(first posted 7/9/2016) I’m sure CC readers are familiar with Neoplan Bus GmbH– one of the largest manufacturers of motor coaches and other transport related vehicles in Europe. What you may not know is that from 1981 to 2006 Neoplan also assembled coaches here in the US – and the primary model produced was the AN440 – nicknamed the “Transliner.”
So how did Neoplan come to build buses in the US? Well, picture the US transit coach market in the early 1980’s – the two primary models in use, the GM RTS II and Grumman/Flxible 870, had both developed very poor reputations – the RTS for its HVAC/engine/door woes and the 870 for its cracked A-frame. Neoplan no doubt saw this and concluded timing was good to offer frustrated US transit operators another, more well-built option.
The company had tried once earlier – in 1977 it entered into a small-scale joint venture with Gillig Corp for that company to assemble a version of its mid-sized 30 ft European coach – and called this the Gillig-Neoplan Transit Bus. It found few buyers, and the plug was pulled on the collaboration in only the third year of the five year contract.
The company had better luck in 1981, when it took the larger step of building its own assembly facility, and chose Lamar Colorado as the location for the plant. This New York Times article from 1981 chronicled the excitement as this new facility opened.
The Lamar facility and subsequent follow-on plants in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, and Brownsville, Texas built several different Neoplan models, but the primary coach assembled was the AN440 – a 40 ft, 102 in wide urban transit competitor to the aforementioned GM RTS II and Grumman/Flxible 870/Metro. All the typical North American powertrain options were available; GM, Cummins, Caterpillar, Allison, ZF, and Voith. Engines could be arranged in both “V” and “T” orientation.
In this clip you can hear a Transliner with the distinctive rumble of a Cummins L10G engine and an Allison B400R 6 speed auto transmission.
Later, 35 ft and 60 ft articulated versions were also sold.
A three axle version was produced, mainly for suburban routes. The forward rear wheel is a “tag axle”.
A low floor version was introduced in the mid-1990s.
Neoplan’s main customers were South Eastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA – Philadelphia) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (METRO – DC). SEPTA had at one point over 1,000 AN440s in their fleet.
So, why didn’t we see more of these coaches and what became of the company? Well, regarding the former question, when it began in 1981, Neoplan USA was a direct subsidiary of the main company in Stuttgart. At some point, I couldn’t identify exactly when, Neoplan spun off Neoplan USA – and the company went from a subsidiary to merely an independent licensee. It may have occurred around 2001 when Neoplan GmbH was incorporated into the MAN Group. One could assume that as a separate entity, it received significantly less support and oversight from the home company. Secondly and perhaps related to the first, the buses started to experience problems. Both Washington and Pittsburgh reported cracks in the frames. Then San Francisco also reported frame problems – and noisy cooling fans, faulty transmissions, and maintenance intensive brake systems. Not helping, Neoplan refused to acknowledge or fix the issues plaguing the San Francisco buses.
As to the latter question, sales tapered off as orders were cancelled – Boston cancelled a significant order in 2005. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Aug 2006. It stayed around as a parts provider and then ceased all operations in Oct 2007.
Almost all of these Neoplans have since been retired – some just in the past year. If you see one, it is likely on its “last legs.”