It’s time to break out the perming tongs as 1988 is still going strong, albeit in the guise of a double-deck Austral MAN. Cruising the outskirts of Sydney as a member of Glenorie Coaches’ fleet, this is a nostalgia trip that still draws the crowds.
It’s a pleasure to interview someone who’s a self-confessed bus fan and Glenorie Coaches’ owner and operations manager Alan Ng’s path to today, and his love of buses, came from a driving history that began way before he could drive.
“As a kid, I loved anything with an engine, I loved cars,” explained Ng of his bus beginnings.
“When I started catching school buses, which [were run by] Harris Park Buses in this area, is probably when it started.
“Then, when I was in high school, Clarke Coaches took us on all of our camps and I used to look at their vehicles and think they were just awesome – it kind of grew from there.
“My first driving job was a part-time job in my university days. Once you start driving, it’s a bit addictive and you just want to keep going.”
Ng’s introduction to bus driving was possibly a lot more colourful than some.
“Driving a tour bus in Europe was easily the best job I’ve ever had in my life. The pay was average, but I didn’t care because I was like 23 at the time and the average age of the passengers was about 21. So, it was perfect; it was just like a party atmosphere every single day. It’s a job you couldn’t do now, but at the right age it was the most perfect job,” he explained.
“The coaches were based in the Netherlands and we did all of Europe. So, basically from London, as far east as Turkey, up into top of Scandinavia, up into Russia, and then everything in between – it was unreal.
“When I look back at it, you kind of pinch yourself. I really do that because, back then,
I was fearless and nothing worried me. I wouldn’t do it now but, looking back, I didn’t think anything of it.
“Compared to driving here, there are so many rules. They’re strict as because you go to different countries, so you need special paperwork and permits. It’s a completely different driving environment.
“I remember breaking down in Bulgaria with a coach full of passengers. It was a brand new Volvo. They had [to] subcontract another coach for the passengers to go into Romania and Poland and I sat there broken down for two days and then it was basically ‘make your own way to Poland’. I just looked at a map and thought ‘I’ll go through Serbia’, but you rock up at these borders, and they’re like, ‘what are you doing here?’”
Ng laughs, recalling the stories, as he explained: “You’re an Australian, then they don’t think you’re Australian because I’m Asian and they don’t understand that and they think my passport is fake. Then they’ll go through the bus and they thought I was smuggling people or drugs because it seemed unusual for an empty bus from the Netherlands being driven by an Australian.
“Looking back, you can just laugh, but probably there were a lot of things I shouldn’t have done.
“As far as a driving experience, you’re driving in much tougher conditions and because, obviously, they can’t train you about all of the countries, so you’re driving blind a lot of the time.
“You’ve got to pretend to your customers you know what you’re doing even if you have no idea, but you just say: ‘Oh yeah I’ve been to Warsaw many times.’
“It was before the time of GPS and all that sort of stuff. You have maps because it was like ‘good luck with the phones’ because, in Europe when you live and work there, you pay roaming rates in every country you’re in. With a Dutch phone, the minute I cross the border, which is only an hour away, you just never use your phone unless it was an emergency.”
PURCHASING THE MAN
Skipping forward to owning his own business, Glenorie Coaches, Ng says he purchased the MAN double-decker in 2010, making it the third bus in the fleet.
It had a good story behind its heritage as well, coming from the famous Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast, where it had been used mainly as a railway shuttle, picking up zoo visitors from the nearest train stations.
So, how did an operator from Glenorie Coaches purchase a bus from Australia Zoo?
“Funnily enough, it was actually sitting on eBay for sale,” Ng explained.
“And this is in the early days when we didn’t really sell buses on eBay. They had already subcontracted their buses out to Greyhound. They had the three double-deckers there and they had already sold two and they kept this one as a spare.”
From a troublesome mechanical past at Australia Zoo to Glenorie Coaches was a lucky move for the MAN.
“Mechanically, it wasn’t a good bus for them and if you look at its service history they had a lot of trouble with it. Funnily enough, I think they had actually ironed out all the issues before I bought it.
