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 there working as traffic manager (two periods between 1973 and 1984 as I recall), back in those proud days of a fleet of fifty 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 summer months.

1920 to 1997 . . . the Maitland years

Excelsior was founded in the 1920s by Walter Maitland (a Scot come south) from his home in Southcote Road with a 20-seater 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.

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 the local day trips as it was situated in a busy area of hotels and guest houses. The founder Walter Maitland died in 1971 at the age of 89, still taking an interest in the company. A branch depot had been established at Lymington in 1955 (originally trading as Hampshire Motorways and usually home to about eight coaches) and another operating base came later in 1980 further east at Portsmouth.

Changes lessening restrictive 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 services were for a while operated as part of the ill-fated British Coachways consortium (1981-82). The route was soon extended to start from Poole whilst Lymington depot provided a feeder to the London route from Christchurch, New Milton and Lymington (the 'New Forest Express'). Portsmouth depot contributed a weekend route from there to London. Operation continued independently again subsequent to the break up of the consortium and eventually the frequency grew to two hourly on the London Shuttle from Bournemouth.

Excelsior were long term 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 chassis (with Ford 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 a two year replacement cycle. Alas they were not a success and were blighted with reliability problems from new. The London service was worked from 1984 to 1988 by the very first Plaxton Paramount 4000 Neoplan double -decker (XEL24). From 1988 to 1994 a pair of Volvo Van Hool bodied double-deckers were the regular performers on the route.

The main garage and workshop was located at Southcote Road in Bournemouth and was the domain of mechanics 'Jumbo' and Bob, with Ron from Kiddles in Iford Lane looking after the bodywork. Busy days and I remember the model coach in the Sea Road departure lounge and working at that time with Peter and Helen in traffic, Wendy and Debbie in reservations, Hussein and Ursula in travel. 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. Known as VM to many - but addressed as 'Mister Vernon' by his staff - he came to the Sea Road coach station each morning to see off the tours. Vernon Maitland was awarded the OBE in June 1981 in the Queen's birthday honours list for services to tourism and transport.

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. Two years later in a probably timely decision, with the world changing and lessening demand for the traditional long standing programme of excursions and coach holidays, Vernon Maitland decided to retire at the end of the 1997 summer season after fifty successful years at the helm of his business (he died at his home in Florida in August 2018 aged 92).

After 1997 . . . Flights, Robins and More

The Excelsior business with sixty coaches was sold to Flights Coaches of Birmingham in September 1997. Flights, like Excelsior, was a long established family business and was founded in 1913. The period from 1997 to 2001 is perhaps best glossed over as Flights did not seem to make a success out of their purchase. In January 1998 the Excelsior daily service to London was merged with that of National Express under the Flightlink name. (As an aside 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 four years later 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 operation was sold to Tellings Golden Miller of Surrey.

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 as Managing Director in 2007 and this led to further business expansion and successes at the UK Coach Awards 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'.

After fifteen years, with twenty-two coaches and a staff of thirty-eight, the time came for Ken Robins to retire. This brings us to the current chapter in the Excelsior story with Morebus (the local Go Ahead group subsidiary known before 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 in which they were already parking some of their buses overnight for their M1 and M2 routes. Thus today Excelsior Coaches is now under a fourth ownership but happily continues as a separate operational unit under its own well respected name. A new livery was introduced, changing from the long standing familiar beige to a two-tone blue designed by Ray Stenning of Best Impressions.

The illustrations below recall some of Excelsior's activities and past achievements prior to 1997.

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

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

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

Sea Road coach station, Boscombe, Bournemouth

Sea Road coach station, Boscombe, Bournemouth

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

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