Saturday, 30 May 2009

Looking back at the City Pacer

The 1980s saw a proliferation of van based minibuses following an experiment using 16 seat Ford Transits in Exeter. Minibuses could penetrate housing estates, were faster and more maneuverable and were cheaper to operate. The 'minibus boom' breathed new life into the industry which needed to refocus and develop a commercial awareness.

Ribble brought its Mercedes Benz Minilink network to the Fylde Coast just before deregulation with 12 buses on its Fleetwood-Thorton-Cleveleys network. Of the other two operators, Blackpool was the first to follow the trend using the Optare City Pacer from May 1987 with Fylde following with its Dodge S56s in June.

The Optare City Pacer was quite radical and set Optare out both as a retailer of 'complete' vehicles and an innovative designer. Although based on the Volkswagen LT55 van, the body was entirely coachbuilt with a stylish raked back front. It had a much higher driving position than most van conversions - the main drawback being the expanse of glass at the front which helped cook the drivers in the summer.

Blackpool's first five (560-564) were put to use in May initially on tendered service 33 (Cleveleys-Marton Hypermarket) and evening/Sunday work on the Ribble minibus network. However in June they were reallocated onto a brand new high frequency town service in St. Annes from Spring Gardens to Whalley Place via many roads not otherwise served, but competing with lower frequency Fylde routes. An unusual black livery with yellow skirt and 'Handybus' lettering was adopted. The evening duties in Wyre continued with the buses running in service on the 11C to return to Depot and the 14 to reach Fleetwood.

Batch two was intended to convert service 26 from a 15 minute big bus service to a 5 minute minibus route, however few had arrived in time for the 5 September 1987 start. As a temporary measure a batch of Ford Transits was borrowed from Midland Red North and these normally ran the St. Annes route. The first day of the 26 thus saw 560, 562-564, brand new 549, three Optare Demonstrators and a Transit! Two of the demonstrators were acquired (becoming 565/6). The rest of the new buses (549-559, 567/8) arrived between mid September and the end of October. The fleet now stood at 20, 9 needed for the 26 and 4 for the 1 in St. Annes. From December 4 more were allocated to new routes 17A/B (Bispham Circulars), but in February both the 1 and 17 were withdrawn.

The released buses were used to augment the Routemasters on route 12 providing a high frequency service to Highfield Road via Lytham Road and the evening service to St. Annes. This later became the 12A to Lindale Gardens. A third batch of City Pacers (569-578) arrived for the August 1988 conversion of service 9 (Blackpool-Cleveleys) and four more came in December as 579-582 for reinstated routes 7/7A (Blackpool-Bispham). Finally a third ex demonstrator was purchased as 583 in December 1989.

Three fundamental reallocations took place in the City Pacer's life. Firstly in March 1992 the 9 was replaced by big bus route 12 and the minibuses cascaded onto the 2A (Blackpool-Poulton) and 15 (Cleveleys-Staining). Secondly in November 1994 the 2/2A and 7/7A were merged to run Poulton-Bispham (2/2A/2B) and then in 1996 the 12A and 26 were converted to big buses and the surviving City Pacers were normally found on the newly converted 23-25 (Hospital-Mereside) with a few on the normally Metrorider run 2/2A/2B.

The first Optare Metrorider arrived in March 1995 and further batches followed in 1995, 1996 and 1998. The first City Pacer withdrawals saw 549-552, 560-564 go in Autumn 1995 followed by 553-558, 565-6 in August 1996. This left 559, 567-583 in service. 559/67 had a spell at Squires Gate depot where they replaced the last Dodges but soon returned to Rigby Road. The end finally came on January 2000 when a batch of new Solos replaced the last few - several having been withdrawn at the end of 1999.

Most were sold for further service but have since ended up on the scrap heap. LTt owns one - 575 back in Handybus livery, while 560 is preserved in Reading (it ran for Reading Buses after disposal competing with Reading Mainlines ex BT Routemasters!) 550, 562 and 574 are all recorded with valid SORN declarations on DVLA site and are believed to be caravan conversions. 562 was recently reported out of use in the North East. 583 may still survive - it was sold for scrap by Mac Tours in 2002 but reappeared on Ebay in 2007! There may be others...