Brisbane’s Leyland Panthers

The story begins in May 1964 when the Council approved a tender from Leyland Motors Ltd for the supply of 40 Leopard underfloor engine chassis, which became fleet numbers 343 to 382. Leyland also submitted an alternative offer for their newly designed rear-engine chassis known as the ‘Panther’. The new model was powered by a Leyland 0.680 horizontal diesel engine mounted underfloor at the rear, in-line with the chassis. This provided low floor height which was considered very desirable. Leyland offered to manufacture one Panther chassis to the Council’s specification for evaluation purposes at a cost of £5,246, which was accepted by Council. On 30 August 1965, the prototype chassis was delivered to Council. 

Bus No. 343 was the class leader of the 40 Leyland Leopard 39-seaters delivered to Brisbane City Council by Freighter Industries (Qld) Pty Ltd during 1966 and 1967. The prototype Panther that the BCC received in August 1966 was based upon this body style. Photos: Brisbane City Council

In October 1965, Council approved the order of 80 Panther chassis from Leyland a year before the prototype had even been placed into service for evaluation. This was largely due to lengthened delivery times that had been experienced in previous orders. Additionally, the Council wanted to replace overage vehicles and adequately cope with the development of outer suburban areas. However, what was not known at the time was that the decision had been made to replace the trams. The Council relied on the recommendation of American consulting engineering firm, Wilbur Smith and Associates, to replace Brisbane’s tram network with diesel buses. On 24 November 1965, the Council issued an order to Leyland to modify the prototype chassis. This included the relocation of the radiator to the front to suit Brisbane’s tropical climate. 

On 3 December 1965, Managing Director of A.B. Denning & Co Pty Ltd, Alan Denning, wrote to the Council to propose the construction of a body with spot-welded frame construction. It was proposed to build this new body on one of the 40 Leyland Leopards. On 21 March 1966, Council received the modified Panther chassis from Leyland. On the same day, Alan Denning again contacted Council to offer the construction of a body with spot-welded type frame on the prototype chassis to the same specifications as the 40 Leopards then under construction by Freighter Industries. The price for the complete body work was $8,170 with delivery estimated to be 12 weeks from receipt of chassis. The manufacture cost and turnaround were considered very favourable by Council. Likewise, Council were interested in the spot-welding construction technique which was applied in the mass production methods of the automotive industry. 

In a case of what could have been for the prototype Panther body – Athol Hedges submitted this drawing as part of their response to Council’s tender.

On 1 April 1966, Council invited tenders for the manufacture of a body on the prototype chassis. Only two tenders were received: A.B. Denning & Co Pty Ltd for $8,170 and Athol Hedges Pty Ltd for $11,000. On 26 April 1966, Council accepted Denning’s offer to construct the body. This would become the first rear-engine city bus to be built by an Australian manufacturer. On 7 June 1966, Council approved an increase in the original order of Panther chassis from 80 to 114. A further approval on 30 August 1966 increased the number of chassis on order to 204 due to the introduction of express bus services on Belmont and Mt Gravatt tram routes with further extensions in the near future.  The prototype Panther body was completed by Denning on 8 August 1966, having taken 14 weeks to build. Council engineers were heavy involved in the construction process. The body featured aluminium exterior panelling with ribbed anodised aluminium between cant and roof rails, front and rear fibreglass moulds, double-width front and rear doors, motorised and ram ventilation, and top-sliding windows. Additionally, the Panther chassis enabled a low entry height of 15 inches from the ground. Assigned fleet number 10, the vehicle was painted in a trial livery of Arctic White roof, Araluen Blue band and Zenith Blue lower body. 

Owning the only Panther in Australia at the time, Council agreed to Leyland’s request to display the vehicle at the Brisbane Exhibition in August 1966. For the next three months, the vehicle was subject to considerable evaluation and testing both in and out of service. This included extensive performance testing to ensure the cooling system could handle temperatures ranging from 40°F to 110°F (4.44°C to 43.33°C). Additionally, a ZF two-speed transmission was air freighted from England and fitted to the vehicle for trial. After being pleased with the resultant fuel economy and smooth gear change, Council authorised a contract variation on 15 November 1966 for the supply of ZF transmissions in lieu of automatic self-changing gears (S.C.G.) in all but the first 40 Panther chassis. 

