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Plaxton's

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April 1951.
Bedford. Elite Express III. Body by Plaxton's. Reg No: RAD 777M.
Plaxton Premiere. Reg No: A15 EYC.

Plaxton's, builder of bus and coach vehicle bodies, of Scarborough.

1907 The business was founded in Scarborough in 1907 by Frederick William Plaxton as a a joinery workshop, and expanded into building contracting.

As a building contractor, Plaxtons built a number of notable buildings in Scarborough.

Soon after World War I Plaxtons diversified and began to build charabanc bodies on Ford Model T chassis. Of more importance at the time was the construction of automobile bodywork. This included bodywork for Rolls-Royce, Sunbeam and Daimler, but principally for Crossley car chassis. This activity continued through the 1920s, but the depression of 1929-1933 created difficulties for manufacture of luxury automobiles. As a result, the manufacture of charabanc, and later coach bodies became more important through the late 1920s and early 1930s. Customers during this time tended to be local to the Scarborough area.

By 1936 the company had constructed a large new manufacturing facility in Seamer Road, Scarborough. This increased production, and Plaxtons became popular with many independent operators throughout Northern England. Many of these operators purchased their vehicles through independent dealers, rather than directly from the factory.

Plaxton's sales were through Lancashire Motor Traders of Manchester and Arlington Motor Co of London.

By 1937 The company had become known as F. W. Plaxton and Son, as the founder's son, also named Frederick William, joined the company at the age of 18. F. W. Plaxton junior was to be known as Eric to avoid confusion with his father.

Plaxtons built a number of different coach designs through the 1930s, until settling on a distinctive house style. The style typically consisted of a very rounded front profile at the windscreen area with side windows that sloped backwards at the front, were upright at the centre, and sloped forward at the back. Bodywork for the Bedford WTB chassis was particularly distinctive, sloping severally from the bottom of the front wheel arch to the roofline, leaving the "bullnose" radiator grille protruding. The rear also sloped prominently.

The WTB chassis was very popular choice for operators at that time, together with the Dodge RBF and SBF. Leyland and AEC chassis were also popular for larger coaches, notably the Leyland Tiger PS1 and AEC Regal III.

1939 On the outbreak of World War II, coach production halted and the factory was turned into a munitions factory under the control of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Many records from the early years were lost when an incendiary bomb set fire to the Seamer Rd factory in 1943 causing much damage. As the factory was under control of the Ministry of Works, production continued in the open air whilst a replacement was constructed. Some adjacent land was loaned by a market gardener who subsequently joined the board years later.

1945 Bus and coach production restarted at the end of 1945.

1951 the business was registered for the first time as a private company, Plaxtons (Scarborough) Ltd.

1957 the founder of the company, F. W. Plaxton Senior, died, and was succeeded as Chairman by his son Frederick Jnr.

1958 Plaxtons were approached by Sheffield United Tours (SUT) to design a new crisper design of coach body. The result was the first Panorama body. The main feature of the Panorama design was the large rectangular side windows. A vertical front from the previous Consort II design was used, but with a single piece windscreen. The door was ahead of the front axle and the body could seat 36 passengers. The first production Panoramas had a short window immediately behind the entrance door however this was soon removed and encapsulated into the first bay. The first Panoramas for SUT were built on an AEC Reliance chassis. The 1958 Panorama was entered into the British and the Nice coach rallies, winning top awards at both events. The Panorama became part of the standard product range in 1959, and the design received minor modifications over the next two years.

1961 The first update on the Panorama took place; the side profile was reduced to a slight curve in the waistrail and roofline and the number of pillars further reduced. The 36-foot (11 m) version was introduced as soon as legislation allowed and the body was now 8 feet 2.5 inches (2.502 m) wide. A great improvement was made to lighting with double front headlights being a standard for the first time. The first 36-foot (11 m) coach in Britain was a Panorama delivered to SUT in 1961.

