A November 1978 built Roe body on a Leyland Atlantean
AN68A/1R, new to South Yorkshire PTE as their 1633, pictured in Manchester with Citybus
Charles H. Roe Ltd. was a Yorkshire coachbuilding company. It was for most of its life based at Crossgates Carriage Works, in Leeds.
1930 Guy BTX trolleybuses with Roe L27-26R body
In 1947 it was taken over by Park Royal Vehicles. Two years later, along with its parent, it became part of Associated Commercial Vehicles (ACV) in 1949, which was merged with Leyland Motors Ltd in 1962. In 1965 30% of Park Royal and Roe’s shares were exchanged by Leyland Motor Corporation for shares in Bristol Commercial Vehicles and Eastern Coach Works held by the Transport Holding Company. Later the THC was succeeded by the National Bus Company and Park Royal, Roe, Bristol, ECW and Leyland National Ltd became subsidiaries of a new company Bus Manufacturuers Holdings 50% owned by British Leyland and 50% by National Bus. Leyland took complete control of BMH in 1982 and closed Charles H. Roe in 1984. In the following year, a group of employees from the former business, supported by Yorkshire Enterprise Ltd, began the Optare coachbuilding business in the former Roe carriage works.
1930 Guy BTX with Roe L29-26R bodies
Mr Charles H. Roe was a coachbuilder, draughtsman, engineer and entrepreneur who established a coachworks business bearing his name in Leeds, Yorkshire in 1917. He continued to be its managing director until 1952. Charles H. Roe Ltd produced distinctive and durable coachwork which although associated most strongly with municipal operators, particularly in Yorkshire, sold to a wide range of bus, trolleybus and coach operators, and there were even a few car, railway carriage, tram and commercial vehicle bodies too. Eventually becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of British Leyland in 1982 it was closed in 1984. Former workers and management pooled their redundancy money and in 1985 returned to the Roe factory in Leeds with a new bus-building business under the new name of Optare Ltd.
1930 Leyland Lion LT1 with Roe bodywork
Charles Henry Roe was born in York on 22 May 1887. His father Charles Roe worked for the North Eastern Railway at their carriage works in the town, eventually rising to a foreman’s position. C.H. Roe served his apprenticeship at the drawing office of the carriage works and his first job after gaining his trade in 1912 was as a draughtsman at the Wakefield works of Charles Roberts and Company who built railway rolling stock. A year later he moved to Leeds to work as an assistant to the chief engineer at the Hunslet-based RET Construction Co who was a pioneer builder of trolleybuses. Whilst there he worked on a twin-shaft drive transmission system from the traction motors of the trolleybus chassis to replace a previous chain-drive arrangement and designed a lightweight body featuring steel panels over a suitably reinforced teak body frame. As an engineer and draughtsman he was exempt from World War I Conscription. Customers for the RET vehicle with Roe-designed bodies included the trolleybus systems of Bloemfontein Corporation, The Shanghai Transport Company and Ramsbottom Urban District Council. The Ramsbottom examples were to a steel-frame design but it was wood and metal composite construction particularly using teak that became synonymous with the C.H. Roe name. The RET business had gone through one bankruptcy prior to C.H. Roe joining, originally having been founded as the Railless Electric Traction Company Ltd. in 1908. In 1916 The RET Company was required under war regulations to turn over production to munitions and being unable to supply orders in hand for trolleybuses was closed down in 1917.
1931 Guy BTX with a Roe L29-26R body
By August 1917 C.H. Roe had set up on his own account as an engineer and coachbuilder in a nearby factory unit. Always an innovator with a shrewd grasp of the value of intellectual property Roe applied for his first patent (relating to driving pulleys) on Armistice Day November 11, 1918. During this time Roe continually extended his site, which adjoined that of his former employer which had now been requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corps. As a sole trader, Roe built a wide variety of products from simple flatbed trailers for traction engines to a refrigerated mobile fish shop body and stylish charabanc bodies on the ubiquitous Ford Model T. Another early patent was for a tipping body for lorries (spelt in true Yorkshire style ‘lurries’ in the application) with compartments to allow discrete loads to be kept separate. Railless Ltd had reformed after the war to build trolleybuses and Roe designed and/or built bodies went on examples supplied to the North Ormesby, South Bank, Normanby & Grangetown Railless Traction Company and to York Corporation.
1932 AEC Regal dating from 1932, was fitted with this Roe B32F body in 1938
The first company
Expansion at the Hunslet site was by the end of 1919 impossible, but C.H. Roe lived with his wife in the Cross Gates area of the city of Leeds and knew that a large shell-filling factory there had been vacated by the government. Thus for the purpose of purchasing this large site with a modern factory building and space for expansion he registered Charles H Roe Ltd on May 26, 1920. The shareholders included his father and a number of family friends. Whilst the formation of the company and negotiations to buy the Cross Gates site commenced, coachbuilding continued at the Hunslet factory, bodies including Charabancs on Karrier and Lancia chassis. After taking possession of the Cross Gates site the first Roe double-deck bodies were built for Birmingham Corporation on Railless Ltd chassis, a second trolleybus maker to patronise Roe was Clough, Smith Ltd whose trolleybuses comprised their Leeds-built electrical equipment on Straker-Squire chassis and were hence known as Straker-Clough; Roe bodies supplied to them were then supplied to the Teesside Railless Traction Board (a municipal joint committee who had taken over the North Ormesby Company) and Rotherham Corporation. Other products of this era included a number of charabancs on chassis including Leyland, Thornycroft and Fiat and a stylish limousine on a Lancia chassis. All types of bodies from other builders were also repaired and painted.
