For the past 51 years, Collins Bus Corp. has been perfecting its craft, and now it’s ready to take its specialty and apply it to the production of commercial Ford Transit, E-Series, and Low-Floor shuttle models.
The bus manufacturer started out creating Type A school buses, and evolved to producing other specialty vehicles, such as terminal tractors, ambulances, commercial buses, school buses, and construction equipment, under various brands. In the early 2000s, Collins stepped away from the commercial aspect and returned to its roots.
“At the time, I think the focus was to become very singular and be very good at one thing,” says Matt Scheuler, GM of Collins Bus Corp. “If you look across industries, when you find the most successful companies, they are companies that do one thing really well.”
Founded in 1967 in Kansas City, Mo., Collins emerged as leader in the Type A and Multi-Function School Activity Bus (MFSAB) industry through its commitment to safety, structure, and technology.
“We’ve taken all that structure and technology and we’ve moved it right into our commercial platform,” Scheuler says. “I think it’s something we can really promote now in the commercial world.”
Collins’ bus built on the Ford Transit, which is already available for purchase, is being produced for retail markets, such as churches, hotels, and airports. It comes with a long, narrow body and one of the highest passenger capacities available.
“For sure, it’s one of the highest, which makes it special because…we can get a 14-passenger with rear luggage, or a 12 plus two wheelchair positions, or an 18-passenger straight-seated,” Scheuler says. “Others are seeing something much more reduced, like a 12-passenger, in total, or eight-passenger, plus two wheelchair positions. So, I think passenger capacity is going to be special for us.”
Another unique aspect that carried over from the school bus market deals with visibility. The visibility of the loading from the driver’s seat, what Scheuler calls a “view window,” is made almost completely of glass. Drivers can clearly see who’s getting on and off the bus from their seat, an aspect Scheuler touts as “the best in terms of visibility in the marketplace today.”
The commercial Low-Floor, expected to be released this summer, will have a retail fit as well, primarily for assisted-living facilities, churches, and airports, but will also be applicable for transit applications, particularly for paratransit and fixed-route services.
Pre-lowered by design, the vehicle comes fitted with ramp access for passengers, rather than a wheelchair lift on the back. The ramp, which is Collins-produced, is stored in the floor structure itself, and is controlled by a switch.
“One of the nice things is we don’t have the complexity of a system that you have to maintain that’s raising and lowering, and you’re waiting on it to air itself up or to regenerate itself,” Scheuler says.
The Low-Floor shuttle is a wide-body vehicle. With a flat-floor in the wheelchair area, rather than a slope-floor, like most similar vehicles. Scheuler says that it didn’t make sense to have wheelchair positions on a sloped floor, as it increases the possibility the wheelchair will roll while the vehicle is in motion.
Returning to the market
The Type A and MFSAB markets are a closed market, Scheuler says. Annually, about 7,800 vehicles are produced and the markets growth rate hovers between 3% and 4%.
“For us to really evolve into a bigger company, we’ve got to start bolting back on very selective products,” Scheuler adds. “And so, commercial bus for us, obviously, is a natural evolution.”
With a 275,000-square-foot facility and 250 year-round employees, Collins executives believe now is the right time to get back in the commercial game. From 2012 to 2013, Collins redesigned its school buses so they could be used as commercial buses as well.
“So, underneath, structurally, we did it so that it was multi-purpose,” Scheuler says.
REV Group, the parent company of Collins, also cemented its place in the commercial market by buying up several commercial bus companies and consolidating them. Currently, REV Corp. produces about 20,000 vehicles a year, according to Scheuler. He estimates there are about 250,000 REV vehicles on the road today.
Scheuler says it was important for Collins, which is a Gold Star company under REV, to wait for the right product and right time to re-enter the commercial bus marketplace.
Fast forward two to three years and the Ford Transit cutaway debuted. “Collins was one of the first companies to build on that for the school and activity bus market,” Scheuler says. “Well, we didn’t have that product in the REV portfolio of commercial buses. And so, that was kind of our initial, ‘OK, now is the time. Let’s go ahead and start producing a Ford Transit commercial product.’”
School bus at heart
Having its base in the school transportation industry, Collins’ No. 1 priority is safety. With so many tests and regulations required prior to producing a Type A school bus, Collins is building its commercial vehicles to the same rigorous standards.
“It’s really about safety,” Scheuler says. “And, I think what is going to differentiate us a little bit from everybody else is that we built this product to be a commercial product, when the time is right. Now is the time, and now you’re getting all that safety technology that we have in our school buses but carried over into the commercial market.
“Because we’re a school bus manufacturer at heart, our core structure underneath everything you see on the outside is all built around school bus technology,” he adds.
While safety is key, Collins also takes time to consider what its customers want. Through a process called Voice of the Customer (VOC), the company gathers information from departments, maintenance facilities, dealers, contractors, and fleet operators on what they want and need in a product, instead of trying to guess what will be popular.
It’s a process that began with Collins’ school bus division and has been used with every product concept since, including the Ford Transit and Low-Floor shuttles.
“I’ve been with Collins Industries since 2001…and I can say based on just overall experience, that Collins, today, is building the highest quality bus we’ve ever built,” Scheuler says. “From paint to structural to warranty, to anything as far as a quality vehicle goes, our external and internal defects per unit are the lowest they’ve ever been.”