A Coach Design body and Volvo B11R chassis proves to be a winning combination for Steve Skinner
Chryss Jamieson knows a thing or two about buses and coaches. After all, he’s been building them since he was an apprentice 45 years ago.
The owner and founder of Brisbane body builder Coach Design specialises in hand-built coaches tailor-made to customers’ individual needs and wants.
If Australian manufacturing in general is supposed to be in the doldrums, no one has told Jamieson. His order book is full up until October next year.
The long-established boutique builder employs about 40 tradesmen including six apprentices. Jamieson’s wife Desiree and sons Ashley and Russell also work in the business.
This beautiful Volvo B11R coach is one of about 50 units a year built by Coach Design. It’s been commissioned by Latrobe Valley Bus Lines for a V/Line rail contract in Victoria’s south-east.
The price tag, including Caroil wheelchair lifter? Around $600,000 plus GST.
Premium Australian body
A new fibreglass bulkhead above the driver is one of the new features in this luxury coach.
The bulkhead involved five supplier companies to produce, but from now on will save a huge amount of time in the bus build process. It also removes the problem of water damage to fabric caused by replacement windscreen leaks.
Another recent development isn’t noticeable until it is pointed out. That’s the slightly curved underside of the luggage racks, which does subconsciously help give the interior a more modern look.
Meanwhile an external front facelift is on the way, including a more modern headlight design.
But it’s the parts of the body you can’t see which Jamieson believes gives him the greatest competitive advantage over imported bodies.
“These vehicles will last the whole 25 years expectancy,” he says.
“We go to a lot of trouble with the frame building, frame coatings and paintings and fish oil and proof coating to make sure that happens.”
Jamieson also prides himself on Coach Design’s back-up service and support on the occasions when things go wrong, with the majority of coaches going to homes in interstate capitals.
“We have a number of service back-up people which we do use and failing that we physically do it ourselves. Quite a number of times we’ve taken our own support vehicle down to Sydney or Melbourne.”
Quality European chassis
Coach Design does a lot of work with Volvo chassis’, which are shipped into Brisbane direct from the factory in Sweden.
The company has an enthusiastic supporter in one of Australia’s biggest Volvo dealers — CMV at Laverton North in Melbourne.
“They are easy to do business with and clearly understand what their vehicles will have to face in their 20-plus years,” says John Louder, Volvo bus and coach branch manager for Victoria and South Australia.
“Although the price looks high, when you take into account that it’s going to do 15 to 20 years of premium coach work, it’s really a good investment for both the owner and then in turn the passengers.”
Louder was a coach driver for more than a decade, and enjoys personally delivering buses to customers.
He invited ABC to join him for the Brisbane to Sydney leg of the B11R’s maiden voyage to its home in the Latrobe Valley.
Pacific Highway run
We’ve had the privilege of driving a Volvo B11R before, in that case with an Irizar body and operated by Greyhound Australia coaches. So it was no surprise this turned out to be a pleasant trip indeed.
Right from turning the bus out of the Coach Design yard, the manoeuvrability enabled by the steerable tag axle was impressive, considering this bus is 14.1m long.
On local and arterial roads the gear changes performed automatically by Volvo’s I-Shift automated manual transmission (AMT) were smooth and seamless.
There was plenty of power to get off at the lights and into good positions on the arterial roads and then motorway as we headed south during the afternoon peak hour.
Into the night the coach passed the Pacific Highway test with flying colours.
There are still plenty of rough and sometimes fairly narrow single lane stretches on this northern end, so you have to have your wits about you in passing trucks coming the other way.
But the coach held its line beautifully, thanks to excellent steering and the independent front suspension which just glides over rough bits.
That bodes well for the work this bus will be doing, a daily return service from Traralgon to Maffra and Sale, on mainly rough secondary roads.
After overnighting in Grafton there was more rough stuff until the Port Macquarie-Wauchope roundabout, and from then on it was dual lane freeway all the way.
A coach like this revels in roads like that of course.
We cruised along at 100km/h on the speedo at just on 1,500rpm, using a final drive ratio of 2.85:1
With 410hp (306kW) and nearly 2,000Nm of torque the steepest hills presented no problem, with the coach not falling below 85km/h even in the Hawkesbury River region.
The Volvo’s 11-litre engine is actually capable of 450hp (336kW), but Louder reckons that higher rating is not needed.
“This is a passenger carrying vehicle — it’s not carrying the big loads of our cousins in the trucking industry,” he says, adding that the higher rating has been requested for a couple of coaches pulling safari trailers.
Meanwhile going down steep hills there is no need to touch the brakes at all.
The combination of 290kW (389hp) at 2,400rpm engine brake and integrated transmission retarder works tremendously well, and could put you through the windscreen if you leave it on the highest setting around town.
Arriving in Sydney during the afternoon peak was another interesting test of the city credentials of this big coach.
Down the narrow end of the infamous Pennant Hills Road it was a little tricky keeping the long vehicle in its lane around bends.
The mirrors are in a great position for the stress of city traffic in conditions like this. The mirror housings are in the conventional position to the outside of the A-pillars, which I find far easier to use than the European style antler/bug mirror position much higher up on the inside of the A-pillars.
In this outside position the mirrors aren’t covered when you lower the sun visors either.
The Isri driver’s seat and 59 McConnell passenger seats are great, with plenty of legroom.
Even right up the back, the engine noise presents no difficulty at all when speaking on the phone. Speaking of devices, there is Wi-Fi and eight security cameras.
Last but not least, the fuel economy on our combined arterial urban roads/highway run averaged a creditable 4km to the litre, from a 600-litre tank.
There are a couple of minor downsides in this Volvo-Coach Design combination in my opinion.
One is that the mirror heads are a bit shaky. Coach Design concedes this and says it’s due to a temporary supplier problem.
Another is that up the back the transmission retarder is noisy when fully activated, despite the best sound insulation available. But that’s worth putting up with for the increased safety and reduced brake wear involved.
The only significant criticism applies to the coach industry in general. That’s the general lack of camera-controlled lane keeping support (which warns if the vehicle is veering off course) and adaptive cruise control (using radar to maintain a safe gap with the vehicle in front).
These technologies are regarded by the experts as important aids in helping prevent fatigue related crashes for long distance bus and truck drivers. European truck chassis have had the technology as an option in Australia for many years.
However due to the complexities of integrating coach chassis with coach bodies, it’s still early days for this safety equipment on coaches in Australia.
“It will come in the next generation of coaches that we build as we continue to work and evolve with our local body builders,” Louder says.
Nevertheless the B11R coach has other impressive safety technology as part of its electronic braking system (EBS). This includes electronic stability program (ESP); traction control; and hill start aid which is extremely handy in traffic.
In fact, Volvo says it is the only manufacturer which offers ESP as standard across its coach range, including B7R school buses.
MAKE/MODEL: Volvo B11R/Coach Design
ENGINE: 11-litre Volvo D11C, selective catalytic reduction (SCR) emissions control
OUTPUTS: 410hp (306kW); 1,950Nm @ 950 to 1,400rpm
TRANSMISSION: 12-speed I-Shift AMT
SEATS: 59 McConnell
PRICE: About $600,000 plus GST