Traditionally buses in Britain have consisted of a chassis upon which a separate body was constructed, typically by a different manufacturer. This allowed operators to specify a vehicle that suited their particular requirements. Chassis manufacturers in Britain included Leyland, Daimler, AEC, and Guy (all now defunct). Having selected a chassis, an operator would also specify a particular engine and this assemblage would be transported to a bodybuilder to manufacture the bodywork. Northern Counties was a mid-size bodybuilder with a strong reputation and loyal client base. It was bought out and subsequently closed in 2005 by Alexander Dennis.
Northern Counties Motor and Engineering Company Limited was founded in Wigan in 1919 by Henry Lewis. The Lewis family remained owners of the company until it was bought out over seventy years later. As was common at the time, early products were bodywork for private automobiles. By the early 1920s the private automobile work had ceased and the manufacture of bodywork for service buses commenced. Bodywork was for both single-deck and double-deck vehicles. Very few coaches were produced.
During the Second World War, Northern Counties was authorized by the government to produce bus bodies to a utility specification, mainly using steel-framed construction.
Northern Counties established a loyal client base and reputation for quality construction in the post-war years. Notable clients included local operators SHMD Board, Manchester Corporation, and Lancashire United. Further afield, Barton Transport and Southdown Motor Services were among a number of regular customers.
In 1967 another bus body builder, Massey Brothers Ltd, located in nearby Pemberton, was acquired and became a part of the Northern Counties operations. The Massey factory was retained and used as a paint-shop and for final completion of bodywork assembled at Wigan Lane.
The Transport Act of 1968 merged the municipal corporations of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Oldham, Stockport, Rochdale, Bury and Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield Joint Board (SHMD Board). The resulting conglomerate was known as the Southeast Lancashire Northeast Cheshire Passenger Transport Authority, commonly known as SELNEC. SELNEC was faced with a fleet of 2500 vehicles consisting of a wide variety of types and manufacturers, reflecting the preferences of their former municipal owners. Northern Counties worked closely with SELNEC to develop a standard bus for fleet replacement.
The Local Government Act 1972 came into effect on 1 April 1974. This reorganization added Wigan Corporation Transport to SELNEC to create the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive. Greater Manchester PTE was the largest bus operator outside of London until privatization in the late 1980s. A large proportion of Northern Counties production after this time was for the Greater Manchester fleet.
In 1975 the company collaborated with Foden Ltd, a well-known manufacturer of commercial vehicles, to produce a semi-integral double-deck vehicle intended to compete with chassis manufacturer Leyland. Leyland had merged with traditional rival Daimler and was experiencing production and quality problems. In the event, only seven Foden-NCs were produced, going to Greater Manchester PTE, West Midlands PTE, West Yorkshire PTE, Derby City Transport and Potteries Motor Traction.
The 1980s and 1990s were challenging years for the British bus industry, with the privatization of publicly owned operators, deregulation of routes and the reduction and subsequent elimination of the Bus Grant, a Government grant that paid for a large proportion of the cost of new vehicles. As a result, the purchase of new bus vehicles fell sharply as operators contended with the brave new world of competition, and mini-buses became the vogue. This fall in orders was combined with increased competition from overseas manufacturers.
Northern Counties reputation and engineering skills saw it survive these difficult times and become a major supplier once again as demand picked up in the mid-1990s. In May 1995, it was purchased for £10 million by the Henlys group, owner of Plaxton. The Northern Counties name was dropped in 1999 and vehicles were badged as Plaxton.
In 2001 Henlys became part of a joint venture with the Mayflower group, owner of bodybuilder Alexander and chassis manufacturer Dennis. The joint venture was known as TransBus, and vehicles were badged using the TransBus name.
After the failure of the Mayflower Group in 2004, TransBus was sold to a private group of investors and became Alexander Dennis. The former Northern Counties facility was closed by Alexander Dennis in January 2005.
- Palatine (double-deck)
- Paladin (single-deck)
- Prestige (low-floor single-deck)
- President (low-floor double-deck)
- Ogden, Eric; (1976). Northern Counties of Wigan. The Transport Publishing Company. ISBN 0-903839-10-5.
- Booth, Gavin (1983). The British Bus Today and Tomorrow. Ian Allan Ltd. ISBN 0-7110-1296-2
- Townsin, Alan (1985). The British Bus Story - The 'Sixties - Turbulent Times. The Transport Publishing Company. ISBN 0863171184
- Rowe, Bob (2006). Northern Counties of Wigan. Venture Publications Ltd. ISBN 1-905304-02-1
- A very useful listing of all bodies built from 1956 to 2005
- Detailed history of the development of the SELNEC standard
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