Truck Restoration Projects
Evoking the Pioneer days
The stylish and well-remembered touring coaches built in Melbourne by Ansair Pty Ltd under licence from the Flxible Company in the USA were operated in Australia as touring and express coaches during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, by Pioneer and other coach operators.
In 1948 Pioneer Tours, part of the R.M. Ansett organisation, imported its first Flxible Clipper from the Flxible Company in Loudonville, Ohio, USA. After evaluation by Pioneer, Melbourne company Ansair pty Ltd, also part of Ansett, obtained a licence from the Flxible Company to build the Clipper in Australia.
Ansair built 131 Ansair Flxible Clippers between December 1950 and June 1960, for the Ansett organisation and other operators. The imported prototype, powered by a straight-eight-cylinder Buick engine, was converted to right-hand drive by Ansair and began tour operations in January 1949.
Most of the coaches built here were 33 feet (10 metres) long, seated 29 or 33 passengers depending on reclining or fixed seating, had full air brakes, large luggage racks, rear luggage compartment, sliding windows, and public address and radio systems.
The chassis and body were steel, with an aluminium roof. The coaches were jig-built in one unit and incorporated under-frames and side pillars to window level. The top, front and rear panels were built in separate jigs and brought together on the assembly line. The engine was in the rear and usually was either a Leyland, Cummins, Deutz or G.M. Detroit Diesel.
In January 1955, Pioneer inaugurated the first express service between Melbourne and Sydney, with Leyland powered Flxible Clippers. They were used on all interstate services until about 1962.
Between December 1960 and November 1961, 11 coaches were extended by four feet (1.2m) in the wheelbase and seating was increased to 37. These coaches were operated on economy express routes between Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, until mid 1962, when the economy services were discontinued.
In December 1962, two extensively modified Clippers fitted with air suspension, air conditioning, toilet and washroom began the Adelaide to Perth express route and did so until 1966. Pioneer used a fleet of between 12 and 14 G.M. powered Clippers based in Cooma and operating on Snowy Mountains Tours during the 1960s.
By 1972, Tasmanian Coach Lines had acquired 17 Clippers and was still operating them in the mid-1970s. Australian Flxible Clippers were also exported to New Zealand, where Newman’s Coach Lines Ltd, Nelson, operated six vehicles.
Back to life
It was mid-morning on pristine spring day and Jim Gibson was waiting at Blow Hole Point on the Kiama peninsula on the NSW South Coast, for a prearranged meeting with the owners of our story’s subject to arrive for a photo shoot.
He soon heard them coming up the hill, as the music from their two-stoke GM diesel engines heralding their arrival. When they came into sight it was the 1950s revisited: the two Ansair Flxible Clipper coaches came to rest at the bus parking area by the lighthouse. Jim couldn’t help wondering if these two time capsules brought sightseers to this very place some 60 years ago?
These days the two Clippers transport people in comfort and style to weddings and other events, having been converted internally to monster limousines, including restrooms, complementary bars and air conditioning. The coaches are operated by their entrepreneurial owners and business partners – Dan Evans and Ian Yabsley for their company, Clipper Limousines of Kiama.
When Ian was a student at Armidale Teachers’ College on the NSW Northern Tablelands, during the early 1970s, he drove an Ansair Clipper for Gregan’s Coaches from Armidale to Uralla each afternoon in order to earn some income. This was how he became interested in these iconic old coaches.
During his teaching career, while working in rural NSW at Coonabarabran, he met and became good friends with Dan Evans, who was working in a tractor and agricultural equipment dealership in the town.
“Dan is more than just a mechanic,” said Ian Yabsley. “He has real engineering and inventive skills; he is an artisan, and he could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as the saying goes.
“As we both had a love of classic vehicles, I enthused Dan about finding and restoring an old Clipper as a hobby.”
After some searching they found a 1957 Ansair Clipper wearing Body No.116 in Perth and brought it back to Coonabarabran.
By the early 1990s this coach was in what one would call dire straits. The body was beyond rejuvenation, because the metal white ants had been gorging on it in sand groper territory for a decade or more.
The dynamic duo located a body in reasonable condition, in north-western NSW where it was being used as a storage shed on a property. The next search found some other badly needed componentry in a second wreck, so one coach could be assembled from two donors, plus the original.
No.116’s air-cooled Deutz engine was dispensed with and a 471 GM two-stroke diesel installed and coupled to the existing Spicer five-speed manual transmission. This jigsaw was carefully pieced together with a combination of Dan’s craftsmanship and Ian’s enthusiastic labour and the result is the immaculate blue example in Pioneer’s 1950s livery.
The next step
With their respective families Ian and Dan settled in the Shoalhaven district, on the NSW South Coast.
The long hours and hard work that went into the first rebuild hadn’t quelled their enthusiasm to do it all again, so they were soon on the hunt for a second coach to restore.
“We found one further south in Bega,” said Dan. “The owner had bought it several years prior and was intending to restore it, so he didn’t want to sell.
“However, as luck would have it, when talking with another fellow about the coach, he said: ‘I know him; he’s too damn old and he’ll never do it, so leave it with me!’
“So, with his assistance we were able to buy the coach.”
It was another 1957 model; a ‘sister’ to ours, with body No.111 and built only weeks before No.116. After a trip on a low-loader up the Princes Highway, it was soon in Dan’s shed, in Albion Park, ready for the aficionados to burn the midnight oil.
Not quite the marathon task of the first exercise, but lots of body fabrication was necessary; along with a repeat performance to replace the old Deutz engine and install a GM. However, the two-stroke replacement was a larger capacity 6V53, coupled to a 643 Allison automatic, with inbuilt retarder. (Both coaches are also fitted with Jacobs (‘Jake’) engine brakes.)
This time the spray gun was filled with white paint and No.111 really looks like a first-class wedding limousine. The interiors of both of these super limousines have been refitted with plush, leather covered, relaxed conversation style, swivel lounge seating.
But wait…there’s more
Ian and Dan spotted an original Flxible built Clipper for sale in the US, so without too much hesitation Ian packed a bag and headed for Kingsford Smith airport in Mascot.
On arrival in the USA he found the advertised Clipper was in good condition and Ian was ready to organise payment, but the owner had two and wanted to sell them as a package deal. After a call to his ever supportive wife and Dan they decided that ‘two’s company.’ Ian bargained and got the two for not much more than the price of one.
“Shipping was of course a major financial consideration and I found the cheapest way to ship them was on a Toyota vehicle-carrying-ship that would eventually get them to NSW, providing we weren’t in a hurry – for about half the normal freight bill,” recalled Ian.
“It took about three months, because they were offloaded and reloaded at various ports on their Pacific Ocean sightseeing voyage.”
The two ‘Yanks’ had been fitted with Isuzu engines, which Ian and Dan replaced with Cummins 230hp B-Series engines.
It was also necessary to rejig the door, so that it opened to the Australian kerbside and to reposition the pilot’s seat and controls from left to right.
They used Isuzu steering boxes for the right-hand-drive conversions – a common replacement steering box for a Clipper.
They fitted front axles from Austral-built Firepac fire engines that had the correct geometry to run on our left-side cambered roads from an. They’d used other components for the first two Clippers from Firepac fire engines previously.
Rather than serve as ‘limos’ the two Yank coaches were kitted out as motorhomes for their personal family use on adventures to the Red Centre and other scenic holiday destinations.
So, Flexible Clippers still ply Australia’s inland roads, some 60 years later.