Chapter 16: Modern Van Hool Buses and Coachesby John Veerkamp with information provided by Walter Deckx
Van Hool has become a household name in the bus and coach business both in Europe and in the US, with an annual production of some 4000 vehicles and the capability of building a wide variety of models to customer request. Van Hool's website www.vanhool.be provides a good overview of the company's history, so only a summary is given here.
Bernard Van Hool had gone into the transport business during the Second World War. When after the war he was faced with the problem of repairing and practically rebuilding vehicles, he decided to go into the bus and coach building business. The Van Hool factory in Koningshooikt, Belgium, was established in 1947.Several generations of Van Hool buses can be distinguished. From 1947 until the mid 1950's buses were built on a variety of chassis for the Belgian market. Van Hool's big success came when an agreement with FIAT was reached, leading to the Van Hool-FIAT semi-integral vehicles which gave Van Hool its dominant position on the Belgian market. During this period the first export orders also came. Because of legal requirements Belgian buses started adopting a quite standardized appearance, with large batches built for the Vicinal Railways, Belgium's national public transport company.
By the mid 1960's both the Vicinal Railways and the Belgian municipal operators had their own standard bus models which were built mainly by Van Hool and Jonckheere. For the private operators, some 150 of whom with around 1,500 buses operated under the banner of the Vicinal Railways and the Belgian National Railways, different models were produced. Those were often built on chassis, with AEC, DAF, Volvo, Leyland and Mercedes as the most popular ones, though there were also some on local Miesse chassis. Two versions were available from the mid 1960's until around 1977. One was a very square bus, the other one had a body that was derived from Van Hool's contemporary coaches. The latter model changed during the beginning of the 1970's.
During the mid 1970's, the Vicinal Railways and other Belgian operators designed, in collaboration with the bus builders, a new standard vehicle, with large windows, a relatively flat floor up to the rear axle, with a step towards the rear, a wide front entrance and center exit, rear engine, large windscreen and destination display. The model was built on chassis as well as an integral bus. Van Hool called it the A120. A special version, with a front end similar to export buses for Sweden, was called the A120P. Large numbers of the A120 were built for all Belgian operators, with limited export, mainly to Luxemburg.
During this period Van Hool exported many buses, with its main markets in the Benelux countries, France, the UK, Scandinavia and various African countries. Though there was a lot of variation, one could still distinguish the typical Van Hool designs.
As virtually each European country had its own bus industry and public transport companies were state owned or depended heavily on state subsidies, the main products were standardized vehicles for the home market. This started changing by the end of the 1980's when European Union regulations called for European wide tenders of government subsidized purchases. The privatization process of public transport companies also meant companies had more liberty in buying the vehicle of their choice. For Van Hool this was the opportunity to enter new markets. A new bus family was designed, this time not to respond to specific requirements of Belgian operators for a standardized vehicle, but to Van Hool's own design. This became the A500-family, which later was extended with the A300 low floor bus family.
Van Hool produces a wide range of coaches, from short vehicles up to 13.5 meter long double deckers. The main market is in Western Europe and Northern Africa, but in addition Van Hool has become the third largest supplier of full size coaches in the US, after MCI and Prevost. For this venture close collaboration with ABC as the Van Hool distributor and agent exists.
In addition to buses and coaches, Van Hool is an important supplier of truck trailers and specialized vehicles. It is the 3rd largest producer world wide of tank trailers. It also built apron buses in various sizes, though none were delivered the past few years.
Over the years, Van Hool has had several production sites in other countries. Van Hool Spain built many buses and coaches during the 1970's and 1980's, but eventually became an independent company and was renamed Hispano Carrocera. At the request of CIE (Irish Railways), Van Hool took over production of buses for that company during the second half of the 1970's as Van Hool-McArdle. After a few years, however, Van Hool withdrew from the agreement. Van Hool helped set up bus building in Tunesia by STIA. Beginning of the 1970's, Van Hool took a stake in Cummins in Brazil, together with Cummins US and Marcopolo, making its know-how available. Currently De Simon (www.desimon.it) in Italy finishes Van Hool buses for the Italian market while a Greek company has been doing the same for that market.This update, however, concentrates on the current Van Hool bus range, as introduced by the end of the 1980's.
