Whatever Happened To: Dennis Fire & Rescue Appliances

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Andy Goundry looks at the almost silent demise of Dennis Specialist Vehicles who are still the by-word for fire and rescue appliances:

A Dennis Sabre XL from the Kent County Fire & Rescue Service
A Dennis Sabre from the Kent County Fire & Rescue Service

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, although most folk have not realised, this iconic vehicle has all but disappeared from Britain’s streets. Other than as guest appearances in television 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, originally owned by Duple Coachworks, alongside their refuse vehicle cabs which used very similar 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, firstly due to the incredible success of the Dennis Dart midi bus, followed swiftly by the low-floor Trident 2 and 3 double deck ranges.

The Dennis 'RS' chassis was a hugely popular and regarded vehicle  (Devon Fire & Rescue)
The Dennis ‘RS’ chassis was a hugely popular and regarded vehicle (Devon Fire & Rescue)

The rapid growth in vehicle volumes and profitability led in late 1998 to an unwelcome takeover by the Mayflower Corporation, who already owned Alexanders, one of the major bus bodybuilders, and who fancied that they could grow the combined business to still headier levels. Mayflower 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, 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.

Despite being retired and exported from Cleveland Fire & Rescue - This Sabre now stands guard in Bulgaria.
Despite being retired and exported from Cleveland Fire & Rescue – This Sabre now stands guard in Bulgaria.

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 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 Dennis Eagle to relax their stance, then seeking to get the cab manufactured by other specialist contractors. That proved prohibitively expensive, and by investigating the feasibility of fitting cabs from other vehicle manufacturers, 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.

One the final Sabre vehicles destined for Tyne & Wear nears completetion at Guildford.
One of the final Sabre vehicles destined for Tyne & Wear nears completion at Guildford.

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 the many 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 renown 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 produce 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


2 thoughts on “Whatever Happened To: Dennis Fire & Rescue Appliances

  1. I loved the Dennis dustcarts, especially the more than appropriately named ‘Vulture’ model……….lovely !

  2. Might be scope here for an article on other British fire appliance/specialist manufacturers who are still going, eg Carmichael. As Top Gear recently demonstrated, there are a lot of British specialist/commercial vehicle manufacturers still going who rarely get a mention these days.

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