PICTURES: Pioneer of minibus revolution stars in vintage vehicle line-up
"Little Willie", a minibus that was a pocket-sized alternative to larger forms of public service in Exeter three decades ago, has graduated to celebrity status.
Along with other similar vehicles it was on display at Westpoint last Sunday as part of an historic vehicle rally featuring buses, coaches, lorries and cars.
Compared to the presence of larger, grander vehicles this pioneer Fort Transit minibus seemed almost an upstart in its jaunty red and yellow livery.
Its size, compared to the larger buses, earned it the nickname Little Willie – and it carries a brass plaque bearing its name on the dashboard.
Despite looking like a cross between a van and small coach, the humble Little Willie has earned a special, if unlikely, niche in transport history – and nostalgic place in the travelling public's hearts.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of large scale, intensive minibus operations in the UK – and Exeter was first to embrace this type of service. To celebrate this evolution in city transport, rally organisers the Westcountry Historic Omnibus and Transport Trust (WHOTT) had a line-up of first and second generation minibuses.
Star turn of this mini battalion, and now enjoying a life of preservation, was Little Willie, who led the minibus revolution. Retained when it came out of service in 1997, it was recently presented to WHOTT by Harry Blundred, who was the CEO of Devon General in 1983.
Harry, who oversaw their introduction in Exeter and saved the pioneer vehicle, came over from his home in Monte Carlo with his wife to join in the 30th anniversary celebrations.
WHOTT chairman Robert Crawley said that 30 years ago, due to legislation being introduced to the bus industry, the ideal was to run smaller buses on high frequency services rather than "lumbering giants" every half hour or so.
"At the same time greater competition was being encouraged to reverse a decline in public usage," he said.
The concept of minibuses became a reality and, in Exeter, Devon General led the way being the first company to convert major urban services to intensive minibus operation.
"Love them, or loathe them, minibuses changed our bus services for good and they should be remembered," said Robert.
The Devon County Showground site not only featured a large static display of vintage vehicles, many with Westcountry connections, but also provided a number of mystery coach rides and a free vintage service between Exeter Bus Station and Westpoint. Some preserved vehicles also offered rides around the 150-acre site during the day.
WHOTT is grateful to Stagecoach Devon for its support and co-operation in staging this event. For details of the Westcountry Historic Omnibus and Transport Trust visit busmuseum.org.uk