UK Coach Rally beckons

UK Coach Rally beckons UK Coach Rally beckons
It’s now called the Peterborough Arena, but for most of us it’s still the East of England Showground – and next weekend it’s the venue for the 58th UK Coach Rally. This year the event has a bit of a twist, with new categories for buses, aimed not at the big groups but at the family-owned businesses that make up the bulk of the entrants to the event which kicks off the coaching season. So alongside the established Coach of the Year and Coach Driver of the Year awards, there will be a Bus of the Year and a Bus Driver of the Year award, creating new opportunities for small companies to showcase their best buses and best bus drivers.

Indeed, one of the attractions at the event will be a bus – the Borismaster, the London mayor’s vaunted successor to the Routemaster. There are now two running in London, but for many visitors to the Rally this will be their first opportunity to inspect one of the most talked-about buses ever seen in Britain.

Of course the UK Coach Rally is first and foremost an event for coach operators, and a number of suppliers will have vehicles on display.

Among those exhibiting will be Irizar UK with two DAF-powered integral coaches on display, a 12.2m i6 49-seater for KM of Barnsley, and a stock 59-seat i4, which is 12.9m long. Another stock coach, an i6 57-seater will be available for ride-and-drive.

MAN, which is focussing on Neoplan integrals, will be showing two N2216 Tourliners. One will be a 12m 49-seater; the other a 13.2m 53-seater. BASE Coach Sales will be exhibiting one vehicle from each of the bodybuilders it represents with a 70-seat two-door Tata Hispano Intea on an MAN chassis. There will be a Beulas coach too, but precisely which model was still to be settled when we closed for press.

EVM will be using the Rally to launch what it describes as an entry-level Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Shuttle 17-seater with a GVW of 4,250kg.  EVM’s Shuttle will have a three-step entrance and coach-type seats for all passengers and will be available at the Rally with a special price of £34,000 plus VAT.  Alongside the new Shuttle, EVM will show an air-conditioned X-Clusive with 16 leather-trimmed Politecnica seats and a panoramic glass roof.

A feature of the Rally is a display of old vehicles, which serve as a reminder of just how far coach design has advanced. Among this year’s exhibits expect to see a classic 29-seat Bedford with Duple Vista body, a three-axle Bedford VAL, and a Volvo B10M with Plaxton Supreme body.

Yet, when all’s said and done, the UK Coach Rally is about more than coaches and cups. It is, and always has been, a social event – whether over the relative formality of the Saturday night dinner dance, or the informality of polishing coaches for the concours judging.

A lot has changed since the first coach rally was staged at Clacton-on-Sea in 1955 when the Coach of the Year was an AEC Reliance owned by Essex County Coaches. There have been other rallies – most notably in Blackpool until the 1980s – and what is now the UK Coach Rally has moved from Clacton to Brighton (and briefly to Southampton) before settling in Peterborough.

It originally had very little support from the trade, but that has changed over the years, with manufacturers, dealers and other suppliers getting involved.

The last time a wholly British-built coach won the Coach of the Year trophy was in 1978 (a Plaxton-bodied Ford owned by Kinch of Loughborough). A Volvo with a Plaxton Viewmaster body, also owned by Kinch, was the 1981 winner, when the Viewmaster was the height of fashion. Since then the winners have come from continental Europe – mainly Setras and Neoplans or, as last year, Van Hools when a Parry’s coach scooped the top prize. Parry’s, incidentally, has won more Coach of the Year trophies – five – than any other company.

After years of seaside venues, I freely admit I was more than a little sceptical about Peterborough as the location for the UK Coach Rally. But when I attended last year’s event I was won over. For most people it’s easier to get to – no battling round the M25 and down the M23. There’s plenty of parking, which was always a nightmare in Brighton. And there’s ample cover if the weather’s bad.