Plaxton’s coach rally a success

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Jonathan Welch went to the seaside to attend the first Plaxton coach rally, which was hailed a roaring success

Held at Plaxton’s legendary Scarborough factory on Thursday 8 August, the company’s first open day attracted over 500 visitors and raised £1,800 for local good causes, as well as providing a way for Plaxton owners and operators new and old to come together, socialise, reminisce and network.coach rally

Although in typically summer style the weather was a bit overcast, the sun did make occasional appearances during the day, allowing some of Plaxton’s finest coaches from the last 70 years to be seen at their best. And at their best they certainly did look, the line up of around 40 coaches spanning the decades were all gleaming, many hours having gone in to polishing the chromework so typical of the older generation of vehicles.
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First on the agenda was a tour of the factory’s production lines, which was proving very popular amongst all visitors, industry professionals and families alike. After signing in, we were introduced to our guides, electrician Chris Watson and coachbuilder Jim Marflitt. Jim, a long-serving employee, has seen the company through thick and thin, but his enthusiasm showed. We started by watching a short video showing some of the products that Plaxton – and parent company Alexander Dennis – have produced in recent years, which served as a reminder of the huge variety of vehicles coming from its plants in Scarborough, Falkirk and Guildford, destined for locations as far away as Canada, the USA, Switzerland and Asia.

The first thing to strike a visitor is how clean and organised the factory floor is, everything in racks and trays ready to be fitted at the appropriate stage on the assembly line. This work is done by hand, as the sheer number of variations mean that every order is different, and there can be a number of different types of vehicle on the production line at any one time, all in various build stages.


In support of good causes
The Plaxton factory is a valued and well-known part of the Scarborough community. Two local charities were selected to benefit from money raised at the event.

St Catherine’s Hospice in Scarborough provides palliative care for terminally ill adults, either in their own home or at the hospice, as well as valuable support for their families. The hospice provides its services free of charge to those in need, and has facilities to deal with all aspects of care, and is able to provide specially trained nurses and doctors, physiotherapy, bereavement counselling and much more.

The RNLI lifeboat station in Scarborough has a particular link to the Plaxton factory. It is home to a Shannon class lifeboat named after Frederick William Plaxton, the company’s founder. Manned by volunteers, the lifeboat relies on donations to continue to carry out its vital role keeping East Yorkshire’s coastline safe.


Starting small

coach rally
Overall winner: Scott Johnson collects the prize for Johnson Bros. JONATHAN WELCH

As we walked along the coach production line (the other is currently assembling Enviro400 double-deckers), Jim showed us a Volvo chassis at the very start of its journey. As delivered, they have just a short section between the two end sub-frames, with steering axle on one and drive axle and engine on the other. After arrival, these two sections are supported on jacks, the centre piece removed, and the full-length frame inserted, depending on the length of coach being built. Interestingly, Jim explained that to counteract any sag caused by the weight of the engine when the jacks are removed, the jacks are set a few millimetres higher at the rear. Otherwise, when the body is assembled and things like side locker doors are fitted, they won’t line up and close properly.

We worked our way back along the double-deck production line, where one chassis had just had its staircase installed. Whole side frames were partly attached to the main frame of another, supported on jacks. Front ends too, arrive ready made with wiring in place. “It’s like a giant Meccano set,” joked Jim, who joined Plaxton in 1972. Impressive are the six Panorama double-deck coaches destined for the Megabus network, each one being one stage closer to being finished which gives an interesting perspective on the production line and what happens at each station. The expectation is that each vehicle should spend around 7 hours at each section before moving to the next, and Jim and Chris were clearly proud to show of the work they and their colleagues do.

Acklams Acclaimed
After the tour of the factory, it was time to have a walk around the ranks of coaches outside. Formed into two facing rows, the contrasts between the generations were very evident – and yet every one of them had something in common. They had all been brought here by people who share a passion, for the industry and for the vehicles they drive. Unmissable was the Elite interdeck coach of Acklams, which was proving very popular especially with younger visitors. And not without good reason, for this is no ordinary coach but Hull City FC’s team coach, which besides the usual extras features a rear lounge area complete with Xbox, as well as Sky TV, WiFi, and wireless charging tables.

Despite its vast size, it contains just 42 luxury seats. Not only that but the kitchen, designed with input from the team’s own chef, must be one of the most impressive on any coach I’ve seen. Clearly proud of her coach, Acklams Transport Manager Lisa Morrison had her work cut out for her trying to

Acklams’ very impressive team coach won the public vote for best coach in show. JONATHAN WELCH

manage the steady flow of inquisitive visitors young and old. “We use it for all sorts,” she explained. “Hull City specced it, but it gets used for private hire too. We do a lot of work for the Hull City Academies training teams, and transport Hull RFC and Kingston Rovers as well.” Although she didn’t know it at the time, it was probably little surprise that this coach won the award for ‘People’s Choice best in show.’

At the complete opposite end of the scale in terms of size, though still receiving just as much attention, was Keith Kitching’s little 14-seat Austin K8 with Plaxton’s Venturer bodywork, which was new to now-defunct operator Scott’s Greys. Based on a beefed-up version of the K8 van chassis, the coach has a 2.2-litre engine, and measures just 20’ long by 6’8” wide, although it has quite a presence, thanks in part due to the large wheels. Nonetheless, it was still dwarfed by the low floor Panther LE parked alongside.

