excelsior name

A brief history and reprise

In memory of happy times with my good friends and colleagues Peter Holmes and Wally Gollings RIP

This was the story I never intended to write but several readers of my online articles about Shamrock & Rambler and Charlies Cars have asked why I did not also similarly write about Excelsior, the other significant Bournemouth tour coach operator. Perhaps in part this was because of the years I spent working there as traffic manager for Vernon Maitland in the 1970s and 1980s in those proud exhilarating days of a fleet of fifty plus coaches, none more than eighteen months old, working on European and Scottish holiday tours, whilst also having a busy excursion programme of day and half day tours, and none more popular than the Isle of Wight day tour which itself could command some seven or eight coaches at a time midweek in the peak summer months.

1920 to 1997 . . . the Maitland years

Excelsior was founded in 1920 by Walter Maitland (a Scot come south) from his home in Southcote Road with a 20-seater Reo coach; the name came from a popular brand of motor cycle. Walter married Marie in 1925 and their fleet of coaches grew to five by 1939 and the outbreak of war. The limited company was founded in 1928 and a booking office was opened in Holdenhurst Road to rival another established local coach operator Shamrock & Rambler. The successful expansion of the business in post war years to become the best known operator in the Bournemouth area and beyond was principally due to the activities of his eldest son Vernon (1926-2018) who resigned his commission in the RAF in 1947 to join the family business when his father was reaching retiring age.

Originally working a local excursion programme the company grew by starting holiday coach tours to Scotland in 1949 and then to continental Europe in 1950, the latter using the name Excelsior European Motorways for the first time. The pick up area for the holiday tours was gradually extended over the years from the immediate Bournemouth area right across the south of England, using an interconnecting series of pick-up coaches meeting with the main tour coach at points like Winchester. Expansion led to the remarkable first coach tour to Russia in 1957 and Moscow and Leningrad became regular features of the holiday programme for many years. A feature of Excelsior's coaches were the names of the many countries visited by the tours painted along the mid-rail - a list that grew as years went by to two dozen or more names!

After an exploratory trip in a Ford coach to India in 1969 subsequently tours were operated overland through Turkey and Iran to India and Nepal on behalf of Penn Overland of Hereford until 1979. Culmination of these expansionist expeditions was when Vernon and a driver took a coach (Ford/Plaxton YPR300T) 'round the world' in 1978-79, visiting South Africa, Australia and the United States along the way. A long held ambition was to operate the first coach tour across Asia along the Silk Road to China and this happened in 1990.

The impressive purpose-built coach station and head office in Sea Road, Boscombe opened in 1970. This was well placed for passing trade for local day and half day trips as it was situated in a busy area of hotels and guest houses. Evening msytery tours were always popular with holidaymakes. The founder Walter Maitland died in 1971 at the age of 89, still taking an active interest in the company.

A branch depot had been established some years earlier at Lymington (originally trading as Hampshire Motorways after purchase from Skylark Motor Services in 1955, and usually home to about eight coaches) and another operating base came later in 1980 further east at Portsmouth.  The coaches on the weekly Austrian tours to Innsbruck and St Wolfgang alternately were operated by a Belgian subsidiary company, Munda Toerisme based in Ostend.

Reckoned to be the largest privately owned coach company in southern England in the 1980s Excelsior was carrying some thirty thousand passengers on its holiday tours each year. Vernon Maitland was awarded the OBE in June 1981 in the Queen's birthday honours list for services to tourism and transport. Known as VM to many - but 'Mister Vernon' to  his staff - he came to the Sea Road coach station each morning to see off the tours.
Changes lessening the previously regulated road transport legislation in 1980 led to the introduction of a daily express service between Bournemouth and London using the company's first Daf coach DJH475V. It provided some welcome off-season work to what had been previously a highly seasonal operation. Originally running once a day and marketed as the 'Bournemouth Belle' in memory of the Pullman train of that name of previous years,  The route was soon extended back to start from Poole whilst the Lymington depot provided a feeder coach to the London route starting from Christchurch, New Milton and Lymington (the 'New Forest Express'). Excelsior's new Portsmouth depot (opened during 1980) also contributed a weekend route from there to London for a while.  Increased soon to twice daily from Bournemouth the regular drivers were Gordon Ball and Gerry Hancock, handing over to each other from early shift to late shift at two o'clock.

Excelsior headquarters -
Sea Road coach station, Boscombe, Bournemouth

Sea Road coach station, Boscombe, Bournemouth

Excelsior Plaxton Paramount 4000 coach XEL24 used from 1984 to
1988 on the Bournemouth  to London daily express service

Excelsior Plaxton Neoplan XEL24 for the London service

The London route was for a short while operated as part of the ill-fated British Coachways consortium in 1981 and 1982.  Operation continued independently again by Excelsior subsequent to the break up of short-lived British Coachways.  Eventually the frequency of the service grew to two hourly on the 'London Shuttle' from Poole and Bournemouth via Heathrow Airport to the capital, with first departure leaving at 3.30 in the morning.