On 14 November 1966, number 10 the ‘Bus of the Future’ was displayed in King George Square alongside number 344, a new Leyland Leopard. A public questionnaire was conducted in respect of the preferred colour scheme with 247 people voting for the Zenith (darker) blue of the Panther, and 74 for the Araluen (lighter) blue of the Leopard. Additionally, the public advocated for moveable windows and padded seats. Previous generations of Council buses had fixed lower windows and fibreglass seats. On 28 November 1966, number 10 entered revenue service for the first time. 

Taken on 23 November 1966, these four views illustrate the prototype Panther bus body that AB Denning & Co produced for Brisbane City Council. The only Leyland Panther in Australia at the time, this ‘Bus of the Future’ entered service as BCC No. 10 on 28 November 1966. Photos: Brisbane City Council
Interior of Leyland Panther No. 10. Photo: A.B. Denning & Co Pty Ltd

On 18 October 1966, Council called tenders for the manufacture of 204 bus bodies for the Panther chassis. The required rate of delivery was six per week. Until this time, the largest contract ever let in Queensland had been the supply of 40 buses at a delivery rate of one a week. At this stage, the production capacity at Athol Hedges was approximately one Council bus a week. The delivery of 204 buses in 12 months would ultimately prove to be the largest number of buses ever built in Australia in such a short period. When tenders closed on 3 March 1967, only three Brisbane firms submitted offers: A.B. Denning & Co Pty Ltd, Athol Hedges Pty Ltd and Freighter Industries (Queensland) Pty Ltd. The Council considered the tender of Athol Hedges for $9,149.24 per body the most advantageous because they could supply four vehicles a week. Indeed, the company’s reputation as the foremost body building firm in Queensland gave further weight to their proposal. While Denning had the lowest body price of $8,990.59, they could only supply two vehicles a week which was well short of Council’s minimum requirement. Indeed, Freighter’s tender of $9,291.00 per body and supply of four vehicles of week, provided no advantages commensurate with the higher price. As a result, the Council approved the tender of Athol Hedges for 204 vehicles on 30 March 1967 for a contract price of $1,866,444.96 plus a provisional sum of $50,000. 

In order to meet Council’s delivery schedule, Athol Hedges engaged two subcontractors to assist in carrying out the contract: Commonwealth Engineering (Qld) Pty Ltd at Rocklea were responsible for fabricating 75% of the body frames, while Motor Body Specialists at Eagle Farm painted two vehicles per week and completed part of the finishing work. Commonwealth Engineering was an associated company of Hedges, while Motor Body Specialists had been formed by former Hedges employees. Their support proved critical in meeting Council’s delivery schedule as well as maintaining other lines of business. During the contract, Athol Hedges averaged two vehicles a week for private operators. Concurrently, the company also supplied city buses to the ACT’s Department of the Interior, and Rockhampton City Council. 

On 17 May 1967, Council advised the Coordinator General of Public Works that the provision of tram tracks were not required on the new Victoria Bridge. This intensified the need for buses to be delivered ahead of the bridge opening in early April 1969. In June 1967, the Council’s Transport Department calculated that 324 buses would be required to replace the entire tram and trolleybus network. On 11 July 1967, the Council approved the acquisition of an additional 136 Panther chassis at the same price as the original order of 204 chassis. As tenders for bodies had only recently closed, the Council entered discussions with the lowest tenderer, A.B. Denning & Co, for the manufacture of bodies to these 136 extra chassis. On 1 August 1967, the Council approved a contract with A.B. Denning & Co for $9,070.15 per body making a contract price of $1,233,540.40 plus provisional sum of $34,000, with delivery at the rate of two per week. 

