FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Rise and fall of a transport icon

By: Gordon Lowe

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From one bus slugging its way across the Nullarbor in 1979, Deluxe became a multi-million dollar industry leader with a fleet of coaches traversing the nation

Gordon Lowe | JULY 2006

ON AUGUST 30 1990, the Brisbane Courier-Mail, like other newspapers across the country had headlines which screamed out ‘Coach firm owes $100m’ — it was the beginning of the end. The last service for Deluxe ended at midnight on August 28, 1990. The company had suddenly collapsed — leaving shock waves across the transport industry in its wake.

It was reported in the paper that the ANZ bank was owed more than $15m, while the Commonwealth Bank moved in July to recoup between $60m and $70m it was owed.

It was also reported that in Queensland some 280 Deluxe employees lost their jobs and hundreds of tourists were scrambling for seats on other carriers. Eight other coach companies honoured Deluxe tickets for a 24-hour period.

Unfortunately, Australia’s highways and skyways are littered with the bones of failed RPT operators.

Deluxe went the way of other great transport brands such as Australian VIP in 1986, Cobb and Co. Coaches, Ansett Pioneer, Sunliner Express, Ansett Australia, Flight West Airlines, Bus Australia, Bob Ansett’s Budget Rent-a-Car and Codd Airlines to name but a few.

The beginning

In Sydney during the mid-1970s, a small locally-based travel agency was operated by Len Roden. At that time, Roden identified a gap in the tourist transport industry. He believed there was a need for a quality, coast-to-coast express coach service.

In May 1979, Roden set about in his quest to successfully fill this gap. With one second-hand coach, Roden started his coach company with a Sydney-Melbourne- Adelaide-Perth service, using his agency Deluxe Travel as a base. And so Roden took on the big-fleets of the long-established Greyhound and Ansett Pioneer groups.

Roden could not operate without backup and maintenance facilities, and so he formed an association with the Victorian Travel Company, Hoys, subcontracting their coaches, drivers and maintenance facilities. He had a simple philosophy — provide a safe and reliable service at the lowest possible fare.

From the association with Hoys, Roden soon formed Deluxe Coachlines with their General Manager, Geoff McIntyre. The result was one of the fastest growing and most successful companies in coach industry.

Roden’s simple philosophy is still just as important today and it resulted in the then two established operators Greyhound and Ansett Pioneer — being forced to reduce fares to Deluxe levels.

But Deluxe had to contend with more than just the precarious risk of one-secondhand bus. By taking on the big guys Ansett Pioneer and Greyhound by slashing prices — it most certainly incurred their wrath.

But it paid off. As Roden’s single bus began to reap small profits and cash flow he slowly began putting together a small fleet.

Price War

The price war continued with Greyhound’s Managing Director Russell Penfold charging that the cheap operators had no terminals and they were risking safety to cut prices. A long battle ensued but Deluxe proved its point. It continued with its cut price fares, put terminals in every capital city, saw many of its cut price competitors pull out of the industry, and had the final satisfaction of Greyhound and Ansett Pioneer reducing their prices in line with Deluxe.

Then Deluxe pulled off its coup. With a $12 million financial arrangement with the Commonwealth Bank it imported 15 German-made ‘Super Deckers’ worth half a million dollars each.

At its Zenith, Deluxe had some 179 coaches and employed over 900 people Australia wide, and had its own offices in the United Kingdom, representation in the US, NZ, Singapore and Japan.

One of the best aspects about the bus industry is its people. For some reason or another it attracts persons of a very high calibre. Geoff McIntyre and Len Roden were no exception.

On a personal level I met the Directors on many occasions, and must say that I had nothing but the highest respect and admiration for them. Why? Because of their business acumen, the way they treated their staff, and their ability to focus on the job in hand (and generally), the way they ran their company.

Anyone who worked at Deluxe will know what I mean.

Deluxe Coachlines was a great Australian success story of the ‘little Aussie battler’ making good. It will probably never be duplicated again for any bus company in such a short space of time.

What really went wrong? Perhaps it was a case of getting too big too quickly and too soon. I guess that we will really never know how it all happened.

But one thing was certain, it took guts and determination to take on the big boys and win the hearts and minds of travellers Australia wide.

Truly, Deluxe provided ‘Blue Ribbon Service’ around Australia.

This is the legacy that Len and Geoff have left behind, and no one can take that away from them.

Vale Deluxe. The bus industry should still mourn the passing of a once great Australian transport company. ■  

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