Ayrshire Bus Owners (A1 Service) Ltd was a prominent independent co-operative bus operator in Ayrshire, Scotland. Based in Ardrossan, it provided local bus services around the towns of Ardrossan, Saltcoats, Stevenston, Kilwinning, Irvine and Dreghorn, as well as the company's trunk route from Ardrossan to Kilmarnock. It also provided express coach services from Ardrossan to Glasgow throughout the 1980s.
In the early 1900s, public transport in and around north Ayrshire was provided by horse-drawn wagonettes. These vehicles became known as "Here-y'ares", as the driver would often cry out "Here you are for Ardrossan" (or elsewhere). Some of the operators of these carriages, such as Murray Bros. of Saltcoats, would eventually run charabancs and buses, and become members of A1 Service.
Motor buses started to arrive in the area prior to World War I, but it was not until after the war that the number of bus operators in the region would soar due to surplus motor chassis being sold on by the War Department. In the early 1920s there were over 60 operators in an area bound by Largs to the north, Kilmarnock to the east and Ayr by the south. At least 40 of these operators were offering some sort of service between Ardrossan and Kilmarnock, with Scottish General Transport (a predecessor to Western SMT) the only one providing a timetable.
To protect themselves from the much larger Scottish General, many of the smaller operators grouped together and in 1925 began the Ayrshire Bus Owners Association. The association was based on a similar concept in Lanarkshire, which operated as A1 Service. The Ayrshire group also chose this trading name and from 1926 offered a regular timetabled service between Ardrossan and Kilmarnock. Each member of the association continued to own and maintain their vehicles at their own premises, and A1 Service operated as a co-operative, a set-up that would continue well into the 1990s.
Some regrouping took place in the late 1920s, and some members left to form Clyde Coast Services in spring 1929, operating between Saltcoats and Largs. In 1930 more members, including Dodd's Of Troon, broke away to form Ayrshire Bus Owners AA Service, which would later become AA Motor Services, running between Ardrossan and Ayr. Clyde Coast Coaches and Dodd's Of Troon continue to be prominent coach operators in the west of Scotland to this day, though their bus operations were sold to Stagecoach in the 1990s.
The regulation of the British bus industry was introduced under the 1930 Road Traffic Act and Traffic Commissioners were introduced to licence operators, vehicles and routes. This prompted the Ayrshire Bus Owners to organise in a more formal manner, and the legal company Ayrshire Bus Owners (A1 Service) Ltd was created, with a base at Parkhouse Road, Ardrossan.
A mainly blue livery, with light cream round the window areas and a maroon belt was introduced for the owner's vehicles and over the course of 60 years the company would continue as a successful co-operative. Though it was rare for new members to join, many would leave through retirement or ill-health, with their vehicles and shares in the company being sold on to other members. A1 was slow to introduce 'one person operated' buses, and conductors continued on the arterial Ardrossan/Kilmarnock service well into the late 1990s, even under Stagecoach ownership.
In the mid-1990s A1 Service found itself in a difficult position. The only profitable service was the trunk Ardrossan/Kilmarnock service, which operated every 10 minutes and demanded the use of double decker buses. This became difficult for the A1 members as the shorter local services did not justify the costly use of double deckers, and if smaller vehicles were introduced it would become complex - who would own and operate the smaller vehicles to the detriment of larger vehicles, and if so would it place the larger members in a more advantageous position than the smaller? The company had also been warned about the mechanical state of some its vehicles by the Traffic Commissioner, as many were becoming elderly and unreliable. As a result, some members decided that they wanted out of the company and offered their shares for sale. It quickly became clear that the only way to save the company was to sell as a whole. The owners came to the agreement that they would approach Western Scottish, which had just recently become a subsidiary of the Stagecoach Group, and offer the company for sale. Western Scottish agreed to buy the company and some of its vehicles for £4.3 m, and in January 1995 A1 Service ceased trading as an independent operator and became a subsidiary company of Stagecoach.
At the time of sale, Ayrshire Bus Owners (A1 Service) Ltd operated 97 vehicles, owned by 10 members. A Competition Commission report into the take over cleared Stagecoach of being predatory and approved the sale.
The company was taken over by the Stagecoach Group in January 1995. The simple blue and cream livery the buses wore since the company's formation gave way to the Stagecoach corporate blue, red and orange stripes on white, and the legal name of the firm became Stagecoach (A1 Service) Ltd. Though for several years after the take over buses on the former A1 Service routes wore Stagecoach A1 Service (and later more prominent A1 SERVICE fleetnames), the unit was eventually amalgamated with Western Buses Ltd and all vehicles except those on the arterial Ardrossan/Kilmarnock service began trading as Stagecoach Western. To the present day, however, buses on the Ardrossan/Kilmarnock service continue to trade as Stagecoach A1 Service, complete with the historical blue and cream livery, which was re-introduced when FirstGroup began competing on this service (see Competition, below). Despite the withdrawal of First from Ayrshire in October 2005, new double deck vehicles have continued to be delivered in the Stagecoach A1 Service livery and brand.
Some of the former A1 members continue to operate their own businesses, including Parkhouse Garage of Ardrossan (service station and car repairs), McKinnon of Kilmarnock (haulage) and Steele's Of Stevenston (coach and limousine hire). McMenemy of Ardrossan wound up their car repairs business in December 2004 and sold their premises to Clydeport plc, although the coach hire operation continued a little longer, till March 2005. Though Docherty Of Irvine had always run a parallel coach hire firm separate to A1 Service, this former owner had ventured back into local bus operation around the Irvine and Kilmarnock area in competition with Stagecoach Western in the late 1990s, but has since withdrawn and sold its routes and associated vehicles to Stagecoach Western in October 2004.
The 1980 Transport Act freed longer-distance coach services from regulation and a new operator, Bennett's of Kilwinning, pioneered express services between Ardrossan to Glasgow, at a time when the parallel rail service was less than reliable pending electrification. A1 Service quickly responded by introducing a competing service. Ironically, Bennett's was to be one of the first Stagecoach acquisitions, and A1 Service found itself competing with the fledgling Perth-based operator. Stagecoach withdrew from the service, allowing Henry Crawford Coaches of Neilston to take over, and soon A1 itself would withdraw from the route, leaving neighbouring Clyde Coast Coaches to operate the peak time commuter services between north Ayrshire and Glasgow.
In the early 1990s A1 Service would have its first real taste of competition, from locally-based Valley Bus Company, who introduced a local circular service in the staunch A1 territory of Saltcoats. A1 retaliated swiftly and firmly by introducing a parallel minibus service while its existing local services continued to run unaffected. The fierce loyalty of the A1 passengers and the ferocity with which A1 responded to the competition meant the "bus war" would be short lived, and within a matter of months the new operator withdrew its service.
Despite the opportunities deregulation of the bus industry brought in 1986, A1 Service never sought to expand or compete and continued much of its operation unchanged.
Since becoming part of the Stagecoach Group, A1 has faced more sustained and prolonged competition from FirstGroup. With the introduction of Stagecoach services within the city of Glasgow, First responded by introducing a service between Ardrossan and Kilmarnock. The service would run to the same route and timetable of the Stagecoach A1 Service offering. Competition between the two national operators was fierce in the first few months of First arriving in Ayrshire in summer 1997, and for a number of months both operators ran their services free of charge. First and Stagecoach continued to compete on the trunk route until the withdrawal of First on 8 October 2005.