FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Ansett pioneer

By: Stewart Borrie

This 2005 article from ABC tells of some classic American buses used in Australia

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Ansett pioneer
December 1965 saw the delivery of the first five Scenicruisers

MY FATHER was a bus driver, who worked for the Mansfield Yea Melbourne Passenger Service in Victoria, which was purchased by the Ansett group in 1949. I began work with Ansett Pioneer in Melbourne in 1960 as a mechanic.

In February 1963, I moved to Cooma, as Service Manager. In 1977 the company closed its Cooma workshop as a result of the drastically reduced demand for tour operations with the completion of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. Our new workshop was opened in Canberra and I was Service Manager there from that time until the final ‘death’ of the Canberra operations, after Pioneer was absorbed by Pioneer Trailways and then fell into liquidation in 1989.

Any story about Ansett Pioneer would not be complete without mention of the ‘Flxible’ Clipper. Ansett Pioneer imported a Flxible Clipper from the United States in 1948 and, soon after, production of the Flxibles began under licence by the Ansett-owned bodybuilder Ansair.

Although a straight-eight Buick petrol engine powered the imported vehicle, the first 38 Pioneer units were powered by a 7.4-litre Leyland diesel. A Deutz engine was then trialled while the next 16 Pioneer Flxibles were Cummins powered. Finally, from number 56, the F6L614-V6 air-cooled Deutz was the power source.

Ansett Pioneer operated 100 new Flxibles as well as eight Deutz-powered units taken over from Ansett Roadways while they still had a relatively low mileage. The Flxible Clipper was 33 feet in length and originally seated 29 passengers in reclining seats. In 1961 and 1962, 10 Flxibles were cut in half and had four feet added to the centre of the vehicles, bringing the total length to 37 feet. The extra four feet, together with a modified seat-back, increased the carrying capacity to 37 passengers. The lengthened Deutz-powered units had the bigger F6L714 engines fitted, while the very successful Detroit 471E engine powered the other four. (Approximately 20 standard-length Flxibles were also repowered with the 471E Detroits after the success of the first 37-footer.)

In 1961, Ansett Pioneer imported 10 GMC PD4106 coaches. Although complete, they were left-hand drive. They were driven from the Melbourne waterfront to Ansair at Essendon. The entire front end of each coach to just forward of the front wheels was removed and converted to right-hand drive. The tinted windscreens were replaced with plain screens and locally sourced radios were fitted. The cost at the time was £28,000, plus another £4,000 for conversion to right-hand drive.

The PD4106 was 35-feet long, seated 38 passengers in reclining, adjustable seats, with adjustable head and footrests. They were fully air-conditioned by the engine driven refrigerant compressor and temperature controlled by the air being passed through the evaporator and then the modulator-controlled heater core. The air-conditioning was all done under the floor and entered the coach along the continuous ducting at the lower edge of all windows (this was also the case in the PD4107, MC7, MC8, MC9 and Scenicruisers). When Greyhound gained control of Pioneer, some MC9 coaches were fitted with an Austral-type fibreglass roof pod, but this was for aesthetic purposes only and there was nothing inside the pod!

The PD4106 coaches had airbag suspension, but that was nothing new to Pioneer as, by that time, many of the Flxibles were on air. The on-board toilet and washroom was new to Pioneer and toilet drops had to be constructed at the garages. Power was enormous for a coach at that time: an east-west mounted 8V71 Detroit driving through a 67-degree angle drive to a four-speed constant mesh ‘crash’ gearbox; tailshaft straight out of the gearbox to a wide-angle pinion in the diff. The PD4106 coach was relatively new when exported to Australia, as there had been only 622 of the model produced before the first Pioneer vehicle — build No. 623. When the first 10 units were built for Ansett Pioneer, the GMC plant in Pontiac, Michigan, was producing six vehicles a day of this particular model.

The next year, Ansett Pioneer imported another 20 PD4106 coaches. There was a mixture of 38-seat toilet-equipped vehicles and 45-seat vehicles without toilets, which were used for tour work. Later, five more new vehicles were imported and then a further eight ex-American Greyhound PD4106 vehicles with about 500,000 miles on the clock were imported. This was a ‘special’ deal with Greyhound, as they did not normally dispose of their PD4106s at such a low mileage.

The Ansett Pioneer PD4106 was operated in all parts of Australia and many were subjected to a very harsh life in Western, Central and Northern Australia. December 1965 saw the delivery of the first five Scenicruisers. Although these were not an imported coach, they were built on an American chassis with GMC American fronts, and the body dimensions and components were pretty close to the GMC PD4106 vehicles. These were built by Ansair for roughly half the cost of the fully imported PD4106 and were built for tour work — for which the cost of the imported coaches could not be justified due to the much lower annual mileage.

The first five bodies were on Reo chassis and were powered by Detroit 6V53. The next 44 bodies were built on GMC chassis imported in kit form, assembled in the Ansett Pioneer Melbourne workshop and driven to Ansair for bodybuilding. These 44 vehicles were powered by a GMC Toro Flow four-stroke engine and were simply not a success.

