VIDEO REVIEW: 1958 ANSAIR FLXIBLE CLIPPER

By: Paul Aldridge, Photography by: Paul Aldridge, Video by: Cam Jones


One of the last Clippers to be built, this example from 1958 had an eventful life over the decades, from express work to transporting children in the outback. Now a motorhome, it has been lovingly restored by Fantastic Aussie Tours’ Darrell Booth, who delved deep into its beautiful history.

VIDEO REVIEW: 1958 ANSAIR FLXIBLE CLIPPER
Ansair built 131 Flxible Clippers from 1950 to June 1960. Today, there are still around 45 in existence. This is a testimony to the cult following of this bus and probably - to a degree - a reflection of the strength of the builds of the era.

As a bus enthusiast, we’re sure you all have a bus that you wish was parked in your garage. It’s hard not to be impressed by the ever-changing features and abilities of our modern bus and coaches today and we are constantly blown away.

However, if we had to choose a dream bus, it would always be the classic oldies that get the most attention. There’s something about the excessive details and dynamic shapes of the past that bus lovers can’t help but be drawn to.

Today’s drive of a 1958 Ansair Flxible Clipper is a bus that anyone would find it hard not to want the keys to in their pocket. It’s truly a real head-turner, a step back in time and a credit to its owner Darrell Booth, the operations and fleet manager at Fantastic Aussie Tours.

We got to check out two amazing historic Clippers before we set off today: one was the very first imported to Australia by Pioneer Tours from the Flxible Company in Loudonville Ohio, USA in 1947; and the second was Booth’s outstanding 1958 Clipper. Parked side-by-side this pair is really something to see. What makes them even more amazing is that, together, they are the very first and the very last Clippers in the Pioneer Tours Clipper Fleet and both in an impeccable, fully restored condition. Their paintwork and detailing is mind-blowing.

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Between these two Clippers there was almost a 10-year gap in build time, but they both certainly retained the same unmistakable Clipper features: the dual curved windscreens, the roundness of the body with an art deco feel and the stainless steel and chrome work. Although, externally, they appear very similar, Booth says that, mechanically, they had certainly progressed from a more ‘agricultural’ drive to the later ones having a much lighter body, with V six Deutz air-cooled diesel motors and airbag suspension making them a quieter, more comfortable and powerful drive.

Ansair built 131 Flxible Clippers from 1950 to June 1960. Today, there are still around 45 in existence. This is a testimony to the cult following of this bus and probably - to a degree - a reflection of the strength of the builds of the era.

Booth stated: "The Clippers have such a good retention rate and, in my opinion, you’d say it’s a testament to a man called Bill Hardinge, who was the founding president of the Flxible Clipper Club of Australia."

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Booth explains that Hardinge had a business that took him traveling around the Australian countryside and he scoured everywhere in his travels. If he found a Clipper, he generally bought it. Even if he couldn’t get it then, he’d say: "That’s mine, I’ll come back for that one day."

Hardinge’s passion for the Clippers also meant that he kept a record of any he located and, as time passed, more and more people started to have an interest in them. From this growing passion he formed the Flxible Clipper Club.      

Booth continued: "I’m certainly a classic case of being hooked from the moment I spotted my first Clipper and thinking it was such an incredible-looking vehicle. Even my wife can tell the story of when she saw Gary Driver’s Clipper in Darling Harbour one day and she thought it was the most beautiful bus she’d ever seen in her life. In their era they were the big highway coaches, but you also learn about their history and the significance of their introduction to Australia and how the industry changed after their important impact. For me, it was a case also of wanting to honour and pay recognition to the Clipper.

"The design is all ... they look fast even when they’re sitting still, they always look like they are going places even when they’re parked."

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DRIVING HISTORY

When you get an up-close, look at Booth’s Clipper and appreciate the time, research and devotion he’s poured in to ensure that not only is this bus safe and in great running order, but his attention to the smallest details to retain authenticity is outstanding. In interviews we’ll ask owners what they know about the bus’s history and, like everything Booth does with the Clipper, his knowledge about the Clipper’s life was extensive and a story in itself.

