Friday Flashback: McCafferty's golden years

By: Gordon Lowe

From Reo Bus to Stretchliner: Gordon Lowe looks back to McCafferty’s golden years in the 1990s.

Friday Flashback: McCafferty's golden years
The magnificent McCafferty’s 14.5 metre Stretchliner in all its glory.

Countless articles and even a book have been written about McCafferty’s. Yet
so much information can be lost as the years roll by.

However, this story will focus on the early to mid ’90s , when McCafferty’s experienced spectacular growth.

It was indeed, their golden years! The writer was fortunate to know both Jack McCafferty and his family, having worked for him on a consulting basis during the early to mid ’90s when that growth occurred.

There was something very special about Jack McCafferty and his family. They always made you feel welcome and appreciated. The family always thanked you for the work that you did for them. Their hospitality was also legendary.

On quite a few occasions Mr Mac’, as he was affectionately known, often took me to lunch at the Historic Railway Station Restaurant in Toowoomba.

His son Tony (the company’s general manager) would occasionally invite me to his home for a coffee. I clearly remember one day when he proudly showed me his Jaguar XJS sports car that was being prepared for the prestigious Cannonball run.

Tony went on to race in the event. This event, incidentally, was fronted by legendary racing fi gure Allan Moffatt. Instinctively, I always liked ‘Mr Mac’. He reminded me so much of my own father.

They both looked similar in appearance and funnily enough, wore the same style of checked sports coat.

Where it all began

On April Fools Day 1940, a 35-seater Reo bus rumbled out of Toowoomba city on its way to Picnic Point, a few kilometres away.

The driver was Jack McCafferty. He was certainly no fool! The trip was the birth of the company that became a transport icon around Australia — McCafferty’s Express Coaches.

Jack McCafferty was born  in 1914 at Breakfast Creek in Brisbane, the son of a railway man. In his younger years, prior to purchasing the Reo bus, Jack made his money utilising a horse and cart and established a thriving milk run around Toowoomba and suburbs.

This gave him the start he needed to get his bus business off the ground. A replica of the milk cart can be seen today in a Toowoomba museum as a testament to this man of vision.

During the 1940s and ’50s, the coachline expanded into the heart of central Queensland and by the late 1970s services were operating in NSW and Victoria.

The early 1990s saw the introduction of services to South Australia and in 1994 into
the Northern Territory.

On May 26, 1995 McCafferty’s Express coaches reached their greatest milestone.

It was a day of celebration for everyone in the company when McCafferty’s could proudly proclaim the fact that they had gone national, On that day, return services from Perth to Darwin began.

It was a far cry from the first Toowoombato Picnic Point Reo bus service. McCafferty’s
could lay claim to being the largest family-owned express coachline with a route
network stretching coast to coast — 55 years later. 

More than 1,000 services were running each week to hundreds of destinations throughout Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. These regions were serviced by

15 terminals on the route network, including Adelaide, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Cairns, Coolangatta, Darwin, Emerald, Gatton, Melbourne, Mount Isa, Rockhampton, Surfers Paradise, Sydney, Toowoomba and Townsville.
Perth opened in 1995.
Altogether, approximately 600 staff were employed at this time by the company. Over
one third of the company’s employees were drivers while the remainder were employed in areas such as reservations, marketing, administration and maintenance. 

In 1994, McCafferty’s operated a fleet of around 100 modern coaches and by 1995, 110 vehicles. In 1996, this grew to 120 vehicles.

McCafferty’s prided themselves on their stringent safety checks and had a superb maintenance base in Toowoomba and at the old Deluxe depot (which they purchased) in West End, Brisbane.

The Toowoomba maintenance depot could service at least eight vehicles at a time, and the spacious West End depot could handle at least 11 vehicles.
Although point-to-point express travel comprised the major component of the company’s operations, McCafferty’s also offered charter tours and a highly successful parcels and freight division.

A booming business

McCafferty’s was also a most successful business. During the 1993/1994 financial year McCafferty’s recorded a reported gross revenue of $43 million dollars, representing an increase of 25 percent over the previous year’s record turnover.

During the same fi nancial year published figures indicated that McCafferty’s express coaches transported almost 2.5 million passengers around its route network.

Turnover for December 1994 increased by 10 per cent over the previous years result and again by 15 per cent by January 1995.

The previous year’s results for these months were in themselves a record turnover.

At that time, McCafferty’s major competitor reported massive falls in passenger numbers and revenue.

McCafferty’s own record loadings proved estimates that the company’s market share was increased to 52 per cent of the Australian Express Coach passenger market.

With these great results, McCafferty’s looked further to the future and decided to plough some of these profi ts back into the business by introducing at a cost of approximately $6 million dollars, 15 stateof-the-art vehicles which were aptly named

The writer had a lot to do with launching these new vehicles and can proudly lay claim to having thought up the name Stretchliner, which was quickly adopted by McCafferty’s management.

It also included an innovative Stretchliner TV commercial that was broadcast over Stretchliner routes.

The Stretchliner represented a new era for McCafferty’s. The Stretchliner made its debut at the 1994 Bus and Coach show.

Despite keen competition, the newcomer was unanimously voted ‘Coach of the Show’.

Incidentally, the Denning Landseer that made up the majority of the McCafferty’s fleet was awarded the same honour in 1989.


The Stretchliner remembered

The Stretchliner was ahead of its time. Built by Motor Coach in Brisbane, it was designed to comply with all current Australian design rules as well as meeting all McCafferty’s design requirements.

It incorporated many additional features making the passengers’ journey safer and more comfortable.

The Stretchliner was extended to a length of 14.5 metres, 2.3 metres longer than the vehicles in the existing fleet.

The extended length allowed them to seat 54 passengers and offered more legroom than any other express vehicle that was traveling on Australian roadways at that time.

The Stretchliner also incorporated a number of design factors (now commonplace), intended to increase passenger safety in accordance with Australian design rules. The most noteworthy was the inclusion of integrated lap sash seatbelts on every seat within the coach.

The driver’s cockpit was also re-designed to minimise driver stress and fatigue. The Stretchliner also featured a larger than normal television screen to allow passengers to view on-board movies more easily — no matter where in the coach they were seated.

The Stretchliner most certainly led the way in Australian coach travel during the mid 1990s.

So, you had aspirations of being a Coach Captain with McCafferty’s in the 1990s? 

Well it wasn’t quite that simple. Coach Captains usually had experience in driving coaches prior to joining the company.
Even so, McCafferty’s ensured that its drivers were of the highest possible personal and professional standing.

A medical examination was required and a complete check was made on driving history and references.

Most drivers had a medical at least once per year. After assessment by senior drivers, the new Coach Captain then went out on what was called a ‘Survey’.

The new captain accompanied a line driver on his run as an observer, learning the pick-up and drop-off points — and the vagaries of the road. Coach Captains were also provided with a specific drivers’ training manual.

The manual was compiled after extensive research and combined the best and most useful aspects of both technical knowledge and drivers’ previous experiences.

Drivers were expected to follow the manual’s procedures at all times in similar fashion to an aircraft manual issued to airline pilots.

Most certainly it wasn’t just a case of saying, "Well, here I am. I can take the wheel!"
So with all this infrastructure in place it was time for McCafferty’s to move on and go national.

It was most certainly Jack’s dream to run a national coach company and in late 1994 preparations began to launch their fi rst service from Perth to Darwin.
But that too, is another story.


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