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February 26 2018
By Tim Deakin

Tim is the Senior Journalist at routeONE magazine is also the title’s chief test driver, with considerable vehicle knowledge

John Houghton: Four decades' minicoach work

Few people’s time in the minicoach industry will have started as John Houghton’s did back in the 1970s. He’s still going strong, with an EVM Sprinter that will soon be replaced to satisfy London’s coming ULEZ

John Houghton arrived in the UK from New Zealand in the early 1970s

A select few members of the minicoach industry have long and illustrious careers, and John Houghton is among them. He runs London-based John Houghton Luxury Minicoaches with a single Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, but his experience in the sector is – arguably – second to none.

John hails from New Zealand, his parents having emigrated there from Scotland. He came to the UK in the 1970s on a six-month break from his job in his native country’s H. M. Customs Service, with a promise from his boss back home that his position would be held for him.

“One day I was in a travel agency in Haymarket in London looking for work. I told a chap that I wanted to do some driving, thinking that anything he had would be within the city.

“Instead, he said he was going overland to Greece the next day to replace a driver on a minicoach tour and asked me if I wanted to go with him.

“It sounded good, so away we went. We drove through what was Yugoslavia, into Albania and on to Greece, where we met the vehicle outside Athens.”

That was John’s introduction to minicoaches. He and another employee took over the 12-seater – its existing driver having been dismissed – and worked their way back to London. Upon arrival, he was offered more work.

“I jumped at it, and when it was time to depart on the next tour and the luggage was strapped onto the roof rack, the boss appeared. ‘You’re on a nine-week tour of Europe. Do you know where you’re going?’ he asked. ‘Yes, roughly’, I said. And off I went. I was thrown in and I was going to sink or swim.”

Voyage of discovery

The next seven years saw John travel across Europe, first in minibuses and then in larger coaches. He visited all of the former Communist bloc countries and went as far as North Africa on occasion. In between he returned to New Zealand for one southern hemisphere summer, driving coaches there.

John’s memories of criss-crossing Europe and beyond are all documented

One of the UK operators that he worked for saw something in him, and he was promoted to a managerial role. That continued with a subsequent employer that specialised in band work, which is where two unloved minicoaches caught his eye.

“They had no regular drivers, meaning that they were always dirty. But the operator would do work for record companies in them, which paid very well. At around the same time, I’d had enough of working for someone else and I wanted to do my own thing,” he explains.

Buying the two minicoaches from his then employer was not on the agenda, so the only way to get up and running was to order one of his own. So it was, in 1987, that he visited a converter called Made-to-Measure in Manchester and did a deal for his first vehicle.

Connections in the music industry put John in a privileged position and he was able to hit the ground running with work that was complemented by private tours.

“Then I discovered that if you only have one minicoach, it can be difficult to cover every job that is available. At that time, if you subcontracted work out, it was likely that you’d lose it. So I bought another vehicle.”

Building momentum

The initial idea for John Houghton Luxury Minicoaches was to have a fleet of six or seven vehicles, but in reality it has never had more than four. Drivers soon were employed and the amount of time that John spent on the road reduced, but renting an office was a short-lived experiment.

“That didn’t work out. Even when I was out of the office, the phone was still ringing and I decided to work from home instead. If you’re running a small business, it’s 24/7. It’s every day of the week, every week of the year,” he says.

The existing Euro 5 EVM Sprinter will soon be replaced by a Euro 6 model

One approach that remains the same today is how quotes are handled. Much of John’s work comes from existing clients with agreed rates, but when a new customer calls, they are given a price immediately.

“The only exception to that is a complicated tour, where mileage and other factors need to be worked out. But if it’s a straight hire, I price it straight away.”

By his own admission, John is picky about the work that he takes on. A lot is for corporate customers, and tours for regular clients are prominent. He is also in the privileged position of being a regular transport provider to the government.

“Clive, my driver, has been with me for a long time, and one of the reasons that he has stayed is because the work is good.

“The reason that I cut down from four vehicles to two and then to one was drivers; I can’t find more of the kind that I want to employ,” he explains.

Two-man band

Clive handles most of the driving in the Sprinter, although John does some when required. He also has a Volkswagen Transporter people carrier that does jobs as needed.

The arrangement works well from a customer’s point of view. As Clive is almost exclusively the Sprinter’s driver, it allows hirers to be given exactly what many of them want, and are prepared to pay for – a personal service.

“Larger companies may find it more efficient to use one driver in the morning for a client, and then a different one in the afternoon. That doesn’t always function well in practice; when you are working for some customers, they can change things at very short notice, and if you can’t flex to match what they want, they will go somewhere else.”

Fleet peaked at four minicoaches; trimmed as recruitment became tricky

London: Not easy

Doing the kind of work that John does means that clients are often also particular about vehicle standards. The Sprinter is approaching five years of age and it will be replaced by a new EVM conversion later this year, but not because it’s worn out.

“Some days are very low mileage. It can be a five-minute trip from the hotel to the drop-off point and then Clive has to park somewhere until he is next required by the group,” John says.

When parked, the Sprinter acts as a mobile billboard. Although the sides are free from signwriting, the rear has clear contact details affixed. John’s insistence that it is kept clean at all times also contributes to a positive image.

What will see off the existing Sprinter, which has proved to be an excellent workhorse, is London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). It is a Euro 5 model, and so will not be welcome in the ULEZ from next year.

“The Sprinter that I currently have is in perfect condition. I normally change vehicles at five years of age, but I was putting it off until I read an article about the ULEZ,” John says.

“95% of my work is in the ULEZ, and even when the minicoach is going on tour, it picks up there. I have to give EVM credit. I called and within day or two Regional Sales Manager David O’Leary visited me to work out the specification. It didn’t take long, because I wanted the same as before.”

John looks back at four decades in minicoaches fondly; still going strong

Congestion in London is another bugbear for minicoach operators, along with the Embankment Cycle Superhighway. When passengers are dropped off or picked up, they have to cross the cycle lane to reach the pavement, and that is an accident waiting to happen, says John.

Looking back fondly

With a new minicoach on order, good work for corporate and government clients and a long-serving driver, John is in a position that many in the industry would envy.

But he’s come up through the ranks the hard way, tramping the highways and byways of Europe and beyond for a number of years while learning the business.

It’s incomprehensible to think that the same could happen again; low-cost airlines have killed most road-borne tourism from the UK to the continent, and the number of travellers that would be happy to spend up to nine weeks working their way around Europe in a minicoach with camping gear is minimal.

Back in the 1970s it was a different matter, and there was a constant stream of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans who saw the ‘big trip to Europe’ as part of growing up. John was among them, but unlike most of the passengers he carried in those days, he stayed here.

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