A bit of modern bus shite this evening. This is an Optare MetroDecker that is now owned by Diamond Bus in the West Midlands. Shite. you say? Oh yes. Sit down while I tell you a tale...
It sort of starts with another bodybuilder, East Lancs of Blackburn. They had been selling their double-deck body, the Olympus reasonably well. Unfortunately, in 2007, East Lancs ran out of money and called in the receivers. They were rescued by the Darwen Group, a company that magically appeared for the purpose of saving East Lancs, the day after it fell into receivership. Interesting timing.
Now the Darwen group, owned by Local entrepreneur Roy Stanley decided to purchase Leyland Product Developments, a splinter of the once monolithic Leyland empire, their skunkworks division but with more brown coats and ties. But Roy didn't stop there. In 2008 he set up another company (Jamesstan Investments) to purchase another struggling bodybuilder, Optare of Leeds. Somehow, the two companies (Darwen and Jamesstan) were somehow fused together and the whole shooting match was renamed Optare.
Optare hadn't got a double-decker body as their sole double deck, the Spectra was sold as a complete bus, albeit using a DAF chassis. Thus what was the East Lancs Olympus now became the Optare Olympus (via briefly the Darwen Olympus) and Optare now had a body to plonk on any chassis the customer wanted.
Still with me? Good. Now what the hell has all of this got to do with the bus in the picture? Don't worry, it's getting there.
Now Optare did build other products. After purchasing the designs and production of the integral Metro Rider midibus from the defunct MCW, they used the frame design to build several single-deck models, focusing on lightweight and economy. It harboured the idea of producing an integral double-decker of its own making and with the reverse takeover and associated shenanigans settling down, a thorough redesign of their models was started. Firstly came the SoLo +. This was a complete restyle of their best-selling low-floor minibus (based upon the MetroRider frame once again). They had only just re-styled it the year before, producing the curvy SoLo SR but obviously fresh new company owners, fresh new designs and all that...
The styling was dramatic, to say the least, very square and Darth Vader-y. It definitely caused a stir when shown off for the first time at the end of 2008. What was also shown off for the first time was their new double-deck design, the Rapta. This took the severe SoLo+ design and made it a double deck. Striking was one word for it, it really didn't look like anything else on the road, soft friendly curves were eschewed for straight bodysides and stark angles and the front managed to look more Darth Vader-y than the small SoLo+. It was going to be a fully in-house built product (thanks to the help from the staff from Leyland Product Developments) with power from M.A.N or a hybrid driveline of some sort (interestingly, one of Roy Stanleys' other companies was the Tanfield group who were slowly metamorphosing into a producer of electric vehicles, amongst other things).
The reception for both products from operators was not what Optare expected, in fact, orders failed to materialise at all as those who would sign the order cheques were put off by the overly dramatic styling. Great, now what?
Back to the drawing board, that's what. The SoLo SR was given a reprieve and the two SoLo+ built were quickly and quietly disposed of. The Rapta hung around the factory for a few years, slowly disintegrating and revealing that behind the deeply tinted windows lay, well, very little more than a rolling shell. With all the drama of the launch, there really wasn't much substance behind the razzamatazz.
But Optare still harboured dreams of building their own integral double-deck bus. With the Rapta and SoLo+ fiasco over, funds were tight (especially after a move to a brand new factory in Sherburn-in Elmet)so the cupboards were rummaged through to see what could be rustled up. Starting with the Olympus body, an underframe was slowly built up underneath (thanks to those LDP folk) to make the body into an integral bus. The idea was to be a reverse MCW Metrobus where the body would be available to mount on other chassis but also could be bought as an integral product (the Metrobus was an underframe that could be a complete product or be bodied elsewhere). Lightness and economy were back in the plan so a tiny Mercedes four-cylinder engine and ZF Ecolife gearbox were used to propel the new bus along. Everything was done to make the underframe as light as possible to give the product class-leading running costs.
