“I'd reached the age of 14,
And I hadn't started courting,
And my mum was getting worried about me.
She said, ‘Dad, it's time you told him all about the birds and bees’
"He said, 'Now, remember Uncle Joe
And that picnic a while ago...’ "
Had a browse of the Feb/March copy of Classic Buses in W H Smith’s library on Saturday. Though it is one of the best laid out magazines of the transport genre, I rarely buy it. As Benny Hill once said in his skit that started “I’d reached the age of 14...”, “Why buy a book when there’s a thriving lending library in the town?”. I think he had some commodity in mind much more expensive than magazines or books : ) but it’s an interesting principle.
Inside Classic Buses there was an interview with Stagecoach’s MD in the south, Andrew Dyer, in which he named the change with the most impact on the modern bus industry. It was neither the rear engined double deck nor the spread of one-person operation (nor yet the super low floor bus, though he didn't put this forward as an option). It was, in his opinion, the first generation minibus, epitomised by the Ford Transit 16-seater conversion.
There will be many who disagree, even scoff. “Bread vans” they were called. There was an element of disdain. They weren’t “proper” buses.
But wasn’t that the point?
I’ve said it before (here and here and here) that we should never under-estimate the impact of the minibus on the bus operations on the mid- to late-1980s to the early-1990s. They brought phenomenal growth (70 per cent was not unheard of). The difference wasn’t the vehicle type but the way the minibus unlocked the marketing potential of a brand new type of road-based transport. It was "alternative" in nature.
Minibuses started in Exeter in 1984 with Devon General, with the mass replacement of lower-frequency city services with higher-frequency Ford Transits. National Bus Company managers from other subsidiaries arrived to see what all the fuss was about, not by the minibus-load but the dekcer-load. Minis soon spread far and wide.
Up to the Exeter experiment, minibuses had a very minor role in providing local transport. Hants & Dorset had a few. They were on marginal, often low frequency and often rural services. The argument then that still holds true in rural areas was, if you needed a large bus to accommodate school (or other) peak loads, it made sense under marginal costing to operate the same bus emptier off-peak rather than buy a second, smaller vehicle for the 0900-1430 journeys.
The minibus turned the arguments of peak loadings on its head. Why should a 20 minute peak govern a service when there were ways of developing and growing the business throughout the other 17 hours and 40 minutes?
And this was the contribution the Ford Transit and Mercedes 608D made. Coinciding with privatisation (freedom to govern your own business) and deregulation (freedom to operate what and where you wanted), the minibus played a considerable role.
It might not be popular to say so but, but Andrew Dyer’s right.