Brothers John and Raymond Dennis establish themselves in the Surrey town of Guildford, making bicycles. Three years later and sensing the advent of self-powered transport, they launch their own motorised tricycle and by 1901 are producing cars, adopting the family name as the marque.
Bicycles are also the start into business for Walter Alexander, who opens a cycle shop in the Falkirk suburb of Camelon, in Central Scotland. He buys his first bus – an open charabanc – in 1913 and sets up regular local bus services, as well as running excursions and tours.
Having introduced a worm-drive axle to replace early chain drives in the previous year, Dennis builds its first commercial vehicles. A van for the Harrods department store is quickly followed by the first buses for local operators and double deckers for London (pictured). Fire engines are offered from 1908 onwards, establishing what is to become another mainstay of the company’s activity for nearly a century, and by 1913 car production stops to focus on commercial vehicles.
Frederick William Plaxton sets up a joinery workshop in Scarborough. Expansion follows and the company becomes a building contractor, constructing a number of notable buildings around the Yorkshire seaside town. Having diversified into manufacturing bodywork for cars just before the First World War, Plaxton builds its first charabanc in 1918 on a Ford Model T chassis. Within a decade the shift is made to fully enclosed coaches and these quickly become the company’s main activity.
To satisfy demand for its rapidly growing bus services, Alexander begins to build its own buses at its workshops in Falkirk (pictured). Although some of these single deck buses and coaches are sold to other companies, the bulk of the production is for fleets in the Scottish Motor Traction group, which becomes Alexander’s owner in 1929 and operates throughout Scotland.
While the chassis of earlier buses had been shared with lorries, the Dennis E and H types introduce a forward-control design and lower floor. As well as supplying chassis to independent builders, Dennis produces its own bodywork at this time, enabling it to offer complete vehicles to its wide range of domestic customers as well as to international buyers. The first buses had been exported as early as 1909 – to Russia and New Zealand – and by the 1920s Hong Kong operators are among the customers.
At the start of the new decade, Dennis launches two new chassis. The Lance is an underframe for heavy double deckers, quickly finding favour with municipalities across the United Kingdom. The lighter Lancet (pictured in production) adds an economic single deck chassis designed to keep investment and operating costs down, presaging many of the engineering values of later decades.
With the outbreak of World War Two, the British bus and coach manufacturing industry is restructured to support the war effort. Dennis builds lorries and light armoured vehicles for the War Office, while Plaxton’s production is utilised to make munitions boxes. Alexander, on the other hand, is tasked with meeting demand for higher capacity buses and from 1942 the company builds its first double deckers, using a wartime utility design (pictured). With the end of hostilities, all three companies quickly return to their established trades.
With a boom in demand for coaches, Plaxton quickly grows beyond its regional customer base to secure business from some of the country’s largest operators. New models, launched in response to advances in chassis design, are elegantly streamlined. From 1950, names are given to the company’s products, and the Venturer (pictured) establishes itself as the most successful of this period.
Throughout the decade, bus sales are in decline at Dennis as competition from larger builders squeezes the company out of the market. A modest revival comes with the Dennis Loline, a licence-built version of the Bristol Lodekka chassis for low-height double deckers which its state-owned designers could only sell to nationalised companies. Dennis faces no such restrictions, but declining demand for front-engined buses nevertheless takes its toll and in 1967 the decision is made to concentrate on fire engines and municipal vehicles.
With the new Panorama coach, Plaxton sets new standards for the industry. With alternate body pillars stopping at the waist-rail, its wide windows give passengers an unrivalled view. The modern design is further confirmed through a restyle in 1964 (pictured), and its success ensures that the company rides out consolidation in the industry, leaving it by the end of the 1960s as one of two major coach builders in the United Kingdom.
While Alexander’s bus services had been nationalised in 1948, the manufacturing interest remained in private hands. This opened the company up to new customers, and a boom in orders in the second half of the 1950s lays the foundation for the move to a new, state-of-the-art factory on Falkirk’s Glasgow Road – which remains in use, extended and adapted, over 60 years later.
Alexander builds the first of a new single decker, the Y type. The highly adaptable design is available in four lengths and can be fitted out as a bus, a dual-purpose vehicle or a coach on front, underfloor or rear-engined chassis. Although it also appeals to many operators south of the border, it becomes the standard vehicle for the Scottish Bus Group during the type’s 22-year production run.
