Express from new-style Willowbrook
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from a special correspondent • Under new ownership, Willowbrook, the Loughborough bus and coach builder, is flexing its muscles. Already in the year since Mr George Hughes took over as chairman (he holds 75 per cent of the equity, and Slater Walker the other 25 per cent) average weekly production has risen from 3-1to 10 vehicles; now new models are about to be introduced, and the company is set on an expansionist course.
The proposed doubling of the DoE grants for new buses has given added impetus to current production plans for the new Express dual-purpose vehicle, pictured on this page, and a luxury version, the Expressway (CM October 8) which is to follow.
Meanwhile the first obvious production change under new ownership has been the rationalization of the service bus designs, to provide a product range which can be produced in greater numbers by the same labour force, and some detailed value engineering has gone into this; when the revised models are fully in production an output of 14 to 15 psv a week can be achieved with little extension of manpower or factory space. The introduction of "staging" — with vehicles moved forward on the line at set times — is likely to push this even higher.
These service buses are 33-footers of familiar Willowbrook all-metal-framed construction, in 45-, 49and 52-seat versions — the BYS on the Bedford YRQ chassis, the FLS on the Ford R1014 and similar models on Leyland and Seddon chassis.
The Express and the Expressway will both have the distinctive new-style smooth-contoured glassfibre front panelling illustrated here, but the Expressway will have a crisper bodyline with shallower roof contour and more luxurious trim and fittings. It will represent Willowbrook's conscious move into the luxury end of the express service market.
Marketing director Dennis Foster sees an expanding demand for dual-purpose vehicles, the luxury coach operator needing to move into a class attracting the DoE vehicle grant, and the bus operator seeking vehicles which can be used on profitable charters when not in stage use.
Both new vehicles have wrap-round panels for the twin headlamps, sidelamps and winkers, and the new "flying W" symbol will become standard on all Willowbrook bodies. Chairman George Hughes is keen, too, to get away from complicated brightwork and mouldings towards simpler liveries and more delicate paintwork and colours.
Versions of Bedford, Ford, Leyland and Seddon chassis will be made. A particular feature of the new designs is said to be the roll-over strength built into the vertical frames and roofsticks for added passenger safety.
As a company Willowbrook is well based for expansion — and diversification, too. A 12-fold increase in profits is expected for the first year under new ownership.
George Hughes's meticulous financial planning has produced some fascinating comparisons with the rest of the bus and coach industry. The economic structure of the industry has been analysed in depth and the possible room for manoeuvre of competitors and other companies has been charted. He has a personal control book which provides a fascinating projection in concrete budgeting terms over the next four years.
More directly useful to dealers and operators is the bus order specification sheet Willowbrook has devised, requiring only ticks in boxes to specify every item. Another development of interest to operators which is now planned is the setting up at the Willowbrook service centre of a new special division — perhaps not confined to passenger vehicles.
Willowbrook eyes are also on an expansion of overseas sales, and export director George Payze has been busy. The company is being selective about exports — it is concentrating on half a dozen overseas territories and turning away most of the inquiries from other areas. Overseas bodies are commonly sent CKD or NCO, and the technique in any new venture is to send large assemblies at first and then gradually split the shipments into smaller and smaller sub-assemblies as the recipient gains familiarity and develops assembly skills. There is a possibility that Willowbrook will establish its own assembly operations in Nigeria and Ghana.
But not all the export attention is on the under-developed countries: George Hughes is fascinated by the potential of the double-decker and his latest diversion is to ask visitors what sort of elegant but practical 'decker they think the Europeans might buy. But then the diversion may just be a tactic for avoiding the final question of what his next acquisition in the industry may be!