2015-06-04

Unsung heroes: Ford R-series

Today I pay tribute to a type of coach that was a familiar part of my childhood but seems to have been overlooked by many enthusiasts: the humble Ford R-series. While the heavyweight chassis built by AEC and Leyland, and later the flashy products of continental coachbuilders, got all the attention from enthusiasts, the R-series was the bread and butter, always there in the background quietly and reliably working away on less glamorous duties and no doubt earning its operator a decent income. These coaches were the mainstays of many independent operators until fairly recently, but having been discontinued in 1985, even the newest examples are now approaching thirty years old and survivors have become very rare.


One of the R-series chassis shortened to 8 metres by Tricentrol, this one still exists but hasn't been used for many years.


The long-lived R-series was very much a lightweight chassis, designed to compete with Bedford's similar offerings, and was launched in 1967 to succeed the short-lived Thames 676E, Ford's first 36ft coach chassis. Initially known as R192 and R226 for the length in inches, revisions in 1974 saw these models redesignated R1014 and R1114, with the first two digits indicating the length in metres, before an engine upgrade in 1983 saw them finally become R1015 and R1115. Declining sales following deregulation of the coach industry meant Ford ceased all full-size PSV production in 1985, leaving just the Transit as a base for minibuses.

Even after Bedford switched from front to mid engines when the VAM and VAL were replaced by the Y-series in the early seventies, Ford stuck with the front-engined layout to the end, latterly developing an inclined unit for easier entry and exit. While not ideal from the passenger's point of view, with steep steps and a large engine cover to negotiate, these vehicles proved to be rugged, reliable and easy to repair, essential requirements for small operators, and were justifiably popular.


Even United Counties (somewhat reluctantly) tried a batch of R1014 buses, but they didn't last long. This one managed to survive into preservation though.


Although some major operators tried the R-series, usually with little success, it was very much an independent's bus or more commonly coach, and this is perhaps another reason why it is so often overlooked. The chassis could be fitted with either bus or coach bodywork and as long as it wasn't used on intensive stop-start urban services or thrashed across Europe on continental holidays, was a versatile and flexible choice, equally at home on rural stage services, school runs and private hire, together with the occasional longer-distance excursion. With the Express versions of the Plaxton and Duple coach bodies eligible for Bus Grant, many operators who had previously relied on elderly secondhand purchases became able to buy brand new Fords and improve their image immensely.

Several large coach operators, notably including Excelsior and the Smiths-Shearings group, developed a liking for the type, regularly buying new batches and replacing them every two or three years, whereupon they were keenly snapped up on the secondhand market. The archetypal image of the R-series however is the small rural independent running a handful of secondhand examples on school services, and this is how I remember them. Langston & Tasker, a long-established operator based in Steeple Claydon, deep in rural Buckinghamshire, are happily still with us and now have a mostly Volvo fleet, but for years almost exclusively ran lightweight Fords and Bedfords with Plaxton and Duple bodies, and these were regular performers on the routes serving my school.


Together to the end, Langston & Tasker's last two R1114s had served them for 22 years.


The last Fords around here disappeared in 2006 when Langston & Tasker sold their newest X-registered pair, which had been purchased from Excelsior when just two years old and gave over two decades of reliable service. Since then I don't think I have seen another in PSV use and they are not common in preservation either, perhaps as a result of the continuing 'lightweight stigma' that saw them ignored by many photographers when they were new, film was expensive and there were more interesting things to point the camera at. The Dennis Javelin is a logical spiritual successor to the R-series, being aimed at a similar market and sharing a similar lighter weight construction, and many of the surviving operators who once ran Fords and Bedfords have moved on to Javelins.

I feel that the R-series isn't given enough credit in bus enthusiast circles and even now is regarded in certain quarters as boring and inferior to heavyweight vehicles. It may not have been glamorous but it played a very important, if often overlooked, role in the industry, and quietly gave many years of reliable service to operators up and down the country. I for one miss the sight of an old R-series, long past its prime but still working hard to earn a crust, and they had far more character than many of today's offerings so the industry is the poorer for their demise.  

2 comments:

  1. I've owned a couple of R series coaches that I used to live in back in the nineties, the first the aforementioned Elite Express III, the other was a normal Panorama Elite III.

    Maybe it was the lack of seats or much else in them but no other bus that I've driven was anything like as fast as those were, and definitely not my Atlantean. Those coaches were modern enough to have reasonably powerful turbodiesel engines but too old to have a speed limiter, so lots of fun was had! I've had cars that were slower.

    Anyway I enjoyed reading your article, thanks

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  2. I worked for Hertz Truck Rental in the early 70's and we had a batch of furniture pantechnicons based on the R-series chassis. Even with the aerodynamics of a brick wall they went like rockets.

    ReplyDelete

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