1961 Plaxton's (Scarborough) Ltd became a public company in January 1961[1]

1962 A new version of the Panorama appeared, altogether a much larger looking vehicle. It had a distinctive front reverse peak overhang at the front dome with a roofline that made the new design look longer than it actually was. The waistline curvature radically reduced to a point where it was almost straight. The rear comprised a two-piece curved glass window that wrapped around to meet the rearmost side pillars. The lights were contained in a single unit with a fin-like top rather like the rear of the first Ford Anglia saloon. The front had a small grill located at the bottom of the front panel.

The Embassy design was for the lightweight chassis - mostly the Thames 570E and Bedford SB. This design had a large wrap-around windscreen with the door behind the front axle. The front grill was oval in shape a chrome flash through the middle. An Embassy was shown at the 1962 Commercial Motor Show on a newly introduced Bedford VAL 36 ft (11 m) chassis. This design utilised the large grill from the Embassy (presumably because of the front radiator) but the windows were smaller than the Panorama. It was designated "multi-windowed Embassy" and only six were built. The multi windowed version shown at the 1962 show was in the livery of Bloomfields coaches of London.

Later Plaxtons versions for the VAL were bodied with the Panorama-style but called Embassy II and this version had larger windows but retained the oval grill until the Panorama I of 1964.

A new version of the Panorama — designated Panorama I and Panorama II — appeared at the 1964 Motor Show. The waistrail was virtually straight, the roofline distinctly shallower. A wide chrome trim band wrapped around the front and encompassed the first window bay on either side. The trim then swept upwards to the roof line and neatly terminated on the air scoop at the roof line. The window pillar on the first bay was noticeably thicker than the others and gave the impression of size that managed to enhance the appearance of the whole vehicle. The front grill was revised and basically split in two horizontally. Twin headlights each side of a panel that contained ventilation louvres at the top with the lower part comprising the actual grill part that spanned the width of the vehicle. This grill was to become standard with little change until the Supreme IV of 1978. Again a bit of a Plaxton that was instantly recognisable and a familiar sight throughout Britain.

The rear featured two large 9" circular rear lights each side arranged vertically. The entrance door was now the forward in-swinging type. The new design was offered on all medium- and heavy-weight chassis, including Ford R226 and Bedford VAL. Two trim versions were available, called Panorama I and Panorama II. The Panorama II was the cheaper version that was supplied without forced air vents and simpler trim but was provided with top sliding vent windows. The Panorama I in particular sold extremely well.

1967 The Panorama cab was used on a government commission of seven Bedford SB3 chassis mobile cinema units. With the height of these units being nearly 13 ft (4.0 m) the roof of the cab opens up into a very unusual looking perspex dome extension, somewhat altering the usual sleek lines of Plaxton's Panorama. One of the seven units still remains in preservation and is currently being restored as a vintage mobile cinema.

1968 Plaxton launched a new design - the Panorama Elite - at the 1968 Commercial Motor Show in London. This essentially set the basic design of British coaches for the next 14 years. The design was stylish, with long sleek lines and gentle curve in the vertical plane. The windows were gasket glazed and the glass gently curved in the vertical plane to suit the body curve. The rear again used the large soup plate lights of the Panorama I, and the front grill was also from the Panorama I.

The interior of The new Panorama Elite was to the usual high standard that everyone had come to expect from a leading coachbuilder like Plaxton. It made more use of laminate than before but this was tastefully specified & well balanced. The interior skirt panels, racks and front cabinet made extensive use of this easily worked & easy to maintain material. The analogue clock in the front dome was flanked either side by small square controllable air vents. The dashboard was improved and made use of a panel of rocker switches in front of the driver with each switch designation lighting for night time operation. Previous dashboards hid the switches in places inaccessible whilst moving. Ventilation was again improved though using the same design of moulded air output & light assembly as the final version of the Panorama I. The racks were trimmed with laminate instead of using vinyl like material from the previous design.

1970 The first major update of the Panorama Elite was unveiled at the 1970 Commercial Motor Show at Earls Court London. The changes though relatively subtle were very relevant to a product that had so far enjoyed wide acclaim and sale.