1932 AEC Regent with Roe body
Trading difficulties in the early 1920s recession affected many businesses, the under-capitalised original Roe company being just one, during 1921 two debentures had to be secured to continue trading, the second relating directly to the Birmingham Corporation double deckers. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and the first company was voluntarily wound-up after a directors’ meeting in November 1922. The receiver of the original company was able to give the bank a small surplus, whilst among the debts received £3,000 had come from various other purchasers plus £900 from Railless Ltd, who had subcontracted the Birmingham bodybuilding contract to Roe. Late payment can kill many a new business and it seems to have been the death of the original Roe company. C.H. Roe in a personal capacity bought the remaining assets from the receiver for £1,140.
1932 AEC Regent with Roe H30-26R body
Charles H Roe (1923) Ltd
The early years
One lesson had been learned in the formation of the second company (initially Charles H. Roe (1923) Ltd) in that share capital was one third larger (£8500 rather than £5850). At this time motorbus, rather than trolleybus or charabanc bodies began to assume a greater prominence. Like trolleybuses however a lot of the coachbuilding work on motorbuses was subcontracted either from the chassis manufacturer or from a dealership company. Thus many early Roe bus bodies on Karrier chassis were sold by the Huddersfield company as complete products.
1934 AEC Regent with Roe 56 seat body
An even more complicated situation arose with the Leeds based operation Tramway Supplies Ltd. They tendered for complete vehicles and then subcontracted the chassis supply to one manufacturer and the body supply to another. One of the body subcontractors was the Blackburn Aircraft who also had a factory in Leeds. They built their last bus bodies in 1924, just as Government orders for aircraft (particularly flying boats, a Blackburn speciality) began to pick up. Railless Ltd (the third Railless company) were, incidentally, backed by Short Brothers another aeroplane manufacturer with a specialism in flying boats and a sideline in bus bodies.
1934 AEC Regent with Roe H30-26R body
An example of how complicated the whole complete vehicle contract thing could get concerns a Tilling-Stevens bi-mode petrol-electric/trolley bus (type PERC1) built-for and patented-by the Teesside Railless Traction Board’s manager. Tilling-Stevens had contracted to supply a complete vehicle; they then subcontracted the body to Tramway Supplies who sub-subcontracted it to Blackburn, who sub-sub-subcontracted it to Roe.
1934 AEC Regent-Roe H30-26R
Other odd work in the early years of the new company included in 1924 a 36 seat petrol-fuelled rail vehicle for the Derwent Valley Light Railway. It was based on two Ford Model T chassis fitted with flanged steel tyres and coupled back-to-back, this rail minibus or petrol multiple unit seated 18 in each carriage and was driven from one end only, the rearward-facing car running in neutral gear with the engine switched off. When worked coupled fuel consumption was stated to be 14.33 mpg and if one unit was run the even more efficient figure of 17.55 mpg was obtained. It wasn’t enough to save passenger operations on the line from oblivion however and the units were exported in 1926 to the County Donegal Joint Railway Committee (CDR) in the north-west of Ireland who converted them from standard gauge to 3 ft gauge, lowering the bodies in the process. The CDR thus became the first railway in Ireland to use internal combustion engines and by the time of closure ran all passenger services and a number of freights using Gardner-powered diesel units.
1934 Leyland TD3 with a Roe H24-24C body
By 1925 Roe were receiving orders directly from customers in the council-owned sector, many of them previous customers for sub-contracted bodies, Mr Roe’s approachability during body construction may have played a part in this, letters from general managers of the time thank C.H. Roe for his enabling inspection of bodies in-build. Among municipals taking Roe bodies by this time were Ramsbottom, Rotherham, Northampton, Doncaster, Leeds, Oldham, Bradford and the Teesside Railless Board, most of whom would continue to be Roe customers for a long time; chassis included Bristol, Guy, Thornycroft and AEC. The first double-deck motorbuses were for Doncaster in 1925 on AEC, a year later Roe were building 30 ft-long six wheeled double-decks for Oldham on Guy chassis. Unlike London at the time all of Roe’s double-deck customers specified closed-tops on the upper deck. In 1926 Straker-Squire finally folded and Roe stored uncompleted vehicles for Clough, Smith prior to a new arrangement which saw their electrical equipment fitted to Karrier chassis. Also at this time Roe started building enclosed, or saloon, coaches which were often fitted to chassis which had previously carried charabanc bodies, Roe having a surplus of second-hand charabanc bodies by 1925. Two further debentures were called for, but this time it wasn’t to keep the business going, but to fund the expansion of the premises.
