Mike Humble goes On The Buses, dons his drivers cap and brushes up on his Phwoars and Cor Blimey’s whilst getting behind the wheel of the latest bus built in the plant which was at one time part of the British Leyland empire – the Optare Solo Eco Drive, and finds it rather good fun!
Over the years, many once great names in the bus & coach world have simply faded away or lost their identity. Firms such as AEC, Bedford & Leyland – once global leaders in chassis building, have closed their doors while body building names like Duple, Harrington & Willowbook also are now just a fond memory from days gone by when your bus had an open platform and your fare would be collected in a leather shoulder bag by a traditional conductor or “clippie”.
Having spent a while in the bus industry, I often get asked if the job really was as cushy as depicted by Stan Butler and his trusty clippie Jack, although I never worked in that era, I can say through knowing many a time served driver and having driven a few classic half cab buses, it was a seriously harsh environment with long hours for little pay. Wrestling with the non power assisted steering, while a thumping great 10.45 litre Gardner diesel gently roasts your left leg and makes your eyes stream with fuel & breather fumes was far from an ideal working environment, let alone the brutal clutch and unforgiving crash gearbox sending various vibrations through your body.
The howls, whines and growls of yesteryear’s buses have given way to almost vacuum cleaner type noises, the once damp and smoky upper decks with coarse leatherette trims and screw fit 40 watt light bulbs have been replaced with bright airy and inviting places with air conditioning , soft cloth moquette and relaxing modern LED lighting. Modern buses are in fact just as easy to drive as a car, with the engines often fitted many metres behind, the driver is isolated from the vibration and noise.
Power steering, ABS & air suspension is now not even thought of where once upon a time, and not that long ago, the thought of these items would make the average fleet engineer pull faces of disgust. So even though modern buses lack the character and charm we once loved, they provide a clean and safe environment for the passenger while at the same time giving the driver a decent working environment. The 1980`s ushered in a new trend of mini and midi buses with offerings like the Dennis Dart – MCW / Optare Metrorider and to a lesser extent, our very own Leyland Swift. The most popular of the smaller minibus was the Metrorider which was replaced in the late 90`s by the cute looking Solo, the only minibus I have had a soft spot for.
Optare was formed in the mid 1980`s following the decision by Leyland to close the C.H Roe body works in Leeds. The workers of Roe armed with redundancy payments headed by Russell Richardson formed a management buy out thus forming Optare which for the record, is a Greek word meaning “To Choose”. The Solo at launch turned the idea of the mini bus on its head by offering a vehicle that was styled with the passenger in mind, curvy and sleek with a wheel at each corner, the Solo was quickly accepted by the once cautious operators and both driver and passenger loved them.
Power units are supplied by either Cummins or Mercedes Benz with Allison automatic gearboxes with electro magnetic retarders. Most of the braking system is supplied via Iveco and what made the Solo unique at the time, was the front axle being ahead of the front doors offering a huge platform area with no intrusion into the front passenger seat area. Stepless entry with wheelchair ramp allied with kneeling air suspension means boarding the bus is a doddle thanks to its full size 2 leaf front door. The vehicle I operated in service for a whole Saturday was the Mercedes powered EcoDrive.
The EcoDrive is just as high tech and modern as your average Golf Blue Motion or Ford Econetic with an engine that shuts down after a period of idling in neutral. Fueling is combined with Ad Blue and the dashboard has an economy dial replacing the usual rev counter.
What suprised me was the Driver Skill counter and four vertical bands which warn the driver of harsh acceleration, deceleration, economy and wait for it…. a G meter that tells you how smoothly you go round corners – most bizarre for a bus, but I do see the point though I wondered if the driver of today has enough to keep an eye on with suicidal pedestrians with baby buggies, cars and countless other obstacles as well as jolly coloured warning lights and dials. Telematics is the buzz word in today’s bus and truck, with the operators able to download real time info from the vehicles brain pin pointing drivers who drive without sympathy or care.
In this ever increasingly cost driven world, every penny counts and I applaud this kind of modern technology. The Solo has superb brakes, steering, comfort and impressive visibility thanks to its truly massive windscreen, all the incidental switches are located on a soft touch control pad to your right hand side leaving the left area totally clutter free.
Driver checking procedures are helped by the vast amount of room in the rear engine bay with sight glasses for coolant and esy to reach dipstick for oil levels. All other functions such as electronics and other technical magic and wizzardy are silently observed by the vehicles system computer. The Solo is fitted with four 5in halogen headlamps making night driving a cinch while the interior lights being mounted flush to the saloon ceiling, don’t reflect in the huge windscreen too much – a major problem on some types.
The air suspended drivers seat irons out all but the most severe of ruts or bumps and the thick chunky steering wheel (as seen on the Iveco EuroCargo) is a far cry from the cold hard bake-o-lite affairs of old, it’s also adjustable for height and reach. I could go as far as saying thats it’s quite possibly the comfiest and most appealing little bus I have driven in years. Mini buses traditionally had a bucking bronco ride comfort, not so with the Solo thanks to a long wheelbase. It rides well and corners with little body roll, but care needs to be taken in wet or icy weather to avoid understeer owing to the bulk of the vehicles weight being towards the rear.
Performance from the Merc engine is lively enough and refined, though its a touch agricultural on tick over reminding you that after all it’s only a 4 cylinder unit. The gearbox is noise free and changes up and down with a jerk free manner, strangely though, there is no kick down position on the pedal because the the clever ECU monitors the load upon the engine and road speed constantly – it quite literally thinks for you.
One thing I did find odd was getting used to the wheels being inches away from the front bumper. Traditionally, you would sweep the body work over the kerb to align the edge to the side of the entry step. Once or twice I found myself scraping or bumping the kerb with the front wheel but once used to its wheel base I found the bus a sweet little thing to pilot around the tight narrow roads in Worthing and changing my views about minibuses in general. An average 10 hour shift in the Solo brought no complaints from myself in its construction or ability of moving passengers from A to B. Its stylish, great to drive, supremely economical, has a lovely bright and airy interior that seems well screwed together and above all British, I was chuffed to bits with it!
I do miss the growl of a Leyland Leopard the metalic whine of a National and the scream from the transmission of a Bristol VR reminds me of being a child sitting on the back seat of the service 141 from Keddington to Cambridge on Saturday mornings as the driver would nudge 60mph flying down Linton bank. Nostalgia is a lovely thing, but they were pigs to drive for a full shift and the guys and girls who drove those half cab Bristols, Daimlers & Leyland’s of old get my total full respect!
“now come on you lot…. Get That Bus Out”