Of course, with such attention to detail in the restoration, we shouldn’t have been surprised with the highly detailed history and timeline Booth has put together for his Clipper. Its driving story started as an Ansett Roadways Vehicle, fleet number AR37. Booth has a photograph of it from November 1958 when it only had about 1,750 miles (2,816km) on the clock.

He got the picture from a Pioneer driver called Dave Pollard, who he is still friends with today.  Pollard had driven it when it was brand new for Ansett Express. It ran from Mildura to Melbourne on express and, when it was about three-years-old, it went into the Pioneer Express Fleet. That was when it got cut in half, stretched by four feet and put on the Economy Express. 

Pioneer cut 10 of its Clippers in half from around 1958. Booth’s was done in 1961 as this was really the end of the 10-year Clipper line. By the early Ô60s Pioneer was looking to introduce the 4106 and then the 4107s, so Clippers were getting moved down the line.

They were still fairly new, though, so by cutting and stretching them they increased their viability by expanding the seating capacity from 29 to 37 passengers, as well as adding airbag suspension.

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The next step in Booth’s Clipper’s driving life was a move down to Pioneer Tours, before transferring to Continental Coach Lines in Queensland.

"Then, it went to Haidley’s Panoramic Coaches and Motors from Warwick," Booth explained. 

"About two years ago, I actually was up through Warwick and I took it back to Haidley’s and got a picture of Cameron and his father, Don, just as a bit of a history thing."

In his travels, Booth has taken the Clipper to every state except the Northern Territory and Western Australia, so it’s definitely not just for show.

"It was then also subcontracted to another company called H and J Coaches, or something like that," he continued.

"It broke down in Central Australia on a tour and was effectively abandoned. It was towed back into Alice Springs and I’ve got a photo of it being flat towed behind a semi; the Clipper had a trailer hanging off the back at the same time," he explained.

The next stage of its journey, between the late '70s until 1984, saw it being repaired by Detroit in Alice Springs and bought by the Warrabri School at Ali Curung - an Indigenous community about 375km north of there. The Clipper was the school bus there for a number of years, bashing around in the outback. It’s hard to imagine this bus on the harsh dirt roads filled with schoolchildren! Booth, as part of his extensive history, has a letter from the school principal looking for diff parts from Hardinge.

"Clippers have always been renowned for the way they handle because of their low centre of gravity," Booth said.

"The story goes that, from the Pioneer days, they were unsurpassed in the snow and ice. If you look at some of the old photos, you’ll see them in the snow through cuttings with snow right up to the roof line or in the desert on the Stuart Highway bogged to the axles. So, am I afraid to take this anywhere in Australia? Definitely no!"

In 1984, it left Ali Curung and began its journey to Sydney for its conversion to a mobile home. Then, in 1987, it was purchased by Clipper Club members Ian and Lyn Williams. The Williams, with help of other Clipper Club members, drove it to Melbourne to have the interior re-fitted and a return in paintwork to the Pioneer Tours colours.

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IN SAFE HANDS

Booth and his wife, Sue-Ellen, bought the Clipper from the Williams in 2007. Effectively, it had never had a restoration. Booth’s priority was to restore and upgrade it to a very high standard of roadworthiness and reliability, and for the Clipper to be engineered for compliance.

The interior re-furb that the Williams designed was perfect as it was and only updates to soft furnishings and a few safety changes were required, so the ‘old world’ feel of travelling on the road in the 1950s wasn’t lost.

"Like the Harbour Bridge, the Clipper’s been a work in progress since the day I purchased it," Booth commented, with a smile.

Externally, the restoration was more complex...

"In its whole life, it had never had an ‘all panels off’ refurbishment," he explained.