1935 AEC Regent originally with Roe H30-26R body
One of the more significant patents to emerge from Cross Gates was number 313720 registered in 1928 the name of the Company, Mr C.H Roe and Mr William Bramham, the works manager who was later to be general manager at Eastern Coach Works at Lowestoft, Northern Coachbuilders of Newcastle upon Tyne and Saunders-Roe of Beaumaris. This concerned a continuous machined teak waist rail designed to double-interlock with the vertical teak pillars and the steel reinforcing strips, once assembled also binding those to the outer panels; it could be accurately described as an early example of system-built coachwork. New chassis makes bodied in the late twenties included Albion and Crossley, both of whom chose Roe bodies for demonstrators, in Crossley’s case for its first double-decker. Trolleybuses continued to figure, makes including Karrier-Clough and Guy, the three-axled double deck now being the common form for these, customers including Bloemfontein, South Lancashire Transport and corporation fleets including some detailed above, Doncaster for example taking one of the only two Bristol trolleybuses with a Roe body in 1928.
1935 Roe H26-22C bodied AEC Regent
Another significant patent was jointly granted in 1930 to the company, Mr Roe and J.C. Whitely the general manager of Grimsby Corporation for a central entrance double decker with a distinctive design of staircase which rose transversely two steps to a wide landing and then branched into forward and rearward ascending longitudinal flights to the upper deck. Roe built bodies to this style until 1950 and licencees included H. V. Burlingham of Blackpool.
1936 Leyland Cub KPZ2 with Roe bodywork
In 1934 five years after the original company was wound up, the board agreed to remove the (1923) from the current company name. At the same time share capital rose to £12,000 and the current mortgages and debenture were repaid in favour of a new first mortgage.
1936 Leyland KPZ2 Cub with Roe B24F body
In 1935, encouraged by the chassis builder, a Commercial Motor Show exhibit was built on an AEC Regent chassis for Leeds Corporation, this bus had a rakish streamlined outline and a full-width cab but more importantly had an all-new steel framework patented by the company, Roe and Bramham (who became a director that year) and a ‘Safety Staircase’ patented by the company, Roe, Bramham and William Vane Moreland, the general manager of Leeds City Transport. This staircase on a rear platform bus gave less loss of seating capacity than the straight staircase favoured in London and Birmingham but intruded less onto the boarding platform than the normal semi-spiral arrangement whilst being superior to either layout in having two broad landings allowing boarding and alighting passengers to pass on the staircase. It became a standard feature of all subsequent peacetime Roe double-deck bodies for Leeds Corporation and was widely employed by other fleets, 777 examples being built by Roe prior to expiry of the patent in 1950.
1936 Leyland TS7 with ROE B32 F Body
During World War II, Roe mainly continued to build passenger bodies, although supplying the war effort more directly with such specialised bodywork as mobile printing presses for field communications use on Foden Lorries and articulated mobile kitchens, canteens and dormitories to assist blitzed factories. These were on semi-trailer chassis coupled to Bedford tractor units. Similar bus-seated vehicles were built mainly for use within Ordnance factories (where they became known as Bevin buses) but two were supplied to Liverpool Corporation and briefly used as service buses (1942-4) before being converted to mobile canteens. More normal passenger vehicle bodies were built during the war to the Government-mandated ‘utility’ outline including 240 single-deck 32 seaters on Bedford OWB chassis and over 400 double-deck bodies on Guy and Daimler motorbuses and Sunbeam trolleybuses, most to the sunken upper deck offside gangway or lowbridge layout.
1936 Leyland TS7c with Roe B34F body
In 1945 nominal share capital increased to £108,000 and the valuation of the works increased to £98,000. In 1939 both the English Electric Company and Metro Cammell Weymann had approached Roe about amalgamation or takeover and in 1945 talks were opened with Mumford of Lydney in Gloucestershire. These talks were inconclusive but in 1947 Park Royal Vehiclesbought a controlling shareholding in the company, three Roe board members were replaced by Park Royal directors and C.H Roe joined the board of Park Royal. In 1949 Park Royal were taken over by Associated Commercial Vehicles by then the parent company of AEC, Crossley and Maudslay.
1937 AEC Regent Roe Pullman H31-25R
The ACV years
Although ACV owned three chassis manufacturers and three coachbuilders (Park Royal, Roe and Crossley) they did not try to tie the hands of customers. Some rationalisation happened early in that any orders for Park Royal composite bodies were transferred to Roe, and steel-framed bodies were either built by Park Royal or by Roe using Park Royal frames. By the mid-1950s all metal-framed bodies by ACV, regardless of coachbuilder, had a Park Royal outline.
1937 Bristol JO5G with Roe B32F body
The flagship of the Roe composite body range was however exclusively built on AEC Regent III; this was the Pullman body, the only Roe bus ever to be named. The prototype – a Leeds bus to the specifications of W. Vane Moreland – with its deep windows and four window bays rather than the then standard five had looked ultra-modern when shown on a pre-war Regent at the 1937 Commercial Motor Show in London, it is an acknowledged influence on the London Transport designers whose RT1 appeared two years later with similar construction and outline.