The A500/508/600/700 family, 1985Mid 1970's a new standard bus model was developed by the Belgian public transport operators and the industry. Van Hool called this model the A120. It had a rear engine, wide doors, large windows and a relatively low floor in the front part, with a step behind the central exit door. Large numbers were built, mainly for Belgium. Soon afterwards, Van Hool developed both and articulated bus and a midibus, using a new concept. As a rear engine in an articulated bus was still complicated at that time, Van Hool wanted to keep the engine in the front part of the vehicle. As an underfloor engine would have meant raising the floor height, Van Hool decided to locate the engine on the floor, in the passenger compartment, on the left hand side of the vehicle, between the axles. Several series articulated buses using this concept were built for Brussels, Liège, and the Vicinal Railways in Belgium. The same concept was used for the midibus, which in addition with a single rear wheels gave it a full flat floor and an excellent passenger flow in conjunction with the rear door. This made the bus very suitable for high frequency short distance inner city services. Only three were sold in Belgium, but the model became quite successful in France.
Van Hool used the concept of this engine location in a new full length integral bus, which was presented at the UITP congress in 1985, called at the time the A280. This standard length (11.80 m) model had a curved front end, lower floor than the previous standard A120 model, and an MAN engine that was located between the axles on the left hand side of the bus, on the floor. This permitted a low floor over the full length of the bus and the possibility of a rear platform with wide rear exit doors. Several prototypes were built and tested before series production began. From 1986 until 1989 some 30 were built, among others 3 for the STIC (city service in Charleroi, Belgium), 10 for the then still existing Vicinal Railways in Belgium (SNCV/NMVB) for city services in Aalst, 9 for TL, Lausanne, Switzerland, 2 for VMCV, Montreux, Switzerland, and 4 for a French company in Draveil. In 1988 the model was renamed A500, referring to the floor height of around 50 centimeters (48 cm in reality). Over 600 buses were delivered up to 1998, when the model was basically phased out, though a few were delivered later. Over 300 went to Belgian operators and over 200 to France, but there was also a batch of 40 for ETUSA in Algeria and a few for Italy. Interestingly the model was used for airport services in various places. In addition to Brussels Zaventem Airport, 2 went to Riga Airport in Russia, 3 to Leeds and Bradford Airport in the UK, and 6 to Dublin Airport in Ireland. Most had MAN engines, but the Leeds and Bradford Airport buses had Cummins engines. The normal door layout was three wide doors, but the SNCV, Belgium, had a series of experimental 2-door buses with a far rear exit. These had model designation A500/1. The A500/3 was a French version built in 1997.
A special version was the one with seats placed directly on the floor instead of on a platform. This version was called A500PL (Podestloos) and was built for TEC Liège-Verviers in Belgium. With 180 buses, Brussels city service STIB was the largest customer for the model.
In addition to the over 600 buses mentioned above, TEC Charleroi in Belgium received in 1998 85 A500/2 with Caterpillar engines. These had the A300 body model but the floor height of the A500 and thus complicate model recognition considerably.
