Buses : MCW/Optare Metrorider – a bus right on time!

In a quiet part of Birmingham, MCW developed a midibus which was almost exactly what the market required in a post deregulation market. Dogged by early dismal quality, it became the most popular vehicle of its type and ended up being built in a former Leyland factory too!  

Mike Humble explains…

An early MCW Metrorider in Blackburn

Metropolitan Cammell Weyman (MCW) is often the first thing you see when you board a London Tube or a BR heritage diesel multiple unit. Indeed, for many years the bread and butter of MCW was building train rolling stock for the underground and British Rail. They were also heavily involved with body work for buses but when, the company decided to develop a double-deck chassis which ended up becoming the standard vehicle for London and Birmingham, MCW became a serious contender in the bus and coach builder market.

West Midlands Travel, the largest fleet outside London bought heavily from MCW. This is a MK2 Metrobus

MCW was a company with a history in fabrication and heavy engineering and had a highly skilled and adaptable workforce capable of building anything that moved out of steel. The Metrobus went on to become a massive hit in the UK and overseas in Hong Kong, often winning big orders from under the noses of Leyland and, as MCW prospered, the company even managed to poach one or two Senior Engineers from Lancashire too. The main factory on Common Lane, a stones throw from Freight Rover, was a sprawling array of fabrication shops with a direct rail link which existed right up to 2005.

The Transport Act, 1985 saw a massive decline in “big bus” sales. Bedford and Ford withdrew from the bus market never to return and Leyland started its long and slow decline – a far cry from the once world-dominating empire run by the late Donald Stokes. The mini and midi-bus market exploded on the scene from the mid-1980s – an experiment a few years earlier in the West Country had proven that high frequency mini-buses could work in the right enviroment following  the National Bus (NBC) market analysis programme (MAP).

Once deregulation came on line things were to change in a very big way. The once common sight and sound of a depot full of 10-litre Gardners coughing into life with clouds of blue smoke quickly changed to the clatter of  Transits or Sherpa diesels branded with funky names such as Magic Mini, Little Gem and Road Ranger – the latter even called their drivers Road Ranger Captains!

The Daimlers and Bristols made way for Transits and Sherpas as depicted here.

Bus operators, both municipal and independant, were quick to realise that they had to find their passengers and revenue. Once bus companies offered a service whereas now they were a business and making money became the be all and end all.

Almost overnight, a whole host of early generation minibuses came onto the market and all of them were heavily based on light commercial vehicles – notable offerings included the Freight Rover Sherpa, Ford Transit, Dodge S26 and the Mercedes 608D which became the most popular choice. Crude and often uncomfortable, these vehicles transformed the scene in one fell swoop, able to penetrate the rabbit warrens of housing estates and compact town or village centres and the hail and ride era was born.

MCW studied the market carefully and concluded that what was needed was a real purpose-built minibus with proper engineering and a drive line that was up to the job of 12 – 14 hours intensive hard labour day in day out, not a Transit or Sherpa with a bus body nailed to its back.

The MCW Metrorider came onto the scene in 1986 offering the new Perkins Phaser diesel (itself a rework of the well known 654 series) and a choice of either manual or automatic transmission. The recently introduced all-new UK-built Cummins B Series became an option soon after and, owing to the praise this engine recieved, became the standard offering in natural or turbo offerings.

However, as time evolved, the manual gearbox was deleted and replaced with an Allison automatic gearbox and electro-magnetic retarder. Early vehicles shared the same braking and steering system with the Ford D Series and Cargo 7.5 ton truck, so all driveline components were well proven to be up to the rigours of bus work – compared to the reputation of the Sherpa minibus, the Metrorider was a prayer answered.

The MCW was an instant hit with operators up and down the land and big orders were taken from the main key companies of London Buses and West Midlands PTE along with a number of local municipal operators. The vehicle was significantly bigger than most of its rivals and offered a choice of 25 or 31 seats in a body length of either 7 or 8.5 metres in length – that was considerably smaller than your average Leyland National or traditional double-decker and, with it being smaller than your average bus, operators could pay lower wages for driving staff.