The Panorama Elite II range built on the success of the Panorama I and Panorama Elite. The front grill was squared up although it still used the same twin headlight layout. The first bay on the near side was tidied up so the top of the window was in line with all the other side windows. Parcel racks were redesigned so the supply of fresh air and light output was more readily available. The service units were now mounted front to back instead of side to side and were much slimmer to maximize on headroom when leaving the seats. Crash padding was provided along the inner side of the racks in the form of black PVC squares filled with padding. The dashboard was again improved as was the front cabinet. The rear of the vehicle still used the soup plates from the previous range.

The Panorama Elite III was the last in the Elite series. Improvements continued to the basic Elite design; this included rear lighting, rear emergency door and subtle changes to the front grill. The rear emergency door was brought about by changes in legislation and did improve the offside appearance of the Elite, however some early MkIIIs were completed with front emergency doors. The rear lights abandoned the soup plates in favour of tall lozenge shaped lights and the name badges were re-located from between the side bright metal strips at the back to the front just behind the front door.

All three marques of the Elite range were available with bus grant specification front doors and interiors, although this option was late for Panorama Elite and only a few built. It was however a very popular option for the MkII and MkIII. To complement this destination blinds were also available in both the front grille and on the roof or front dome for front radiator chassis. This became known as "the Bristol Dome" due to the popularity of orders from the National Bus Company for coaches on Bristol RELH and REMH chassis.

1972 The major competitor for the Panorama Elite III was the Duple Dominant launched at the 1972 Commercial Motor Show in London. The Duple was of all steel design and was obviously based on the Elite as many of the attributes designed in Scarborough appeared to have been copied. That said it sold quite well but never caught up with the Elite. The mere fact that at the launch only one Dominant was available due to a long strike at the Blackpool factory couldn't have helped much. That was Duple's most important launch for years.

By the time the final version of the Panorama Elite III was built around 6000 of the Elite series bodies had been produced.

1974 Development of a new coach range to supersede the Panorama Elite commenced in 1974 and was to be called Panorama Supreme, however the Panorama part was dropped in favour of simple Supreme. This series of bodies was to have a long development process as both the factory and work force wasn't equipped for all-steel production at this stage.

At first the Supreme was designed to replace the ageing Panorama IV that was produced on the Bedford VAS and SB chassis for up to 41 passengers. The design for that coach went back to the Embassy body developed in the early 1960s. It had been re-vamped in the early 1970s and given an upright front and rear like the Elite III. Being front engined it had a centre door and still retained the Panorama I–style square cornered flat glass windows.

The Supreme was to herald (nearly) all steel construction. Wood fillets still held the panels in place and in some areas wood was sandwiched in "U" shaped steel. It would be 1978 before true all-steel construction was achieved.

Some early MkIII Supremes were all-metal. The body number of the all-metal versions had the final letters AM standing for "all-metal". Many of the AM bodies were exported to Holland and Denmark, a fact supported by the 1977 Supreme brochure and the 1982 centenary book "Plaxtons - The Great British Coachbuilders".

There was to be six marques of Supreme (Seven including Mini Supreme). Development was protracted as the builder was careful not to compromise their market leading position. Supreme I was a 29-seat coach on a Bedford VAS chassis with a standard Plaxton in-swing door located behind the front axle. Supreme II was on the 35 seat Bristol LHS chassis powered by a Leyland 400 series engine. The door located forward of the front axle in the usual place. Supreme III was the first full size coach although there seemed to be some development confusion and the actual marque of the initial standard length coaches is not clear however most of the late P and earlier R-reg bodies seemed to be the Mk III. There was no identifying numbers added to the badging.