Several other models received the same new body model. The prototype of the short version was called A500M, but later renamed A508, with a length of just under 9 meters. It was basically the old AU138 with the new body model. It is only 2.3 meters wide, whereas the larger buses are 2.5 meters wide. The prototype came in 1987 and a total of over 550 were built until 1998, when it was phased out in favor of the A308 full low-floor bus. As with the A500, some of the last vehicles have an A308 body, making them externally indistinguishable from the real A308. Door layout is normally with a front entrance and rear exit, though 5 buses were built for a Dutch company with central exit doors. Most had MAN engines, but there were considerable numbers with Cummins engines for De Lijn and TEC in Belgium. Five Dutch buses had DAF engines and 15 Swedish ones received Volvo engines. The largest customer was ETUSA in Algeria, which received 151. Another Algerian company, EGSA, added another 4. France was the second best customer, with 205 which went to a variety of customers. Some 88 went to Belgian operators, 35 to Switzerland, 38 to Spain, 10 to the city service of Aachen in Germany, 16 to Sweden, and 8 to the Netherlands. Airport use was again responsible for some deliveries to other countries. Six went to Turkish Airlines in Istanbul, 8 to Washington Airport in the US, 2 to Bahrain Airport Services in Bahrain and 1 to Luxair in Luxemburg.An even shorter version was called A507 (7.68 m) but only 34 were built, of which 33 went to OAS in Athens, Greece, and 1 to Stadtwerke Marburg in Germany.
On the other end of the scale the articulated 18-meter version was built, called the AG700. It is the direct successor to the A280, but with the new body model. The first ones appeared in 1989/1990 and went to Canada, where 22 entered service with the Société de Transport de la Rive Sud in Montreal. Another 3 went to Montreux in Switzerland. Just over 200 were built until 1997, when it was replaced by the AG300 and AG500 series. In addition to the 22 for Canada and the 3 for Switzerland, 10 went to Algeria, 20 to Spain, 101 to France and 47 to Belgium. The single largest customer was STRD in Dijon, France, which took 66. The concept was again the same, with the engine on the floor on the left hand side of the vehicle behind the first axle, but with a slightly higher floor due to the articulation. The length of this vehicle is typically 17.7 meters, but may vary. Door layout may be 3 or 4 doors.
A rare version is the AG900 of which only 6 were built in 1992. Five went to STRAN in St Nazaire, France, and 1 to operator Voyages Goddyn, also in France. It basically is an AG700 with a higher floor and narrow entrance and central doors. The third door is wide. As a result they have a higher seating capacity. They are used as school buses.In 1996 Van Hool introduced the articulated version with the floor height of the A500, called the AG500. It has the body model of the low floor AG300 but has the higher floor of the A500 with a step at the entrance and a somewhat different wheelbase. Externally, however, both models are difficult to distinguish. This version was bought by De Lijn in Belgium, who took over 60 since 1996. Because of the higher floor wheels are less intrusive and more seats can be accommodated. De Lijn's full low floor AG300 have 48 seats while the one-step AG500 has 59.
Externally similar but conceptually different was the interurban version, called the A600, in which a low floor height was considered less important than a high seating capacity. This vehicles was the continuation of the successful A120. The engine was placed in the rear of the bus under the floor, with as a consequence a higher floor, especially in the rear end, with a step behind the center door. Engines are mainly MAN or DAF, but there were also a few with Mercedes and Cummins engines. A few buses of Belgian private operators later received Gardner engines. Length is typically 11.7 m and floor height is 500 mm at the front door and 545 mm at the center door. Because of the higher floor in the rear, door layout is with a front entrance and a central exit. Since the introduction of the model in 1989 over 1050 have been produced. Of these over 1020 were for various Belgian customers, 33 for France, 20 for Luxemburg, and 2 for Germany, making this a model for the home market. With a Cummins engined prototype a futile attempt was made to enter the UK market.
The A600 bodywork was also made available on chassis. This version is called the Linea and was introduced in 1992. Known deliveries so far include 13 Scania L94, 44 Scania L113, 22 Volvo B10M, 23 Volvo B10B, and 4 Volvo B10R with private operators in Belgium, 2 Volvo B10M and 1 Volvo B10B for Sweden, 15 IVECO 391.12.29A with ZWN (now Connexxion) in the Netherlands and 46 Mercedes Benz O405 for TITSA, Tenerifa, Canary Islands. Most have front and central doors, though there are a few Volvos with front and rear door. The chassis make is always prominently displayed on the front and rear ends of the vehicle.
