Minibus to Maxi-limo

How far the minibus has come...

Sitting sideways on a bench seat, sweltering, squeezed next to someone you despised and opposite someone notorious for getting carsick, after-school club trips in the minibus could be perilous affairs.

I went to school in the 1980s, when health and safety had yet to be invented. Our aged 1970s ex-rental cast-offs were worn smooth, and you counted yourself lucky if your trip actually began – never mind successfully reached its destination.

By the time I was at secondary school in the early 90s, things became a little more modern. The minibus was now a 1980s Leyland Sherpa. We could now hear one another speak. There was a radio so – naughtily – we could badger the teacher to play Radio 1. And we were no longer forced to wear shorts, so the skin on our legs wasn’t torn off when we climbed out on hot days.

It still wasn’t luxury. We froze in winter and the windows steamed up, forcing us to sketch hilarious parts of anatomy for passers-by to admire. We were now sat facing forwards, but we still weren’t belted in. And the sheer physical effort required to drive the bus, combined with our uncomfortable restlessness, often exhausted the poor teacher more used to driving an Austin Metro.

Like the Python Yorkshiremen, they snapped: we kids didn’t know we were born. They didn’t have minibuses: they had to walk eight miles, in the rain, and then trudge eight miles back, battered and bruised, after an hour of unfriendly football. Their first minibus may have had wooden seats, no suspension and not a second thought to safety or comfort, but it was better than getting blisters. ‘When you put it like that,’ we thought…

For decades, people shuttled around in minibuses had it tough. Vehicles like this were invariably designed first as vans. Carrying people instead of boxes was usually an afterthought. Installing rows of comfortable seats was particularly hard; it was far easier just to bolt in a couple of sideways benches.

Of course, there was no ventilation in there: cargo doesn’t complain about the cold. Or indeed moan that it’s a bit noisy. Only as schoolkids grew into engineers, determined to do something better, did the minibus start to evolve. Seats were turned around, they got some padding, then proper upholstery. Seatbelts arrived, ventilation flowed, windows opened. There were even speakers in the back, as well as the front.

Which brings us to today. The era of LED downlighting for people sitting in the back of minibuses. Proper seats are more like captain’s chairs. Ventilation has become full-blown rear-zone climate control. The sound system is crisp and clear, windows are tinted – and kept clear of condensation by the air-con. Some of the latest even have 12v power sockets and USB charge points.

Engines are quiet, suspension is comfortable, safety is reassured by full seatbelts, airbags, ABS, stability control and decades of progress. Today’s kids travel club-class to their after-school clubs. The only peril these days is the fight to be first in the queue so you can sit at the back of the bus.