Essay : Not their finest hour – Ward Bros & ACE Ltd

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

The prototype Ward Dalesman C11640 (Pic: Perkins Power)
The prototype Ward Dalesman C11640 (Pic: Perkins Power)

Ward Brothers of Lepton near Huddersfield at one point ran a medium sized coach business operating a mixed range of services including Continental holidays. To say their choice of prime mover was different would be an understatement, but the coach chassis of choice for Ward was the lesser known Seddon Pennine VII. Seddon were more commonly known for their truck building activities but when the company merged with Atkinson and concentrated all their activities in the Oldham plant of Atkinson, the Lancashire site of Seddon was closed down and PSV chassis building ceased soon after.

Seddon had mixed success with bus and coach chassis in the ’70s with the RU (rear underfloor) selling in modest numbers to NBC and one or two Municipal fleets. The once mighty NBC operation of Crosville had purchased 100 but a serious design flaw saw the whole fleet re-worked at great expense by Seddon owing to the very short propshaft operating at a very sharp angle causing some stress related failures in the drivetrain. The Seddon Pennine coach chassis however, was a very different vehicle that some operators found to be nothing more than superb.

Whereas the RU offered Gardner as the first choice with a Perkins engine optional, the coach version was a full 11 metre affair with the Perkins V8-640 engine mounted amidships. Ward purchased a good few examples of these and found them to be excellent in service being foolproof to service and robust in construction. When Seddon announced that their PSV activities were to cease, no other company could offer Wards the tried and trusted Seddon chassis and those hard nosed Yorkshire brothers decided to clone the design and build their own vehicle.

A mid engined Dalesman C11640 with Plaxton Paramount 3200 body (Pic: Plaxton Ltd)
A mid engined Dalesman C11640 with Plaxton Paramount 3200 body (Pic: Plaxton Ltd)

The Ward C11-640 Dalesman (11 metre coach 640 engine) prototype of 1981 was built in their own workshops utilising a refurbished Leyland Leopard chassis with Perkins engine and ZF-680 6 speed manual gearbox. The brakes steering engine gearbox and rear axle were almost a carbon copy of the Seddon Pennine design. Their Chief engineer and Director Keith Ward hated many modern touches like power steering and as a result, the Dalesman did not feature this even though as far back as 1980, every maker offered it as standard though once in production that changed.

The chassis was sent to Plaxton in Scarborough to receive its brand new ‘Supreme’ body, so impressed were Plaxton at the quality of the chassis that one of senior managers offered to drive the long arduous journey back to West Yorkshire. Partly due to being egged on by all who tried this new design, the Ward family decided to take the plunge and offer the vehicle for general sale. Sufficient interest came in to make this a viable option and whereby the prototype featured a reconditioned Leyland chassis, Ward fabricated their own from scratch roughly based on that type.

It sold in very modest numbers (12) but those who bought them found them robust, powerful and utterly reliable in service.  Long delivery times and high cost compared to other makes hampered sales, but there again, Ward had no intentions of becoming the next Leyland sized company. But it was certainly a brave move and a slap in the face for other UK PSV chassis builders such as Bedford and Leyland who were both by this time in a steady decline. Things didn’t end there though, and 1982 a request came in for a service bus chassis.

At one of the many countrywide bus and coach management meetings, Keith & David Ward found themselves speaking to the engineering and transport managers of Darlington Borough Transport. They were great fans of the Seddon RU – finding them to be the best single deck bus designs they had ever operated. They never suffered from the serious transmission faults the breed was known for owing to the fact the buses only ever plodded in the Borough of the Town at modest speed. The Pennine bodywork stood up to hard use because the chassis was so tough – but the bus was now out of production.

Daimler had sold them three batches of single deck Fleetlines but once production moved from Coventry to Leyland in 1973, production of the single deck chassis ceased as BL tried to force operators to buy the Bristol RE or National. Seddon delivered a sizeable batch of buses in 1974 and Darlington found them to be superb in every way, as did one or two other operators. But with Seddon no longer producing buses, many operators mourned the loss of a respected name within passenger transport circles. Those who wished to avoid Leyland group products like the National or Bristol RE found themselves backed into a corner.

Listening to the plight of the Darlington Councillors, Keith Ward said ‘OK I`ll build you some then’ – on the back of that an agreement was made to build a fleet of chassis that again cloned an extinct Seddon design. The design featured a rear horizontal mounted Gardner 6-HLXB engine with a semi automatic gearbox – pure Seddon in practice but the over engineered chassis meant that an ultra light weight body could be used, even with twin doors. They had previously bought Dennis Dominators with dual door single deck body and found them to be weak in construction.

