By 1997, the fleet of Mercedes-Benz L608D minibuses operated by Midland Red West Limited at their Worcester (Padmore Street) depot was 12 years old and showing signs of age. To replace these, the company ordered a fleet of 64 new Mercedes-Benz O.814 Vario midibuses with B27F Plaxton Beaver Mark II bodywork.
The original specification of these vehicles called for 27 seats, but representatives from the Transport and General Workers Union quickly argued that minibus drivers at Worcester depot had been contracted to drive vehicles with a maximum of 22 seats. The union representatives went on to ask Midland Red West to pay its members an extra 15 pence an hour to cover the extra workload. The company offered to pay the extra but wanted to spread the rise, giving minibus drivers an extra 3 pence an hour above their normal rise each year for five years. Drivers were understandably not too impressed with this offer and proposed a compromise deal whereby they would accept the extra 15 pence an hour spread over 3 years. After lengthy negotiations the managing director, Mr Ken Mills, refused this request and ordered a last minute change to the vehicles specification. The five-seat bench was removed from the back row, and two pairs of double seats moved from the front offside to the back, creating a 22-seat layout with an unusually large luggage rack at the front of the bus.
Deliveries began in the summer of 1998, and all 64 vehicles entered into normal service at Worcester depot on Sunday 2nd August 1998, coinciding with the new ‘S’ registration prefix. However, as Sunday operations only required the use of around five minibuses at the time, most did not get their first outing until the following day. The first seven vehicles delivered, numbers 501–507 (registration numbers R501–R507CNP), saw use as driver training vehicles and demonstrators before this date and were thus registered early, hence the ‘R’ prefix registration numbers. All entered services carrying a variation of the established red and cream bus livery, and displaying the company’s new trading name of First Midland Red, although the company’s legal title remained Midland Red West Limited until 26th March 1999.
The public had their first chance to ride on these new vehicles in June 1998, during Worcester City’s “Green Transport Week,” when Midland Red West operated a temporary park and ride service for the week using the R-prefix vehicles. For reasons best known to themselves, the local management would not allow the driving staff to operate this service, deciding instead to operate this service themselves. Rumour now has it that during this time the then Director of Operations, Mr Colin Aldridge, became the first person at Midland Red West to crash a Vario!
In around late 1999 or early 2000, it was discovered that the step in the door on some of the fleet was coming off. An examination of the rest of the fleet revealed a design fault in the door and Plaxton fitted all 64 vehicles in the fleet with a special bracket to strengthen the step.
In mid 2000, two vehicles, fleet numbers 501 and 502, were moved to Redditch depot and the following year another five vehicles, fleet numbers 503–507, moved to Kidderminster depot. In September 2001, number 561 moved to Evesham depot making this the first minibus of any type to be allocated to that depot, it remained at Evesham for about a month before it returned to Worcester, being replaced at Evesham with 508. In January, Evesham received a second Mercedes minibus, fleet number 525, and number 508 was replaced with 562. Both minibuses moved back to Worcester with the service changes of April 2002, as Evesham no longer required any minibuses.
Fleet number 503 was taken off the road at the start of February 2002 to be repainted into FirstGroup “Barbie2” livery, making it the first vehicle of this type operated by First Midland Red to receive this livery, following that about two dozen of the type received the new livery, but repaints came to an end when withdrawals started.
In November 2002, following cutbacks in local services at Worcester and Droitwich Spa, more of these vehicles moved to Kidderminster depot with a few examples being used for short periods at Hereford (Friars Street) depot. In January 2003, a significant number of local services at Worcester upgraded to operate with larger, low-floor Optare Solo or Dennis Dart buses and more Mercedes-Benz O.814 Varios moved from Worcester depot, replacing older vehicles at Hereford and Kidderminster.
Withdrawals began in February 2004, with three examples passing to First Glasgow, and five going to First Devon & Cornwall. By the end of 2005, more than three-quarters of the Mercedes-Benz O.814 Vario fleet had passed to other companies with FirstGroup, with a total of 41 examples going to First Devon & Cornwall, and only 13 examples remained with First Midland Red. Over the next few years, the number of Mercedes-Benz O.814 Vario minibuses in service with First Midland Red slowly reduced, and by the end of 2007, only four examples remained in service.
Two examples of this type have now found their way into the hands of preservation groups, and with several examples still in service with various operators more may follow.