Review: BCI Classmaster 3 axle

By: Matt Wood, Photography by: Matt Wood


BCI’s three-axle Classmaster appears to be a lot of bus, Matt Wood takes a look

 

Heading back up the Calder Highway towards the central Victorian goldfields town of Castlemaine was literally a homecoming.

I grew up just down the road from Castlemaine on a farm near Maldon, a historic hamlet that bustles with tourists and trinkets most weekends.

But I wasn’t on the road to dabble in antiques or boiled lollies, I was actually on the road to have a look at BCI’s impressively large 71-seat three axle Classmaster.

The bus in question is owned and operated by Castlemaine Bus Lines and, during the school term, can be found engaged in school bus duties, plying the road between Castlemaine and the nearby town of Bendigo.

Both the area and the rural school bus route got me all nostalgic and had me looking back more than a couple of decades to the school bus commute that used to get me from my country home and into Bendigo.

That bus was an old Ansair Bedford which, in keeping with the bus company's tradition of giving all of their vehicles female names, was called Angela.

The driver, Barry had the rather un-PC knack of being able to roll a smoke while steering with his knees, stopping only to ram the impressively long gear shifter home as the tinted glass sun visor above his head beat a staccato rhythm on the windshield while negotiating the sometimes dirt, sometimes broken asphalt country road into town.

One of Barry's most memorable and heroic occasions was when Angela started sliding in the mud on a wet winter’s day and executed a graceful, past 180-degree arc.

Barry hunched over the massive steering wheel in a cloud of tobacco smoke, and spun it like the captain of a sailing ship rounding Cape Horn in a storm.

When the cargo of half cheering, half screaming kids finally came to rest, Barry just calmly ground the Bedford back into gear and lurched back down the road unfazed except maybe for some dropped ciggie ash.

I was hoping that my drive today wasn’t going to be anywhere near as exciting.

 Class

Big bus, no fuss

On seeing the Classmaster for the first time it was clear that school busses had come a long way, and at 14.5m long this was one hell of a big school bus.

At this stage the bus had only covered 5,000km and had just returned from its first service, and as it was now in the middle of school holidays I was able to get up close and personal with the coach-sized school bus.

Out back, motive power is provided by a six cylinder, 9-litre ISL E5 Cummins engine which puts power to the drive wheels via a 6-speed Allison T309 automatic gearbox.

The ISL E5 uses selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to meet ADR 80/03 emission standards and, in the Classmaster develops 265kW (360hp) and 1,600Nm of torque.

On paper these translate into pretty good figures for a school bus.

Underneath, load-through bins provide nearly 9 cubic-metres of storage, although in this role the most that these bins will see will most likely be the odd tuba, cello or camping backpack.

I climbed behind the wheel of the big BCI outside the present home of Castlemaine Bus Lines (a new depot is currently under construction) and fired up the Cummins.

With the Tracs air-conditioning on full to combat the summer heat, we idled out onto the main street.

One thing became apparent quite quickly, the 14.5m long Classmaster is deceptively nimble in a way that belies its bulk.

The self-tracking lazy axle lets the BCI screw around city corners with ease, yet rear swing clearance remains easy to accommodate.

 

Country road blues

Performance from the Cummins feels adequate if a little sedate at city speeds, but once out of town I was able to urge the Classmaster up to highway speed reasonably easily.

Cruising at 100km/h I found quite a bit of wind noise around the entry door well, the plug style door just didn’t seem to seal as well as it could.

Once off the freeway and onto some rough country road a few rattles and squeaks from around the front bulkhead area also emerged.

While the less than perfect road surface may have highlighted a couple of negatives one standout did emerge – the Classmaster sat on the road beautifully.

The air-suspended independent front end tracked well on the uneven road and, even when I had to drop the left hand wheel of the black top to allow for some oncoming traffic, the bus remained stable and easy to control.

The long wheelbase undoubtedly also contributed to the predictable handling of the BCI.

Class2

Automatic for the people

I wasn’t however, so taken with the behaviour of the Allison transmission behind the ISL powerplant.

