Walter Alexander

WALTER Alexander is the Falkirk Bairn who got an entire community moving.

The founder of the world's biggest supplier of double-decker buses is remembered as a shrewd business man with a vision which would shape the Scottish bus business for decades.

Walter Alexander was just 24 when he opened a small cycle shop in Camelon in 1902. He had already realised bicycles were not just enjoyed by families in their spare time - they were also used by hundreds to get to and from their work. Cautious as ever, he kept on his full time job as a fitter in a Camelon foundry - just in case the "wheels fell off" his venture.

When he had banked enough from the bike shop, he moved on to the motor business - and his timing was perfect.

The industrial revolution had transformed Falkirk from a sleepy market burgh into an industrial heartland, and by the early 1900s the area was booming, offering jobs in brewing, distilling, tanning and manufacturing.

Raw materials arrived and finished products departed by way of the Forth and Clyde Canal or the railways, which had developed into a network of lines connecting Polmont in the east with Larbert in the west where connections were made to the main lines to Stirling and the north and Coatbridge and the south. Grangemouth Docks was another prime money spinner with huge investment expanding the area as a port.

Walter Alexander appreciated what was happening and recognised the rising demand for an efficient public transport system to be introduced.

There had been little or no opposition to the Falkirk and District Tramways Company's circular route launched in 1905 that covered just seven miles and linked Falkirk and Larbert with Camelon. There was even a branch to Laurieston, but a key extension to Grangemouth was never built.

Walter Alexander decided that could change - and in 1913 moved into market by launching Alexander's Motor Service.

The firm made a modest start, its first bus a chain-driven Belhaven, but the service gradually expanded to cover Camelon, Falkirk, Bonnybridge and Denny.

By 1924, and with 22-year-old Walter junior at his side, Walter senior was so confident about the future of the "omnibus" he decided to set up his own company not just to run them - but build them as well.

Walter Alexander & Son Logo W. Alexander & Sons Limited had registered their firm in Brown Street in Camelon in 1922 and by 1928 the firm was doing so well providing bus bodies for its own fleet and other operators, Brown Street was expanded to meet the demand.

WALTER ALEXANDER'S first bus was a chain driven Belhaven charabanc, and his first service was on Saturdays and Sundays only, between Falkirk and Bonnybridge for the fare of a penny.

Between 1916 and 1918 the fleet was expanded by two more Belhavens, and in 1919 the first Leyland was bought from RAF surplus and fitted with a Belhaven body and solid tyres. Later that year Walter Alexander drove the Leyland to John O'Groats with a private party, the first time a charabanc had made such a journey.

Modern Alexander Bus By 1920 a regular daily service to Denny was being operated in a new Leyland. This bus was regarded as a luxury vehicle by its passengers because the seats were softer than the hard wooden forms of the old lorry. It was known as the "Glass Bus" because it had glass sides. The following year a service to Kilsyth was introduced, and six-day tours to Inverness and Aberdeen and weekend excursions to Glasgow were running.

THE fortunes of the Alexander family were assured by a series of dramatic events in 1928. After fierce lobbying from Britain's four main railway companies, Government legislation was introduced to allow them to provide a bus service.

The railway companies opted to buy into existing bus operators, so the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) and London and North Eastern Railways (LNER) each bought a large stake in the Edinburgh-based Scottish Motor Traction Company Limited (SMT), which became the holding company for the railway's interests.

W. Alexander & Sons Limited were an obvious partner in the venture, and in 1929 they effectively sold out to the SMT group.

To the fare-paying passenger travelling on Walter Alexander buses to places like Stirling, Perth, Dundee and Crieff, nothing had changed, and the lettering on the vehicles still proudly carried the legend: "Brown Street, Camelon, Falkirk".

But what had changed was the position Alexander's held in the industry. With the power of the SMT group and the backing of the railways behind them, they continued to expand to become one of the SMT group's four main operating companies. SMT itself covered Edinburgh and the south east; Central SMT concentrated on Lanarkshire; Western SMT operated throughout the west and north west of Glasgow; and Alexander's expanded from its initial Stirlingshire Glasgow area to cover much of the rest of Scotland.

Under the SMT umbrella, the Camelon business changed, but the name did not - a reflection of how highly Alexander's were rated. The family remained in direct control with the two Walters, senior and junior, working side by side as joint managing directors.

When one of their biggest rivals, the Scottish General Omnibus Company, came under the SMT group's wing in 1930, Alexander's took charge - and decided some changes should be made.

It was agreed by father and son that Scottish General's garage at Forth Street in Stirling should become their main depot in the town and their Drip Road facility be turned into Alexander's coachworks. As a result, bus body production was switched from Camelon to Stirling later that year with Brown Street concentrating on repairing and maintaining the rapidly growing fleet.

A series of takeovers followed with Alexander's acquiring the municipal tramways services in Kirkcaldy in 1931 and Perth Corporation in 1934 and for many years maintaining the services with separate fleets of buses painted SMT dark red in place of the normal Alexander's azure blue.

By this time bus body production at Drip Road was in full swing with 160 Alexander bodies a year coming off the line between 1932 and 1940 and delivered to the SMT group and its subsidiaries.

The body styles were solid and practical with simple lines, but with Walter junior taking more and more interest in the activities of the coachworks, constant improvements in comfort and design were made.

In 1934 the very first Bluebird coach appeared. This was a vehicle so stylishly finished it broke new ground in design and comfort and boosted the SMT group's reputation as coach operators.

The growing demand for luxury travel meant this first Bluebird was to become the forerunner of many fine coach bodies from the Alexander works. The Bluebird name was one of young Walter junior's many inspired ideas, and the flying bird which first appeared in 1934 was a widely recognised symbol and is fondly remembered even to this day.

Alexander's enjoyed great success before the Second World War, but business boomed in the post war years whic6 are often referred to as the `golden era' for public transport.

The return of a Labour Government in 1945, however, was to mark a dramatic change in direction for Alexander's.

The nationalisation of bus services saw the transfer of the coachbuilding assets of Alexander to a separate and privately owned company, Walter Alexander and Co (Coachbuilders) Limited.

This part of the business continued to flourish and led to the firm moving back to Camelon in the 1950s to take over a nine-acre site in Glasgow Road and build a modem factory.

Expansion was rapid. In 1969 the company started building buses in Belfast and supplying the fleets there and in 1975 sold its first buses to the Far East.

In 1990 there was yet another change when the family sold to Spotlaunch Plc. Two years later a management buyout saw the Alexander free itself of its merger commitments and stand alone again until 1995 when it was bought by present owners, The Mayflower Corporation Plc.

This has now changed again and the present owners are unclear at this time..