Flashback Friday: Phantom of the streets

By: Gordon Lowe

Gordon Lowe reflects on how one man’s trash became a public treasure — ‘the bus that never was’

Flashback Friday: Phantom of the streets
A large model of a Sydney double-decker bus that was found discarded was in fact an early concept model for a proposed full size bus.


This story is about a treasure that was literally thrown away but, owing to being in the right place at the right time, State Transit Authority worker Michael Hume rescued what can only be described as ‘a jewel in the crown’.

Let’s go back to 1994. One morning driver Michael Hume got out of bed, showered, shaved, dressed and sat down for breakfast. It was just another day — nothing eventful. He quickly read the morning paper before saying goodbye to his family and headed out to the Burwood depot of the State Transit Authority. At the depot, Hume was allocated a bus for his morning shift and after saying goodbye to the depot supervisor, climbed aboard and set off into the suburbs.

That morning, he was allocated route 409. Perhaps his mind was on other things as he put the suburban bus into gear, went out through the gates of the Burwood depot and into the Sydney morning traffic.

Now, Michael’s shift could well have been like any other shift, except something remarkable happened. The first half of the shift was, to say the least, uneventful. Passengers were coming and going. He noted with satisfaction that his bus was performing well and upon reflection settled back comfortably in the driver’s cab contemplating what activities he had planned when he got home from the shift.

At that moment, something happened which in a sense would change the course of history. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an object on the footpath which was something out of the ordinary. He pulled over to the kerb, got out of the bus and walked across the road to inspect what appeared to be a large model of a Sydney double-decker bus.

Obviously, the occupants of the house no longer wanted the model as it sat in the middle of a pile of rubbish that was ready for the local council clean-up. Even in those days, councils had rubbish collections and residents participated with gusto. Sensing that the model was of some importance, Michael picked up the model, stored it in the bus, climbed back into the cab and resumed his normal run.

You see, he thought that the model deserved a much better fate than being sent to the local tip — so back it went to the depot.


The truth revealed

This was no ordinary bus model. It was a concept model, a creation of the Commonwealth Engineering Company Granville, in Sydney. Instead of having the driver’s cabin outside of the passenger cabin area, the cabin was fully enclosed — making it easier for driver operation only. The model was indeed of great historical significance.

It had obviously found its way into private possession — perhaps as a plaything for children. On that council clean-up day in 1994 it was finally put out onto the street to be taken away as rubbish. Had this happened, it is possible that no one would have known of its existence. When Michael found the model there was no paint left on it, but nevertheless he recognised its importance.

This was also recognised by the depot Operations Manager Greg Travers and his staff. After discussion they decided to restore the model part-time and investigate its origins. So they got to work. Management and senior tradespeople decided to do a full restoration job at the Burwood depot’s workshops in between bus repairs. Bodybuilders, painters and signwriters went to work using original green and cream paint.

The magnificent restoration is a testament to their skills. And the model itself? Where did it come from? What was its significance? You see, in the first half of the 20th Century the engines in double-decker buses had been traditionally vertically mounted in the chassis beside the driver’s cabin over the front axle.

This arrangement eventually had pitfalls in that it prevented driver-only operations. Passenger fares could not be collected without considerable difficulty. During the 1930s there had been experiments overseas to overcome this situation. Trials were done to test whether engines could be relocated to alternate positions. The aim was to avoid having engines acting as barriers between drivers and passengers.

The front doors on buses could then be positioned adjacent to the driver’s position, allowing them to deal more effectively with embarkation. Driver only operations would then be possible. Enquiries revealed that the Commonwealth Engineering Company in Granville submitted a design proposal — as evidenced by the model — to the Department of Road Transport and Tramways (DRTT).

Enquiries also revealed that a Meadows diesel engine was to be mounted under the floor behind the front axle. Unlike other double-decker buses, the ‘bus that never was’ was designed to have two staircases — one at the front and one at the rear. Proposed seating was for 71 passengers. The proposal remained in model form only and was submitted to the DRTT in 1950.

Unfortunately, from the early 1950s the use of private cars increased in popularity, resulting in a decrease in passenger loadings. This trend caused the DRTT and private bus operators to turn to the concept of driver only single deck operations. In this light, the development of the bus did not eventuate.

‘The bus that never was’ is testament to Geoff Travers, body repairer Jim Clark, coach painter Ted Royston and Michael Hume. In 1997 the model was handed over to Greg Travis and Willoughby instructor Mal Morgan, who happily accepted this wonderful treasure on behalf of the Sydney Bus and Truck Museum of New South Wales.

The model is now on display and on permanent loan from the State Transit Authority. A visit to the Sydney Bus and Truck Museum is well worth the visit because ‘the bus that never was’ is a unique exhibit. 

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