Excelsior were long time supporters of the Ford R-series chassis for nearly twenty years since their introduction in 1965 but an alternative chassis had to be sought when production was discontinued.  The 1984 season started with the acquisition of twenty Quest VM 12-metre chassis (with Ford Sabre engine and Plaxton body) in substitution. The chassis was named after managing director Vernon Maitland and had been designed to retain the economic advantages of operating lightweight coaches on Excelsior's two year replacement cycle. Some were built at Telford, some at Andover. But they were destined to not be a success and were blighted with reliability problems from new, especially with their rear-mounted Ford Sabre marine diesel engines. It was a fraught summer responding to phone calls from drivers reporting problems with their tour coaches resulting in two Quest engineers being based on standby at the Excelsior depot in Bournemouth. An article in Classic Bus number 49 tells the story of the buses and coaches built by Quest, who subsequently ceased trading in 1985.

In 1985 the Excelsior fleet totalled 55 vehicles, just seven of which had cherished registration marks at that time. As the years went by all vehicles were eventually to carry cherished plates, notably in the A1-20 XEL and A2-20 EXC series. Despite having always a modern fleet there was some trading advantage to 'anonymising' the year of the coach, no matter how luxurious or well appointed the vehicle the average passenger could tell an E-registered coach from a F-registered coach and given the choice would inevitably choose the newer vehicle (even if only by one year!). The six foot long model of an Excelsior coach in the Sea Road departure lounge at Boscombe intrigued many a waiting passenger, young and old. Happily the model has been preserved in Dorset.

The London service that had started in 1980 continued to prosper and was worked from 1984 to 1988 primarily by the very first Plaxton Paramount 4000 Neoplan double-decker (XEL24). This proved to be quite an eye catcher making two round trips to the capital a day and was operated with headlights on to make it even more conspicuous. From 1988 to 1994 a pair of Volvo Van Hool bodied double-deckers became the regular performers on the London route. In general the Excelsior coach fleet moved from lightweight chassis to heavyweight at this time, primarily Volvo.

It was the people who made it all happen every day. Busy days working at the time with colleagues Peter Downs and Helen Ivars in traffic, Wendy Holmes and Debbie Smithers in reservations, Hussein Jaffer and Ursula Liechti in travel, Eileen and Eddie selling day tour tickets at Sea Road. Looking back forty years some of the drivers I recall from that time include Alan Rosling, Les Parker, Chris Fowles, Alf Seton, Keith Nichol, Barry Score, Derek Waygood, Peter Holmes, Jim Lebbern, Mike Wanklyn, Wally Gollings, Simon Mullarkey, Andy Bell, Jackie Thompson, Chris Holbrook, Richard Pearse, Eric Percy, Roy Young, Fred Marsh, Ken Audley, Jim Campbell, Eddie Butterworth, Eric Roberts, Ken Fochard, Roger Shearer, Terry Dunne, Roy Greenhalgh, Stan Danks, Alan Williams, Mike Holmes, Andy Beedie, Mike Benson, Barry Aplin, Andy Carrigan, Keith Hazzard, Alan Howarth, Chris Harding, Derek Symonds, Len Bishop, Fred Rice, Brian Knowles, Mick Pearson, Tony Lyndon, Terry Hann, Brian Alcock, John Needham, Dave Darby, Frank Carroll, Bernie Morton, Ernie Bull and Joe Lee. Additionally Gordon Ball and Gerry Hancock were the regular Coachwayss drivers to and from London.  Len Clarke assumed the managing director role during this period, a post he was to hold until 1998. The main garage and workshop was located at Southcote Road in Bournemouth and it was the domain of mechanics 'Jumbo' Whatley and Bob Quick, with Ron Hanham from Kiddles in Iford Lane looking after the bodywork. Amongst the drivers based at the Lymington depot at the time were Ted Wightwick, Pat Baker, Pete Roberts and Rudolf Sivi.

The 75th anniversary of Excelsior was proudly celebrated in 1995. Still a family owned business a commemorative brochure was published with a history of the company and its many achievements. This was to be the crest of the wave as two years later in a probably timely decision, with the coaching world changing with a lessening demand for the traditional long standing programme of local excursions and coach holidays, Vernon Maitland decided to take his retirement at the end of the 1997 summer season after fifty successful years at the helm of his business. Sadly he died at his home in Florida in August 2018 aged 92.

After 1997 . . . Flights, Robins and More

In September 1997, fifty years after Vernon had joined his father in the family firm, the Excelsior business with its fleet of sixty coaches was quietly and unexpectedly sold to Flights Coaches of Birmingham. Many of the staff were unaware until after the sale had been completed. Flights, like Excelsior, was a long established family business and had been founded in 1913. The period from 1997 to 2001 is perhaps best glossed over as Flights did not seem to make much of a success out of the purchase. In January 1998 the Excelsior daily service to London was merged with that of National Express under the Flightlink name. The Excelsior service to London was the sole surviving route from the short-lived British Coachways operation which was disbanded in October 1982. At first things seemed to go on in a similar manner to the way things had been done before (perhaps lacking the local knowledge and touch though) but the local day excursion programme was abandoned, which in its heyday had employed up to twenty coaches. Long standing seaside holiday traditions had changed as the years went by. Four years after the new owners arrived financial difficulties were reported. Citing as part-reasons a decline in traditional touring and excursion activities, coupled with the effects of the foot and mouth outbreak, administrators were called in to Excelsior during 2001. At this time the Portsmouth depot operation was sold to Tellings Golden Miller of Surrey and the Lymington depot closed.

