By Mick Haven
During my first trip to Australia back in 1997, I paid little attention to their buses, although buses had played a major part in my life for at least the first third of it. Whilst it’s true that I would have seen plenty of them down there within the first day or two of my arrival, there are two which linger in the memory. The first one is the ‘Surfside’ Leyland National LWB on route number 1, showing the destination, Tweed Heads, a town in Surfers Paradise on Queensland’s Gold Coast. This is on the border with neighbouring New South Wales, a place where you can straddle the state border line, with one foot in Queensland and one in New South Wales. Why does the Surfside stand out? In reality it was no different to any other Leyland National, basically a long rattling tin box with very basic fixtures and fittings, not a patch on the old solid L.T.s, Leyland PDs and Bristols. Maybe it was because it was my first ride on an Aussie bus. Maybe it was due to the novelty of seeing and riding on a ‘British’ bus, one so familiar back home, yet eleven thousand miles away in a foreign town. I would ride the same service the following year. During those first trips down there, I had little or no knowledge of Australian models either, Elle MacPherson aside. I certainly had never heard of Trax or of its parent company, Top Gear Models. Once I did become aware of them, via computer and consequently, the internet, I began collecting models of the ubiquitous ‘Ute’, which is to Australians what pick-up trucks are to Americans. Over a period of time, about a dozen of them made their way north, not only by Trax but by Biante and Classic Carlectables, two other unfamiliar names back then. I was also fascinated by Trax commercial vehicles brand, Trux. In amongst them, all in 1/76th scale, was the Surfside, and I think also there was the same bus, but in the livery of buses plying their trade in Canberra and Tasmania. There were also double deck and single deck buses of a much older vintage. I began getting Trax new and current releases literature by post, and keeping up with them on the ‘net. This would have been around the end of the last century at a guess. I still get regular updates from them in both forms.
My collection of British bus models isn’t extensive, no more than in the low twenties. As, if for no other reason, I don’t see the point in having models of buses which have no relevance to me. Even that is only partially true because as well as buses, I grew up with many of the country’s well known national coach companies, e.g. East Kent, Southdown, Ribble, Royal Blue, Midland Red and so many others, long before they fell under the ‘National’ umbrella that we know today. For a coach spotter in the 1950s, London’s Victoria Coach Station was Mecca. To get models of them would run into hundreds. Consequently, I wouldn’t have the space to display them. So I only collect or have collected, models of buses I grew up with, I rode on or drove for a living, i.e. London Transports and Green Lines on Essex routes, Eastern Nationals and Southdowns.
I digress. Seeing the Surfside in updates from Trax meant that having ridden on one, I had to have the model, so one was ordered. An altogether far more satisfying purchase was to follow. During that same trip down under, I left the Gold Coast and went to Sydney for a couple of days. From there I had to get to Melbourne, where I had arranged to stay with friends. I had three choices of travel, train, plane or long distance bus. The first two were out of the question financially. I opted to go by road, and the method of transport I chose was operated by the ‘Firefly Express’ company who ran a twice daily service between Sydney and Melbourne, and a service between Melbourne and Adelaide. The Sydney/Melbourne service departed at 07:00 and 19:30. It took 12 hours! On arrival at the departure point, there was this splendid double deck bus, or is it a double deck coach? Whatever, it was a super vehicle. I used it there and back.
I had been back home awhile, and looked in on Trax on a regular basis. I had never forgotten the Firefly and thought that it would make an excellent model, so I e-mailed them to ask if they had plans to make one, and if not, could they consider it. An e-mail arrived within a day or so, advising me that by sheer coincidence, the release of one was imminent. It was. I ordered one straightaway, and it arrived within two weeks. My timing was perfect, because the production run was short lived. If ever there was a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’, this was it. I got lucky. There were one or two other models sharing the same body, but in the livery of other operators. The vehicle is a ‘Landseer’, by Australian coach builder, Denning, and has the almost mandatory ‘roo bars across the front, very necessary when crossing the outback in the middle of the night. This is a bus model I treasure. The Denning company also produced single deck interstate coaches, not dissimilar to classic American Greyhounds. These too were replicated by Trux. Pictures of many Australian buses and coaches, including Firefly’s, can be found on the Showbus Australia web site.
The Surfside model was cast for Trax by EFE The Firefly chassis has no manufacturers name. Was this a special commission by E.F.E. for the Australian market? That I don’t know, but like far too many EFE.s, neither of them have mirrors. However, I believe the giveaway is in the absence of them. I have never seen or heard it explained why so many EFEs didn’t have mirrors. What doesn’t make sense is that for all those that didn’t, many others did? No bus ever leaves the garage without mirrors, I know, I drove them for a living. The real Firefly had those long protruding affairs, seen on the vast majority of long distance coaches.
The third bus shown is of one operated by Sydney State Transit, and is by C.M.N.L. Northcord. For realism and minor details, including mirrors, it surpasses the other two by some distance. The bus featured is on a Volvo B12BLE CB60 chassis, on route 438 to Parramatta, one of many of the type in service at the time. While the models may look out of place with the London Transports, the Eastern Nationals and the Southdowns, they are nevertheless fine models in a small collection.
Two others which I would like to get my hands on, are a Sydney State Transit Mercedes on route 311 to Bondi, and a little twenty something seater? in service with the Sunbus company in and around Cairns in Far North Queensland. The latter was on a Mercedes chassis. There is a similar Mercedes model in the colours of Surfside, which is probably based on an EFE but that model has a folding door at the front only, where the Sunbus has a longer chassis, with one folding door at the front and one in the middle, so a conversion would only be for the very experienced modeller.
I seem to recall that C.M.N.L. may have produced the other Sydney bus, or one like it, but I can’t find either one anywhere, not even on eBay Australia. As the Firefly and the 311, if indeed one does exist, both date back nearly twenty years, finding a model of either is highly unlikely.
MAR contributors interested in unusual or ‘worldwide’ bus models may like to look in on eBay under ‘Australian buses’. There are a number of classic buses from Trux to be found, Leyland Atlanteans for example, and some even older. At the time of writing, I’ve recently received my regular Trax special offers literature. They are running a ‘Super Sale’, offering classic Holdens, Australian Fords and Chryslers, including some Utes at $23 each, reduced further if ordering more than one, and Trux buses at $30 each, also reduced further for multiple buys. One of those which made me smile was a half cab double decker 1949 AEC Regent. Why? Because the bus has folding doors at the front and an open platform at the rear. Yes, and? Much fuss was made with the introduction of the new ‘Bus for London’, ‘The New Routemaster‘, or even ‘ the Boris Bus’, as it was dubbed. This ‘new’ bus, shares the same configuration as a 1949 A.E.C. Information on the Firefly web site leads me to believe that the Landseer has long been phased out in favour of a single deck coach. Finding a model of one would seem to be harder than finding the real thing.
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