A revolution in coach design as the first British coach to feature curved side windows, the Plaxton Elite sets the style for the next two decades. When the new Supreme model replaces it in 1975, its construction still incorporates wood, but three years later it has become an all-steel structure. In addition to British-made chassis of the day, the Supreme is available on increasingly popular imports, establishing a combination that continues to this day with the choice of Volvo chassis.
With the new AL type double decker, Alexander introduces aluminium for the body structure, reducing weight and improving resistance to corrosion. Although modular specification options result in visually varied vehicles, the buses remain the same under the skin, making them easy to maintain and support. The AL type continues Alexander’s growth from a primarily Scottish manufacturer to a leading position across the United Kingdom.
In response to demand from Hong Kong for its market-leading designs, Alexander exports buses for the first time in its history. Instead of sending built-up vehicles, it decides to produce kits of completely-knocked-down bodies for local assembly and sets up an office in the territory, establishing a local presence that continues to this day and which facilitates further vehicle sales across the Asia Pacific region, with the first buses arriving in Singapore in 1979.
Having been bought by the Hestair group in 1972, Dennis returns to the bus market with the rear-engined Dominator chassis that quickly establishes itself as a staple of British fleets. Hong Kong bus operators also turn to Dennis, initially for the rugged, front-engined Jubilant before a three-axle version of the Dominator emerges as the Dragon and Condor models, designed to cope with extreme peak loadings of up to 172 passengers.
The R type is Alexander’s new style of double deck bus body, introducing a more angular styling at the start of the 1980s. Continuing the company’s success, it soon becomes an easily recognisable part of the bus scene in Britain, Ireland and Hong Kong. Enjoying a production run of nearly 20 years, it will be adapted to a wide range of chassis and engine positions to suit a changing market environment.
In the words of a contemporary advert, “Progress is Paramount”: the new Plaxton Paramount appears in 1982 as an all-new construction to satisfy the burgeoning demand for coaches in the wake of the deregulation of express services at the start of the decade. For the first time, a double deck version is offered, giving unprecedented seating capacity for intercity routes.
While demand for van-derived minibuses had flourished with deregulation of bus services in 1986, many operators want something bigger, yet not too big. Dennis has the answer with the Dart, a purpose-designed midibus that offers outstanding fuel economy and is robust enough for the challenges of intensive bus operation. Its success exceeds all expectations, making it and its successors the best-selling British bus of all time. While available to all bodybuilders, it is to become most closely associated with Plaxton’s Pointer body, launched in 1991 (pictured).
The late 1980s are a period of major organisational change for Plaxton. In 1986 it took over its largest dealer, Kirkby, based at Anston near Sheffield. Two years later, it concentrates its Scarborough production in an expanded plant at Eastfield (pictured), where Plaxton continues to operate to this day. It then goes on to buy car sales business Henlys the following year, adopting this name for the group but keeping the Plaxton brand for coaches.
Hestair’s vehicle manufacturing interests were bought out in 1988 by a management team under the Trinity Holdings name. To replace its ageing manufacturing plant, Dennis opens a new factory at Slyfield on the outskirts of Guildford. Although the last fire engine will be built here in 2007, the site continues to be the centre of bus chassis manufacturing for Alexander Dennis today.
Plaxton overhauls its coach design with the Premiere (pictured) and Excalibur, establishing a sleek look for the 1990s. Featuring tinted windows as standard, the structure is the first to be available in Britain that meets the tough new European R66 roll-over safety legislation. It is an instant success with orders for more than 150 placed at the launch.
To make buses accessible to passengers with reduced mobility, Dennis launches low-floor designs of its single deck chassis in the mid-1990s. The new Dart SLF enjoys even bigger success than its step-entrance predecessor, especially with the attractively restyled Plaxton Pointer 2 body that appears in 1997 (pictured). Engineers at Dennis and Plaxton work closely together to create the Super Pointer Dart, an 11.3m long version that challenges heavier and less fuel-efficient vehicle types. A year later, the Mini Pointer Dart adds a manoeuvrable 8.8m model to complete the range.
Easy access is extended to double deck buses with the introduction of the Dennis Trident. Available to multiple body manufacturers, its most popular combinations are with the Alexander ALX400 (pictured) and the Plaxton President body, built in Wigan at the former Northern Counties factory that the company had acquired three years earlier.