As styling development commenced it was realised that to design another coach to match the success of the Panorama Elite series was to be a challenge. Looking at the existing range of Panorama Elite III it was decided to use the Elite's most striking feature, notably the size of the windows and the curves that departed in every direction. The front of the coach was to follow closely with Elite by utilising the same double headlights with a panel between them (although the centre panel depended on the chassis requirements). The slats again horizontal but were fewer in number and thicker. The sides of the grill were squared up and were of stainless steel and not aluminium. A chrome bumper with 5 mph (8.0 km/h) overiders at the bottom with two steps to allow access to the windscreen. Pantograph wipers with speed control were added. The dome was slatted on the early models but was not popular so was removed and simplified from Supreme IV. The side profile again had angles going in all directions although the main change to the side was that the windows curved into the cant rail almost like the Mercedes O302 bodies. The effect was to catch the light and highlighted the whole coach at roof level. The rear was like Panorama Elite with vertical lozenge shaped lights but the units themselves were slightly bigger, squared, more definite.

The interior had been updated with a new dashboard and a driver's locker, non-reflective laminates and a re-designed front cabinet. The lift up roof vents and light clusters containing the speakers were almost like those of the final Panorama Elite III. Some very early Supremes had wood interior domes like Panorama Elite however this was changed from wood surrounding the clock to having ABS mouldings in black. The ceiling was of laminate that was bordered by chrome trim.

The racks though went through several important stages before the final design that would see Supreme through to the series.

Rack design on Panorama Elite, II and III contained window demisters. Those racks were joined to the cant rail and laminate was used as trim to connect the window edge to the rack. On Supreme the first versions used the same technique but the racks were swaddled in crash protection on each side of the passenger service unit that was fitted front to back. The service unit used were the same as the Panorama Elite, two controllable vents and a reading light with a rocker switch. The cushioning had a four pointed star engraved into it a intervals. From the Mk III the racks had flatter sides that had no connection to the cant rail. The demisters were located on the edge of the rack within a laminate strip. The PVC or maybe ABS material that coated the underneath of the rack was usually black. This was the final design of rack and saw Supreme through to the end of the series. Those racks utilised flatter service units with eyeball vents and a flat lens on the reading light.

The Supreme was also manufactured as a semi-integral on a DAF chassis. Around 20 were built. They were rear engined and the rear panel design was different to the Supreme V as it has vents and had odd shaped moulding around the rear window. As a semi-integral the body was required to support the full weight as there were no chassis members to support the body. Opening the side lockers luggage coule be piled in one side and extracted from the other as nothing was in the way so it was very cutting edge technology. It is said that 2 of these survive today. The bulk of the 20 were exported.

The Supreme series like the Panorama Elite and Panorama I was simply a success from the outset winning many orders from small operators, national and some international as well. It entered most fleets in multiples.

By the end of the 1970s the British coach scene was dominated by two similar vehicles - the Plaxton Supreme and the Duple Dominant.

Early 1980s coach services over 30 miles were deregulated and there was an increasing attempt by some operators to compete with the railways and airlines for express and intercity travel. As a result there was a move away from light-weight chassis by Bedford and Ford to heavier-duty chassis from Leyland and Volvo, and an emphasis on improved comfort and amenities. There was also a growing interest from operators in imports from Europe due to their stylish eye-catching designs that attracted passengers. In particular, designs from Neoplan and Van Hool received much attention.

In response, Plaxton returned to Ogle Design to create a new look for their coach products. The result was the Plaxton Paramount, which appeared at the 1982 British Motor Show. The Paramount was a squarer design than the Supreme, with cleaner lines, a flatter roof line and a distinctive "feature window" just behind the front wheelarch. The use of the "feature window" was a return to a trump card played by the Panorama I of 1964. From there the waistline sloped down to meet the deeper windscreen. Initially there were two versions, the Paramount 3200 (available in 8, 10, 11 and 12-metre lengths) and the high-floor Paramount 3500 (available in 11 and 12 metre lengths) to replace the successful Viewmaster. Around 30% of Mark I Paramounts were the 3500 high-floor option, a greater proportion than had been anticipated. The rear of both versions were similar to Supreme V and VI but all else was new.

1984 the design was adapted to produce the Paramount 4000 double-decker coach, initially built on Neoplan underframes. The design later appeared on chassis by Volvo, Scania and DAF.

