Sunderland shipyard site was transformed into coachbuilder

An Economic bus coach built by ACB in 1949.
An Economic bus coach built by ACB in 1949.

This week we focus on how an abandoned shipyard site was transformed to manufacture commercial and public service vehicle bodies.

Since 1933, Robert Thompson’s shipyard site at Southwick had lain idle after its sale to National Shipbuilders’ Security (NSS) Ltd as part of a government scheme to rationalise redundant shipbuilding capacity during the Great Depression.

With a restrictive covenant placing a 40-year moratorium on shipbuilding, the yard was dismantled, but after years of dereliction, hopes of revival came in 1945.

In December that year, five-times Mayor of Sunderland Sir Myers Wayman announced that a new company called Associated Coachbuilders (ACB) had been established under his chairmanship to build bus and commercial vehicle bodies.

Its directors included a number of well-known Sunderland businessmen.

Key to the firm’s development was acquisition of the Robert Thompson site from NSS and takeover of established coachbuilder Blagg and Co of Hartley’s Buildings, Hylton Road.

Construction of a new assembly shop began in 1946, with erection of a 200ft by 75ft steel-framed building, clad with metal and asbestos sheeting, with a single-span roof.

Work on the building, situated at Thirlwell Road, was carried out by Norton-on-Tees builders Lane, Fox and Co. Surviving shipyard offices were also used.

Early prospects looked good; the company had a healthy order book and hoped to recruit several hundred workers, although there were initial difficulties in recruiting skilled tradesmen such as panel beaters, upholsterers, coachbuilders and painters.

Release of skilled men from the armed forces, it was anticipated, would ease the shortage.

ACB built and fitted bodies to an assortment of commercial vehicle chassis, including coaches and buses, besides unusual motors such as a rare 1951 Invicta Black Prince shooting brake.

About 180 buses received their bodies from ACB.

In 1949, visitors were invited to ACB’s assembly shop to view a futuristic prototype bus considered by its designers to be the finest in Britain.

Equipped to luxurious standards, the streamlined vehicle was due to enter production in 1950.

Its Perspex sliding roof and advanced heating and ventilation systems were notable design features.

The ACB Coronation Land Cruiser, a luxury 41-seater luxury coach on a Bedford chassis, was showcased at the 1952 London Commercial Motor Show.

In 1951, failure to win a tender to build 12 double-deck bus bodies for Sunderland Corporation saw the workforce slashed from 250 to 52, although six new green and cream double deckers would be bodied in 1954.

Unfortunately, ACB suffered from fluctuating orders and series of industrial disputes.

In December 1954, the company’s assets were auctioned and the business subsequently dissolved.

Evidence of ACB’s output is still to be seen on the preserved vehicle scene, including two Economic single-deck buses.