For bus operators and enthusiasts alike, the 1970s to 1990s were turbulent times. First there was the creation of the National Bus Company which saw the end of many famous company names as companies were merged into bigger groups. Favourite liveries were swept aside to be replaced with the bland standardised NBC green or red. Many of the municipal fleets would also disappear as they were absorbed into the new Passenger Transport Executives in the conurbations. Others were merged or had their names changed as a result of local authority reforms.

A visit to Bournemouth in November 1972 saw this Ford Transit demonstrator supplied by bodybuilders Strachans being trialled by the Bournemouth Corporation fleet. (c. Minibus Mania, Amberley Publishing)

Then came a whole new system of operation with deregulation in October 1986. Faced with open competition on profitable routes (except in London) and route tendering elsewhere, many companies turned to the minibus as a way of fighting off competition and cutting tendering costs. There had been minibuses and other small buses before of course, but their use had been limited to specific types of service such as city centre shuttles, ‘Dial-a-Ride’ services and routes with weight or dimension limits. Now the concept of high frequency minibus services which could cut through traffic congestion easier and penetrate further into housing estates was seen as an attractive way to both fight competition and win back the decline in passenger numbers.

Western Welsh (National Welsh from April 1978) also chose this combination. Their four 1977 examples were liveried for a Village Bus service and were based at Bridgend. Another four were added in 1978–79. MD1277 was seen at Cowbridge in May 1980. (c. Minibus Mania, Amberley Publishing)

Early experiments in 1984-5 tended to bear this out, and soon a minibus mania was sweeping the country. Not just the NBC companies, which were in the course of privatisation as well at this time, but also PTEs, municipal fleets and independents (both existing and new competitors) turned to these. Some were more enthusiastic than others. The newly privatised Devon General, under manager Harry Blundred converted their whole fleet to minibus operation and started competing services in other cities.

For enthusiasts, the minibuses were like Marmite – you either liked them or hated them. But we photographed them because that was what was out there. They quickly gained the nickname ‘Breadvans’ for many of the early models were built as vans and then converted for passenger use. It is as well that we did photograph them because the boom was soon over.

On the Isle of Wight, local NBC company Southern Vectis introduced minibuses to Ryde services 9 and 10 in early 1985. Working on a 10-minute frequency they carried a blue livery and ‘Wanderer’ fleetname. They had Dormobile B16F bodies completed by Midland Red Engineering. B252 LDL departs Ryde bus station in August 1985. (c. Minibus Mania, Amberley Publishing)

By the mid-1990s the NBC had been privatised and many of the companies were now owned by major conglomerates such as Stagecoach and Arriva. The main competitors had been either bought up or had fallen by the wayside. Rising costs made minibus operation less attractive. Also, the trend and later requirement for fully accessible buses with space for wheelchair users and buggies made the existing designs obsolete. Although minibuses and other small buses still have a role to play it is a far diminished one than at their peak.

This book charts the rise and fall of the minibus and other small buses through this period.

Malcolm Batten's book Minibus Mania is available for purchase now.