1985 The Paramount II launched for the 1985 season brought a tidier frontal appearance. (See the picture with the Paramount 4000) Gone was the black plastic moulding below the windscreen and the "hole" like appearance of the centre of the grille between the lights. The rectangular headlights were retained within a bright silver like surround. Other modifications included deeper parcel racks that were capable of supporting air conditioning. A tweed like material was used to cover the interior skirt and a large part of the racks. Gone were the gasket glazed windows as all were stuck in and part of the structure and with that change the small feature window behind the first bay was removed. Many operators disliked that window and many early Paramounts were built without it.

A "low driver" option was available for the 3200. This was useful for touring however the driver lost the commanding view of the road ahead. The driver sat low in the body so the passengers has a better view ahead. The windscreen from the 3500 was used on this version of the 3200, the headlights being lower to the road than usual.

1986 saw the final and most elegant version of Paramount, the Mk III. According to brochures it was even stronger than the Paramount II. The sloping front window was gone and in its place a stepped front window that formed the first bay. In the glass Plaxton's "castle" logo was etched, the rear window contained a blind like decal at the base with a castle badge in the centre. The dashboard consisted of a moulded cabinet, ceasing the use of wood and formica of earlier versions of Plaxton coaches since the Panorama's. In the centre of the black finished cabinet was a large castle logo. Airline-style locker doors were now available on the parcel racks to further give a sleek appearance like a 747.

Plaxtons responded with a further version of Paramount III for the National Bus Co. The Paramount Expressliner was created from the MkIII Paramount on a Volvo chassis and was tailored to NBC's specific requirements. NBC specification included a closed back with the double N logo etched into the fibre glass rear moulding. This period of coach desigh seemed to introduce the windowless rear as a desigh feature for most coaches.

The mid-1980s brought difficult times for Plaxton. A decline in orders due to the economic climate was compounded by management and production problems. The seasonal nature of coach production made recruiting difficult. In March 1987 Plaxton was taken over by Kirkby Bus and Coach Co, who were Plaxton's largest dealer. Kirkby soon invested in modernising the Scarborough factory and addressed some industrial relations problems.

1989 Plaxtons bought Henlys, a company that included motor dealers and Coleman Milne Co, makers of hearses and limousines. The name of the company was changed to Plaxton Group PLC.

1989 July: Plaxton bought the manufacturing rights for the coach products of its main domestic competitor, Duple, for £4 million. This included the jigs for the Duple 300 and the Duple 425 integral. Duple Services Ltd., the spares and repair business, was also purchased. The 320 was re-worked by Plaxtons at Scarborough later in 1989 and 25 were built and sold as the Plaxton 321. Many components from the Paramount were used both internally and externally. Identifying traits being the squared up wheel arches and Paramount side mouldings. The 321 was around £6,000 cheaper than a comparable Paramount III. Further batches were considered but it is not know if they were actually built. The 321 was only available from Kirkby. The 340 with the higher floor was considered but none were built. A modified version of the 425 design was introduced in 1991 and was built by Carrosserie Lorraine, a French coachbuilder Plaxton had recently purchased from Iveco. Only 12 vehicles were manufactured, and Carrosserie Lorraine was subsequently closed in 1992.

The Dennis Dart, released in 1989, had been a runaway success, so in 1991 the Plaxton Pointer midibus was announced, this was quite a utilitarian, square body. This was followed by the Plaxton Verde, which Plaxton hoped would match the success of its smaller sister, but it failed to capture the market quite as much as the Pointer, and it was clear that the bus industry wasn't buying 12 m single-deckers in as large numbers anymore. Later that year new coach bodies, the Plaxton Premiere and Plaxton Excalibur, were launched.

In May 1992, after a management shake-up, the company was renamed Henlys Group PLC[2].

2005 Became part of Alexander Dennis Ltd of Falkirk


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Times Jan 12, 1961
  2. The Times, March 11, 1992