Saturday, 7 July 2012

25 Years of the City Pacers

Brand new City Pacers 564 and 560 contrast with 20 year old PD3 518 in Rigby Road depot
On 24 March the first of an eventual fleet of 35 Optare City Pacers arrived at Blackpool. Minibuses had become common following experiments by the National Bus Company in Exeter in 1984. Most early minibuses were van conversions or coach built bodies on van/chassis cowl. Optare broke new ground in 1986 with the coach built City Pacer, still based on a van chassis (Volkswagen LT55) but with a stylish body and higher driving position addressing many weaknesses of the van conversions.
The coach built City Pacer body was quite high floored with a narrow door and high driving position. Here the brand new 561 contrasts with the tangled wrecks of a nearly scrapped OMO tram and burnt out Atlantean
The pioneer was numbered 560 (D560YCW) and was joined by sisters 561-564 (D561-4YCW) over the next few days. Although the City Pacer could see 25, Blackpool opted for just 19 seats - with higher backed seats on 563/4 for private hire work. They entered service, initially on tendered services, in May before moving onto the St. Annes Handybus route in June.
Demonstrator D898NUA, which became Blackpool 566, among more traditional fleet members
The second batch - bought for route 26 - arrived rather fitfully with 549 (E549GFR) first to arrive on 27 August, ten days before the launch of the 26. Earlier in the month Optare provided two demonstrators for driver training and they were soon purchased becoming 565 (D854MUA) and 566 (D898NUA). The latter (uniquely for Blackpool) featured automatic transmission and 25 seats - rather than the normal 5 speed manual gearbox.
The rest of the new batch were 550-559, 567/8 (E550GFR etc). 550-3 arrived between 12 and 20 September, 554-59/67/8 between 18 and 31 October and all were in use by early November. 565/6 were repainted into Handybus colours from their white demonstrator corridor.
560 and 562 pass on St. Thomas Road on the St. Annes Handybus route in 1987
Batch three arrived in the last two weeks of July 1988 ready to launch route 9 on 1 August. These featured 4 speed gearboxes and were 569/70 (E569/70OCW) and 571-8 (F571-8RCW). They were followed by 579-82 (F579-82WCW) on 5 December, a week before the launch of the 7/7A.
The City Pacers settled into a routine life with little out of the ordinary, save for a charity trip from Paris to Blackpool undertaken by 582 on 9 April 1989. Blackpool Transport names and promotional lettering for the trip were applied and retained to its first repaint. In 1990 it was decided to fit an extra double seat in place of  the luggage bin making them 21 seaters.

A 35th solo joined the fleet in December 1989. Optare had provided a demonstrator (F934AWW) for a short period in January 1989 and sold the bus to Blackpool at the end of the year. Numbered 583 it was used initially in Optare's colours  - often as a driver trainer - until repaint into black and yellow during the summer. Routine repaints took place featuring a yellow roof to reduce sun absorption during the early 1990s.
Several City Pacers became caravans, including 573 which remained local to the Fylde as seen here at Fairhaven Lake in 2004

Run Down
The take-over of Fylde Borough saw the Handybus fleet expand with 20 Renaults, though several were withdrawn during the integration of the two networks in November. Soon after the launch of the City Pacer MCW launched the integral Metrorider - with no van influences, but this was not enough to secure MCW's future and it closed down. Optare bought rights to the Metrorider which hastened the end of the City Pacer. A seed vehicle was placed with Blackpool Transport in 1995 (584) and resulted in an order for eight which arrived later in the year. October 1995 saw City Pacers 549, 550, 560 and 561 were withdrawn and were part exchanged for Metroriders 585-588 while in November 551/2, 562-4 went back to Optare in exchange for 589-592 - the ninth effectively replaced by 584.

These initial nine disposals all went for further use. 549 was briefly with Jones Llanfaethlu (flickr)before reaching Zak's of Birmingham and moving onto a brief final career with City Hopper of Portsmouth in 2001. 550's next service career was short, running with Walsh of Middleton before sale as a motor home by August 1996. It was still declared on SORN in 2009 but is now shown as unlicensed and may therefore have been scrapped. 551 went to Walsh with 550 but became a non psv with a firm in Eccleston during the summer, lasting until 2002. 552 travelled around running with Bratihwaite in Cumbria, Globe in Barnsley, J&R in Accrington and finally Jowett of Hull in 2001.

560 went to Reading Buses and later Thames Travel and has been preserved since 2001. 561 ran with Top Cat of Mirfield before becoming a non psv, while 562 ran for a Northumberland operator. In still survived in 2010 under conversion to a mobile home. 563 is believed to have survived until 2002 but with an unknown owner. 564 joined 549 at Zaks but was withdrawn after a year.
More Metroriders arrived in 1996 (593-6 in May and 501-4 in September). These, and changes to routes in August 1996, saw 553-558 and the two demonstrators (565/6) withdrawn. 553-555 went to Handybus, Warminster (a new firm using Blackpool's name) in January 1997 (555 on flickr). 553/4 moved to Powercrafts of Blackburn in December 1997 for two years service and were scrapped in 2004 after several years gathering dust in their yard. 555 passed to Virgin of Oadby and ended its career in 1999. 556-558, 566 passed to Reading Buses to compete with Reading Mainline (who had ex Blackpool Routemasters!). They lasted until 1998. 566 was exported to Guernsey, 558 ran with Thames Travel who used 557 for spares. 556 was stripped by Reading. 565 was exported to Ireland.
With 17 sold, 18 remained in service at the start of 1997. More Metroriders arrived in late 1998 but through elaborate cascades replaced Atlanteans so 559, 567-583 survived once more. Optare launched the low floor Solo minibus to replace the Metrorider and Blackpool took 15 at the end of 1999 to replace the last City Pacers. 

569 was withdrawn in October having suffered mechanical failure and started to donate spares to its sisters. The first Solos were to convert route 33 from 4 January 2000 and this allowed 559, 567/8, 570-3, 580/1 to be withdrawn on 30 December. 559/67 racked up just over 12 years service - credible for this type. 575 retired on 24 January with 576/7 soon after leaving 574, 578/9 and 582/3 for the final day on 29 January all working routes 23, 24 and 25.
Former 583 with Mac Tours in their attractive red and cream livery (James Millington)
Early disposals saw 572 and 583 pass to Mac Tours of Edinburgh in February where they ran until 2002. 570 followed for spares in October 2000. 583 rematerialised on Ebay in September 2007 as a aborted caravan conversion. 570/2 have been scrapped. 580/1 are believed to have gone to Ireland, 577 remained in Blackpool as a mobile showroom for a local bathroom company who used it until 2003. 573 was purchased privately as a caravan and was seen around the Fylde until 2006. 575 was purchased for preservation by Graham Oliver who painted in green and cream as a what might have been. It has since returned to black/yellow and is now in LTT ownership.

McKindless of Wishaw swept up the remainder - 559, 567/8, 571, 574, 576, 578, 579 and 582 and the remains of 569 (flickr 567). Not all were used, but some received Irish registrations. 559/68 were scrapped locally, several others went to Holts of Bolton dealership. 567 was later used by Craven Arms Taxis in 2001, 574 became a caravan and was still in use in 2011.

Today 560 and 575 survive in preservation, the former in the Reading area, the latter with LTT. 562 is believed still to be in the North East - it is on SORN to September 2012. 550 and 574 are now unlicensed (since 2009 and 2011) while 583 has not resurfaced after its ebay listing.