"In places, there were three layers of panel, which revealed damage underneath. Over a number of years all panels have been removed. In the framework repairs, all curved panels were repaired or remade and re-panelled with new aluminium panels. The windows were removed, repaired and then painted the Pioneer Express colours that we see today."

With most historic vehicles, sourcing replacement parts can be the hardest part of the process - and sometimes near impossible - but for body parts the Flxible Clipper Club has a contact in Healesville and Booth says that you basically can order your Clipper parts online from them.

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One spare part that we thought would be impossible to replicate or get hold of was the windscreens. Often in old vehicles the windscreen can be hard to come by, but, surprisingly, the club ended up with original moulds for the windscreens. Booth says that Clipper restorers get them made up by O’Briens and at a price that’s probably cheaper than a normal car windscreen. You can pay the Earth for the smallest of spare parts, but Booth says he isn’t worried at all about parts.

"I wanted this bus to be as original as possible. I’ve kept the old wipers because even the sound of the wipers operating is part of the experience," he explained.

"So, as a club, a priority is to make sure, number one, our Clippers are safe. Naturally, there will be things you can’t find after a while. I’ll give you an example: this bus had Franklin airbags and you can’t get them anymore, but a Kenworth airbag is identical, so that part is okay. As a club it’s also important that this is recognised engineering-wise; all modifications and improvements need to be fully engineered. All standard upgrades are adopted through the club and they have been engineered in a number of states in Australia."

We tend to focus less on the impact of modifications on a heritage vehicle, but when passengers and road safety are at risk, there’s a lot more at stake than just replacing a worn part with another on a period bus.

The key thing about this restoration and carefully researched life of the Clipper is the importance for future generations and it’s because of passionate bus people like Darrell Booth and the members of the Clipper Club that these amazing early vehicles of our industry will live on.

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THE DRIVE

This is our second drive of a Clipper and, with driving any classic bus, you never really know what to expect mechanically. We usually don’t have high expectations in comparison to what our modern vehicles can do, but we are often left surprised.

From the moment you approach the Clipper it’s like entering a time warp. Booth has worked hard to maintain as much originality as possible and his attention to the restoration is meticulous. The blue paintwork of the Pioneer Express colours - complete with replica original wording and stainless steel features - are perfection.

Stepping on board and getting into the driver’s seat, the classic driver experience begins with the stainless door-closing lever. Booth has made sure to keep all the componentry and operating devices as original and ensure it’s all there as part of the full classic drive experience. In the driver’s area everything is there and it’s very simple. We love all the chrome work and this is the very last of the Clippers, so it would have been the most modern Clipper of the fleet.

Booth says the brakes had a standard upgrade as part of the restoration process. They are a E-3 Single Circuit foot brake valve with a relay valve on the back extra air tanks. As it’s a single-circuit braking system, it must have an emergency release, so it’s a pump-out system with an emergency release. They certainly handle the Blue Mountains roads we are driving on today really well; we’re just touching the brake going down inclines and we have a lot of confidence in doing an emergency stop if necessary.

Visibility was surprising. Having the dual screens with the art deco curve, the pillars seem to disappear. Although certainly not large windscreens, the curve of the glass makes all the difference with all-round driver vision. Compared with more modern buses, you are seated a lot closer to the windscreen, so the curve seems to wrap around the driver for unobstructed views. The mirrors were original and worked well.

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Booth had warned that the turning circle wasn’t great and, in certain tricky parts of the Mountains’ tourists spots, you need to be pretty precise, but on standard corners the turning was exactly what we expected it to be for a vehicle of its age. The steering wasn’t heavy as some older vehicles can be, so a full day behind the wheel wouldn’t be an issue.

The Allison MT643 transmission has had a few little tweaks done by the Allison training department and is mated up to a Detroit Diesel 6V53 engine. It shifts really well when you first take off; you think it’s revving a little bit, but this two stroke really loves to rev. When you’re going up inclines, it knocks down a gear and you don’t need to manually override at all. It’s certainly not a super horsepower machine at 217hp/162kW@2,800rpm); it hasn’t got a lot of torque, but it’s really nice and comfortable for what is essentially a very old bus.

