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BLK Auto builds on unique partnership with MAN

Five years ago, international chassis manufacturer MAN and BLK Auto agreed to work together on certain bus models. Now, the pair is reaping the rewards, with more stellar combinations not far away

It’s not every day that two manufacturers in the same industry work together to produce a popular product. The Australasian bus and coach industry isn’t your normal sector. 

When BLK Auto, who was known as Bus and Coach Sales Australia in 2019, looked to improve its standing as the sole importer of BLK buses and coaches in Australia, it focused within the industry for a unique partnership. By combining to thrive, in February 2019, BLK Auto signed an agreement with international chassis manufacturer MAN Truck & Bus to produce combined bus models for the Australian market.

“The agreement was signed to initially build two BLK President 2 and two Senator 12 bodies on the MAN two-axle chassis,” BLK Auto sales manager Mark Nichols told ABC. 

“The first of the President 2 vehicles arrived in Australia in September 2019 and was proudly displayed at the 65th BusVic Expo and Maintenance Conference at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre in October.”

Working with a fellow manufacturer or supplier in the vehicle game isn’t a standard way of growing one’s share in the market, but BLK Auto and MAN both looked to buck the trend. 

Initial discussions began between Bus and Coach Sales Australia’s Rodd Hood and Athol McKinnon and Penske Australia. The team quickly realised there was an opportunity in the Australasian market for an OEM European chassis with a quality well-built imported bus body that would give operators a high-quality option at a reasonable and respectable price.

Not long after the partnership was formalised, Crinel Geaboc joined Penske Australia as the head of MAN Bus & Coach Australia. He says the decision to combine and provide a reliable and safe chassis on an affordable body has been popular in Australia due to its value for money. It’s only the beginning of the partnership between the two brands.

“For more than half a decade, the partnership has consistently delivered good value between the European-made and German-engineered chassis and the high-spec and quality bus body,” Geaboc told ABC. 

“It’s still one of the best value for money bus and coach packages available that’s crafted for Australian customers.” 

The partnership began with demonstrator buses in the form of MAN’s high-floor two-axle chassis that were bodied by BLK Auto’s Senator 12.5m and President models. After showing the combined model off to local operators, orders quickly began coming through.

Image: MAN

“We’re now looking to stock chassis on the ground at the BLK factory overseas,” Geaboc says.

“The ongoing high demand for the models means we’ve been able to have vehicles ready to roll into any fleet in Australia from Brisbane.”

Geaboc says the BLK-bodied MAN models have become a leading option in the MAN staple throughout Australia. While MAN continues to produce chassis that have alternatives bodies on them, Geaboc says BLK’s offering is a popular choice for customers due to the affordable nature and high quality of BLK’s bodies.

From the 4×2 President 2 bodied buses to a high-end Euro VI coach with two doors, a toilet and 510hp, MAN and BLK Auto are working together to provide luxurious and cost-effective combinations. The partnership has developed to the point that MAN is working with BLK Auto this year to introduce its new cutting-edge electronic architecture on BLK-bodied models.

“The new platform, named ELSA, has been released by MAN in Europe and we’ll see it in Australia in due course,” Geaboc says. 

“The platform comes with increased IT security management and all of the latest safety technology, including MAN automatic suspension control (VASC) as standard fitment and a raft of optional advanced driver assistance systems like collision warning systems, lane change support (LCS), lane return assist (LRA), traffic jam assist, MAN AttentionGuard and traffic sign recognition integrated in the colour instrument cluster, just to name a few.”  

When the new system arrives on MAN chassis in Australia this year, including a new colour display dashboard for drivers, it’ll first feature on MAN models with BLK bodies on top.

This local partnership has been critical to MAN’s ability to offer products in a fast timeframe for customers around Australia, with its bond with BLK Auto allowing MAN to offer the right product for customers at specific budgets so that they can get the safest and most reliable chassis possible. 

“The volume of these units retailed by both MAN and BLK Auto has increased in the past five years because of the increased demand for such a product,” Geaboc says.

“The combination of a reliable chassis underneath a great body option has been attractive for the local market.” 

Outside of a market boost, both parties have also learnt valuable knowledge from each other throughout the five-year partnership to date. 

The parties have since been able to rebound from COVID-19 by supplying existing orders, including penetrating the Western Australian school bus market for the first time this year courtesy of a recent delivery of four BLK/MAN school buses. With the two companies sharing an eagerness to grow their market share and continually support each other, both BLK Auto and MAN are relying on each other to thrive in Australia.

“To be able to work closely together throughout the build, delivery and aftersales service is very important in supplying a quality product with great support for the operator,” Nichols says.

“Should an issue arise, whether it be customer specifications, during the build or after delivery, both companies work together as a team to rectify any situation.”

BLK Auto’s roots of building more than 5000 buses per year means that, at its overseas factory, it builds on several different European chassis as well as its own. When the MAN partnership started, it was a simple switch to begin building bodies on top of MAN’s evolving chassis technology.

“Having the option to build on a European chassis has given operators in Australia a choice, pending on their own business model and preferences,” Nichols says.

“The MAN chassis is ever-evolving with new technology, which we’ll continue to work closely with them on to build a vehicle that uses chassis options to reach its full potential.” 

The growing partnership between BLK Auto and MAN in Australia isn’t set to stagnate anytime soon – both companies hold hopes of growing the partnership into the zero-emissions space in the near future. 

“It makes sense to work together on this, as BLK Auto has its own zero-emissions models,” Geaboc says.

“It’s on our roadmap to develop together a similar combination that includes electric batteries based on customer requirements.”

BLK Auto says MAN is one of a handful of European OEMs that it’s in discussions with to build both zero-emissions and further diesel buses and coaches with. With BLK Auto receiving numerous enquiries from larger operators for various zero-emissions vehicles, its MAN bond may be set to expand further in the near future. 

“We’ll continue to work closely to build quality vehicles for our customers that meet their required specifications,” Nichols says.

“Arrangements have been made between BLK Auto and MAN/Penske Australia to have several chassis staged at the BLK factory to eliminate chassis build and shipment schedules, reducing the time it takes to build and ship a vehicle.

“This will be the tip of the iceberg for what the future holds for BLK Auto and MAN in Australia.” 

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