Steel Wheels & Rubber Tyres Vol 4


This book sees the final instalment of the late Geoffrey Hilditch's autobiography. It follows the same layout and format as the third volume produced by Venture Publications and focuses on the later part of his working life including time working in Whitehall, Aberdare, Drawlane Leicester and Oldham.

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Steel Wheels & Rubber Tyres Vol 4

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Hilditch - The Final Memoir Review by Stephen Morris - Buses
Those who read the first three parts of Geoffrey Hilditch's autobiography, recalling a career in transport that began as a childhood interest, peaked when he was general manager of municipal undertakings in Great Yarmouth, Halifax and Leicester and ended in 1999 with the sale of an independent operator, will have waited eagerly for this final part. Like the third part, it is published posthumously, as Hilditch died in June 2014, aged 88.
It covers his departure from Leicester in August 1984, subsequent roles with the Department of Transport, Cynon Valley Transport, Drawlane Transport and then back with Leicester Citybus for its final years in municipal ownership. An account—like the earlier ones — that he tells very much from his own perspective with the aid of a daily diary.
The government post was bus operations advisor, helping civil servants turn Nicholas Ridley's Transport Bill into the Transport Act 1985 that deregulated and partially privatised the industry, and turned municipal undertakings into arms length companies. Before taking this job, he says he received 'a very positive no' to his question of whether the government was trying to end municipal bus operation and 'I never saw anything in my time at Marsham Street [the department's London headquarters] to suggest that this was not the truth'. However, nearly 30 years on, he greatly regretted the demise of most municipals, the loss of the career opportunities they offered and their ability to deliver quality services at modest fares.
Once the Act became law, he spent much of his time reviewing the municipal companies' business plans and in the course of this work, in July 1986, was invited to Aberdare where the 36-vehicle Cynan Valley undertaking was wrestling with the added handicap that both the general manager and deputy were on long-term sick leave.
Hilditch recommended that the council recruit one of the many managers taking early retirement at this time and, aged 61, was persuaded that he would be that man, and was prepared to stay until he turned 65. He gave the cream and red fleet a radical makeover to stand out against National Welsh, reviving the cream, green and orange once found in Halifax.
He had some of the vehicles refurbished by Southend Transport, where his son Christopher was engineering director, and diversified into running coaches, as he had done earlier in Halifax and Leicester.
His stay was short, as an approach from an intermediary put him in touch with Ray McEnhill, whose Endless Holdings was based in a street of the same name in Salisbury and who had a proposition for Hilditch. Highly sceptical, he nonetheless agreed to meet up, learnt that Endless had interests in air conditioning and oxygen systems and had bid unsuccessfully for the National Bus Company's regional engineering subsidiaries. This had whetted McEnhill's interest in buying NBC operating companies, for which he had secured backing from an American bank, but he needed a transport professional on his team. Hilditch started in a part-time capacity, before leaving Cynon Valley to take up the full-time role of group managing director with Endless, which soon renamed the bus side as Drawlane Transport.
In July 1987 it acquired Shamrock & Rambler, a coach operation also running Charlie's Cars-branded minibuses in Bournemouth and Poole, followed by Midland Red North, London Country South West and North Western Road Car over the first three months of 1988.
He says it considered bidding for Southern National and North Devon, but 'there were too many empty miles between Weymouth and Taunton and North Devon'. He took a similar view of Crosville Wales, judging there to be 'too many dead miles with plenty of sheep but few potential bus passengers'.
The first wave of consolidation from 1989 saw Drawlane buy the English end of Crosville from ATL Holdings and Midland Fox from a joint management/Stevensons of Uttoxeter team.
Shamrock & Rambler came to an early end, killed off by a deteriorating relationship with National Express, upon whom it relied for a large chunk of its work, using MCW Metroliner double-deckers that caused much engineering grief.
By contrast, he says Midland Red North, where his son became operations director and later managing director, was the 'jewel in the crown' that also helped restore London Country South West's worst maintained vehicles to acceptable health, action prompted after Hilditch sat in the canteen at Addlestone garage one evening, overheard a driver's robust complaints about the condition of the fleet and went out to discover that things were at least as bad as the driver described.
Hilditch also was instrumental in Drawlane's decision to buy the East Lancs coachbuilding business in January 1988, arguing that 'if a biggish group was to be built up, then having an in-house bodybuilder was going to be a considerable advantage'. Over the time he was there, Drawlane bought 147 bodies from East Lancs.
A different point of view is that Trafalgar House was ready to close East Lancs if no buyer came forward in 1988, that it required substantial capital investment at a time when few operators were placing orders and that it became a loss-making financial millstone around Drawlane's neck.
After being closely involved with their development while general manager at Leicester, he also persuaded Drawlane to buy Dennis Falcons and Dominators, but not as many as he wanted. He concedes that he lost a battle with London Country South West, which ordered 40 Volvo Citybuses instead of Dominators.
He says his objection to the Citybus was that horizontal engines would have shorter lives than comparable verticals. Others involved in that episode will argue that Volvo won hands down on whole life cost, but Hilditch never wanted to buy foreign vehicles.
The double-decker on the book cover, an East Lancs-bodied Dominator, was an exhibit at the 1988 Motor Show in a grass green version of a common livery style that Hilditch wanted to apply across the group, with local colours in each fleet. Hilditch says in the book that the common style never came to be adopted.
That particular bus was repainted before entering service, other forces within Drawlane instead commissioning the image overhaul by Ray Stenning at Best Impressions — 'a consultant was engaged to come up with some new ideas', the book says — that turned the fleet two-tone green with a red band and renamed it London & Country.
Ownership of East Lancs brought complications. Warrington Borough Transport was one of the coachbuilder's best customers, but also competed with Crosville, and Hilditch says his relationship with McEnhill, who he liked from the outset and admired for his ability to strike a deal, was soured by a disagreement over a visit that Hilditch made there in early 1989. He tendered his resignation that summer and left at the end of the year, by which time his job title had been changed to group operations director.
He was back in a day job from February 1990, and back in the office he had vacated six years earlier, now as chairman of Leicester Citybus, which was losing money and lacked the funds to implement a company doctor's business plan that envisaged it building three new depots to replace its single site in Abbey Park Road.
He appointed his son as engineering director and returned the business to profit in 1991/92, only to suffer a series of setbacks as it lost its lucrative maintenance contract to care for the city's refuse collection vehicles, its advertising contractor went bust, its insurer closed down and, in his words, an 'unexpected piece of nastiness' saw the Kinch company start competing against Citybus from October 1992.
The council decided the following February to sell Citybus, having already established that it was worth around £3.25 million. Hilditch, whose contract was terminated that summer, says there were discussions with Badgerline, which would support a management buyout of around that magnitude. These came to nothing and on 12 November the company was sold to GRT Bus Group (Hilditch calls it FirstGroup, which only came into existence in 1995 when GRT and Badgerline merged) for a figure he says he was told was £7.25million.
He later reconnected with the Oldham area of his youth, where his son was part owner of the 20-vehicle Universal company in Chadderton. For a short period towards the end of 1999, after Christopher Hilditch had left to work for Stagecoach, Hilditch senior was Universal's chairman pending its sale.
(Posted on 22/06/2017)

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