Of the whole day only one feature was a disappointment. When you go to the curved rear of the bus and open the engine cover, all you can see is the huge fan. You can call it a schoolboy moment, but we were looking forward to seeing the engine. However, what doesn’t disappoint is the sound when you start this baby up.

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Maybe even higher up on the list is when you realise the Clipper didn’t come out with blinkers and a little arm comes out to indicate that you are turning. Classic Clipper, brilliant.

The Clipper gets about two and a half to three kilometres per litre, consistently, three and a half out on the highway, and it certainly isn’t an economical drive. But, again, it’s not meant to be making land speed records with great fuel economy; this bus is for cruising and enjoying yourself. Back in the day, Booth says that Clippers could do around 60 miles an hour, no problems at all; legally they couldn’t, but he said they certainly could. It would have been great to see them in their heyday; just imagine driving one of these babies to the snowfields filled with tourists.

The Clipper is currently licenced as a motor home to carry eight people. It has more seats, but its licensing limit is eight. Booth has maintained the original motor home floor plan designed by the previous owners, but given the Clipper some modern and environmental updates for comfort. He’s added outlets for grey water, inlets for fresh water and an instantaneous hot water system.

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Take a seat at one of the tables and you can just imagine taking in the Mountains scenery and eating your breakfast or dinner while enjoying the views. The kitchen has a full-size oven and four-burner gas cook top with full-size bench space and sink; certainly not a standard camping kitchen. There’s also a full-size fridge and freezer.

The sleeping quarters has a really comfortable bedspace and it’s a room with a view; outside the bedroom there’s a separate shower and toilet.

You realise why Booth didn’t change the original motorhome floor plan; it all works well and certainly would be great for extended holidays and a dream for weekends away. We should’ve asked for a two-day test drive, but I might have to ditch Cameron, the videographer, for my wife.

Today’s drive was around scenic roads that we are familiar with and there wasn’t one part of the drive that disappointed. The way that Booth has got his bus working is impressive. The brakes, steering and a lot of the mechanicals are as original, but have just been tweaked a little bit and it just drives so, so good.

The steering is as tight as in any bus that we have driven, new or old, and that’s really saying something - but it’s just a really enjoyable drive. Like the desto says on today’s drive: ‘Very Special’.

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Specs

MAKE: Ansair

MODEL: Flxible Clipper

BUILT: November 1958. Stretched by four feet (1,200mm) in 1961Ê

ENGINE: Detroit Diesel 6V53 with Jake brakes

TRANSMISSION: Allison MT643

DRIVE AXLE: Rockwell R145 Ratio: 4.33:1

SPEED: 100kph at 2350rpm

TYRES: 10.00R22.5 radials on 7.50x22.5 tubeless rims

LENGTH: 37 foot (11.3 metres)

HEIGHT: 2,800mm

WIDTH: 2,430mm

WHEELBASE: 6,740mm

TARE: 9,060kg

GVM: 11,660kg

GCM: 12,850kg

FUEL: 390 litres in three tanks

FUEL CONSUMPTION: 3-4km/L

ALTERNATOR: 24V 175A Leece Neville

BRAKES: Full air S-Cam single circuit with emergency release

SUSPENSION: Full air with instantaneous levelling valves

TOWING: 3,500kg

MOTORHOME: Licenced to carry eight passengers

FRESH WATER: 280 litres in two tanks

DRINKING WATER: 100 litres in one separate tank

GREY WATER TANK: 100 litres

BLACK WATER TANK: 80 litres

HOT WATER: Gas, instantaneous

COOKING: Gas stovetop

REFRIGERATOR: 24V compressor fridge

LIGHTING: 24V LED warm white

HOUSE POWER: 24V deep cycle

INVERTER: 24/240V 2kW

AIR-CON: 2.5KW inverter split reverse cycle

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