Plaxtons built a number of different coach designs through the 1930s, until settling on a distinctive house style. The style typically consisted of a very rounded front profile at the windscreen area with side windows that sloped backwards at the front, were upright at the centre, and sloped forward at the back. Bodywork for the Bedford WTB chassis was particularly distinctive, sloping severally from the bottom of the front wheel arch to the roofline, leaving the "bullnose" radiator grille protruding. The rear also sloped prominently. The WTB chassis was very popular choice for operators at that time, together with the Dodge RBF and SBF. Leyland and AEC chassis were also popular for larger coaches, notably the Leyland Tiger PS1 and AEC Regal III.
On the outbreak of World War II in 1939, coach production halted and the factory was turned into a munitions factory under the control of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Many records from the early years were lost when an incendiary bomb set fire to the Seamer Rd factory in 1943 causing much damage. As the factory was under control of the Ministry of Works, production continued in the open air whilst a replacement was constructed. Some adjacent land was loaned by a market gardener who subsequently joined the board years later.
In 1951 the business was registered for the first time as a private company, Plaxtons (Scarborough) Ltd.
In 1957 the founder of the company, F.W. Plaxton Senior, died, and was succeeded as Chairman by his son Frederick Jnr, though known as Eric.
In 1958 Plaxtons were approached by Sheffield United Tours (SUT) to design a new crisper design of coach body. The result was the first Panorama body. The main feature of the Panorama design was the large rectangular side windows. A vertical front from the previous Consort II design was used, but with a single piece windscreen. The door was ahead of the front axle and the body could seat 36 passengers. The first production Panoramas had a short window immediately behind the entrance door however this was soon removed and encapsulated into the first bay. The first Panoramas for SUT were built on an AEC Reliance chassis. The 1958 Panorama was entered into the British and the Nice coach rallies, winning top awards at both events. The Panorama became part of the standard product range in 1959, and the design received minor modifications over the next two years.
A new version of the Panorama appeared in 1962 and was altogether a much larger looking vehicle. It had a distinctive front reverse peak overhang at the front dome with a roofline that made the new design look longer than it actually was. The waistline curvature radically reduced to a point where it was almost straight. The rear comprised a two-piece curved glass window that wrapped around to meet the rearmost side pillars. The lights were contained in a single unit with a fin-like top rather like the rear of the first Ford Anglia saloon. The front had a small grill located at the bottom of the front panel.
The Embassy design was for the lightweight chassis - mostly the Thames 570E and Bedford SB. This design had a large wrap-around windscreen with the door behind the front axle. The front grill was oval in shape a chrome flash through the middle. Although the Embassy design was for smaller chassis an Embassy was shown at the 1962 Commercial Motor Show on a newly introduced Bedford VAL 36-ft chassis. This design utilised the large grill from the Embassy (presumably because of the front radiator) but the windows were smaller than the Panorama. It was designated "multi-windowed Embassy" and only six were built. The VAL was mostly bodied with the Panorama-style body.
A new version of the Panorama—designated Panorama I and Panorama II—appeared at the 1964 Motor Show. The waistrail was virtually straight, the roofline distinctly shallower. A wide chrome trim band wrapped around the front and encompassed the first window bay on either side. The trim then swept upwards to the roof line and neatly terminated on the air scoop at the roof line. The window pillar on the first bay was noticeably thicker than the others and gave the impression of size that managed to enhance the appearance of the whole vehicle. The front grill was revised and basically split in two horizontally. Twin headlights each side of a panel that contained ventilation louvres at the top with the lower part comprising the actual grill part that spanned the width of the vehicle. This grill was to become standard with little change until the Supreme IV of 1978. Again a bit of a Plaxton that was instantly recognisable and a familiar sight throughout Britain.
The rear featured two large 9" circular rear lights each side arranged vertically. The entrance door was now the forward in-swinging type. The new design was offered on all medium and heavy weight chassis including Ford R226 and Bedford VAL. Two trim versions were available, called Panorama I and Panorama II. The Panorama II was the cheaper version that was supplied without forced air vents and simpler trim but was provided with top sliding vent windows. The Panorama I in particular sold extremely well.
Plaxton launched a new design - the Panorama Elite - at the 1968 Commercial Motor Show in London. This essentially set the basic design of British coaches for the next 14 years. The design was stylish, with long sleek lines and gentle curve in the vertical plane. The windows were gasket glazed and the glass gently curved in the vertical plane to suit the body curve. The rear again used the large soup plate lights of the Panorama I, and the front grill was also from the Panorama I.