The Metroliner 4000GT - Stunning to look but did little to lift the company

However, it was not all wine and roses for MCW – the parent company, the Laird Group, which also had financial investments in Duple and Dennis, was losing money heavily. MCW had also suffered badly with their offering for the coach market – the MCW Metroliner which was a good looking, fuel efficient machine but which became known for its shameful build quality and monumental warranty claims.

It was not long before the Metrorider too had its share of problems – chassis and body corrosion issues became well known, chassis flex and corrosion around the rear end of the box sections on the the longer 31 seat bus rendered these to the breakers yard far earlier than expected.

Hence, when the UK entered another recession in 1989 and the bus market shrunk even further, MCW as one of the first big casualties – the company went bankrupt. Duple’s designs were sold to Plaxton while the rights to the double-deck Metrobus and the Metrorider were sold to Opatre in Leeds – a coachbuilder  previously owned by British Leyland and then known as Charles Roe. The Managing Director of Optare was Russell Richardson who was the plant boss in the days of Leyland and the man that lead its management buy out from BL.

The later Optare MetroRider operating with Warrington Transport

Optare soon got to work with the Metrorider – basically a sound vehicle, its problems mainly revolved around quality. A revised and updated bus now subtly named the MetroRider was launched to universal praise, with vast numbers being sold to companies here in the UK and overseas.

The Cummins engines were uprated in power and minor tweaks included a new roof, one piece windscreen, larger destination box, improved lighting and new braking systems featuring discs all round. The biggest improvement of all came with the extensive use of GRP, alloy and moulded plastics in non-structural areas.

Thus, by the mid-1990s, the MetroRider was a first class product and by far the most popular vehicle of its type. Production continued up to 2000 with many examples still being used on a daily basis. Notable operators included Arriva, Blackpool Transport and Oxford.

On a personal note, the MetroRider was a worthy vehicle which drove very well when in good mechanical order. Optare turned a flawed but useful bus into a first class product which was hard wearing and, above all, reliable. The rampant rust rust problems that dogged almost all MCW vehicles were almost complately eliminated and that is why so many are still operating these days.

Optare has not been without its financial problems and so Ashok Leyland Limited bought into the company last year thereby giving Optare a link with the Leyland name for the first time since 1985.

Timeline: 1986 – 2000

Produced: MCW Washwood Heath,  Birmingham 1986 – 1989 and Optare Crossgates, Leeds 1989 – 2000

Engine: Perkins/Cummins B Series

Transmissions: ZF manual or Allison Worldseries Auto

Replaced by: Optare Solo

Mike Humble

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications
Mike Humble
Posted in: Essays, The bus section
Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

11 Comments on "Buses : MCW/Optare Metrorider – a bus right on time!"

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  1. Stuart says:

    I do remember the change over; my local bus company at the time, Badgerline, embraced these new vehicles and this was initially well received locally (Bath); On my local route, Leyland Nationals and Bristol RELLs made way for Carlyle-bodied Ford Transits and Freight Rover Sherpas, dubbed “Mini-Links”. This meant that changes to the route meant that the buses went closer to my front door.

    Unfortunately, the honeymoon period didn’t last long when it turned out that these new Transits and Sherpas were woefully underpowered and struggled to cope with Bath’s hills (especially when full) and with a 16 passenger capacity, these things filled up rather quickly, especially during peak times – I’d often be on a full (Cramped) mini-line which sailed passed bemused passengers waiting at a bus stop!! So started to become unreliable as they aged.

    They were eventually phased out and replaced with Merc 814D’s (in various bodies) that were better suited to Bath’s hilly terrain. Nowadays First Bus has long sinced acquired Badgerline and the local route has pretty much gone back to the pre-1985 version, with Dennis Darts and the odd Optare Solo doing the donkey work.

