Heritage: Setting trends 30 years ago

As the forerunner to one of the London coaching industry’s biggest names, Wahl Coaches was a trendsetter. It ran a large fleet of Mercedes-Benz O303s, one of which survives today with Webbs Coaches of Armscote. Tim Deakin explains more.

Foreign-built coaches have dominated the UK market for many years, but in the late 1970s the boot was firmly on the other foot. Most operators of the time relied on vehicles from domestic manufacturers when the time came to buy, and only a select few could afford exotic imports.

Among them was Wahl Coaches. A subsidiary of the German Wahl group, a travel and tour firm, it was established in London in time for the 1978 season as part of its parent company’s ill-fated bid to grow its worldwide presence.

Derek Webb, father of Richard Webb, Director of Armscote, Warwickshire-based Webbs Coaches, was part of the set-up team as Technical Manager, although for Derek it was a progression of his existing career with Wahl.

“I had seen Wahl coaches all over Europe while doing another job,” says Derek. “One day I wrote to the offices at Heidenheim. I went for an interview in Germany and started as a driver in March 1977.”

While in Italy that December, he was summoned back to Heidenheim by boss Fritz Wahl.

“He said he wanted me back in Germany straight away,” says Derek. “I told him it was 2200hrs and I’d spent all day driving down from Florence and around Rome. He reluctantly agreed to me going back in the morning.

“Fritz had a presence a little like Goldfinger; he worked hard, but he played hard too.

“When I got back to Heidenheim at 2300hrs I went into the workshop with him, and there was a bare Mercedes-Benz O303 chassis with a full fascia and a windscreen. There was something wrong with it and I couldn’t work out what. Then it hit me: The steering wheel was on the right and it only had a V6 engine.

“Fritz told me that he was starting an operation in London providing the same air-conditioned, air-suspended Mercedes-Benz coaches that it did in Europe. My job was to arrange transport of the chassis 950 miles to Plaxton at Scarborough, which would body them.

“That was no mean feat. The O303 was new to the UK and the first coach had to be tilt-tested and type-approved. It required four-point suspension, not the three-point fitted in Europe, to achieve a 35o tilt. This was also required when the first integral O303 arrived, and it also made many return trips to Germany in order to comply with the door ‘kick back’ requirements.

“The 1978 season was difficult, because the first 12 coaches had their gears the wrong way round; first was on the right.

“Drivers would change down when they meant to change up, with resulting engine failures.”

After these initial teething problems, chassis arriving over the next three years had 240bhp V8 engines and correctly-specified gearboxes. At least two are known to survive; many ended their lives in Ireland.


Into a new age

In 1982, Wahl’s UK business moved up to the integral O303, the coach it is best remembered for, after Mercedes-Benz finally agreed to produce the type in right-hand drive format.

“Wahl had a very capable engineering set-up in Heidenheim, and the integral coaches for London were delivered there from Mannheim,” says Derek. “They came as bare shells apart from the driver’s seat.

“Wahl’s technicians installed everything else: Strak air-conditioning, curtains, electrics and seats, and all in around three days. They also applied the blue and red stripes, as it was cheaper to buy the coaches in one colour.”

A complicated arrangement saw Mercedes-Benz sell all the O303s to the German parent company, which then sold them on to its UK arm. They were thus not shown on the manufacturer’s database, making the sourcing of spare parts in the first two years difficult.

“Most were obtained via our German technical department,” says Derek. “Eventually our nearest dealer, Sparshatts at Sittingbourne, convinced Mannheim that our O303s did exist and a trickle of spares became available.”

Wahl had purchased a former coach depot in Camberwell, which soon became too small for its needs, and parking – especially outside the peak season – was becoming an expensive problem.

Meanwhile, Derek’s father owned a coach and aggregates business in Armscote and wished to retire. Fritz Wahl decided to purchase the business; all UK tours passed through Stratford-upon-Avon, so routine maintenance could be shared and winter storage provided.

Wahl had also attempted to crack the United States in the early 1980s, but European ways did not work there.

The drain on resources through rapid expansion caused bankruptcy of the Heidenheim company, although the London operation stayed afloat, along with its Armscote subsidiary, which was running six coaches.

“But they were repossessed without notice in 1987. I resigned as a director, and the London operation became what is today Redwing Coaches, a respected name in the business. I continued to run trucks from Armscote, but not coaches. With a young family, it made more sense, as the hours were more regular.”

Many of the Wahl fleet of O303s became part of the Redwing operation; others spread their wings further, with a number being exported to Australia. As time passed, the Mercedes-Benzes were dispersed further, and many were scrapped.

In the meantime, the Wahl Coaches name slowly slipped beneath the waves and was forgotten about, despite its near 10-year stint as one of London’s premier coach operators.


Back from the dead

Forgotten, that was, by all except Derek and his son Richard. Richard, who had restarted the Webbs Coaches operation in 2008, maintained a keen interest in the whereabouts of the former Wahl vehicles and in September 2007 became aware of a member of the second batch of integral O303s which was in store with an operator in the south of England.

He purchased it and brought it back to Armscote. “It still has its original engine, although it had been overhauled prior to me buying it,” says Richard. “The coach had been dry stored for some time, but when I went to it, the engine started on the first turn of the key.”

It stood in the yard until 2011, when restoration began. Mechanical work was carried out by Richard, while cosmetics – including refurbishment and repaint into the original Wahl Coaches livery – were handled by Volvo Bus at its Loughborough workshops. Eastgate Trimmers supplied original moquette.

The coach was finally released from its five-figure restoration a week before taking part in this year’s UK Coach Rally at Alton Towers.

Both Richard and the coach came away with silverware: He for the highest placed driver in the Saturday tests and as Driver of the Year runner-up; the coach for best entry in the over-25-years category.

Its appearance at the rally was fitting; 34 years ago Derek entered one of the Plaxton-bodied O303s into the 1981 Brighton Coach Rally, and he also came away with a trophy.


On the road

Although a semi-preserved vehicle, and the oldest surviving integral O303 in the UK, the coach has a Class 6 MOT and is a working member of Webbs’ fleet. It was new in April 1983 for 71,034.

The O303 is now regularly seen on the road after its near-decade lay-up, and Webbs Coaches works with some well-known names in the coach industry over the summer months. With the exception of a Toyota-based Caetano Optimo, all its small fleet of coaches is Mercedes-Benz-powered.

With the weather not as fine as it might have been on the day routeone visited Armscote, Richard was kind enough to make the Mercedes-Benz O303 available for a drive to Coventry and back, and it’s not difficult to understand why the model was immediately seen as superior to British-built coaches.

Power is not a problem with the 280bhp V8 driving through a six-speed manual gearbox, and the coach rapidly reaches its 62mph limited speed; it showed a nearly-new Megabus double-decker a very clean pair of heels on the M6 near Coventry when accelerating past a truck, much to its driver’s surprise.

Although it can’t compete with today’s top-line tourers for creature comforts, the O303 is still in fine fettle, rides well and is perfectly capable of a good day’s work.

Whether the drivers of today would appreciate a return to stirring the cogs from the AS-Tronic, I-Shift and Opticruise gearboxes which have come to dominate the coach industry is difficult to call, but thanks to Richard’s efforts, a once-famous name in the London coach market lives on.