The first A500, A600, A508 and AG700 had round headlights. After a few years these were replaced by square ones. Other small improvements were also made over the years. An obvious one was the use of less curved windscreens, similar to the A300-series and the suppression of the black strip above the windows, leaving a narrow white roof line. The A500, A508 and AG700 were phased out by 1998 in favor of the low-floor A300-series. The AG500 also remained in production. Though Van Hool was thinking of phasing out the A600, there still is demand for this vehicle and in 2002 it was modernized and became the New A600.
The A300 low-floor buses, 1993
Based on the A500-family, Van Hool designed a new low-floor bus, called the A300, which was presented in 1991. Floor height was further reduced to some 33 cm, using the same concept of the engine on the floor between the axles. New axles permitted a lower floor over the full length of the bus. The difference with the A500 was immediately visible as the side windows of the A500 reached to the roof line, whereas in the A300 they were placed lower, leaving a broad strip between the windows and the roof line. However, as mentioned before, some A500 were later built with an A300 body, making them almost indistinguishable. It typically has a 3-door layout. The A300 met with considerable success with over 800 sold since its introduction. Deliveries started in 1991/1992 and several went to VMCV in Montreux, Switzerland, which seems to be taking some of the first deliveries of many new Van Hool types. Some 350 went to Belgium so far, with the balance going for export. The Netherlands so far became home to 105 A300, of which 46 for Utrecht had LPG engines. Most of the over 60 delivered to Italy since 1993 were finished by De Simon. Palermo in Italy received 5 in 2001 with open platforms. OAS in Athens bought 111 in 1994. France received at least 122, with Dijon, Tours, Rennes, Nancy and Aeroports de Paris as major customers. Bilbao, Murcia, Albacete and a few smaller operators in Spain received 56. Dubai Aviation took 3 and several went to Germany. Engines are mainly by MAN, though there are also considerable numbers of DAF engined A300. All the LPG engines are DAF. A few German A300's have Mercedes engines.
Again shorter versions were produced. The most common is the 9 meter A308, of which over 200 have been built since 1991. Belgian operators De Lijn (Flanders) and STIB (Brussels) took 116. French operators received 33, and small numbers went to Switzerland, Germany, Luxemburg, Denmark and the Netherlands. British Airways took 32 right hand drive versions for Heathrow Airport services and Dubai Airport took one. Special development included CNG and Hybrid buses. Four of the latter were tested several years in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. A few of the French buses are about 50 centimeters longer (9.44 instead of the standard 8.90 m) and are called A308L.In addition there is the A309 which is around 10 meters long, and the A310. The latter has a width of 2.5 meters, as the full-length buses, whereas the A308 and A309 are only 2.3 meters wide. Only one A310 was built in 1995 as a demonstrator. Later it was sold to STACA, a private Belgian operator. Two A309 were built for a Swiss operator in Bern. While the A308 and A309 have the single rear wheels, the A310 has double wheels, making it more a shortened A300 than a lengthened A308.
The articulated bus is known as the AG300 and is conceptually similar to the A300. Over 400 have been built since its introduction in 1993. This bus meant the first larger entry for Van Hool into the very nationally oriented German market, with some 60 sold to various companies, such as Krefeld and Duisburg. Similar numbers went to France (Strasbourg, Rennes) and Italy (Torino, Venice). The latter were finished by De Simon in Italy. Lausanne and Bern in Switzerland took 25. Utrecht in the Netherlands received a batch of 15 with DAF LPG engines. Though MAN engines were most common, quite a few buses had Mercedes engines, not only all the Italian and German ones, but also some of the French ones.
