Shear disbelief!

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Paul Webb, the owner of this recently restored ex-Shearings Van Hool Alizée-bodied Volvo B10M, tells Peter Jackson the unbelievable story of how he came to acquire it, its subsequent restoration and how he ended up at the front of the first Honk for Hope protest in London

P306 VWR is certainly a special coach. As a freshly-repainted and remarkably well preserved example of one of the most celebrated coaches of all time – the Van Hool Alizée-bodied Volvo B10M – it stands on its own as a vehicle worthy of inclusion in CBW. However, this isn’t just any B10M, and wasn’t bought by a die-hard enthusiast specifically for preservation like you might expect. In fact, the tale of this vehicle’s life and Paul’s acquisition of it is anything but conventional.

“I was driving Volvo B10Ms when they were quite new, at the same time as owning an old Bristol and an old London bus,” he began. “Then my daughter came along, so I stopped driving buses as a hobby and concentrated on my day job as a train driver instructor – I worked in the rail industry for 43 years.

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“My mum, who’s still around, was an avid Shearings traveller. For a giggle, in 2001 I bought her a Corgi model of a Shearings coach – it was a bit of a daft gift but that’s all it was meant to be. Anyway, I thought nothing of it. Fast forward 18 years, my daughter had grown up and I was due to retire, so I thought it would be an ideal time to revisit owning a classic coach or bus.

“I quite fancied having a Volvo B10M just for the hell of it, so I got myself an operator’s licence with one disc and started searching for the right example. The idea to begin with was to find one in any colour – probably white – and use it to do a little bit of work in my retirement.”
This is where things really start to get interesting: “When I was looking for a B10M in January of this year, this coach came up for sale from Kingswinford Coachways,” continued Paul. “At the time, it had a private registration number on it – 789 FAY – so I Googled that to find out its history and which operators had owned it in the past. Lo and behold, Shearings had operated it with its original registration, P306 VWR.

“I was at home at the time and, out of curiosity, wandered over to look at the Shearings model I’d given my mum all those years ago, which I now had sitting on my sideboard. I looked at the registration number and thought, ‘oh my gosh’ – it was the same as the coach I was looking at for sale online. It was absolutely unbelievable. So I realised I’d got to buy it at that point, even though I had no idea of its true condition. Most people buy the full size vehicle and then try to find a model of it, but here I had the opportunity to do it the other way around!”

After doing a little more digging, Paul discovered the coach had further significance beyond being replicated in 1:76 scale. “When this coach was brand new in 1997, it was owned by Wallace Arnold,” he revealed. “It was part of a batch of about 15 that the company had. In 2001, Shearings lost two vehicles to a fire and were in a hurry to replace them, so they actually bought two of this batch from Wallace Arnold. These are the only two vehicles to have ever been bought from Wallace Arnold by the other major player at the time, Shearings.

Where the story began: Corgi’s 1:76 scale replica of P306 VWR, which is proudly displayed on the dashboard of the real thing. PETER JACKSON

“When Shearings got hold of the coach, they fitted new interior trim, put alloy wheels on instead of the red Wallace Arnold ones, and of course painted it blue. To this day, it still has that original 2001 interior trim. The only thing Shearings didn’t change when they bought it was the floor – it’s still got the original Wallace Arnold red flooring. So because of all of these unique aspects, we’re trying to keep the coach as original as we can. To my eye, the red floor doesn’t exactly go well with the rest of the interior! The colours jar, but I guess they didn’t care!

“The other coach (P305 VWR) does still exist, and I’m in touch with the current owner of it, Borland Roadliner of Telford. It still has its original interior trim too, which is extremely rare for any Wallace Arnold or Shearings coach from 20-odd years ago. It’s currently in service in the Birmingham area painted in a kind of battleship grey, but it looks smart and it’s meant to be in pretty good condition. So we’re going to get them together at some point for some photographs.”

The peculiarities don’t end with the real-life version of the coach: “There’s an interesting story behind the Corgi model itself too,” said Paul. “This was a new livery to Shearings in 2001. I’m in touch with a bloke called David Arkell, who was around in the Shearings days, and knows the guy who commissioned Corgi to make the model on behalf of Shearings. My question was: ‘why did they make a model of a second-hand vehicle?’ I thought it was odd because by 2001, Shearings had more modern-bodied Volvos in its fleet; Plaxton Premieres and Van Hool T9s were out too. But then they bought this second-hand vehicle from Wallace Arnold and made a model of it!

“What I understand however is that Corgi’s moulds for the newer vehicles weren’t ready in time for the launch of Shearings’ new livery; the company was so determined to have a model showcasing its new livery that they had Corgi replicate this vehicle, as they already had a T8 Alizée model in production. So even the model has a strange story behind it!”

The B10M’s cockpit will be a familiar sight for thousands of drivers. PETER JACKSON

Leap of faith

“After I bought it, I put its original registration number back on and set about restoring it to match the Corgi model,” continued Paul. “To begin with, it had a full service, a steam clean and an underseal treatment to make sure it was all OK rust-wise. Having checked the whole vehicle over and made sure it was running nicely, I arranged for it to go into the paint shop to be returned to the Shearings livery.”

Alsigns Commercials in Broadway, Worcestershire took on the job, using the 1:76 scale model to design full-size graphics and to obtain an exact match to the original shade of blue. The firm then carried out the respray and applied all of the graphics in-house, completely transforming it from a tired-looking school run workhorse to a preserved showstopper. The results are spectacular – Paul’s coach looks every bit as good in person as it does in these photographs.

