BODIES: Optare launch

By: David Goeldner


A bright blue double-decker is part of a strategy to take a British bus maker to the world

BODIES: Optare launch
A large crowd gathers at the Metrodecker’s London unveiling

It would be a name unfamiliar to Australia or New Zealand operators, but if all goes to plan, the Hinduja Group’s foray into urban bus manufacture in the United Kingdom could soon make a splash ‘down under’.

The relevance and intent of the Hinduja Group’s move into UK bus manufacture became clear at the recent launch of the Optare Metrodecker, attracting media representatives from across the United Kingdom and Europe — and Australia.

Hinduja Group is led by reputedly the United Kingdom’s wealthiest businessmen, Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja who have a combined net worth of somewhere between US$10 billion and US$20 billion (A$10.7 billion and A$21.4 billion), depending on which rich list you believe.

That means the brothers would not consider ‘rescuing’ a once ailing bus manufacturer in Optare as a frivolous exercise, which so far has seen the closing down of two factories and opening of a new one as part of its ‘salvation’.

With 75 per cent ownership, Hinduja Group has helped reshape Optare, relaunched it, and now presented it with new product before the world’s trade media.

The Hinduja brothers already own Ashok Leyland, along with joint ventures with Nissan and John Deere. But that’s just the family’s interests in automotive industries, let alone what else they own, including a Swiss bank, Gulf Oil project, and media companies in India.

Net worth of $10 billion might seem a tad conservative when you look more closely at the Hinduja portfolio, and that elder brother Srichand owns a home worth US$500 million (A$534.7 million) just down the road from Buckingham Palace.

Launching a double-decker bus at Covent Garden piazza might seem ‘small beer’ by contrast, but members of the Hinduja family attended the event, as did co-chairman G P Hinduja.

The presence of UK business ‘royalty’ drew about 50 journalists to the launch, some to see the bus, but more to know why this was seen as so important by Britain’s entrepreneurial elite.

G P Hinduja says the Hinduja Group is "extremely proud" to see Optare transforming itself into an international company with support from Ashok Leyland.

"In the first phase, Ashok Leyland invested heavily in upgrading Optare’s capabilities by consolidating production in an all-new manufacturing facility in Leeds," G P Hinduja says.

"As part of the second phase, Ashok Leyland is supporting the development of a new series of products that will open more markets for Optare — the Metrodecker is a critical product in this new series," he says.

The aim, according to G P Hinduja, is to make Optare a ‘premium’ urban bus brand globally.

Through all accounts, this intention is very serious.

G P Hinduja addressed the media delegation, reflecting on the decision to buy into Optare.

He says to have a global bus strategy, it was important to find something in the UK.

Within a scenario similar to Australia and elsewhere in ‘developed’ nations, Hinduja is aware that bus manufacturing in the UK is ‘disappearing’.

"In my view there is a lot of talent [in the UK] in manufacturing, engineering and innovation," he says, adding that Optare’s ‘problem’ was that it was ailing — it was a "sick company".

Having brought the company together, the test of success was to develop a new vehicle borne entirely from the 2011 transition — and that is the Metrodecker, and the primary interest for G P Hinduja’s enthusiasm for the launch, and ‘reveal’ at Covent Garden in London.

With this, G P Hinduja announced his Group would make Optare the hub of its global bus strategy.

"From here buses will be exported to all parts of the world," he says.

G P Hinduja was open about how this plan would be financed: "The capital is coming from Ashok Leyland in India".

Politically, G P Hinduja was optimistic about the current situation of a British Prime Minister showing enthusiasm for India, and the first majority Indian government since 1984 just coming to power — both key indicators for a sustainable manufacturing venture between the two nations.

With the prospect of an expanding and buoyant Indian economy, within which manufacturing is a key driver, any success coming the way of Ashok Leyland would transfer to Optare in the United Kingdom.

"Trade and investment will grow, and Optare will be able to take the maximum benefit from it," says G P Hinduja.

"We invested in Optare when no one was putting money in it, and the Group always believes to invest when no one is going there.

"Optare has to become successful and has to become proud for the British industry."

Optare’s Non-Executive Chairman John Fickling says the Hinduja Group has breathed "new life" into the Leeds bus maker.

"Traditionally Optare has been very much a UK-based manufacturer, and what we’ve done over the past few years is to move out of the UK market," Fickling says.

"We have sold quite a few vehicles into Holland, Denmark, and South Africa — a lot of Solos have gone to Cape Town," he says.

ABOUT THE BUS

The centrepiece of the UK launch, the Optare Metrodecker, is an eye-catching unit that just might make a mark against heavy hitting competition in the dominant Wrightbus, which manufactures the famed London Routemaster double-deckers.

Fickling says Optare prides itself on producing a ‘stylish’ product.