The interior of The new Panorama Elite was to the usual high standard that everyone had come to expect from a leading coachbuilder like Plaxton. It made more use of laminate than before but this was tastefully specified & well balanced. The interior skirt panels, racks and front cabinet made extensive use of this easily worked & easy to maintain material. The analogue clock in the front dome was flanked either side by small square controllable air vents. The dashboard was improved and made use of a panel of rocker switches in front of the driver with each switch designation lighting for night time operation. Previous dashboards hid the switches in places inaccessible whilst moving. Ventilation was again improved though using the same design of moulded air output & light assembly as the final version of the Panorama I. The racks were trimmed with laminate instead of using vinyl like material from the previous design.
The first major update of the Panorama Elite was unveiled at the 1970 Commercial Motor Show at Earls Court London. The changes though relatively subtle were very relevant to a product that had so far enjoyed wide acclaim and sale.
The Panorama Elite II range built on the success of the Panorama I and Panorama Elite. The front grill was squared up although it still used the same twin headlight layout. The first bay on the near side was tidied up so the top of the window was in line with all the other side windows. Parcel racks were redesigned so the supply of fresh air and light output was more readily available. The service units were now mounted front to back instead of side to side and were much slimmer to maximize on headroom when leaving the seats. Crash padding was provided along the inner side of the racks in the form of black PVC squares filled with padding. The dashboard was again improved as was the front cabinet. The rear of the vehicle still used the soup plates from the previous range.
The Panorama Elite III was the last in the Elite series. Improvements continued to the basic Elite design; this included rear lighting, rear emergency door and subtle changes to the front grill. The rear emergency door was brought about by changes in legislation and did improve the offside appearance of the Elite, however some early MkIIIs were completed with front emergency doors. The rear lights abandoned the soup plates in favour of tall lozenge shaped lights and the name badges were re-located from between the side bright metal strips at the back to the front just behind the front door.
All three marques of the Elite range were available with bus grant specification front doors and interiors, although this option was late for Panorama Elite and only a few built. It was however a very popular option for the MkII and MkIII. To complement this destination blinds were also available in both the front grille and on the roof or front dome for front radiator chassis. This became known as "the Bristol Dome" due to the popularity of orders from the National Bus Company for coaches on Bristol RELH and REMH chassis.
The major competitor for the Panorama Elite III was the Duple Dominant launched at the 1972 Commercial Motor Show in London. The Duple was of all steel design and was obviously based on the Elite as many of the attributes designed in Scarborough appeared to hasve been copied. That said it sold quite well but never caught up with the Elite. The mere fact that at the launch only one Dominant was available due to a long strike at the Blackpool factory couldn't have helped much. That was Duple's most important launch for years.
Development of a new coach range to supersede the Panorama Elite commenced in 1974 and was to be called Panorama Supreme, however the Panorama part was dropped in favour of simple Supreme. This series of bodies was to have a long development process as both the factory and work force wasn't equipped for all-steel production at this stage.
At first the Supreme was designed to replace the ageing Panorama IV that was produced on the Bedford VAS and SB chassis for up to 41 passengers. The design for that coach went back to the Embassy body developed in the early 1960s. It had been re-vamped in the early 1970s and given an upright front and rear like the Elite III. Being front engined it had a centre door and still retained the Panorama I style square cornered flat glass windows.
The Supreme was to herald (nearly) all steel construction. Wood fillets still held the panels in place and in some areas wood was sandwiched in "U" shaped steel. It would be 1978 before true all-steel construction was achieved.
By the end of the 1970s the British coach scene was dominated by two similar vehicles - the Plaxton Supreme and the Duple Dominant. In the early 1980s coach services over 30 miles were deregulated and there was an increasing attempt by some operators to compete with the railways and airlines for express and intercity travel. As a result there was a move away from light-weight chassis by Bedford and Ford to heavier-duty chassis from Leyland and Volvo, and an emphasis on improved comfort and amenities. There was also a growing interest from operators in imports from Europe due to their stylish eye-catching designs that attracted passengers. In particular, designs from Neoplan and Van Hool received much attention.