The next generation of Plaxton coaches launches as the Panther. Built to the new maximum width of 2.55m, it is Plaxton’s first to be constructed out of stainless steel to better resist corrosion. In updated form, it continues to form the basis for the company’s range today.
The first double deck buses exported to North America join the fleet of BC Transit in Victoria, British Columbia. With their high seating capacity, these Dennis Trident prove popular on transit and commuter services and win over further agencies in Canada and the United States.
In 1998, Plaxton owner Henlys had attempted to buy the company’s primary chassis supplier, Dennis, only to be outbid by Mayflower, who had acquired Alexander three years earlier. In 2000, the two groups combine their UK bus and coach manufacturing interests in TransBus International. Faced with overcapacity and duplicate products, the new company consolidates some of its operations, but manages to retain its major production centres, albeit at a reduced scale.
TransBus takes a unified design approach to new products, developing chassis and body together. The Enviro300 single decker is the first of a new generation of buses that ensures maximum capacity through the best use of available space. It is followed a year later by the Enviro500 three-axle double decker, aimed primarily at export markets in North America and the Asia Pacific region.
Spiralling debts at Mayflower cause the group’s collapse and force TransBus into administration. A consortium of Scottish investors rescues the Guildford, Falkirk and Larbert operations under the new combined name Alexander Dennis. In place of the Plaxton factory in Wigan, a new aftermarket headquarter and parts warehouse is established in neighbouring Skelmersdale (pictured). The Plaxton activities at Scarborough and Anston regain their independence in a management buy-out before being re-acquired by Alexander Dennis in 2007 to create the UK’s leading bus and coach manufacturer.
Alexander Dennis introduces the Enviro400 double decker, followed the next year by the production version of the Enviro200 midibus, completing the transition to its new bus range. Designed to deliver lowest total cost of ownership, their success underpins the company’s growth to become the undisputed market leader in the United Kingdom.
Plaxton becomes the first manufacturer in Europe to build coaches with wheelchair access by way of the main passenger entrance when it launches the new Profile model. This ability is extended to the Panther the following year, using a cassette lift that neatly tucks away inside the entrance steps (pictured), and wheelchair accessibility has since been rolled out across the entire Plaxton coach range.
Working with a local manufacturing partner, Alexander Dennis begins assembly of Enviro buses in the Chinese city of Zhuhai. Strategically well placed to supply Hong Kong, located just 100 miles away on the other side of the Pearl River Delta, it also supports sales into other markets in the Asia Pacific region.
Alexander Dennis brings hybrid power to the mainstream in the United Kingdom, cutting fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30%. Finding favour with operators in London as well as in other cities, other technologies will follow over the next decade to build up the market’s widest range of low and zero emission buses.
Plaxton unveils the new flagship for its coach range, with the eye-catching Elite. Described as “perhaps the most distinctive coach on the road”, the Elite also sets new standards for aerodynamic efficiency and acts as a statement of intention for Plaxton, by now the last remaining producer of large coaches in Britain.
A landmark deal takes Alexander Dennis into New Zealand and paves the way for hundreds of buses – Enviro200 single deckers and Enviro500 double deckers – to join fleets in the country over the next years, firmly establishing the company in the country and giving it a market-leading position.
A programme to update the Alexander Dennis bus range reaches a milestone with the presentation of the new Enviro400, the culmination of a three-year customer engagement that saw input from over 70 operators to result in a bus designed by the industry, for the industry. Using the same philosophy, the new Enviro200 follows just half a year later. The Enviro500, whose construction had already been updated in 2012, is soon also given the new family look.
The City design package for the Enviro400 double decker is one of many specification options introduced by Alexander Dennis that aim to increase passengers’ desire for ridership. With a stunning glazed staircase and a wrap-over rear window, the City body style finds favour with operators across the country who want to turn heads with their buses.
Alexander Dennis takes full control of its North American body assembly operation in Nappanee, Indiana, which had previously operated as a joint venture. Together with chassis assembly in Toronto, this gives Alexander Dennis the capacity to grow the popularity of its double deck buses in the United States and Canada.
The new Panorama reintroduces a double-deck option to the Plaxton coach range. Highly acclaimed upon its launch, the high-capacity vehicle completes a full range of models that ensures that whatever operators need in a coach, the answer is Plaxton.
Alexander Dennis is acquired by NFI Group, creating a leading global bus and coach manufacturer. The Alexander Dennis and Plaxton brands are both retained and the management team remains in place, additionally tasked with leading NFI’s international growth agenda.