The Dalesman GRX1 was a good bus but only six were produced - all to one customer before Ward folded.
The Dalesman GRXI was a good bus but only six were produced – all to one customer before Ward folded.

The end product was the Dalesman GRXI (Gardner rear 11 metre) featuring an ultra light weight Wadham Stringer Vanguard body with dual door layout and Darlington placed an order for six to be delivered in 1983. Production was slightly delayed owing to Wards cramped facility and costs escalated upwards to the point where little or no profit was actually made. Ward had hoped that a municipal order would bring in extra business, but after supplying DCT with six vehicles no more orders were taken on what actually turned out to be another good chassis design.

Again, this was another slap in the face for Leyland who were on the verge of signing up DCT for six Leyland Tiger buses. Leyland eventually had nothing to fear from Ward Bros as just six months after Darlington had taken delivery of their Dalesman GRXI vehicles, Ward simply ran out of money and went into administration in 1984. In the four years that Ward or W.B Products LTD as the chassis builder was officially known, just 18 chassis were produced in total – a rather extreme way in demonstrating your displeasure at being forced into buying other UK products from British Leyland, but a brave one.

The GRXI was the victim of market forces beyond Wards control. Rumours on price hiking by component suppliers circulated the trade. Gardner (now part of the Hawker Siddley group) offered little discount on the engines and Leyland who supplied the hydracyclic gearboxes had no empathy for a tiny company who were seemingly attacking their traditional customer base. Darlington had in fact looked at replacing their fleet with the Dalesman buying a batch each year until their fleet of ageing Daimler Fleetline and Seddon Pennine RU were gone – it came close, but as they say – no cigar!

Ward subsequently folded as no buyer could be found for a tiny chassis builder with no future orders. Plenty of interest was shown in the Dalesman but astute operators who took a longer view saw it as a risk in the long term leaving Dennis of Guildford to be the only other UK based bus builder of a rear underfloor engine design with the Dominator and Falcon range. Ward continued as a coach operator, but they refused to be beaten. Plans again bubbled away with the dream of producing their own range of bus and coach chassis.

The ACE Puma midi coach with Perkins Power was a flop - only 12 were built before closure in 1992.
The ACE Puma midi coach with Perkins Power was a flop – only 12 were built before closure in 1992.

Not perturbed by their expensive failure, The Ward family joined forces with another coach operator – Abbeyways shortly after and formed a new manufacturing facility called AEC Ltd. The initials stood for Albion Equipment Company but this brought on some serious threats of legal action from Leyland Bus Ltd owing to them owning both the AEC and Albion titles. This saw a quick change in name to ACE Ltd (Advanced Chassis Engineering) with a product portfolio comprising of three models – Cheetah Cougar and Puma –  virtually all with Perkins power units.

Great hopes were pinned on the full size Cougar bus which featured an ultra strong yet light chassis that featured a turbocharged Perkins power unit with the future option of Gardner and Cummins plants. Some familiar components to placate fussy fleet engineers included Leyland National 2 style front lighting units and a front axle / hub assembly based on Leyland designs. But buying in raw outsourced components in penny numbers gained little discount to pass on to customers. It really deserved to do well and much interest was shown but operators saw an unknown quantity too much of a risk to take in a shaky market.

The biggest problem ACE had was the de-regulated market, operators were interested more in used vehicles rather than new as competition got serious up and down the land. Hope came with former NBC operator provincial who seriously considered purchasing over 100 Cougar chassis to replace their huge fleet of Nationals after finding their initial Wadham Stringer Cougar to be fine bus. Provincials shareholders decided not to take such a huge intake of buses from such a small maker while rival chassis makers simply went on a price offensive to hoover up new bus purchases.

Despite some vigorous marketing attempts by M.D Steven Ives, little interest in the Puma midicoach was shown with only 12 being built and the low floor Cougar bus chassis was taking seemingly forever to cure some design flaws in the ramped chassis – just 2 were produced. The Ives/Ward alliance of ACE Ltd was eventually killed off in 1992 by which time the UK was deep in recession with a seriously depressed market for PSV chassis that saw Volvo close down Leyland bus the following year.

 

 

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

15 Comments

  1. The last thing Keith was involved in was a project that British Bus were partly involved in. The KIRN MOGUL, a Cummins engined, leaf sprung rear engined single deck. This was killed off at the development stage thanks to the low floor single deck (Dart/Lance SLF), and only 1 chassis was ever made. This sat outside the East Lancs plant in Blackburn for nigh on 2 years, when a certain Frank Carter of Yorkshire Traction spotted it, and got East Lancs to shove a Flyte body on it. Due to new regs it was registered as a coach, and it was a flyer. After Stagecoach takeover, it was sold to ACE Travel in Merseyside, and ended up scrapped

  2. Sounds like the classic British success story gone sadly awry- as is so often the case, good engineering but poor business sense. Damn shame.

