Brisbane’s Volvo B59 buses

The story of Brisbane City Council’s first Volvo buses begins in September 1974 when the newly formed Metropolitan Transit Project Board approved funding in the amount of $1,230,000 for the purchase of 30 new buses in the 1974/75 financial year. This was one of the first projects approved by the Metropolitan Transit Project Board which was formally established on 5 September 1974 to implement a programme of capital works to improve public passenger transport in the Brisbane area. In accordance with an agreement entered into between the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments on 29 March 1974, the Commonwealth funded two-thirds of the cost of the projects approved by the Commonwealth Minister of Transport, while the State provided the remaining one-third of funds required. These new buses would replace older vehicles in Council’s fleet as well as assist in the extension of routes into developing areas.

As Council had already placed an urgent order for the delivery of 7 new Leyland National buses after Black and White Buses ceased operating passenger services between Brisbane and Sandgate at short notice, tenders were called in November 1974 for the supply of 23, or alternatively, 98, single deck diesel buses complete and ready for service. The supply of 75 extra buses was considered prudent given the likely delays that could be experienced in the delivery of these vehicles, with additional funding to be sought from the Commonwealth. At this time, it had been a decade since Council last called tenders for new buses which resulted in the replacement of Brisbane’s tram and trolleybus system with 340 Leyland Panthers between 1968 and 1970.

The tender and evaluation process

When tenders closed on 31 January 1975, six offers were received, each with a number of alternatives, and prices ranging from approximately $44,400 to $57,200 per bus. Aside from one bus of complete English manufacture, tenders comprised chassis of English, European and Japanese manufacture with bodies constructed by Australian body builders. The tender prices, including provision money, for these offers were as follows:

Underfloor buses with engines between axles
ChassisBody23 buses98 buses
Leyland LeopardDomino Hedges$1,069,700$4,375,205
Leyland LeopardDenning$1,214,359$4,586,974
Volvo B58Domino Hedges$1,162,774$4,774,766

Underfloor buses with engines behind rear axle
ChassisBody23 buses98 buses
Hino RC520PFreighter Industries$1,021,762$4,353,596
Leyland B21Domino Hedges$4,740,500
Leyland B21Denning$4,868,405
M.A.N. SL200C.A.C.$1,201,438$5,119,172
Leyland NationalLeyland$1,193,396$5,202,653
Volvo B59Domino Hedges$1,249,763$5,144,485
Volvo B59Ansair$1,259,857$5,347,507
Mercedes-Benz O305 (35 foot)Domino Hedges$1,320,619$5,447,320
Mercedes-Benz O305 (35 foot)Denning$1,446,295$5,575,224
Mercedes-Benz O305 (36 foot)Domino Hedges$1,349,285$5,477,058
Mercedes-Benz O305 (36 foot)Denning$1,474,961$5,604,963

On 18 February 1975, the Council’s Establishment and Co-ordination Committee approved a request for the Chairman of the Transport and Electricity Committee, Alderman L.R.T. Dutton, and the Department’s Electrical and Mechanical Engineer, Mr. G.A. Baker, to inspect Perth’s large fleet of Hino RC520P in service, as well as a Volvo chassis that was available for inspection in Adelaide. Although the Department considered that the Hino was unsuitable for Brisbane’s hilly terrain based upon feedback from their Perth counterparts, Council officials felt that they had no choice but to seriously consider this option as it was the lowest tender submitted. Additionally, Department officials were keen to inspect two buses in Perth that had been fitted with different types of air conditioning. In particular, the Department’s Manager, Mr D.R.C. Harding, noted in his memorandum to the Town Clerk on 17 February 1975 that:

Whilst I am by no means certain that buses we purchased under this contract should be equipped initially with air conditioning, I believe it is imperative that any buses purchased should at least be capable of being so fitted during the course of their service life.

On 24 March 1975, the Metropolitan Transit Project Board advised that it “considered it desirable that Council consider as far as practicable the air conditioning of the new buses to be purchased under the Urban Public Transport Programme“. This was because all new railway passenger vehicles in Queensland were to be fitted with air conditioning. However, due to the high cost and unreliability of existing air conditioning equipment, Council decided against ordering such equipment and instead specified that the buses be designed so that it could be added at a later stage.

In August 1975, Council applied for $7 million in Commonwealth funding to purchase an additional 75 new buses in addition to the 30 buses already approved, as well as enable the construction of a new bus workshop facility at Toowong, install two-way radios in buses, and improve passenger waiting facilities.

At the meeting of Council’s Stores Board on Tuesday, 2 September 1975, the tenders for the supply of 23 or 98 buses were considered in detail. Council immediately discounted the mid-mounted underfloor Leyland Leopard and Volvo B58 options as this configuration did not meet their purchasing policy for buses with rear mounted underfloor engines. Indeed, Council’s preference had been further reinforced by recent seminars convened by the Commonwealth Government in Canberra and Melbourne to consider the ‘Australian Standard Urban Bus’ specification. These seminars had unanimously concluded that rear mounted underfloor buses were best suited to urban operation because of their low entrance and exit, and low floor height. Additionally, the Hino RC520P offered by Freighter Industries was considered inadequate to meet the severe metropolitan Brisbane operating conditions, following Council’s inspection of these buses in Perth.

