Prepared on Notepad by Ian Smith,
This page created 22nd August 2009.

2377 in Hertford, June 2003. The midibus was not a new concept for the London bus companies: London Transport had operated a horde of tiny buses during the 1930s, some inherited from a plethora of small companies who bought cheap small buses to compete withe the might of The Combine. But London Transport had gravitated towards larger, more sturdy buses that would last for many years without falling apart. It used 26-seaters in its postwar Country Area, but one-man operation of small buses in the Central Area had fallen by the wayside just after the Second World War.

Political interests had dictated the introduction of the small Ford Strachans minibuses into bus-resistant areas of London in the early 1970s, but their success had led to their replacement by ever bigger buses. Slightly bigger midibuses had followed in the shape of the fairly awful Dodge/Rootes A class in 1982.

Arriva The Shires was an enthusiastic midibus user, moving on from first generation Beavers to second generation Varios such as 2377, seen in Hertford in June 2003.

But the big is best policy was being challenged in the mid-1980s. Some voices were proclaiming that what the public wanted was high frequency services, which could be provided by replacing 56-seater crewed double-deckers with 28-seater one-person-operated midibuses. Other voices were saying that with tendering of routes very much in the offing, and complete deregulation, even in London, very much on the cards politically, that buying traditional buses was just too risky financially: too much capital would be tied up for too long when in a fluid bus market. It would be much less risky to buy cheap flimsy buses that would last only a few years - especially if with repressive Trades Union legislation these could be presented as a different sort of driving task that would reap only a smaller remuneration than driving a "real" bus. The first round of London tendered service awards featured midibuses with competitors Eastern National and Crystals. The die was cast!

And so the "low cost units" came into being conceptually, using a mix of midibuses and secondhand buses cast off by downsizing Corporations and PTEs. The practice required a suitable midibus, and these began to appear in several sizes on a variety of chassis. Large van chassis formed the basis of a great many of them, from Volkswagen, Mercedes, Iveco, Fiat, British Leyland, and Renault. Optare produced a very stylish midibus called the Citypacer, which caught the public imagination, although it was plagued with mechanical problems, not least high brake wear. MCW designed an integral midibus, the Metrorider, and these began to be taken up by London Buses in 1987, in Kingston and Harrow. Bexleybus followed, then Orpington's Roundabout. Whole networks of traditional routes were being supplanted by new midibus networks. To be fair, the midibuses reached into corners and estates that had never seen buses of any kind before.

Then the Mercedes started to arrive, to replace Routemasters on an almost two-for-one basis, plus Renaults. Products from hitherto unfamiliar body-builders began to appear in London, from Optare, Alexander and Wrights of Ballymena, some with strange registrations. The trickle became a flood, with hundreds of midibuses flooding into the suburbs, and even reaching into Westminster and London on Sundays. Some midibus routes even began to invade the backstreets and squares of London on a daily basis.

Metrobus MetroRider 904 in Catford, September 2000. For the most part the midibuses didn't last, of course (although the new routes did). They were not designed nor intended to. The lightweight chassis could not cope with the punishment of daily London bus-work. Passengers complained at the rough ride from van suspensions (especially if they had to stand), and the midibuses went through brakes, engines, gearboxes and suspension units at a frightful rate. Many chassis were worn out after three or four years. It had not helped that they had actually been phenomenally successful. The pundits who had advocated the high frequency networks had been proved right, in that ridership had rocketed. That meant the small buses were now too small, and the press complained about "the ridiculous switch to small buses" causing overcrowding. The suburban estate routes had also proved highly popular - just compare a 1970s London bus map with a 1990s one!

The 138 was a back-streets route through Downham where larger buses could not then go. MetroRiders paved the way, with Londonlinks and then Metrobus. 904 is at Catford Bridge in September 2000.

But fortunately a solution was found: a small real bus - the Dennis Dart. Dennis, for many years a builder of small-wheel utility vehicles, had cracked the problem of braking small-wheeled vehicles, and in 1990 produced a 8.8m proper bus chassis, with rear engine, proper suspension, brakes that worked... the days of the van-based midibus were over - although many hung on in the rural fringes of London for some years. The Darts rapidly became bigger and bigger to meet capacity requirements: the wheel had turned full circle for mainstream bus work, albeit with a continuing higher ridership and higher frequencies and with continued estate penetration, now with larger buses that no-one would have dreamed of using there before the midibuses came. Some midibuses persisted for a while, with a second generation: early midibuses were replaced by later, better, Optare MetroRiders, and by cheap Fiat buses for smaller work. But the van-like midibuses vanished from the red bus area. Even new Koch-bodied Accessible Sprinters bought for the Rotherhithe Tunnel and Metrobus had only a short term in service. Around the "Country Area" the early Mercedes Beaver combination lasted well, as did MetroRiders, and there was another generation of Mercedes Varios, but all but a remnant had gone by 2009, swept away by the commercial need to accept baby-buggies with wide doors and low floors (in the name of wheelchair access of course). Their successors, mainly low-floor accessible 8.8m Dart MPDs, continued going strong.

Index to Midibus classes: (there are many of these, not all with their own pages as yet. These will follow when I can summon the enthusiasm!)

* = not yet ready

Ian's Bus Stop Midibus Index.