The business changed hands again, Excelsior passing at the end of November 2001 to new owner Ken Robins, a local hotelier. As described in the Dorset Echo newspaper "Travel group Excelsior has been saved following a merger with the Bournemouth-based Seaviews Hotel group. The troubled coach group has been in administration with 120 staff living under the threat of losing their jobs. But they have now discovered their posts are safe after a bid from Seaview was accepted yesterday." In an open letter to stakeholders Robins outlined the potential synergies between the coaches and his group of four Bournemouth hotels: East Cliff Manor, Quality Cadogan, Durlston Court and the Bournemouth Sands.  He announced his intention to rebuild the local day excursion programme which had been run down during the Flights period.

Under Robins ownership the business began to flourish again and respect was restored to the Excelsior name. In 2004 Excelsior were awarded the coveted Coach Marque accreditation by the Confederation of Passenger Transport. In 2005 Excelsior made several ultimately unsuccessful bids to buy Yellow Buses, the town operator in Bournemouth which was being sold off at the time by its owners the borough council. 

Kathy Tilbury joined Excelsior from outside the transport industry. making a singificant investment and becaming Managing Director in 2007. This led to further business expansion and successes at the UK Coach Awards in 2012. Not only did Excelsior win Top Medium Fleet Operator (16-50 vehicles) but it was also crowned runner-up UK Coach Operator of the Year. Apart from several major industry clients the coaching business provided transport for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, AFC Bournemouth and Hampshire Cricket Club with coaches carrying the fleet name 'Excelsior - the exception'.
Excelsior the Exception logo

After fifteen years, with twenty-two coaches and a staff of thirty-eight, the time came for Ken Robins to retire. This leads to the current chapter in the Excelsior story with MoreBus (the local Go Ahead group subsidiary previously known as Wilts & Dorset) buying the business from Robins in October 2016. A prime attraction for them no doubt - apart from the prestige of the Excelsior name - was the spacious yard and depot in Southcote Road near Bournemouth railway station. Since June 2006 More had been parking 21 of their buses there overnight for their M1 and M2 routes, with 65 of their drivers based there. So today Excelsior Coaches is under its fourth ownership and the name continues - but now it is only a name and a memory. A new livery was introduced, changing from the long standing familiar beige to a two-tone blue designed by Ray Stenning of Best Impressions. Most vehicles are based at the Damory Coaches depot at Pimperne near Blandford, and only three coaches still work out of the traditional Excelsior home at Southcote Road in Bournemouth.

The illustrations below recall some of Excelsior's activities and achievements prior to 1997 in the Maitland years.

Further information and contributions welcomed from former Excelsior colleagues.
cover of 1990 London service timetable
1990 summer timetable London service
Excelsior letterhead

OPR509W - a typical Excelsior Holidays Ford R1114 Plaxton bodied 49-seater, in the fleet 1981-82.
Coaches were licenced in batches at the start of the summer season and thus often had consecutive registration numbers.
OPR509W - Ford/Plaxton 49-seater, in the fleet 1981-82

on the way to Russia - boarding the plane across the Channel to Ostend
on the way to Russia - boarding the plane across the Channel

more from the press on the Russia tour
press commnt on the 1962 trip to Russia

a local tours handbill from the 1960s
- including a day tour on Wednesdays from Bournemouth to Lands End and back!

local tours handbill from the 1960s

1954 local tours leaflet
1954 day tours leaflet
1954 day tours leaflet
Excelsior old letterhead

The 75th Anniversary brochure 1920 - 1995

London service timetable 1982 British Coachways
Excelsior 75th Anniversary brochure
1982 London timetable British Coachways

Commemorative travelogue brochure 1980

Local tours and excursions handbill, believed to date from 1946
Excelsior commemorative brochure 1980s
Excelsior local excurions list, believed to be from 1946

1986 brochure British and Continental Holidays

half day tours 1986
cover of 1986 Excelsior holiday tours brochure
half day tours 1986

Excelsior Overland - the Silk Route to and from China 1990

Silk Route 1990

List of the tours from the 1986 brochure
List of holiday tours from the 1986 brochure

map of the pick up area for holiday tours from the 1986 brochure
map of the pick up area for tours from the 1986 brochure

cover of 1959 holidays brochure - five English and Scottish tours offered
 S21 to S25 reaching as far north as John o'Groats and the Isle of Skye
cover of 1959 holidays brochure
1959 coach exterior

coach illustration 1959

1959 coach interior
tours list from 1959 brochure

So many passengers conveyed over the years whether on day tours, evening mystery tours, weekly holiday tours to Scotland, extended tours to Switzerland, Austria and Russia, and eventually across the world to South Africa, Australia, the USA and even China.  A proud record of service bringing pleasure and happiness to the innumerable people who travelled with Excelsior.