Bob's life on the buses

THE CORPORATE notice closing Northern Counties after 86 years was typically curt.

On the other side of the Pennines, Bob Rowe noted it with a heavy, but rather detached, heart.

The specialist author is making a new career chronicling the rise and fall of the transport industry in this country, and is the first to agree that he is an enthusiast.

But a working life at the sharp end – operations management for a series of bus giants across the Midlands and South Yorkshire – has given him an independent perspective free largely free from rose-colouring.

Now came confirmation that in January 2005, those giant assembly shop doors at the famed works in Enfield Street would slam shut for good with the final batch of President double deckers, for good.

And that meant the time was right to pen the final chapter of its history.

The result is an expansive new 194 page hardback from Glossop based Venture Publications.

It painstakingly traces their story, from the certificate at Companies House confirming the birth of the firm on November 11 1919 to, fittingly, a list of every worker and pictures if the vehicles they produced, in its final, poignant week of life.

In between it reveals Northern Counties Motor Engineering's long standing South Wales roots and the dynasty of three generations of control by successive Henry Gethin Lewis's; their rapid expansion through the 1920s and 30s, life through the demanding war years leading to the post war heyday, and there is also a look at Massey Brothers, the Wigan firm themselves taken over by Northern Counties in 1967.

It is copiously illustrated with more than 230 photographs covering in detail the development of their buses and the men who made it happen.

Bob says he expected to research a reasonable straightforward story, based on the famous rumbling buses, of course, hundreds of which are still plying their trade across Britain and the world, which have come flooding out of the Wigan Lane and latterly Pemberton plants for the past eight decades.

But in the end he discovered that a tangled web of controversial business number crunching – rather than failing products or over-capacity – would eventually do for this proud and profitable factory.

Parent company, the massive automotive Mayflower Corporation, had been forced into administration and break up by the still unresolved discovery of a multi-million pound "black hole" in head office finances.

Corporate wreckage experts Touche Deloitte raised eyebrows by deciding to sell NCME (then known as TransBus Plaxton) to their arch manufacturing rivals, Alexander Dennis.

But the Falkirk firm would fatally mire the ultra modern plant – considered so state of the art a new wing was opened by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott only five years ago – in the crushing burden of corporate borrowing it needed to buy it.

He now considers their decisions to sell the large site and lease it back at hair-raising rent was what effectively killed Wigan's most famous firm.

He admits to being heartened by the pride the workforce had in their products – something they would never lose right up to closure.

Mr Rowe said: "I suppose one of the most amazing things for me was that talking to members of staff, some of who had retired a little while ago but many had stayed right to the bitter end, was their attitude.

"Despite being messed about and in some ways, led up the garden path, when they were making the last buses they put as much pride into them as they did the first ones in the brand new factory.

"I think that is remarkable because this was death by a thousand cuts at the end and it would have only been natural to loose interest.

"They were the real victims, but they were still as proud of the last vehicle they produced as of the the ones they built on the day they would have started there."

Bob says he must have made two dozen visits to Wigan researching the book.

Wigan History Shop (reference library) chief Mike Haddon was a "fantastic help."

As was former managing director David Cherry, a guiding light at "the Counties" for 30 years, plus numerous workers who responded so enthusiastically to a press appeal in the Observer to help.

He says: "It was the closure announcement that triggered the whole thing off.

"Venture Publications earlier book in the 70's by Eric Ogden was very much a picture-led publication from the archives of their vehicles, but it was a good success and, produced at time when such a book didn't exist, it laid the way for a number of similar ones

"We knew we had to do a follow up and bring the thing up to date.

"The announcement that it was to close was made in the September two years ago and the factory closed in January the following year, but I had started gathering things together just before the Christmas.

"David Cherry was very helpful and positive and was able to put us in contact with various contacts as well as giving us an over view which balanced the views we got from people who were on the factory floor.

"He knew the Lewis family as well as, if not better, than everyone.

"David is a very modest sort of man and was initially reluctant.

"But when he saw what we were doing he gave us such a lot of help with his incisive comments, little anecdotes and stories."

lNorthern Counties, Bob Rowe, Venture Publications, ISBN 1 - 905304 - 02 - 1, 27.50, is now available from Wigan History Shop, WH Smiths, Smiths of Wigan and Rolling Stock Books, Dicconson Street.