“When I first realised what the coach was and decided I had to get it, I was worried it’d turn out to be a heap – but it hasn’t,” he said. “It needed very little welding, very little bodywork… the emergency exit on the offside was re-skinned and a few little plates were welded in on each side, but other than that it was just a case of flatting it down and spraying the new colour on. When it was flatted down, we came across the original layer of Shearings blue paint (as well as the Wallace Arnold cream); that meant Alsigns could use both the model and the paint on the coach to get as close a match as possible to the original shade.

The vast majority of the interior trim is original, with the exception of the driver and courier seats. PETER JACKSON

“The toilet was removed from the coach at some point after Shearings sold it. After Shearings it went to Coastal and Country, and I’m in touch with a driver who remembers driving it for that company. After Coastal and Country it went to Kingswinford Coachways, where it finished its life covered in chewing gum as a school bus – the curtains were removed and so on. But it’s alright, the interior’s come up pretty well considering it had 23 years’ consecutive service – and that most of it is original.

“We had to recover the driver’s seat and the bottom of the courier seat, but we decided to keep the rest of the fabric original – although it’s very faded at this point – because it’s part of the history of the coach.”

Owner Paul Webb drove B10Ms in service when they were new. PETER JACKSON

Reflecting on how the restoration unfolded, Paul told me: “I feel like I’ve been kind of a project manager for the coach, as besides cleaning and maintaining its appearance I’ve had other people do a lot of the work. I have a brilliant, experienced Volvo mechanic who’s done all the servicing and repairs, a brilliant bodyshop, and brilliant support from the industry as a whole. So when people tell me I’ve done a fantastic job, I point to all the people I’ve employed!

“We understand this is the first and only Shearings coach to have been preserved – there’s quite few of Wallace Arnold’s but this is the only Shearings one so far,” he added. “But again, I didn’t choose this vehicle for any of the reasons that make it historically significant. It all just happened by chance.”

Beyond all expectations

Paul has found the generosity of the industry as a whole – but particularly former Shearings employees – overwhelming. “As this project’s gone along – the coach has its own Facebook page with over 600 people on it – people, including ex-drivers who’ve recently been made redundant, have been donating Shearings memorabilia,” he said. “I’ve now got various bits of uniform, bags, brochures, fleet books… all sorts! Someone’s also offered to donate a foglight as one of ours is cracked.

“There’s two ironies here: one is that, when I bought this B10M, it was just meant to keep me busy with work in my retirement but now it’s become more of a hobby – even though I have my operator’s licence. The other is that, halfway through the restoration, Shearings went bust. We picked it up in July, two days before the first London Honk for Hope trip. The organisers heard about the restoration and, in light of Shearings going out of business, they decided they wanted my coach at the front of the convoy.

“We met them at the motorway services before going on a tour of London, sounding the horn and everything! It was my first decent trip in the coach since its restoration, so we were worried it might break down or have teething problems, but it was faultless. We had a former Shearings driver Joanne Stonehouse – who’d been made redundant when the company went bust – drive half the journey, which was lovely.”

It’s not just individuals who’ve reached out to Paul to offer their help – one company in particular has gone above and beyond to support the restoration. Paul explained: “On the day of Honk for Hope, there was a little boy outside the Houses of Parliament holding a protest placard. We were leading the demonstration, so there’s a fantastic video of us coming towards him sounding our horn – it’s quite emotional to watch really. That little boy’s dad is Justin Stott, who runs one of the biggest PSV air-conditioning companies in the UK, Airconco. He’s a lovely guy, and he’s done two things for me.

“First of all – and at the time I didn’t know him from Adam – he contacted me after Honk for Hope and said, ‘I want to pay your congestion charge.’ He thought it was £100 but it was actually £300, as we’d gone through the first emissions zone and the inner zone – I wouldn’t expect anybody else to pay for that! But he was generous enough to cover that cost.

The side-mounted 9.6-litre powerplant. PETER JACKSON

“He then said to me, “Paul, does your air-conditioning work?” I told him it didn’t, and probably hadn’t for 15 years! 20-odd years ago, Airconco founded their business on a contract with Shearings for their air-conditioning systems, so he was keen to get involved with the project. He and an engineer from Airconco dealer Kempair came up at the end of July and they both spent the whole day completely renewing just about everything in the air-conditioning system. They got it working and Justin wouldn’t take a penny for it… when you think of all the travelling time plus an entire day’s labour, that’s a huge gesture. They were fantastic. The generosity of the whole industry has been amazing too, whether it be former drivers or enthusiasts.”

Now the restoration is complete, it’s time for Paul to enjoy the coach and show it off at rallies and running days. While 2020 has turned out to be pretty much the worst year imaginable in which to own a preserved vehicle (thanks Covid), it hasn’t stopped him from putting some miles on the trusty B10M. “There’s a picture of this coach in Great Yarmouth in 2004 when it was still with Shearings; we did a day trip there recently and parked in the exact same spot,” he said. “I was also invited to a Wallace Arnold get together at some services near Bristol which the company used to use. The organisers said, ‘even though you’re the enemy, bring your coach down!’ I wasn’t able to go though unfortunately as it clashed with the Great Yarmouth trip. But clearly, the rivalry between Shearings and Wallace Arnold continues!

A glimpse at the spacious luggage compartment. PETER JACKSON

“We’re planning to attend the mobile version of Showbus on 27 September, and we were also invited to Lodge Coaches’ open day at High Easter recently, which was a fantastic day. There’s also a running day in Northampton which I believe is going ahead, as well as the Fenland BusFest, so we’ve got about half a dozen events to go to this year. Then it’ll be laid up over winter so we can take care of a few more little jobs on it to get it ready for 2021.”

Shearings may be gone, but Paul’s shining example of one of its former vehicles looks set to live on for decades to come.

To follow Paul’s journey with the coach, visit his Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/2264919510275353

 

 

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