  2. David 3500 says:

    I seem to recall that, in 1984, Devon General was the very first bus company to change over to a fleet of minibuses, namely the 16-seater Ford Transit, which replaced a fleet of Bristol LHs. The first Transits were on A registrations and the last on C registrations.

    However, in late 1988, the fleet of Transits were gradually being joined by Mercedes-Benz minibuses.

  3. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    @Stuart
    I worked for First for a brief period back in the late 1990s and fondly remember a Senior Manager arriving from Weston-Super-Mare.

    He came out with a rather good funny to me one day in the Ops Office when I mentioned that Badger was a strange moniker for a bus company. He said….
    “One is a pest that spreads disease and infection which needs to be culled, the other one is a cute black and white furry animal.”

  4. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    I well remember red double-deckers schlepping along the lanes between the hamlets of East Yorkshire in the late-1970s – they were always nearly empty. The move to smaller vehicles was a sensible and economical step forward.

  5. Alan Hayward says:

    I never saw many MetroRiders until I moved up to the Blackpool area. I now have two: a Mark 1 version new to Darlington in 1993 and a Mark 2 short version new to Blackpool in 1995. Good little buses…

  6. Dominic says:

    Incidentally, in the photograph of the Transit breadvans, the two buses in the background are Optare City Pacers – they were based on the VW LT chassis and were absolutely bloody awful to drive.

  7. Matthew Parker says:

    I drove some of the first MCW Metroriders in 1988 with West Midlands Travel. They had a ZF manual gearbox with a chinese selector (First nearest to you – fifth furthest away) and drum brakes all around. They were horrible to drive and the ratios were all wrong, you could get them off the end off the speedo with a long enough run, but getting them to stop was another matter.

    All 50 we had like this were quickly converted to auto and front disc brakes.

  8. Marty B says:

    The rot wasn’t even cured in the Optare re design. I remember Black Prince’s fairly new bus going back to Optare for a back end re-build. The front ends also sagged, a classic sign of this was gaffer tape all around the windscreen.

    They were very noisy to drive, with the Cummins B literally inches from your left foot, and the early ones had stalks that felt like they were going to snap (Ford Cargo parts bin).  They were still fairly cramped inside for the punter, even in wide body.

    Mechanically they were pretty good, with only the rear axle being a bit weak, and in 130bhp form, they were rather gutless, and the air compressor was very very noisy on them. Most ops also ditched the tiny Mk4 Escort estate rear lights of the early Mk1 & Mk2’s, and fitted BMAC units too. The All conquering Dennis Dart really did kill sales of the Metroruster as it had become known in the trade, especially in the almost bomb proof Plaxton Pointer form. It wasn’t that much more expensive, and had a more ‘big bus’ look, and not the oversized breadvan looks of the Metrorider.

  9. Marty B says:

    And try and find an Optare Metrorider in service now. Most were scrapped several years ago. They are now down to penny numbers in service, mostly due to the Optare ‘Goslow’, which is a good design, but still has plenty of flaws, such as poor front suspension, the turning circle of a supertanker, and electrics more senile than Maggie Thatcher. After all these years, Optare still haven’t cracked the Solo’s build issues.

  10. Discobiscuit38 says:

    I don`t wish to be picky but the Oxford Citylink pictured is a Metroliner and not a 4000GT. The 4000GT had a raked back upper deck screen compared to the Metroliner. The 4000 denoted the height which MCW hoped would allow it to sell to European operators where the height limit is 4 metres, this also applies to trucks and trailers too. It was an attractive model and not too many were sold, even less survive today.

  11. Gregory James Oct 2 2013 says:

    I now own a mcw metro rider s/d bus in new Zealand and have found motor needs some major work mainly the head but i can’t find any info on the motor. I have been told that it has a Cummings motor but don’t now what type it is, could any one help me please

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