In order to reduce overall vehicle weight and minimise wear and tear, the bodies for Brisbane’s Leyland Panthers contained a high proportion of aluminium componentry. Here the bodywork progresses on a Panther at the Athol Hedges plant. Photo: Truck & Bus Transportation

In August 1967, Leyland delivered the first Panther to Athol Hedges for bodying. The Council requested a number of refinements for the 340 Panthers. These included tapered front and rear sections to improve manoeuvrability. Additionally, the vehicles were fitted with upholstered seats and contained full sliding side windows in the rear saloon. The vehicles were licensed to carry 82 passengers, consisting of 39 seated and 43 standing. Dimensions included a wheelbase of 18 feet (5.48m), width of 98.5 inches (2.50m) and length of 36 feet (10.97m). Council engineers stipulated the use of aluminium wherever possible – even down to the anodised bell-push strip – to reduce overall weight and prevent wear and tear to vehicle and roads. This resulted in a tare weight of 8056kg. Aluminium sheet was used for roof panels (20 gauge), side panels (18 gauge), ceiling panels (18 gauge), bulkhead panels, platform floor and step treads (1/8 inch), and destination boxes (16 gauge). Extruded aluminium was used for window frames, roof guttering, fluorescent light housings, ceiling moulds, cover moulds, destination rollers, step nosings and door frames. Aluminium castings were used as fittings for grab rails, mirrors, interior lights and even the driver’s cash tray. As such, these buses contained the highest percentage of aluminium of any metropolitan transit buses in Australia at the time. 

The design and construction process of these new vehicles did not prove to be a straightforward task. This was reflected in Hedges’ production time for the first vehicle totalling 2900 hours. By the twelfth vehicle, production hours had fallen to 1070 which was well in excess of the budgeted 630 hours for direct production time, plus approximately 220 hours for pre-fabricated parts. Compounding matters further, Athol Hedges discovered an error had been made in their tender whereby the cost price had been incorporated with no allowance for margins. To recoup some of their development costs, the company negotiated with Denning to supply information and fabricated parts to assist with their contract. The first Hedges Panther, assigned fleet number 383, entered service on 3 April 1968. With this new vehicle, Council’s fleet comprised 361 diesel buses, 210 trams and 36 trolleybuses. 

Pictured outside the workshops of Athol Hedges Pty Ltd at Northgate are Athol Hedges (left) and Brisbane Lord Mayor Clem Jones (right) alongside the first completed Leyland Panther. This bus entered service on 3 April 1968. Photo: Athol Hedges Pty Ltd
The first of 204 Leyland Panthers built by Athol Hedges Pty Ltd of Northgate was completed in March 1968 and assigned BCC No. 383. Photos: Brisbane City Council

At the height of the contract, Athol Hedges, with the support of subcontractors, delivered an average of six Panthers a week. As a result, the company’s staff rose to 308 during the latter stage of the contract, with 100 of those working on the Panther contract alone. As the contract progressed, the Council requested an accelerated delivery programme so that all 204 buses would be delivered by 28 March 1969. This resulted in the Council assisting Hedges by painting and finishing 30 buses at their Milton workshops. Likewise, the production of body frames increased at Commonwealth Engineering to achieve this expedited schedule. The first Panther built by Denning entered service on 19 August 1968.

One of the 30 Hedges-bodied Panthers that received painting and final finishing at the BCC Milton workshops, seen on 24 September 1968. Photos: Alan Miles

By October 1968, Hedges had created efficiencies within the production process resulting in builds averaging 50 hours below budget. This provided the company with a healthy profit upon completion of the contract. The last Hedges Panther, numbered 722, was finished on 28 March 1969, and entered service on 11 April 1969. This vehicle was numbered out of sequence to symbolically represent the ‘last Panther’ being delivered for the last of the trams. When the last tram service operated on 13 April 1969, a total of 74 Denning Panthers were on the road, with the last vehicle, bus 721, entering service over a year later on 15 May 1970. 

These vehicles were the largest fleet of Leyland Panther buses anywhere in the world.

Built within an exhausting 12-month timeframe, the 204 Leyland Panthers bodied by Athol Hedges received BCC fleet numbers 383–419, 421–586 and 722. Pictured here, bus 465 joined the BCC fleet on 15 October 1968. Photo: Athol Hedges Pty Ltd
Built between 1968 and 1970, the 136 Denning-bodied Leyland Panthers were allocated BCC fleet numbers 420 and 587–721. Bus 606 was delivered on 25 November 1968. Photo: AB Denning & Co
An advertisement Athol Hedges used to promote the firm’s capabilities after bodying the 204 BCC Panthers.