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Finding the Queen – The search for Priscilla

For 30 years, the bus at the heart of an Australian cult classic film was also the centre of a mystery disappearance. Now, the vehicle’s unique story is being uncovered ahead of a major restoration project

When Michael Mahon moved onto a property in the secluded town of Ewingar, New South Wales, in 2016, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. With a population that last sat at 57 people according to the 2021 Census, it took Mahon six months to finish cleaning his property and tending to a smattering of vehicles that came with it, including cars, a van, boat and bus before he went to the local community hall.

When he did, he was in for a right old shock.

“Ewingar is such a small community that the only major building we have is a local community hall – there’s no garage, no post office, nothing else,” Mahon told ABC.

“On that first night I went to the hall, everyone asked me what I was going to do with the bus.”

The initial questions took Mahon off guard, enough to spur him to race to the bar and ask the bartender why he was being quizzed about the ancient bus that lay dormant on his property.

“Because it’s Priscilla,” the bartender replied.

“Strewth, fair dinkum,” Mahon said.

With the purchase of the property, Mahon had unknowingly put himself in the middle of an Australian film and transport mystery. Shortly after the shooting of cult classic film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert came to a close in 1993, the 1976 Hino RC320 disappeared. For the next year, the bus was hired out, being used as a tour bus for the likes of the Whitlams. From 1994 onwards, the bus vanished.

More than 30 years later, Mahon discovered Ewingar’s best kept secret – Priscilla, the iconic bus at the centre of the movie, was sitting on his property.

“When I cleaned my sheds, I found paperwork on the bus that included its registration, ownership, title changes and a copy of the movie contract,” he says.

Image: Michael Mahon

“The bus still had the roof racks in it and the original curtains from the movie, as well as its leopard skin dash and number plates.

“I had no idea what to do with the old girl, so I joined some Facebook bus pages and asked for advice on how to restore Priscilla, because I had her.”

As expected, responders were sceptical that the famous bus had magically re-appeared in a rural NSW town. When Mahon then told a mechanic acquaintance about the bus, he was told bus companies referred to Priscilla’s search as ‘the hunt for red October’, with Priscilla also being known as the Holy Grail due to her importance in Australian history.

While Priscilla continued to sit outside and wear away, Mahon called a variety of Australian museums to ask if they were interested. No one believed him until he decided to call the History Trust of South Australia.

“There was a query put through to the History Trust by Michael saying that he had the bus on his property,” History Trust of South Australia senior curator Tony Kanellos told ABC.

“Everyone was a bit sceptical, as we’d heard of many other people claiming they had the real Priscilla. It had been so long and no one had seen it, while the bus also looked like a piece of junk.”

Despite the History Trust’s cynicism, curators made the journey from Adelaide to Ewingar to inspect the bus. More than 50 buses had been proclaimed as Priscilla in the three decade period of her disappearance. This visit, which was delayed by COVID lockdowns, confirmed they had finally found the real deal.

“We got director Stephan Elliott involved, who verified that the stainless steel bar in the bus was personally installed by him to mount the cameras on for filming,” Mahon says.

“We didn’t even know who owned it because it was abandoned and Michael bought it,” Kanellos says.

“Stephan Elliott said he’d heard it all before, but when he saw the photos of the lavender paint left on the hinges and the number plates, he recognised the bus and was as blown away as us.”

Everyone involved was left excited by the discovery, with plans quickly getting underway to get the bus to Brisbane for a detailed condition report ahead of a restoration tender.  It almost all came not to be when bushfires ripped through NSW, desolating Ewingar and surrounding regions in late 2019.

“From September that year we had weeks of bushfires that flared up again in October,” Mahon says.

“One day I walked out my front door and smelled smoke, so I called my neighbour who smelt the same. Next thing we had 15 minutes to salvage treasures and start fighting the fire.”

With no time to escape, Mahon began fighting the roaring bushfire as it descended upon his property. With fireballs pursuing him as he ran around his paddock to his water tank in a last ditch effort to protect his shed, Mahon and Priscilla were both almost lost before a NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) helicopter released a water bomb on the area. The water bomb meant the van, boat, container and cars that surrounded Priscilla were all engulfed in flames, but Priscilla and Mahon remained untouched.

Mahon was able to escape the flames and his property in the nick of time. When he eventually returned to investigate the damage, he had no clue if Priscilla was still standing.

“I came back to the house still on fire, so I put that out and ran along the side to check if Priscilla was ok,” he says.

“100 per cent of Ewingar was burnt, 45 houses were lost and two people died, but Priscilla survived.”

Despite enduring the bushfires, Priscilla didn’t come out of the ordeal unscathed – temperatures more than 2,000 degrees Celsius and the following rain meant the bus began to rust quickly.

The bus may have looked shabbier than ever, but it didn’t stop Priscilla from putting a smile on the faces of distressed RFS workers.

“When RFS people came over after the fire to clean properties, I introduced them to Priscilla,” Mahon says.

“It calmed them down in what was a very traumatic time for us all.”

Having narrowly survived the 2019 bushfires, the History Trust of SA was once again clear to get Priscilla to safety after Mahon sold the bus to them for $23,000 in 2023. Fellow History Trust curator Matthew Lombard was part of the team that made the trip to Ewingar to first inspect Priscilla before her removal. After pumping the tyres up and checking the brakes, the team was ready to begin the precarious job.

“With the help of a Brisbane-based recovery company, we winched her down the hill and around the corner,” Lombard told ABC.

“The tyres were questionable at that age and, when we got it on the tilt tray, a tyre popped. Thankfully, by then it was easy to move.”

While it was a poignant moment to farewell Priscilla from the property that she had sat on for nearly two decades, Mahon knew it was the right move to preserve a special part of Australian history.

“Priscilla is unique and an Australian icon, so I believe the old girl belongs to all Australians,” Mahon says.

“For months after I would be working on the property and notice she was gone – it’s a big hole she’s left, but the end goal is to save her. Everyone was miffed when it became news that Priscilla was found in Ewingar, as the town knew she hadn’t been lost all along.”

Priscilla is now in Brisbane, where Royans Coachworks is keeping her safe before restoration works begin. The History Trust is looking to raise $2.2 million for a project that includes restoring Priscilla to her former glory and housing her in an exhibit at the National Motor Museum in Birdwood, South Australia.

The first stage is to begin repairing the bus before the complete restoration project is put out to tender in the industry. The idea is for the bus to be mechanically fixed so it can drive normally, but the façade will be returned to the 20 year old bus that it was during the filming of the movie.

“Restoration is an essential first step, as it’s probably the most famous bus in the world,” History Trust of SA CEO Greg Mackie OAM told ABC.

“We then want to create a visitor experience at the museum to depict the important social messages portrayed in the film. It will be a 15 to 18-month journey, but we’re ready to do what it takes.”

The History Trust of SA is now calling for sponsors, donors and project partners to get involved with restoring Priscilla and creating an immersive exhibition at the National Motor Museum. The History Trust is aware the restoration won’t be easy – riveted construction and a solid steel frame means it requires old school techniques to reinstate it to its film days – but Mackie and his team are confident that the bus will soon be on display.

And, befitting of the movie, Priscilla will be looking as spectacular as ever.

“The exhibition of the bus will be the essence of the movie – it’ll be glamorous and over the top,” Mackie says.

“We’ll also then run an education program in line with the SA Department for Education to highlight the important values and meaning of the film.

“We can’t wait to tell the story of Priscilla with the bus as the centrepiece for years to come.”

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