As Keith pointed out, his coach could fit in the Panther rear overhang! Having started his career with Scott’s Greys, Keith has now written and self-published books on the company and his memoirs of a lifetime in transport, as well as finding time to track down this little coach. He is thankful that, having bought it from a scrapyard, it’s previous owner did not over-restore it, leaving it with a lot of period charm and of course the smell associated with old vehicles.

Despite its small size, the coach marked an important milestone in Plaxton’s designs, in that it was the first ever produced with push-up roof vents instead of the traditional sliding version, and as such was exhibited at the 1952 Commercial Motor Show at Earls Court.

Celebrating heritage

coach rally
Perry’s of Malton displayed this very smartly turned out Cheetah – complete with equally smart drivers. JONATHAN WELCH

Taking time out from the vehicle displays, I sat down for a chat with Richard Matthews, Alexander Dennis Retail Sales Director (Bus & Coach), and Caroline Szeremeta, Group Marketing Manager. “We’ve been thinking of doing something like this for about four years, and talking to operators, suppliers and stakeholders,” explained Richard. “We wanted a low-key event to celebrate our heritage, our history and our business. We believe our current line up is the most diverse, flexible and wide-ranging we’ve ever offered. There’s a lot of innovation here, when I started there were just 260 employees at Scarborough, now we have 660. We wanted to bring together a mix of old and new to show the heritage of our product. They’re British and built to last.”

“It shows the longevity,” added Caroline, “and how they can be adapted throughout their lifetime. They are British built and built to last” Both Caroline and Richard praise the pride and passion of those who had brought their vehicles. “It will be interesting to see what the judges thought,” said Richard.

Although it was primarily an industry event rather than an open day, anyone was able to apply for tickets and there were a number of enthusiasts amongst the families and industry figures. “Who knows what we might do next year though”, continued Richard. “We’ve been very pleased with the support from the industry. A special thanks goes to Tom James of York Pullman for providing the shuttles from the event to hotels in Scarborough town centre and the returns on Friday morning.” The workforce really got behind the idea too. “We’ve had volunteers coming in during their holidays to do factory tours, man the car parks and so on. The Plaxton guys are really proud of what they produce here, and of their contribution to the local economy.” The event was a resounding success for the sales team too, with lots of enquiries being taken for new vehicles as well as promoting ADL’s AD24 online parts and service portal.


What is AD24?
The event was also an opportunity for ADL to showcase its new AD24 parts and service portal. Chris Waine, ADL’s Aftermarket Parts Director, was keen to explain what the service has to offer: “AD24 is an ordering system for all makes, not just ADL. It gives operators ordering options up to 6pm for next day delivery, and of course is available 24/7.

“There is more to it than just a parts website though, other benefits are that it is a search engine to search alternative parts or cross reference parts to the ADL part number. The site offers alternative parts as well as OEM ones, which can be price beneficial for operators. Once this is done it comes up with an image and stock availability.”

Besides being a source of parts, the website is a mine of information. Operators can sign up and access service bulletins, vehicle manuals and training videos. To learn more, go to www.ad24.direct


Local operator East Yorkshire, who have recently taken delivery of a number of ADL single-deck bases for local services in Scarborough, was also present at the event, along with parent company Go-Ahead Group.

York Pullman received special thanks for providing the transport for exhibitors between the factory and their hotels. JONATHAN WELCH

Another local firm in attendance was Perry’s, based in nearby Malton. Although their coach, a Mercedes-Benz Cheetah, might have been amongst the smallest on display the company was well represented by Marick Ballantyne, Andrew Dunning and Ryan Perry, all looking extremely smart and professional in full company uniform. Having spent the previous day preparing the minicoach for the event, Ryan (whose colleagues were quick to point out that the surname is no coincidence and he is indeed the boss’ son!) said “It’s great that we can take a vehicle that we use every day and show it off at this standard. It’s not just a brand new coach straight from the factory, we’re really proud.”

Before long, it was time for the planned cavalcade through the town centre, passing the lifeboat station which would be one of the beneficiaries of the event. The coaches made a spectacular sight as they descended Valley Road onto the seafront. As I was taking photos, a number of people asked me what the event was, one woman even stopping to tell me her dad worked for Plaxton before he retired. Even amongst the general public, it seems the name and the company is well known and respected locally.

Bring on The Pie!
In the evening, an awards dinner was hosted at Scarborough’s famous spa, followed by live music. This was a chance for attendees to relax and unwind, as well as meet old friends and make new ones. And whilst some would say that the highlight of the evening was the very large, very tasty steak pie, served with real chips and followed by sticky toffee pudding, what everyone really wanted to know was: “Who is going home with the trophy?” Welcoming attendees to the dinner, ADL’s Colin Robertson said “The coach industry really is a family, it is a great industry to be associated with. We are proud to have Plaxton as part of the Alexander Dennis family.” The competition was tough, and the winners in all categories were well deserved, but the overall winner was the well-known Bedford VAL of Johnson Bros, with the trophy collected by a very happy looking Scott Johnson. “We’re very proud,” he said, and I’m sure most would agree that the coach was a well-deserved winner.


Winners
The individual winners of the seven categories were:

  • Pre-1964: Johnson Bros., 1963 Panorama VAL
  • 1965–1979: Kenzies Coaches, 1965 Panorama VAL
  • 1980–1991: Sharpes of Nottingham, 1981 Supreme IV
  • 1992–2010: Henry Cooper Coaches, 1996 Excalibur
  • 2011–Present day: Country Lion, 2017 Elite
  • People’s Choice: Acklams Coaches, 2017 Elitei team coach
  • Best in Show: Johnson Bros., 1963 Panorama VAL
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