“For them, it was constantly broken down; they had to put a new motor in it. To be honest, out of all the buses I’ve bought, I reckon that one is probably been the most reliable and the one I’ve spent the least on!” said Ng, laughing.
Every operator that we meet who has a double-decker in their fleet always say it’s a drawcard and the most popular bus for charter work.
Asked if the MAN has been a good investment, Ng agreed: “Absolutely! I think even more so because it’s one of the earlier double-deckers. When we purchased it, it was a massive marketing billboard. The bigger capacity and popularity of a double-decker means it’s been easy to get a reasonable return on our investment.
“We have two double-deckers. The other one’s got a lot more power because it’s got a big engine, but, overall, the MAN has been the better bus.
“The best thing about an MAN is that, despite all the different chassis used, there are a lot of common parts. So, your front and rear end is the same as a lot of other MAN buses, all the parts are the same, so it makes it a lot easier for repairs and maintenance.
“With MAN, you just ring for a part and they know exactly what it is. As an operator this makes a massive difference. You just tell them the VIN and they go ok, bang, it’s this, this and this – easy as. Their aftermarket is amazing,” he confirmed.
GOOD BUSINESS SENSE
Asked why Ng chose Coachcare for the refurb, he said: “I’d used different companies over the years but had never formed a strong connection to any of them, and I guess a bit of that was that we have a guy on staff that is just brilliant.”
“He has a family background in buses, he grew up around them and, because of his care factor to his work, it’s hard to beat.
“We got to the point where, with only one person, he couldn’t keep up and time off-road costs us money.
“I saw an advertisement for Coachcare … and, when I met David [Bishop, owner of Coachcare] and chatted to him, his background in the industry was quite interesting. He too had a family history around buses; he worked at Customs.
“I had given him two jobs prior to this one and both times it was a good combination of good workmanship for a great value pricing. It made sense too as the dollar value meant we weren’t too much worse off than when we do it ourselves.
“Then, when Covid hit, we’d already been using David and knew we could trust him with the job. We also knew it would be beneficial to both of us at this time. That part of it certainly made good business sense but it was a tough decision to pull that sort of money in during a pandemic.
“I knew we had to do something about it, as it was the least tidy vehicle in the yard, but a good money maker, so you never take it off the road. So, it really was the best timing to get it sorted.”
Before we go out for a drive we always try to get a feel for how the owner or builder sees the bus, as they are the ones that know it well and how it drives and performs. Often, it helps us see things or learn more than we might otherwise achieve on a drive that can only be an hour or so.
Ng, although incredibly fond of the MAN, is happy to talk about what it doesn’t have or can’t do. His honest approach might be why he seems so comfortable in his role and what he does.
With regards to power, for example, he said: “It should have, or should I say it needs, more. It struggles a bit because, for its era, for a European [bus], it was the top horsepower.
But, today, they have a lot more – the Denning has 500 horsepower (373kW) in comparison.”
When it comes to safety features, he added: “It’s got a big retarder on the ZF auto, which works well but, to be honest, the safety features on it are no different to any vehicle up until they went to disc brakes. All vehicles of that era were pretty much the same for safety.
“I think it’ll surprise you that it’s a lot more stable than you think it’s gonna be,” he said of the drive.
“I remember the first time I hopped in I thought it was just going to be weird, but it just drives like a good European route bus. It does feel heavy. Everything about it – the steering, pedal setup – it is a heavy bus to drive.”
We are used to the power of our modern-day vehicles. Probably, like anything you use on a regular basis, it’s hard to remember what driving was actually like over 30 years ago.
We are very spoiled now for driveability, power, safety and comfort. Ng has a strong appreciation and love of his older fleet vehicles and sees them for what they are, but also sees the importance of them as a preservation of our history and industry.
Asked what he next hopes to add to his collection, he said: “I’d really love an Austral HD1, which was the Austral chassis in the same body as this double-deck, but the single deck. That’s probably the last bus because you can see all the ones I have here and I’ve got a collection of other stuff elsewhere. Yeah, it was a sort of tick the box with most of them, but that’s the one I that haven’t got yet.
“I think it’s really important to preserve our history, especially because a lot of the family bus companies are vanishing. They’re becoming big multinationals and they don’t have the same history and care factor for the buses and our industries past. Eventually, I’m going to need a giant shed because my dream is to have a big property and stash away the ones that I like the most.”