Despite the Americans telling us that it was not possible to fi t the 6V53 Detroit engine into the GMC chassis, Ansett Pioneer staff achieved this and the 44 were converted. This was a big improvement, but they were not really comparable with the fully imported coaches.

The GMC PD4107 was a later version of the PD4106 and the main difference was a higher floor, which, from a maintenance point of view, gave a lot more area in the engine compartment. Luggage room was huge: 200-litre oil drums could stand upright in the bins! The length, passenger capacity, engine, etc., were the same as in the PD4106. Ansett Pioneer imported twenty-seven of these coaches in 1967-68 — all were left-hand drive and were converted by Ansair. All PD4107 vehicles were 38-seaters when new and they never saw regular service in the outback, unlike the PD4106s.

Some years later, 11 of the PD4107s had the toilets and overhead luggage racks removed and were then fitted with much higher windows to make them more suitable for tour work.

In 1973 the MC7 coaches built by Motor Coach Industries (MCI) in Winnipeg, Canada, hit Australian roads. This was after Ansett Pioneer had convinced the Australian authorities that the swept area taken up while turning was no greater than that of a semitrailer of legal length at that time (the MC7 being 40 feet long).

Powered by the Detroit 8V71 and coupled to a four-speed constant mesh ‘crash’ gearbox, the independent tag axles trailed the drive axle. The MC7 and the first five of the later MC8 model coaches were imported with the fronts incomplete and therefore had to be towed to Ansair, where they were completed as right-hand drives.

As the imported coach was overweight on the front axle for existing axle loads at the time, the fuel tank was relocated to the rear luggage bin, just forward of the drive axle. Ten MC7 units were imported and, although originally seating 46 passengers, they were soon reduced to 44 seats to provide greater comfort.

The year 1975 saw ten MC8 coaches imported. These were an upgrade from the MC7, but were similar in many respects. The MC8 had a taller windscreen with the destination box above the driver rather than above the screens, as in the MC7. The stepped aisle in the MC7 was replaced with a flat floor in the MC8 — no doubt due to strengthening being required in the rear floor area. The first five of the MC8s were completed in right-hand drive by Ansair, but the next five and a further ten units ordered later were converted before being landed in Australia.

By the time Ansett Pioneer ordered nine more MC8s, MCI was building these units in right-hand drive. The last four of these nine were built without toilets for use on the tour side of the business rather than for express services.

To enable the four tour units to negotiate the Alpine Way in the Snowy Mountains, the gearing was redesigned to lower the ratio of the first three gears, with the fourth (top) gear remaining direct.

In December 1979, ownership of Ansett Transport Industries passed into the hands of TNT and News Limited. It would be fair to say that the new owners had little interesting the coach side of the business and, from then on, the former glory of Ansett Pioneer began to fade. It was almost six years before any new coaches arrived, however, in 1984 TNT did import 15 MC9 coaches. The MC9 was a modern version of the MC8 and, although similar in many ways to the MC8, they had 6V92T Detroits, five-speed gearboxes and bigger windows. The last nine MC9s had Jacobs brakes, which had not been fitted to any previous Ansett Pioneer imported coaches.

In 1986, Ansett Pioneer was sold and the MC9 vehicles were never given a chance to live up to the expectations of the previous Ansett Pioneer coaches. Although Ansett Pioneer continued to operate for a number of years under various owners, the glory days of the American coaches (and, as it happened, of Ansett Pioneer) had come to an end.


Replicas: The PD 4106 and Trux’ latest Sydney models

THE EXPRESS coach market, model wise in Australia has been sadly neglected over the years. Melbourne builder Weico has produced Denning Mono, Tourmaster, Landseer and AP Galaxy models. For the future there is the rumour of a GM PD4106. Let’s hope so as this model would be well liked especially by those who drove the vehicles in service.

Trax has released its latest models in the Trux range of Australian buses. There are four models in the latest batch.

Two are EFE castings of Leyland Nationals in the livery of Surfside of Tweed Heads, an 11.3 model and M&MTB Melbourne, a 10,3 model. The colours of each model are good and representative however Trux have used the short pod model in both cases. This is unfortunate as the Surfside unit is the only 11.3 Mk1 in Australia and is fitted with the longer pod. Likewise the 10.3 Melbourne version is also fitted with a longer pod.

With such good models it seems a shame that this simple mistake was made, especially since the manufacturer of the original model, EFE, makes models with long pods.

However both models should be welcome additions to miniature fleets.

The other two models continue the series of Sydney buses with two Leyland Tiger OPS2’s which was previously released in blue and white. These two are in green and cream, one representing a standard Sydney bus and the other one of a number of similar units that were loaned to Canberra during a serious vehicle shortage in the 1970’s.

The loaned Canberra units is depicted as heading for Belconnen with blue and white blinds. The destination then would be a far cry from the much expanded Belconnen of today.

Both models are very well finished and truly representative of the single deckers of Sydney.  

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