To people of a certain age, the name Dennis is synonymous with shiny red fire engines, and has been so for almost the whole of the 20th century. And yet this iconic vehicle has quietly all but disappeared from Britain’s streets, other than as guest appearances in TV dramas. Dennis have not made a fire engine for several years: so what happened to this once-familiar sight?
Dennis traditionally supplied around 50% of the UK’s annual purchase of fire engines, typically around 100 per year. Whilst not a large number, when combined with Dennis’s other specialised chassis products, such as refuse collection vehicles and buses, the steady profitability of the company was almost assured. Indeed, a dip in the annual market for one of the three product lines was often balanced by a corresponding increase in volume elsewhere.
Fire engine manufacture was thus a key part of the Dennis portfolio. Chassis were assembled at Guildford, with the highly specialised and purpose-designed cabs being built at the Dennis Blackpool factory alongside their refuse vehicle cabs. The Blackpool plant was originally owned by Duple Coachworks, and used construction techniques suited to the low volumes of both products. Matters began to change in the mid 1990’s however, as bus chassis production ramped up, initially due to the incredible success of the Dennis Dart midi bus which was followed swiftly by the low-floor Trident 2 and 3 double deck ranges.
The rapid growth in vehicle volumes and profitability led in late 1998 to an unwelcome takeover by the Mayflower Corporation. Mayflower, who already owned Alexanders, one of the major bus bodybuilders, who fancied that they could grow the combined business to still headier levels. They saw little future in Refuse Vehicles, where volumes at that point being at a low ebb, and offloaded the Refuse Vehicle business in 1999.
Ironically, in reality the groundwork put into developing the Elite refuse collection chassis whilst the company was in Dennis ownership meant that sales of the Elite prospered post-Mayflower, and indeed the Dennis Eagle business, as it became under its new ownership, never looked back. Old loyalties to the original Dennis Guildford business meant however that the fire engine cabs continued to be produced at Blackpool very successfully.
Mayflower however had over-extended themselves financially to buy the Dennis business – renamed ‘Transbus International’ and were unable to achieve their expected returns, to nobodies surprise but their own, and with similar financial issues in other parts of their Corporation, they collapsed into administration in March 2004. The remnants of the Dennis bus, coach & fire business were then bought by three Scottish private investors, to become Alexander Dennis Ltd (ADL) with fire and rescue activities becoming a subsidiary part of that group.
Whilst ADL senior management wanted to concentrate on bus production, they were not opposed to the continuation of fire engine chassis production and the two key fire products, Rapier and Sabre, thus continued in production under ADL. However, with the passage of time, old loyalties between Dennis Eagle and the remaining Dennis Fire staff within ADL declined, not least because many key people were lost with the massive redundancies of staff following the demise of Mayflower. Eventually Dennis Eagle found the continued production of fire engine cabs in unpredictable penny numbers just too much of an inconvenience, and advised ADL that they were unable to produce cabs in batch quantities of less than 25 identical cabs.
This put ADL in an impossible position, since fire engine orders were typically received in much smaller quantities, and could involve many different cab variants. ADL Sales, Engineering & Purchasing staff fought a sterling rearguard action, first attempting to persuade Dennis Eagle to relax their stance, and when that failed, then seeking to get the cab manufactured by other specialist contractors. That however proved prohibitively expensive. The feasibility of fitting cabs from other vehicle manufacturers was even investigated, but this option was abandoned as it was felt that it would eliminate one of the key benefits of the Dennis fire product – namely the uniquely purpose-designed cab.
The final measure was to attempt to amalgamate orders from the Brigades to achieve the 25 vehicle minimum order quantity, however this foundered because Brigade ordering schedules were driven by their budgets, and could not be changed. To the dismay of many Brigades, including West Midlands and Tyne & Wear, the last Dennis Sabre chassis was quietly and unceremoniously produced in 2007. Many brigades (as most people like to still refer them as) regarded the Rapier, Sabre and Sabre XL as the finest fire fighting appliances ever produced – they were renowned for their performance and handling.
All was not entirely lost. John Dennis – the grandson of one of the founders of the Dennis empire bought out the fire body-building business from Dennis Specialist Vehicles in 1985, allowing DSV to produce appliances based on other manufacturers chassis. Thus the ‘body-building’ element of Dennis still continues to manufacture in Guildford for the world’s fire-fighters, under the brand of JDC or John Dennis Coachworks.
More information by clicking here: John Dennis Coachbuilders