchgear to the right of the dashboard. The EcoDrive dash binnacle, as seen in our MetroDecker test drive, is clear and easy to easy.

Pulling away from the Eardisley yard and escorted by Driver John Upshaw to show me the route, I found that all-around visibility remained excellent. The model is classed as an SR920SL, which means it is 9.25m in length and is one of the SlimLine variants, with a width of 2.33m, ideal for the deeply rural routes that it will be used on.

The Mercedes-Benz OM934 engine has become a bit of a jack of all trades in recent years, and it is used to power some double-deckers, including the MetroDecker, so a 7,000kg Solo SR should be no problem. It is mated to an Allison T3270R XFE series five-speed automatic gearbox with integral retarder and designed to reduced fuel consumption. Pulling out onto the main road to Hereford acceleration was smooth, and as the road opened up I accelerated to the legal speed limit of 50mph.

One thing you quickly notice is that that promise of saving fuel is delivered through changing up gears very quickly to top. However, the 750Nm of torque is still on tap, so the bus still delivers the power as it progresses through the gears. There is no kick down, but it didn’t seem to need it. It was perfectly happy climbing hills in fifth gear and at pace by using the 174bhp of the OM934 engine.

My only gripe with the gearbox is that as quickly as it wants to change up, it similarly wants to get to first gear as quickly as possible when coming to a halt. A chat with an Optare engineer on-site at Sargeants quickly identified that a simple setting needed changing on the integral retarder to resolve that issue.

Steering and handling through the twists and turns on the country roads was very good, with the Goodyear Knax S 215/75R tyres gripping to the hot road surface like glue (yes this road test took place whilst it was still hot!).

One thing that Optare is consistent in doing is delivering a rattle-free interior, and not just on the Solo SR, the MetroDecker and MetroDecker EV I have previously tested have been equally as good.

In conclusion, it is hard to imagine the UK bus industry without the ability to buy an internal combustion engine (ICE) Solo SR after all these years, but that time is coming. Luckily you will still be able to buy the electric Switch Solo SR in the future, but if you are a rural operator that still requires an ICE example, now is the time to be thinking about it.

You can view the Optare Solo SR and the Solo EV test drives on our YouTube channel.