Contributing editor Steve Banner takes a look at the changing face of the small, but vital people-shifting market sector.
Minibus owners could face speed limit changes under proposals recently published by the Department for Transport (DfT).
As things stand, new minibuses are fitted with a limiter that restricts them to 62.5mph on the motorway but older ones are not and allowed to travel at 70mph says the DfT. Road safety minister, Paul Clark, wants to see a 65mph limit for all minibuses regardless of whether they are fitted with a speed limiter or not.
Clark argues that the present situation confuses other drivers and creates a disincentive for operators to invest in more modern, safer and fuel-efficient vehicles. “We want to provide clarity for everybody,” he states.
He also wants to do something about another potential area of confusion; the fact that minibuses with speed limiters are not allowed to use the right-hand lane of three-lane motorways, but those without are. Solution? Prohibit all minibuses from using that lane, says Clark.
The proposals form part of a package of possible changes to the speed limit rules that will also affect trucks, buses and coaches.
The Freight Transport Association has been cautious in its response to them. “While we welcome the DfT’s attempts at simplification, any such proposals will need to be properly communicated to the general public and there will need to be clear signage on the road network,” says director of communications, Jo Tanner.
“There is also the point that the speed limiters referred to have been fitted to all minibuses registered since 1 October 2001,” says one industry insider. “The youngest vehicles without limiters are now over eight years old therefore and their numbers must be dwindling; so is a change at this stage really necessary?”
LDV’s demise has created a gap in the minibus market; a gap other suppliers are eager to fill. Leading the charge is Ford with the Transit, one of the few vehicles sold in the UK to be produced as a minibus on the assembly line. It will be joined by factory conversions of the new Renault Master and Vauxhall Movano by the end of the year.
The majority of minibuses marketed in Britain are conversions executed by specialists such as Yorkshire’s Oughtred and Harrison and Derbyshire’s Advanced Vehicle Builders.
In a bid to boost sales in what remains a tough climate, Ford dealers nationwide are offering state education facilities such as schools and colleges an additional preferential discount of up to 17 per cent against the purchase of a Transit minibus.
What Van?’s Minibus of the Year for 2010, Transit is marketed as a 9-, a 12-, a 15- or a 17-seater. The biggest model in the range can be ordered with a high roof instead of a medium-height roof and all of the vehicles are equipped with speed limiters apart from the nine-seater.
The two smallest models are front-wheel drive and fitted with a 2.2-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel generating either 110hp or 140hp. The rear-wheel drive 15- and 17-seaters both take a 2.4-litre Duratorq TDCi pumping out 100hp, 115hp or 140hp,
ABS comes as standard as does Electronic Stability Programme and the 12-, 15- and 17-seaters all come with what is known as a Schedule 6 pack. It includes an illuminated anti-slip step, a grab handle to make entry through the sliding side passenger door easier and a fire extinguisher. Decals are provided that let you know how many people your minibus can carry, whereabouts the first aid kit that’s included in the pack is stowed and where the emergency exit is. All Transit minibuses meet M1 passenger car safety requirements.
On offer as a 12-, 15-, or 17-seater, Citroën’s Relay is What Van?’s Highly Commended minibus for 2010. Part of Citroën’s award-winning Ready to Run range, it’s a conversion carried out by Advanced Vehicle Builders. ABS comes as standard and the list of options includes access steps and a wheelchair ramp.
A recent addition to the Ready to Run range is a wheelchair-accessible minibus constructed by Tawe Coachbuilders. Based on the Relay 40 L4 H2, it is equipped with Tawe’s M1-compliant Flex-i-Trans floor system which allows the seats to be folded against the sidewall easily so that people in wheelchairs can be transported.
Sales of accessible minibuses look set to rise over the next few years given the UK’s ageing population. They’re increasingly likely to be fitted with big-capacity tail-lifts as battery-powered wheelchairs get heavier.
Ratcliff Palfinger is now offering an internally-mounted C-Thru lift with a hefty 500kg lifting capacity. “That’s 77 stone,” the company helpfully points out. If that sounds a lot, then remember that the lift has to hoist the chair, its occupant and possibly an attendant too, and that it is desirable to have a wide safety margin.
Once onboard, the chair and its user have to be held in place while the vehicle is in motion. Firms such as Unwin and Q’Straint offer restraint systems and there’s a move towards restraining the wheelchair occupant’s diagonal belt to the cant rail on new M1 and M2 minibuses.
The idea is to offer the individual the level of safety they would experience if they were sitting in a car wearing a standard lap-and-diagonal belt.
Renault’s Master and Vauxhall’s Movano are regularly seen as minibuses and the move up to a maximum gross weight of 4.5 tonnes with the new models should make them more appealing in that guise. A higher gross weight than 3.5 tonnes is usually essential if a vehicle is to transport seventeen adults with their luggage without being overloaded.
That’s especially the case if a minibus is being adapted to police requirements. The fourteen Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 518CDI minibuses supplied to Lancashire Constabulary last year all grossed at 5.0 tonnes, despite the fact that they’re only designed to carry nine officers.
Partly that’s necessary because of the way in which the vehicles have had to be reinforced against attack, with polycarbonate linings for the bodywork and a retractable metal grille to protect the windscreen against missiles. Partly it’s because of the amount of equipment officers have to carry with them; the Sprinters are fitted with racking to hold shields and helmets.
The conversion work was carried out by MacNeillie & Son of Walsall. All the Sprinters are fitted with 184hp V6 diesel engines and automatic transmissions so that they can respond to trouble quickly.
Also eating into the police minibus market — a sector once heavily colonised by LDV — is Peugeot. It uses its in-house Special Vehicle Operations division to convert them and last year supplied a dozen nine-seater Boxer 4.0-tonners to Northumbria Police. Like the Sprinters, they too feature window grilles and reinforced bodywork.
If you’re proposing to get behind the wheel of a minibus, then make sure that you’ve got the right sort of driving licence. Anybody who passed their car driving test before 1 January 1997 can drive a minibus with up to 17 seats provided it is not being used for hire or reward. If it is, then you will need to take a separate test.
Drivers who got their licence after that date are restricted to vehicles with no more than eight passenger seats and tipping the scales at no more than 3.5 tonnes. They’re obliged to take a separate test if they want to take charge of anything bigger. Ignore these requirements at your peril. If you do, then you will be breaking the law; and you’ll be driving without insurance too.
Just about every panel van manufacturer offers minibus and wheelchair-accessible derivatives so there is no shortage of choice when it comes to shifting people. Perhaps more of a problem these days is awareness of the ever-changing legislation.