From bikes to buses, Walter Alexander was the Falkirk Bairn who got the district moving and laid the foundations for the area to become the home of Britain’s biggest bus builder.
The company which now operates under the market-leading Alexander Dennis Limited banner celebrates 100 years of involvement in the bus business this year, ensuring its founder’s vision that people will want to use a bus to get where they are going lives on and has a bright future ahead.
Walter Alexander was just 24 and a full-time fitter at a local foundry when he opened a small cycle shop in Camelon in 1902. The district was at the heart of the industrial revolution and he saw a way to make it pay by building bikes which would be used by hundreds of workers to get to the sprawling foundry complex that was Carron Works.
By 1913 there had been little or no challenge to the Falkirk and District Tramways Company’s circular route launched in 1905 and covering just seven miles, linking Falkirk and Larbert with Camelon. Walter Alexander, recognising the rising demand for an efficient public transport system, moved to fill the gap.
He launched Alexanders Motor Service that year with one chain-driven Charabanc supplied by Belhaven and ran it between Falkirk and Bonnybridge. By 1919 two more Belhavens and a Leyland, bought from RAF surplus, had been added and passengers were using Alexander’s to travel to Grangemouth and Denny.
By 1924, with the iconic W.Alexander & Sons Limited logo already registered at premises in Brown Street, Camelon, he was so convinced the ‘omnibus’ had a future he decided that as well as running buses he would build his own and within four years was not only providing bus bodies for his own fleet but supplying them to other operators. Demand was so high Brown Street was expanded to meet the demand.
In 1928 the fortunes of the Alexander family were assured when fierce lobbying by Britain’s four main railway companies saw Government legislation introduced to allow them to provide a bus service.
They opted to buy into existing bus operators and each bought a stake in the Edinburgh-based Scottish Motor Traction Company Limited. W. Alexander and Sons Limited was an obvious big player in the venture and in 1929 sold its bus building business to the SMT Group.
Production was moved to Drip Road and its main depot to Forth Street in Stirling with Brown Street concentrating on the repair and maintenance of the ever-growing Alexander fleet.
Under the SMT umbrella the Camelon business changed but the name did not - a reflection of how highly regarded Alexander’s was rated. The family remained in direct control with the two Walters, senior and junior, working side by side as joint managing directors.
In 1945 the Labour Government nationalised bus services and by 1948 Alexander’s had become Walter Alexander & Co (Coachbuilders) Limited, its bus operations split into three companies, Fife Scottish, Midland Scottish and Northern Scottish by 1961.
The coachbuilding side of the business continued to prosper and saw the firm move back to Camelon in the 1950s to take over a nine-acre site on Glasgow Road, the current home of its main production centre. By 1969 the company was building buses in Belfast and in 1975 broke into the Far East markets.
In 1981 the company won the Queen’s Award for Export and in 1983 was named the largest supplier of double-deck bus bodies in the world. Such success was not ignored and in 1990 the family sold out to Spotlaunch Plc.