Optare integral No.2 was to be launched as the Olympus integral and construction would start sometime around 2013. Ish. Even though the Olympus integral was ready (at least in prototype form), it was old and still looked like a past product from Blackburn and not the stylish product from a builder with a reputation for good-looking vehicles. The money was coming from yet another bit of the Leyland Empire. Ashok Leyland was once the Indian Subsidiary of the once huge Lancashire firm but had since gone on alone and made quite a good fist in building the right products for their market. Looking for something to spend their profits on, the cash-strapped Optare looked a good deal. Ashok needed something more than their very basic bus offerings (plus a way into other markets) and Optare needed the money - a match made in heaven. Slowly, over time, Ashok increased its shareholding of Optare until 100% was owned (note: this is a VERY simplified version of what went on with a slight bend in the actual timeline of events but you've tolerated me this far and I don't want to go on yet another tangent).
Optare hovered about a bit and then decided that the new underframe needed a new body with it. Styling, after the Rapta debacle was back on its usual curvy track and a number of new models had been created, using the styling of the SoLo SR as a starting point. It made perfect sense to make the new decker look as though it was part of the family. At the same time, the weight could be designed out of the new bespoke bodywork, meaning that the new bus would be far lighter than, not only the Olympus prototype but any other double-decker on the market.
It took an age to get there (so did this piece) but by 2014 the new Optare MetroDecker was ready to launch. The underframe was the same one as used on the Olympus integral prototype but the body took weight-saving to heights seen only before on Lothian's lightweight Titans of the '60s (called monstrous masses of shivering tin at the time by someone who doesn't matter). Three demonstrators were built, along with two other proving models which were hawked around every operator, large and small to promote this new double-decker ultra-lightweight double-decker from Optare. Like the Rapata, potential customers were put off by Optare seeming to go just a bit too far. They saw the flimsiness as a weakness and a potential disaster waiting to happen and not the new way of drastically reducing fuel bills (maybe memories of the 150s and '60s lightweights still burned brightly in some operators' memories). It failed to sell. Big time.
There was one order. Reading actually liked what it saw when it tried one of the demonstrators and so ordered five with an upmarket specification for their Green Line route. Even then, Optare managed to screw things up with continuous delays and problems setting back delivery dates again and again until Covid came and gave Reading the excuse to cancel the order, after they had been built, over two years after the order was initially placed. Left with five buses, they were hawked around anyone willing to buy a new well-specced but unknown double-deck bus with a tiny engine and flimsy panels. Two were bought by Johnsons coaches of Henley in Arden for their route from Birmingham to Stratford upon Avon. Johnsons sold out its bus operations to Rotala Group and the bus fleet was absorbed into that of Diamond Bus.
One of five buses ordered but not delivered with a total production of (I think, including the prototypes) 10. Not that great, is it? Well...
In the past few years, the battery electric bus has slowly been getting good enough for operators to seriously consider large-scale purchases. True, the cost of the things is still astronomical but with dramatic long-term savings on fuel, and maintenance, plus a vast improvement in the workplace for all those who have to actually operate them, the electric bus is starting to look very attractive indeed. The biggest issue is weight, with a penalty of at least two tons over a normal diesel variant. More weight means fewer passengers able to be carried and that's not good. If only there was an ultra-lightweight double-decker out there that could be used as the basis of an electric bus.
It seems the MetroDecker is not such a dead duck after all. As a diesel bus? Probably, but slowly the MetroDecker is starting to attract orders. Okay, it's mostly London, a place that has firmly committed itself to electric propulsion but hey, any orders are good orders. You never know, someone else might buy some...
With rationalisation, Optare has now become Switch Mobility and looks after all of Ashok's EV requirements around the globe. It is intended that Switch will only sell Electric vehicles but with Diesel variants of the old models still capable of being built, they will still be sold under the Optare brand. Just don't expect any more deckers, this one took long enough.