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Wheels of fortune

Gerald Haigh is driven to distraction by the latest school minibus.

You went to the Birmingham Motor Show to get Jeremy Clarkson's autograph and to admire the Dodge Viper, the Jaguar XK8 and the Mercedes SLK. School minibuses, I imagine, were not high on your list of priorities.

They were there, however, I assure you, and in a spirit of self-sacrifice, I tore myself away from the acrobatic dancers on the main part of the Ford stand and went into the corner where their new Transit 17-seater was on display.

Up to now, the biggest Ford-built Transit minibus (as opposed to some freelance conversions) has had 15 seats. The difference is important to schools - not only will a 17-seater take a rugby team and two teachers, it makes it easier for a primary school to send a half class out with adequate adult supervision.

All minibuses are derived from commercial vans, and what makes the enlarged Ford possible is the introduction of a lengthened Transit van. Does it work? Well the 17 seats are there all right. However, although no minibus is as comfortable in the back as either a coach or a car, I found Ford's 17-seater to be very short on knee room. A school planning to carry post-modern sixth-formers over long distances in this minibus, for example, had better have a careful look at the seating arrangements first.

On safety, which is the prime consideration, Ford cannot be faulted. All seats have full inertia-reel lap and diagonal belts, adjustable to the height of smaller pupils. The seat and seat-belt installation is tested to M1 passenger car standards (most minibus installations are tested to M2 which is slightly less demanding). The new minibus also comes with two airbags for the front seats and anti-lock brakes as standard.

The sales of Ford Transit minibuses schools are helped by the Ford Minibus Programme, by which parents and children can save up Barclaycard points towards the cost of a new vehicle.

Seventeen seats, of course, were not news on the LDV stand at the show. Its school minibus has had 17 seats, with lap and diagonal belts, at a very competitive price, for some time - and, I might say, its vehicle provides noticeably more knee room for passengers than the new Transit.

What was new from LDV though, was the Convoy Concept Minibus. In the tradition of Motor Show "concept vehicles" which are not in production, but which test the market and show off ideas, this minibus, developed from its well-known existing school minibus, demonstrates some of the knowledge that LDV has gleaned from its school experience.

The Concept Minibus is finished in American school bus yellow (LDV wonders whether schools might go along with a standard school minibus colour, in the cause of visibility and safety) and there are lots of reflective graphics.

It has air conditioning and overhead storage (where to put bags and equipment is always a problem on school minibuses). Other proposals for the interior include a rear-view TV monitor, a PA system so the driver can speak clearly to passengers, and a seat-belt monitor panel that shows the state - fastened or not - of every seat belt in the vehicle.

All of this could be done if people want it, and to find out whether they do, LDV has produced details and a questionnaire which has been sent to 31, 000 UK schools.

The LDV Concept Minibus is not on the market. If you want a look, it will be visiting dealers and several vehicle shows during coming months - details from the marketing department at LDV. The 17-seater costs Pounds 19,500. For schools, this price includes a package of extras including driver training, painting in school colours and free servicing for 36,000 miles. LDV, Bromford House, Drews Lane, Birmingham B8 2QG. Tel: 0121 327 4487 The Ford Transit 17-seater costs Pounds 23,850. A maximum discount of Pounds 6,000 is available if you save enough Barclaycard points. The schools package includes driver training and free painting in school colours. Details are available on Ford's local rate number, 0345 111888

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