The 9-litre ISL engine is generally quite a peaky performer that likes to rev, but in this case the auto kept shifting at well below 1,500rpm making the Classmaster feel a bit sluggish at times. Something I noted when accelerating and merging onto a freeway with only four people on the bus.

I suspect that the Allison shift patterns had been programmed for economy rather than performance, although it’s easy for me to be critical, I’m not paying the fuel bills.

I doubt there would be anyone that would be very critical of the retardation capabilities of the Allison auto.

The transmission mounted retarder works brilliantly and in our unladen state only required the first notch on the three stage retarder stalk.

What was rather annoying was the finicky gear selector that more than once didn’t want me to select a gear on take-off unless I applied a gargantuan amount of force on the brake pedal.

Again this is more likely to be an adjustment issue rather than a hardware fault. The position of the accelerator pedal was also an annoyance.

I felt as if I was reaching across to my right for the pedal which wasn’t a position I’d find too comfortable holding for a long period of time.

In the start-stop world of school bus runs the cruise control isn’t going to get much of a work out.

Again, from the driver’s seat there were little things that I felt just weren’t quite up to scratch.

For example the tilt and telescope adjustment of the steering column requires a knob for each action to be loosened on either side of the column.

For a driver who likes to have the wheel close when driving, but likes to be able to tilt it out of the way when leaving the seat this is just way too fiddly to use constantly.

Anyone used to a single action lever or pedal column adjustment will find this a frustration.

I also felt that a saloon door would be a better fit for this bus, you have to expect a certain amount of flex in a body the size of the Classmaster’s and the plug style door struggled to close properly on a couple of occasions when parked on uneven ground.

 Class3

Details and Demons  

What initially comes across as a well presented package seems let down by a collection of minor issues that conspire to let the vehicle down from the cockpit; things like having to reach for the door release switch.

The reverse camera is a nice touch with the images being displayed on the digital menu which is nestled amongst the gauges on the instrument panel.

It is however, useless in direct sunlight as the layout of the panel gives little shading over the instruments.

Mirror adjustment is a two person job as there’s no electronic adjustment and the right hand side mirror can’t be reached from the driver’s seat.

Block style switches are all within easy reach however, and appear sturdy enough to cope with everyday use.

Outside, engine access is a breeze, with both the Cummins and the air-conditioning compressor easily exposed.

The fuel tank is located behind the front axle, yet the Ad-blue tank is down the back of the chassis.

For operators who have their Ad-blue bowser alongside their diesel pumps this makes it necessary to move the vehicle to complete the fuelling process.

Admittedly this isn’t a deal breaker, but it is annoying just the same. 

It seems the devil is in the details and in my opinion it’s the details that let this Classmaster down.

It is actually in a perfect role for its spec that makes the most of the BCI’s prodigious capacity, a role that doesn’t require high horsepower or high tech bells and whistles – a cost effective bread and butter bus doing a bread and butter job.

However, I was still left with the feeling that the big BCI wasn’t as sorted as it could be and certainly not as polished in execution as it should be.

That said, I reckon old Barry would’ve been impressed.

 

PLUSES:

  • Deceptively agile
  • The quiet yet eager Cummins ISL
  • Rock solid on road handling

MINUSUS:

  • Driver’s compartment felt like an afterthought
  • Allison automatic seemed sluggish
  • Wind noise and squeaks around the dash and door area

 

SPECS:

MAKE/MODEL: BCI Classmaster 3 axle

ENIGINE: Six cylinder 8.9-litre Cummins ISLE5 with SCR

TRANSMISSION: 6-speed Allison T390R Automatic with 3-stage retarder.

POWER/TORQUE: 265kW (360hp) @ 2,100rpm/1,600Nm @ 1,200-1,400rpm

SUSPENSION: Front - air-suspended independent with sway bar; rear - air-suspended full floating axle with sway bar; lazy - air-suspended I beam, self-tracking. Reverse lock out.

SEATING: Up to 87 in 3+2 configuration. Example pictured: 71 passengers

DIMENSIONS: 14,470mm L x 2,500mm W x 3,600mm H

GVM: 22,000kg

 

 

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