A special development was the double-articulated bus with a length of some 24 meters, called the AGG300. One was a 1992 AG300 that received a third section in 1993. It was used as a demonstrator for, among others, Utrecht in the Netherlands, in Switzerland, Oberhausen in Germany and both the TEC and De Lijn in Belgium. It was recently sold to Angola. A second one was built in 1998 for the TEC in Liège, Belgium, where it is still used. The first series production is of the New model, as described below.
Based on the A300, Van Hool developed 3 other models which are technically different, the A320, A330 and A360. The A320 has a rear engine and a floor that slopes up slightly behind the rear axle. This means that front and rear axle are of the model as used for low-floor vehicles. In the rear of the bus some space is lost because of the engine, but there is still space for a rear door. The A330 has a vertical rear engine on the floor in the left rear corner of the bus. While it does take up space there, the floor is flat over the full length of the vehicle and a larger rear platform and a door can be provided. The A360 has a rear engine under the floor and a step behind the center door. The front part is full low floor, which distinguishes it from the A600, which has a normal floor in the front part. So, in summary, Van Hool has combined engine location and type of axle to provide a range of vehicles with various low-floor configurations:
- A300: engine between axles on floor, full length low floor, length 11.99 m.
- A320: horizontal engine in rear under floor, low floor until behind rear axle, then sloping up, length 11.66 m.
- A330: vertical engine in left rear corner on floor, full length low floor, length 11.99 m.
- A360: horizontal engine in rear under floor, low floor in front part, step behind rear door, length 11.85 m.
In May 2001 Van Hool presented the redesigned New Look A300-range at the IUTP conference in London. At the October 2001 Kortrijk show more buses were shown. The model is a continuation of the existing A300/600 series with improvements and a new body design. First presented were a prototype New A320 and New A330, a New AG300 for Connexxion in the Netherlands, and a New A308 for Montreux in Switzerland. An A330 for TEC and an A360 for De Lijn, both in Belgium, were still of the old model. Series deliveries started end of 2001 with a series of 33 New AG300 for Connexxion in the Netherlands, used on a new 26 km high speed dedicated bus system between Haarlem, Schiphol Airport and the south-eastern part of Amsterdam. A second series of 16 AG300 was destined for the Rive Sud company in Montreal, which already owns 22 AG700. In May 2002 the first double articulated New AGG300 were delivered to the town of Utrecht, for a heavy traveled corridor between the main railway station and the university area. In 2002 the first New A600 was built for a Belgian operator. An important new customer is Oakland in California, which ordered 40 AG300 and 119 A300, presumably of the "New" series. They will have Cummins engines.
In recent years, Van Hool has been experimenting with hybrid vehicles (the A308H), compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles and LPG vehicles. The latter are quite successful and can be found in various cities around Europe.Van Hool's first trolleybus was a prototype based on the older AG280 vehicle, built in 1980. It resulted in an order for 20 vehicles for a new system in Gent, Belgium, which was opened in 1989. These buses were also of the AG280T model, though to a slightly modernized design. The new A300 range has also been built in trolleybus version. The 12 meter A300T was built for in 2000 for Athens, Greece, with a series of 75 for ILPAP. The articulated version, AG300T, was built for Arnhem in the Netherlands. The first bus, 0201, delivered in 1994, was a so-called Duobus, with electric propulsion and a normal diesel engine. The series version, 0202-0210, delivered in 1997, only had an auxiliary engine for emergency use. In 1994/1995 Montreux in Switzerland received a series of 18 AG300T, and Salzburg in Austria one in 2000. In 2002 similar vehicles were built for Esslingen (9) and Solingen (20), in Germany. In spite of being built after the introduction of the New series, these featured the old type of bodywork.
With the introduction of its new bus range end of the 1980's, Van Hool has managed to establish a firm market presence in a range of European countries, notably Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain, while it also managed to enter new markets in Italy and Germany. The recent orders from North America further extend the market. Since its presentation in 1985 some 5000 buses of the A500/300/600 range have been built.