Shortlisted in the Small Coach Operator of the Year category at the routeone Awards, Bluebird Coaches is still turning heads with its distinctive livery 95 years from its inception
In the years following the First World War, entrepreneur Frederick Cecil Hoare started running a small Fiat charabanc as people enjoyed their newfound freedom and their first taste of travel.
As the tourism market developed, this was soon followed by a Crossley and a Ford. From the small Isle of Portland, passengers were able to explore such exotic places as Cheddar Caves and the New Forest.
Searching for a novel name to distinguish the business from the local competition Cecil happened upon a four-penny tin of ‘Blue Bird’ chocolate toffees and thus named his fledgling company Bluebird Coaches.
In 1931 Bluebird joined two other Portland operators Fancy and Tolman in the Portland Express syndicate running a bus service in competition with Southern National.
The competition was fierce and lasted until 1936 when Southern National bought the service out. Fancy and Tolman retired, while Cecil kept one Bedford coach that had not been included in the takeover – and immediately purchased a Dennis Lancet coach using his portion of the sale proceeds.
The following year another Bedford coach followed as his growing business began offering private hire, tours and Naval leave services.
Unfortunately for Southern National, it had not taken the precaution of acquiring Hoare’s Express Service licence at the time of the syndicate take-over and now found itself in direct competition with him.
When the matter was referred to the Traffic Commissioners (TC) there were different interpretations of the terms of the licence between the Western Area and the Southern Area TCs. Both parties appealed against the decisions of both Commissioners with the result going in favour of Bluebird.
The business grows
Despite the outbreak of war in 1939 the company still offered coaches for private hire and Naval leave services, and in 1940 an acquisition of Monarch Coaches of Chickerell brought Bluebird to Weymouth.
In 1946 Bluebird became the leading coach operator in the town as further vehicles were added to the fleet. In 1951 the first full-fronted coach was purchased, a Leyland Royal Tiger with a Plaxton 41-seat body. It was the first of its type in the area and proved extremely popular with the travelling public.
With son Trevor and his wife Margaret now actively involved, the business continued to thrive with the introduction of holidays, at first in the UK and then further afield in Europe.
Following Cecil’s passing Margaret and Trevor continued to run the business moving to new premises as the company grew.
In 1985 the reins were passed to their sons Steve and Martyn. Both boys had completed a four-year apprenticeship at Bere Regis Coaches.
Martyn says: “Mum and dad were friendly with the owner of the business and thought Steve and I would gain good experience from working there, as it had over 100 vehicles.
“The company had depots all over Dorset, so it was a superb grounding for us to be working on all types of vehicles. We spent time in the engine shop, and we were assigned to a mechanic.”
Steve says: “The idea was that we would gain an apprenticeship and gain respect so when we did come back to the family company, we would not just come straight from school and be under mum and dad’s wing, but would have gone away and gained experience.
“I was 21 when I joined so I’ve done 40 years now.”
Today’s fleet comprises six VDL Futura coaches, two delivered this year, three Volvo B11r Jonckheere and an Irizar i6 – all Euro VI. Older vehicles include a Plaxton Elite, a Bova Futura along with a mix of other vehicles of different sizes.
Steve is not just Director but Chief Engineer.
“Day to day I keep the fleet running smoothly,” he says. “I will be there doing steam cleans and running the workshop side, but have no worries about getting covered in oil and will muck in if we’re super busy.”
His wife Gill also has a role looking after IT and the booking systems on a part-time basis.
“There have been challenges over the years,” says Steve. “Particularly the change in technology – keeping pace with the development of the vehicles.
“If you were an apprentice mechanic 40 years ago what we’re running around in now is totally different. It’s the technical spec – the computerisation of everything.
“We thought Euro III and Euro IV was a big change, and then Euro V. But Euro VI was a completely new beast.
The fourth generation
Continuing the family tradition Martyn’s daughter Gemma joined the firm in 2013.
“As a little girl I was always involved in the company,” says Gemma. “My dad would say ‘clean up the coaches – you might find 20p’.”
Like her father and uncle before her Gemma wasn’t allowed to join the business straight from school.
“I was always encouraged to get a job first,” she says. “So I worked for a shipbuilding firm in Portland for 10 years doing its accounts – half of that time begging to come back to the family business.
“I used to take holiday from my job and work as a tour guide on dad’s coaches which I really enjoyed.”
Eventually Gemma got her wish and joined the business as Operations Manager.
“Like every coach operator now you can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” she says. “So we’ve not put it all into holidays, or all into private hire – I like to think we’ve got a little bit of everything.”
Popular day trips include Warner Bros Studio Tour London, Kew Gardens, Wisley Gardens and London.
Gemma says: “We are heading into seasonal excursions now like Christmas-themed shopping trips, Christmas markets, Christmas trains and switching-on of lights.”
The operator is the official transport supplier for AFC Bournemouth.
Supporters are taken to every away Premier League game. It also transports the AFC Bournemouth Development Squad to its games.
The company has recently increased its school runs to six, does lots of work for local groups and has regular summer business picking up passengers from the many cruise ships that dock at Portland.
Drivers are like family
Martyn says: “There were 44 cruise ships this year – it’s fantastic for the area and fantastic for us as a coach company. There’s plenty of work for us and other local coach companies.
“We go to local attractions, so they all get something out of it. We go to Athelhampton House, West Bay, Corfe Castle. We also take a lot to Stonehenge – the Americans love that.
“Our drivers like it because it’s reasonably good tips, they don’t make the coaches dirty and they get a Blue Badge guide.”
Martyn adds: “We try to treat our drivers as family – they’re not just employees, we’re a family firm, so they tend to stay with us. If they’ve got family issues, or medical issues, we try to help and assist them in any way we can. They return the favour by being loyal to us. Our longest serving driver has been with the company for 25 years.
“Four years ago we embarked on an employment campaign. We took on three young lads and trained them. They started off with cleaning and general work before we put them through their tests. They’re good guys and I think we’ll be doing that again. It cost us money, but in the long term, it’s well worth it.
“It’s not just driving from A to B. When you get to a hotel, especially on holidays, we expect our drivers to book them in, help with suitcases, clean the coach, and sit with the clients at dinner.”
Last year the operator was the winner of coach tour operator – medium fleet – at the British Coach Tourism Awards.
The 95th birthday celebrations were held on Sunday (29 September) at Weymouth Football Club. A selection of the Bluebird coach fleet was on display and clients, passengers and drivers enjoyed tea and cake.