The Early Years 1907 - 1945
Scarborough in the early years of the 20th century was a buoyant and rapidly expanding seaside resort, the coming of the railway had given the town access to the affluent middle classes of the West Riding and the industrial North East and catering for their needs had spawned a boom in development in the town.
Frederick W. Plaxton set up a joinery business operating from premises in Bar St in 1907, the building trade was booming and the company quickly established itself supplying the timber structural members, fixtures and fittings to the building contractors who were developing the town from the genteel Spa resort of the 19th century into the sophisticated holiday destination which Scarborough would become in the later years.
Within just a few years, Plaxton had extended their interests into full-scale general construction and quickly became one of Scarborough’s largest building concerns. The growth had triggered a move to North St around 1912 by which time the company was building some of Scarborough’s notable landmarks. The company appears to have made speed it’s particular strength, an advertisement placed in the Scarborough Directory in 1914 quoted the speed with which a number of major projects were completed, including their own works in North St from start to finish in just 12 days. Other notable Plaxton built Scarborough structures were the Futurist Cinema, Cumberland Hotel and perhaps one of the towns most famous, Valley Bridge
The exact date when Plaxton made it’s first foray into motor transport is unclear, records of the early years were destroyed in a fire in 1943, but it’s generally recognized that the end of WW1 brought the opportunity for new bodies to be built on the numerous motor vehicles which were about to be pensioned off by the war ministry and the skills to do this were very much available in the Plaxton empire. The first Plaxton coach body was on a Model T Ford chassis around 1919, it’s uncertain who the first customer was but what is known is that local operator, E.H.Robinson had a number of vehicles bodied by Plaxton and that the first of these was indeed a Model T, whether this was the first, perhaps we shall never be sure.
Bus and coach production was in full swing by 1920 and to cater for the increased numbers, a new works was opened, the Castle Works on Castle Rd which was the first link with the iconic Scarborough Castle, an emblem used by Plaxton almost continuously ever since.
Car production still formed the bulk of motor body work and the high quality of Plaxton’s work was recognised by the Crossley company in Manchester who engaged the company to build bodies on a number of it’s high class car chassis. This was to prove a fruitful relationship over the subsequent decade and was recognised at the highest level when, in 1922, Plaxton built the bodies for a number of Crossley cars built for the Prince of Wales for a tour of Australia. The following few years saw similar cars built for both the Duke of York and King George V.
Through the 1920s, coach production grew steadily alongside the cars and by the latter part of the decade was to prove more important as the economic downturn made the market for motor cars a less certain one. Designs of the period changed, the multi door, bench seated charabanc gave way to the more recognisable centre gangway arrangement we know today. Plaxton grew rapidly as a company through the decade, Scarborough was also growing and with trade in the town being largely seasonal, there was a ready supply of labour available during the quieter winter months, just the time when coachbuilding was at it’s peak. This pattern was followed in a number of other seaside towns around the country where coachbuilding flourished as an industry alongside the holiday trade.
By the end of the 1920s, Plaxton was well established as a coachbuilder on a national scale, but this was largely on account of the car business, coaches were playing an increasingly important role but to this point, few Plaxton coaches had been sold outside Yorkshire and the neighbouring counties of Durham and Northumberland.
In 1931, the standards of Plaxton’s work was recognised with the award of second prize in the single deck bus section at the Motor Show held at Olympia, intriguingly the award was not to Plaxton as a company but to F.W.Plaxton himself, a sign that the business was very much still run as an autonomous organization.
Things were changing rapidly, the 1930s were a boom time as demands for transport grew, the railways were being challenged as the most efficient means of transport for the masses as cheaper and more reliable road transport came to the fore. Around 1935, Plaxton appointed it’s first official dealer, Lancashire Motor Traders Ltd in Manchester, who grew a substantial customer base in the North West of England. A similar arrangement followed with the Arlington Motor Company in London, this gave Plaxton coaches their first foray into a territory where the locally built Duple was very much the strongly favoured incumbent. This was to develop into a fierce rivalry between the two concerns in years to come.
Coaches were built on both new and second-hand chassis, the latter generally being older models with bodies life expired or increasingly deemed out of date by the advancing style and technology of the coachbuilders. Large numbers of vehicles were bodied during this period, chassis names which predominated were AEC, ADC, Bedford, Crossley, Dennis Dodge and Leyland amongst others. The business changed it’s name to F.W.Plaxton and Son, reflecting the involvement of Frederick Jnr, universally known as Eric.
Growth resulted in the construction of the new works at Seamer Rd, on the then outskirts of Scarborough in 1936, such was the rate of expansion that an extension was under construction almost as soon as the initial building had been completed. This plant was to remain the company headquarters until 1986.
By the close of the decade, Plaxton had grown to become a recognised name among coach operators, output for the period is uncertain but is suggested as being around 4 or 5 a week, this would have meant an annual figure of around 250 vehicles but this could have been a somewhat conservative estimate.
Darker days lay ahead and with the outbreak of war in 1939, all vehicle production ceased but output remained in the transport field as the joinery skills turned to making countless ammunition cases and transit cases for aero engines and airframe sections. A serious fire broke out at Seamer Rd in 1943, this destroyed most of the records of the company prior to this date, those which survived offer the only indication of the company’s early days.
The war took it’s toll on the availability of skilled labour but as the company was involved in significant wartime duties, a core of carpentry and joinery skill remained and within a few months of the war being over, production of coaches restarted and Plaxton was back in business again.