Post War Growth 1945 - 1969
This immediate post war period was to prove greatly significant for the industry as a whole and Plaxton in particular. A nation starved of leisure for over half a decade, immediately sought to spread it’s wings but with severe restrictions on the supply of fuel and any prospect of owning a motor car still some years away, coaches were the answer for the first getaway generation.
Plaxton’s first post war deliveries were in early 1946, the latter years of the 1930s had seen Plaxton emerge as a well recognized concern in coaching, well respected names such as Wallace Arnold, Charles Rickards and even United, who’d their own coachbuilding interests until the early ‘thirties, were regular customers. The boom was to prove a magnet for numerous competitors to enter the bus and coach sector, the UK economy was still largely operating under wartime restrictions of supply and other work for those in the motor trade was limited. Inevitably they sought to utilize their resources in areas where there was both demand and a less restrictive supply of materials. Some of these concerns offered dubious quality, others soon moved back to their more traditional lines of trade as the economic restrictions were progressively eased, most new entrants were short lived but nonetheless competition was fierce and the designs underwent change driven by innovation as each manufacturer sought to distinguish their products in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Plaxton designs in this period became more flamboyant, a raked back appearance had first appeared in the 1930s, at which point a Plaxton trademark was side windows grouped in pairs between the major pillars. The post-war generation brought a continuous window-line to the “streamlined” look giving the side profile a much cleaner appearance.
Chassis layouts were very much still traditional with the driver seated alongside the engine for larger vehicles or behind it on the smaller designs. This latter style was somewhat inefficient, with the length ahead of the driver being used for little more than the engine; the driver took up space in the saloon, which could be better used for passengers. Plaxton recognized this and modified a number of Bedford and Dodge chassis to move the driver forward alongside the engine and thus allow space for additional two or three seats. The resultant vehicle also had a more modern appearance with a fully fronted design, which made even the half cab layout of the period appear dated. Plaxton adopted a similar approach with certain larger chassis, eliminating the half-cab and employing a full width frontal design, this in turn gave greater freedom to the body stylist. The drawback of both these ideas was that engine access was made much more difficult, much to the objection of the maintenance engineers of the day.
By 1950, Plaxton had a nationwide client base, the business had fought competition with a mix of innovation, style and solid manufacturing but the marketplace was still moving at an alarming rate, the next decade would present even greater challenges than the last.
The developments in styling and the quest for greater capacity had made chassis manufacturers look closely at their products, the layout of engine and major components had never changed since the early motor cars had evolved into commercial vehicles and although it had become readily accepted, it was far from perfect. The larger vehicles, traditionally heavier chassis from the likes of AEC and Leyland were being challenged by some of the manufacturers of smaller vehicles such as Bedford and Commer. Plaxton’s efforts to maximize the capacity of smaller vehicles had led to these manufacturers examining the layout of their chassis, by raising the floor level it was possible to move the driver and entrance even further forward and give room for additional seats, this took the seating capacity from the 29 or 31 of a typical Bedford of the period up to 33 or 35, almost equaling the 37 of the “heavyweight” Leyland or AEC but at a fraction of the cost and with a saving in weight, they were potentially much more economical to run.
All of the chassis up to this point had followed their development alongside contemporary truck designs but the heavyweight builders were conscious of a need for change, and with the emergence of a new class of lightweight challenging their major selling advantage, they sought a new angle to get more seats into the same overall length. The small concern of Sentinel was the first to break the mould, by moving the engine from the front, turning it on it’s side and mounting it horizontally amidships between the axles, leaving the chassis as a flat platform from front to back, the maximum space possible could be utilized for seating.
These developments had major significance for the bodybuilder, with no large, exposed radiator, this arrangement offered total freedom to exploit the styling to it’s maximum, suddenly the opportunity to stamp the hallmark of the bodybuilder on the front of the vehicle became possible for the first time. This allowed a totally new approach and Plaxton quickly developed, initially evolving the fully fronted designs into some very flamboyant styles but by 1952, the trademark oval grille had appeared and remained for the next decade. Relaxation of the maximum length from 27’6” to 30’ allowed even greater freedom for styling as well as a corresponding increase in passengers to 37 or 39 and 41 for front and underfloor engined chassis respectively.
Re-bodying of older chassis was once again popular, many of the concerns who entered the market in the early post war period had done so in haste, a lack of experience in constructing bodies which could withstand the rigours of road operation coupled with the poor quality timber available in a period of austerity had given many of the bodies a short lifespan. The chassis on the other hand, particularly the larger “heavyweights” had been engineered to have a life of ten years in relatively arduous operating conditions, meeting the demands of the military during the war had made available the technology to achieve this. Many operators used the new maximum length to their advantage, lengthening the chassis by around 2’ and fitting a new body in line with contemporary styles. Plaxton built many coaches in this way, including the first of over 500 vehicles to be bought by Barton Transport of Nottingham.
The swing from front to underfloor engines on heavyweight chassis was swift and virtually complete by 1953, these chassis were bespoke passenger chassis with major components such as engines and axles common with the goods vehicles from the same stable but a totally different chassis configuration.
The front engined chassis bodied after this time, were almost exclusively the lightweight types from Bedford, Commer, Austin and by the late-fifties, Ford. These were still closely derived from the respective manufacturers truck ranges, a policy which gave rise to significant economies in manufacture but one which resulted in certain compromises in layout etc
The newly evolving body styling set Plaxton on a road which would see them set new benchmarks for style and engineering capabilities, it also set the company on the road to greater success.
In 1957, the prominent South Yorkshire coach operator and major Plaxton customer, Sheffield United Tours, were managed by Ben Goodfellow, reputedly a gentleman who set his sights high and was rarely disappointed. He had a vision to introduce a new style of coach, which would distinguish his from anything else on the road, offering new standards of comfort, visibility and above all, style. He turned to Plaxton for a solution and the result was the first of the legendary Panorama design.
The Panorama took the industry by storm, with wide spaced glazing pillars and deeper side glass, the windows gave passengers a truly “Panoramic” view of the world as they journeyed. The first prototype was produced in 1958 and entered service with S.U.T. the same year, the design was changed slightly and launched to a wider audience at the 1958 Commercial Motor Show, by which time the striking window design was already being imitated by competitors but as the Plaxton had been designed with this arrangement in mind from the outset, it carried a style all of it’s own whereas many of the competitors had simply widened the window pillar spacing of existing models to accommodate the larger windows, the result was often compromise in both style and structural integrity.
Panorama set the pace for over a decade, the wide window design was widely copied and by the early ‘sixties was a standard feature of touring coaches, both at home and abroad. Panorama evolved through five basic stages and spawned a derivative in the form of the Embassy, a close relation designed specifically for the lightweight, front engined chassis. Perhaps the most famous Plaxton ever built, that used by the Beatles in the making of The Magical Mystery Tour, was a Panorama 1, although in truth was the fourth variant of body to carry the name.
The success of Panorama elevated Plaxton to the number two spot among UK coachbuilders, gave it a customer base spread across the UK and even abroad. By 1968, it was time for change but Panorama was going to be a tough act to follow but ever rising to a challenge, Plaxton’s next move was to prove even more audacious than the last.