In response, Plaxton returned to Ogle Design to create a new look for their coach products. The result was the Plaxton Paramount, which appeared at the 1982 British Motor Show. The Paramount was a squarer design than the Supreme, with cleaner lines, a flatter roof line and a distinctive "feature window" just behind the front wheelarch. The use of the "feature window" was a return to a trump card played by the Panorama I of 1964. From there the waistline sloped down to meet the deeper windscreen. The new style was considerably more modern and was well received. Initially there were two versions, the Paramount 3200 (available in 8, 10, 11 and 12-metre lengths) and the high-floor Paramount 3500 (available in 11 and 12 metre lengths). Around 30% of Mark I Paramounts were the 3500 high-floor option, a greater proportion than had been anticipated. The rear was similar to Supreme V and VI but all else was new.
In 1984 the design was adapted to produce the Paramount 4000 double-decker coach, initially built on Neoplan underframes. Neoplan's Skyliner coach had popularised the use of the double-deck coach layout, often with a galley, toilet and other amenities on the lower deck. By comparison the Plaxton design was somewhat more utilitarian, usually more focused on higher capacity than on luxury. The design later appeared on chassis by Volvo, Scania and DAF.
In July 1989 Plaxton bought the manufacturing rights for the coach products of its main domestic competitor, Duple for £4 million. This included the jigs for the Duple 300 and the Duple 425 integral. Duple Services Ltd., the spares and repair business, was also purchased. The 320 was re-worked by Plaxtons at Scarborough later in 1989 and 25 were built and sold as the Plaxton 321. Many components from the Paramount were used both internally and externally. Identifying traits being the squared up wheel arches and Paramount side mouldings. The 321 was around £6,000 cheaper than a comparable Paramount III. Further batches were considered but it is not know if they were actually built. The 321 was only available from Kirkby. The 340 with the higher floor was considered but none were built. A modified version of the 425 design was introduced in 1991 and was built by Carrosserie Lorraine, a French coachbuilder Plaxton had recently purchased from Iveco. Only 12 vehicles were manufactured, and Carrosserie Lorraine was subsequently closed in 1992.
The Dennis Dart, released in 1989, had been a runaway success, so in 1991 the Plaxton Pointer midibus was announced, this was quite a utilitarian, square body. This was followed by the Plaxton Verde, which Plaxton hoped would match the success of its smaller sister, but it failed to capture the market quite as much as the Pointer, and it was clear that the bus industry wasn't buying 12 m single-deckers in as large numbers anymore. Later that year new coach bodies, the Plaxton Premiere and Plaxton Excalibur, were launched.
In May 1992, after a management shake-up, the company was renamed Henlys Group PLC.
Henlys pursued a strategy of diversification and expansion through the 1990s. The established bus bodybuilder Northern Counties was bought in 1995 for £10 million. The UK bus and coach manufacturing business, trading under the Plaxton brand, continued to produce a range of bus and coach bodywork. It also owned one of the largest UK coach dealers, Kirkby, and provided after-sales services to coach and bus operators.
In August 2000 a joint venture was formed with Mayflower, owners of the Dennis and Alexander brands. The joint venture, known as TransBus International, included only the United Kingdom bus manufacturing operations of both companies, including Plaxton and Northern Counties. Henlys held a 30% stake in the joint venture, which employed 3,300 employees at seven locations. The traditional brands of Alexander, Dennis and Plaxton were replaced by TransBus International. In 2004 Mayflower Group failed, and TransBus International went into receivership. An initial offer from the Plaxton management to buy the coach segment of the company was rejected by the receiver, but was later accepted when a senior TransBus manager and a consortium from Scotland comprising of Brian Souter, owner of Stagecoach Group, his sister Ann Gloag, David Murray and Noble Grossart, agreed to buy the Alexander Dennis portion of the company.
In May 2005 Plaxton announced its return to the service bus market, launching the Centro, a low-floor single-deck vehicle initially to be offered on VDL SB120 chassis, in 10.7 m length, with the first bus completed in February 2006. The Centro is now available on the VDL SB180, VDL SB200, MAN 14.220 and Volvo B7RLE chassis, with 10.2 m and 12 m lengths also offered.
The company also revealed the Primo, a 28 seat low-floor minibus, in September 2005. This 7.9 m long vehicle is powered by the Cummins ISBe Euro III engine, mounted transversely at the rear. The Primo frame is assembled in Hungary by Enterprise Bus, effectively a conventional chassis in most respects but one which extends up to cantrail level, before being shipped to Scarborough for completion.
Both the Paragon and Panther are available in lengths of 12 m and 12.8 m. The Panther is also available in 12.4 m with a front mounted wheelchair lift.
In 2006 the Scarborough factory's paintshop was expanded to allow construction of 15 m coaches for the Stagecoach Group.