The rise of Lever Coachlines
Gordon Lowe explains how Doug and Dawn Lever expanded operations and built a reputation in the industry
With the ever increasing demand for coach charter in the 1970, Lever Coachlines eventually started looking for replacements for the Austral Dominos.
Ansett Pioneer had introduced to Australia the Canadian built MC8 and MC9 coaches and at the time Doug Lever believed these were the finest vehicles on the road. So one day he rang Bob Pollard from Ansett Pioneer — but was told that the MCIs were only imported for use by Ansett Pioneer.
Disappointed, Lever remembered reading in a magazine that Russell Penfold from Greyhound was importing American Silver Eagle buses.
"Mmm", he thought, "it might be worthwhile to ring Russell Penfold." Lever had never met Penfold, but thought it was worth a try.
"Surely he can’t say no," he thought. So he rang Greyhound and got in touch with Penfold. "Would you sell me a Silver Eagle Coach?" he asked Penfold.
"Yes, how many do you want?" Penfold replied. A somewhat astonished Lever said to Penfold: "Oh gees, only one to start with!"
Little did he realise (and indeed a lot of other bus operators didn’t know either), that the price was a lot less than an Australianbuilt coach.
Lever found Russell Penfold to be a thorough gentleman as were all the Greyhound staff.
By now, it was 1984 and Ferdie Elizabeth was in charge of the Greyhound workshops and according to Lever "could not help him enough with any questions that he had in regards to the Eagle coaches".
Russell Penfold informed him that he had just ordered the new 10 series and that they would be in Australia in approximately one month (again in 1984) and that he would not accept an order until he had a look and a ride in one. When the first two Silver Eagles arrived in Sydney, Ray Brewer and Doug Lever met Ferdie Elizabeth and Russell Penfold in Sydney and drove bus numbers 1001 and 1002 to Brisbane.
Lever recalls: "I was that impressed! I ordered one while we were in Brisbane — although we did change the diff ratio and injectors on our coach (for more horsepower), for working in the Snowy Mountains."
It was the beginning of a ‘Silver Eagle’ love affair for Doug Lever that has lasted to present day. Lever Coachlines purchased its second Eagle when Doug was sitting under the Sydney Harbour Bridge on tour.
A gentleman asked him what he thought of the Silver Eagles. Lever told him "they were the best thing I have ever purchased".
He asked Lever, would he like another one? Lever agreed almost immediately. The mystery gentleman said, "I will sell you mine".
The mystery gentleman turned out to be from Batterhams in Cessnock. Lever rang his wife Dawn and told her. She contacted their finance broker who had his head offi ce in Sydney (Alan Grant) and the bus was purchased "there and then".
The bus, a five series, was immediately taken to Brisbane to the GBW bodyworks where Dudley Brewer, his son and staff were the Eagle experts.
They refurbished the bus and it was soon on the road. "I believe the fives were better built than the 10s, the fives were built in Belgium and the 10s were built in Brownsville, Texas USA," Doug said.
The love affair continued. In 1989, Lever Coachlines purchased another Eagle: a 15 series directly from the manufacturers in the United States and imported it into Australia with the help of Greyhound’s Russell Penfold.
"The three Eagles got us through the recession that apparently ‘we had to have’," Doug said.
When the Eagles were no longer available because of their width, Doug met a gentleman by the name of Doug Holmes at a couple of bus conferences in Hawaii and Alaska.
Holmes was the export director for MCI and after a conference organised by Bill Luke from Bus Ride Magazine, the Levers flew to Winnipeg, Canada and went through the MCI factory. As MCI was still building eight-feet wide buses, the Levers ordered two.
However, the order never eventuated, because the manufacturers changed their width and subsequently the bus was too wide and did not meet Australian regulations.
Lever went back to the drawing board and decided to have a look at the Australian built Denning coach — which he was very satisfi ed with.
The Dennings stood up very well with Australian outback conditions and was a reliable vehicle. Another operator McCafferty’s operated Denning’s almost exclusively.
By now, the years had gone by and in 1990, the Levers sold the Queanbeyan- Canberra services to Dennis Dean (Dean’s Buslines); the Levers did so on a handshake in a Queanbeyan Hotel.
They retained 11 coaches to operate exclusively their tour and charter business. Now, just having the tour and charter business to look after, the Levers were able to put more effort into tour and charter.
This enabled them to offer specialised services to clients and of course, dependable luxury coach travel. Passengers were able to obtain specialised itineraries, arranged accommodation as well as having a knowledgeable coach captain and vehicle.
Expanding the tour and charter business, the Levers put together "single snow skiing packages" to the popular resorts of Perisher and Thredbo. Daughter Karen took over the inbound tour group charters and son Brett continued driving coaches and managing the workshop.
In 1996, the Levers began promoting the ‘Lever Coachlines Travel Club’. An old friend and former manager of Ansett Pioneer in Canberra Bert Potter had retired, but Doug and Dawn successfully convinced him to come back to work and manage the travel club for them. This proved to be very successful — with the travel club offering theatre tour trips to Sydney and many day tours and extended tours throughout the country.
Son-in-law Peter Ingram joined the family business in 1993 as operations manager and coach driver. With Peter joining the firm it made it a complete family business. Lever Coachlines has most certainly had a fine history. While the bus lines is probably not well known for those who come from outside Canberra, the company certainly has a proud heritage!
All the flash jobs
Lever Coachlines became the exclusive carrier for the Commonwealth Government for visiting overseas delegates and visitors. These included President George Bush Senior, President Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, the King and Queen of Denmark, the President of Italy, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and many, many more dignitaries.
In addition, Lever Coachlines also had contracts with Qantas and Ansett to transfer airline crews between Canberra airport and the various city hotels within Canberra for many years as well. Finally, Doug and Dawn decided to retire.
It was time to step down from behind the wheel and retire to a quieter life. So they sold their business to Transborder Express. However, ‘transport is transport’ and they did not retire for very long! The bus industry was obviously beckoning once again — so the family purchased Bega Valley Coaches in 2000 and once again packed up and moved lock, stock and barrel down to Bega in Southern New South Wales.
Doug, Dawn and family went om to operate six school services between Bega, Bermagui, Tilba and Warrigal Range and a commuter service between Bega and Bermagui. Son Brett however, did not join the family in their move and stayed living in Queanbeyan with his family.
Daughter Karen introduced and set-up the Bega Valley Coaches Travel Club in similar fashion to the Lever Coachlines model — which has been successful. Dawn Lever has the last word: "Even though this is a much smaller business, it is very intense and virtually keeps the whole family busy, especially with all the regulations that are involved in owning a bus business.