  3. I remember Ward Bros very well, we often used them for family day trips in my youth. I must say in the late 70’s their buses weren’t the most reliable and would break down from time to time, I remember the bus driver shouting through the bus asking if any of the ladies had spare tights to replace the fan belt. Fun times ! Thanks for the article, I had no idea they were also involved in manufacturing in addition.

  4. A bus operator deciding to build its own vehicles based on an obsolete design from a manufacturer that had gone out of business that hated “modern touches” like power steering. What could possibly go wrong? This venture was about as likely to succeed as Rover under the Phoenix four.

  5. Chris / Paul

    The GRXI did feature power steering as did the production Dalesman

    But to refurb buses that dated from 69/70/72 & 74 would have served little purpose and caused outcry from local users who were also tax payers to the then Council operated bus company.

    As mentioned, the initial plan would have been to replace the whole fleet by ’92 with a solitary Dalesman fleet. The first 6 were very well received but events outside Wards caused the collapse. A gamble indeed that if paid off, would have shook the boots of messrs Dennis Leyland & MCW.

  6. @7, Andrew Elphick,

    Pete Waterman opined about the state of our railways that the British are the world’s best amateurs- we usually cock it up the first time round but get it right in the end.

    I realise he’s not the most popular person with railfans but he does have a point. Trouble is, the motor industry is very unforgiving of mistakes made. If you don’t get things right straight off, you usually won’t get a second chance. You only have to look at dear old BL for examples of cars which were appalling to begin with but were pretty sorted later on- by which time it was far too late.

  7. Somebody – wish I could remember who – described the British motorcycle industry as a “hobby run on a massive scale”.

    Regrettably it seems to have been equally true of vast swathes of the nation’s car ans commercial vehicle industries as well.

    As for “getting it right in the end” – it was usually other countries’ industries who pulled that particular trick off.

  8. The Yarrantons bus posted here I am pretty sure I see every day on the way to work & back, the company still use it.

  9. Mike, Atkinsons were based at Preston and Seddon at Oldham. One of the reasons that the DCT RU’s (the last built) were better than the Crosville batch (The only ones new to an NBC operator) were that they had the longer drive shaft from new.

    Seddon would have pulled out of bus orders earlier but for two things substantial export business and year on year Scottish Bus Group orders for the Pennine 7 (not VII). The pennine 7 only ever had the Gardner 6HLXB engine. If you get the chance to look at a picture of the chassis of one you will see that it is virtually built around the Gardner.

    During most of the life of the Pennine 7 Seddon Atkinson were part of International Harvester Inc.

    Wards however did not take the Pennine 7, despite BLOTW; all of theirs were Pennine 4 V8 with a front mounted V8-540 Perkins. The C11:640 was a development that neither Seddon nor Perkins had thought of although the latter-day Roadliner that was the Dennis Falcon V in coach guise used the TV8-640.

    Keith Ward engineered his buses very soundly that is not in doubt, but a bus-making business needs a customer base and he never got one…

  10. I’d simply like to say that I was very proud of what we made at Ward motors which eventually became ACE. I have very fond memories of that time, its a shame the recession hit when it did. The best job I ever had.
    There were only 4 of us originally which grew to less than 10 men building what I consider to be brilliant machines.

  11. There are 6 cylinders, water-cooled engine can provide us with enough power.
    The county’s wealth is largely the result of federal government spending.
    Quote: “I just saw the line, pinned me ears back and ended up bagging a bit of meat in the corner which was tops.

  12. Just a couple of notes, ACE stood for ‘alternative chassis engineering’ and the puma pictured started life with a DAF military engine,with no id plate, when it became clear we could not get engine parts, it was ee-fitted with a cummins ‘b’ series engine, making it a much better machine.

  13. We owned one of the ACE Puma’s with a Vanhool body it was new to Silver Fox , Edinburgh was a rock solid chassis but a nightmare to get parts for unless you could identify what vehicle it came from! It was affectionatly known as ” Abitsa” as it seemed to be made with bits of everything, only downside was the engine which was a Perkins T6.354 and a bit underpowered on the hills but boy it would moter on the flat being very high geared, it was also heavy at about 12 tonnes ! ours was configured as a 28 seater with toilet and full servery in the back.

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