"It’s difficult with a double-decker because at the end of the day it’s a rectangular box, but we feel we have a lot of nice design features in this vehicle which will appeal to passengers," he says.

"We have independent front suspension, so the ride stability for a double-decker is the best in class, and is exceptional."

Not looking to get into the game of which double-decker is better, Optare Chief Technical Officer Glenn Saint points to the Metrodecker’s technological advances.

"We plan this to be a common platform between the double deck and future single deck designs," Saint says.

"It will be energy efficient and come with low carbon certification.

"We also plan rolling chassis developments with international body builders in other parts of the world."

He says the overall aim with the Metrodecker is to be class leading in fuel economy, and to reduce the ‘whole of life’ cost for operators to as low as practical.

This was done by minimising the vehicle’s mass, explains Saint.

"We’ve reduced the number of parts to build the vehicle, reducing complexity and removing duplication of parts."

Saint says the stainless steel structure provides for a big reduction in tare weight.

The full integral monocoque structure is ‘no body on chassis’.

"Every element of this structure carries the load of the bus," says Saint.

The Metrodecker was built to stringent Transport for London specifications.

Remarkably the tare weight comes in just under 10 tonnes — 9,980kg to be precise — and should be almost enough on its own to attract the attention of operators and regulators worldwide.

"This will result in the lowest fuel consumption in its class," Saint says.

The Metrodecker has been mated with a Mercedes-Benz engine for the London market, but choice of motor is simple, as it’s a case of ‘slide it out and bolt it back in’ at the operator’s discretion, as has become a feature of other Optare units, such as the recent Australian-released Optare Solo which runs a Cummins engine.

"The Metrodecker has also been designed specifically for ease of service and maintenance," Saint says.

"For example, all electrical items are on the lower deck and the rear systems — iBus & CCTV — housed in a dedicated rear electrical compartment which can be easily accessed without tools."

Saint says a key point for the Australian market is that the Metrodecker has been built 2.5m wide.

That’s directly as a consequence of consulting Optare’s Australian distributor Patico Automotive extensively on the local regulatory requirements, most importantly on vehicle width.

PLANS FOR AUSTRALIA

Although the London unveiling of a double-decker bus caught the attention of the local media, Australia — and potentially NZ — will clearly stand to benefit from Hinduja’s and Optare’s joint vision.

Optare CEO Enrico Vassallo presented the domestic UK and international strategies, pointing to South Africa and Australia in particular as targets for Optare expansion.

"Australia is a strategic market which we have already opened," Vassallo says.

"We have 45 vehicles in production for Australia, mainly the Solos and the Tempos."

Given Optare builds in a monocoque or ‘structural shell’ style, Vassallo knows the all-round strength of each vehicle will present well to Australian operators, providing an opportunity to reduce weight and therefore reduce fuel consumption.

The reinvigorated Optare approach to manufacturing, with Transport for London’s double-decker fleet in its sights, also gives rise to further opportunities to innovate in large urban route bus markets.

A test vehicle is currently doing the rounds of London bus depots, garnering feedback from the UK’s most experienced operators and maintenance engineers.

Ironing out any ‘bugs’ at home now — not that there appears to be any — could only benefit potential export markets later.

It seems Australian bus distributor Patico Automotive, headed by Managing Director Tony Fairweather, couldn’t have timed its partnership with Optare more perfectly, just as the British-made, Indian-backed bus builder is getting serious in the UK market, while ramping up its export production under increasingly favourable economic conditions.

Fairweather says Patico Automotive is ‘very proud’ of exclusively importing Optare’s low-floor product range into Australia and NZ.

"Optare provides a unique offering to the Australian and NZ bus markets," he says.

What excites Fairweather is the ‘whole of life’ cost reduction based around the engineering and design of each vehicle — and he hasn’t excluded the prospect of bringing a Metrodecker to Australia.

Fairweather sees two market opportunities for the Metrodecker in Australia in 2015.

"The Metrodecker is high capacity for the city bus market with more than 100 plus passengers," he says.

This passenger load should impress many urban operators given the vehicle is less than 11m in length with only two axles.

"This may provide an alternative to an articulated city bus, at a fraction of the cost."

Fairweather sees a further application for open deck city tours, as is seen in large numbers across European cities, as well as in London.

"All going to plan, Patico Automotive intends to have a sold Metrodecker, in customer livery, at the BusVic conference in 2015," Fairweather says.

If the Hinduja model of success can be applied in any measure to the Australasian side of the globe, the prospect of more Indo-Brit product coming this way over the next few years looks highly likely.

With some foresight, the advent of a new wave of bus product over the next few years — and the source of supply — could point back to a grey spring day in downtown London when a bright blue double-decker bus turned heads of bus operators — and journalists — on both sides of the world.

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