A final question before the drive, we ask what he thinks makes a bus worthy of preserving.
“For me, it’s the same with the cars that I like – it’s everything that I looked at when I was a kid with rosy eyes and go ‘look at that, that’s amazing’. So, for me, it’s anything in that sort of ’80s and early ’90s era – it’s all about childhood memories.”
There is always something special about an older vehicle. Even though they can never compete with the comfort and features of a new build, there’s something reassuringly strong and definitely nostalgic about these older ones.
This 1988 Austral MAN double-decker has a pretty famous past being part of the Australia Zoo fleet. Even carrying the name the Robert Clarence after Steve Irwin’s son, its home here at Glenorie Coaches with a self-confessed busman is one that ensures this double-decker’s life will continue long after its driving expiry date comes up.
With a big capacity of 71 passengers (57 upstairs and 14 plus driver downstairs), this double-decker has been a firm favourite with passengers and its recent refurbishment by Coachcare during Covid quiet times will mean it will keep on keeping on for a long time to come.
Ng was pretty honest and open about what to expect on the drive of the MAN. He loves his old buses, but as stated earlier he doesn’t mind being truthful about what they can and can’t do on the road.
The drive is comfortable enough and we could easily have done a longer stint behind the wheel. We did some picturesque rural roads out of Glenorie Coaches’ NSW hometown of Dural, so not all flat and perfect freeway driving, but the MAN performed really well.
The one thing he did say we would notice about the MAN is that, even with it being an old double-decker, it is very well planted to the ground and, as soon as you start to drive, this is really noticeable. It just feels very stable and, remembering it is more than 30 years old and there wasn’t the technology we have today, it’s a surprising feature.
The steering is predictable, so no complaints. A surprising feature is its capacity to go over bumps. A driver is often jolted pretty heavily over bumps, but this is handling it way better than expected. The independent front suspension works really well and the stability is a standout feature in a drive we weren’t expecting too much from.
The driver’s seating position is comfortable and the instruments are simple to operate. The only downside of the instruments was that the temperature gauge was hard to see as it is very low set. Visibility of controls isn’t as clear as in today’s buses where driver ergonomics are well thought of but, overall, this isn’t too much of a concern. There’s a great old Clarion stereo system that was pretty standard for this era, but they worked really, really well and this one’s still pumping.
Driver visibility is good and the original mirrors work well. There has been an additional mirror added on the left hand side to help with driver vision when pulling up. Double-deckers give drivers a whole new ballgame when looking out for obstacles, with overhead wires just one possible concern, so the more visibility available the better.
The Styleride seats are patterned velour and have had a vinyl headrest insert added. They are pretty bold in pattern and colour, but definitely in keeping with the bus’ vintage. Upstairs, you just have to love the passenger visibility – can see why everyone gravitates to the front for unsurpassed views.
It has a great luggage capacity and there’s an added bonus door to stairs beside the bin doors to allow easier access by the driver to the luggage. There are rear access doors to the battery compartment, which would make jumpstarting easy. Behind the rear door is the 360hp (268kW) MAN matched with a ZF gearbox. We had run through belt changes with Ng earlier, who said that is a bit difficult but, overall, all looks straightforward and exactly what you’d expect for an ’80s bus.
A standout feature of the Austral MAN is the front – tall and striking. It really has a modern look and the restoration has really been well done. Ng repeatedly commented that he was very happy with the workmanship from Coachcare and, standing in front of this tall bus, we’d have to agree. From the paint finish of the bright Glenorie Coaches colours to the big bulbar, this bus a classic.
Taking the photos today and seeing this big double-decker come over the horizon, it’s easy to realise why it’s a favourite in Ng’s fleet.
Hats off to him for restoring this bus for future generations and for caring about preserving our transportation history.
ENGINE: MAN D2866, 11.967L six-cylinder; Power – 360hp
TRANSMISSION: ZF 5HP590, five-speed
SEATS: Styleride Aquarius fixed recliners, 71 plus driver
Photography: Paul Aldridge | Video: Cam Jones