As no tender fully complied with Council’s requirements with many items being omitted or offered as options, the tender prices were adjusted to enable comparison of the tenders on a common basis with adjustments, including materials, to be supplied by Council as follows. The higher tender of the alternative bodies on the Leyland B21, Volvo and Mercedes chassis were not considered.

Schedule of comparative prices for 23 buses
TendererBody manufacturerTendered price per busAdjusted price
Leyland B21Domino HedgesMinimum order of 75 requiredMinimum order of 75 required
M.A.N. SL200C.A.C.$52,236$54,743
Volvo B59Domino Hedges $54,338$56,743
Mercedes-Benz O305 (36 foot) Domino Hedges $58,665$61,544
Leyland NationalLeyland$51,887$59,066
Schedule of comparative prices for 98 buses
Tenderer Body manufacturer Tendered price per bus Adjusted price
Leyland B21 Domino Hedges$48,372$54,404
M.A.N. SL200C.A.C. $52,236$54,743
Volvo B59Domino Hedges$52,495$54,900
Mercedes-Benz O305 (36 foot)Domino Hedges$55,888$58,767
Leyland NationalLeyland$51,887 (70 buses)
$56,092 (28 buses)
$59,066 (70 buses)
$63,271 (28 buses)

The tenders were considered in order of lowest to highest cost per adjusted vehicle price. Firstly, the Leyland B21 was considered to be unproven in Australia and unsuitable for Council’s requirements as it featured many of the same undesirable features as the Leyland Nationals, such as the 10 inch difference in levels between front and rear saloons. Secondly, the M.A.N. SL200 with bodywork by Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Melbourne was ruled out because of narrow internal aisle width and unsatisfactory torque and horsepower for Brisbane’s hilly terrain. Indeed, bodying of the chassis in Victoria would hinder Council’s ability to easily monitor the construction process which had proven beneficial in the past.

The next lowest price was that of Volvo incorporating a chassis of Swedish manufacture, assembled at their Wacol factory in Brisbane, with bodies constructed by Domino Hedges at Northgate. This offer provided the most satisfactory body and step heights, acceptable angles of departure and approach, and at approximately 37.5 inches, an acceptable aisle width at the front axles with provision made for tapering at the rear end of the body. Notably, the engine and differential combinations were considered satisfactory for Brisbane’s conditions, with sufficient power reserve to enable, if required, the provision of air conditioning. As the remaining higher tender prices did not offer advantages commensurate with the higher prices, the Stores Board proposed that Volvo’s tender for the supply of either 23 or 98 buses at the total prices of $1,524,589 or $6,198,051 respectively, be accepted subject to the necessary approval of the Commonwealth Minister for Transport. This proposal was ratified the same day by Lord Mayor Bryan Walsh who had succeeded Clem Jones.

Volvo awarded its first government contract

At a special meeting on Friday, 5 December 1975, the Stores Board recommended the tender of Volvo Australia Pty Ltd for the supply and delivery of 98 buses and associated equipment for $6,198,051. This order was formally approved by Lord Mayor Bryan Walsh on 8 December 1975 to become the first major government contract awarded to the Swedish chassis supplier. This marked the end of an era for the British AEC and Leyland buses that had dominated Council’s fleet since 1940. Additionally, Council took another risk by proceeding with the purchase of the extra 75 buses despite the fact that its request for funding under the Commonwealth capital works programme for 1975/76 had been a casualty of the dissolution of the Whitlam Government. Instead, Council would need to wait until the 1977/78 financial year to be reimbursed by the Commonwealth for 75% of the cost of these vehicles.

In announcing the order on 9 December 1975, Alderman Gordon Thomson, Chairman of Council’s Transport Committee, declared that Brisbane’s transport had reached a low point before the order was lodged. “We either had to scrap the bus system forever, or take this step“, he said.

The total contract price accepted by Council for the 98 buses comprised:

Basic tender price$49,995.00
Provision of top and bottom sliding windows$130.00
Provision of aluminium panelling$167.71
Provision of stainless steel wheel arches and step wells$151.00
Provision of alumply flooring$755.10
Provision of driver’s fan$54.61
Provision of additional roof hatches$296.25
Provision of driver’s seat$219.15
Provision of tapered rear end$210.00
Provision of standee strap hangers$95.97
Provision of driver’s hatches$122.35
Provision of raised waist rail$35.00
Adjustment for 39 seats$105.00
Deletion of flettner vents$22.00
Provision of ventilation to be approved – prime cost item$7,364.29
Total per bus$59,469.43
Total for 98 buses$5,828,004.14
Components and specialised tooling$74,901.69
Plus 5% provision amount$295,145.17
Total contract price$6,198,051.00

Council accepted Volvo’s requested payment terms as follows:

  • Chassis – 80% on delivery to the body builder, and 15% on delivery of the completed bus, or 3 months from chassis delivery to body builder, whichever occurs first.
  • Completed bus – Balance of payment (to 95% of total) payable on delivery, with final payment (5%), on expiration of warranty period (12 months).
A new Volvo B59 chassis awaiting bodying in November 1976 at Domino Hedges factory at 343 Melton Road, Northgate. Photo: Brisbane City Council

Delivery of the first Volvo chassis

Lord Mayor Bryan Walsh accepted the delivery of Brisbane’s first bus chassis at Volvo’s Wacol factory on 18 February 1976. In a newspaper advertisement in The Courier Mail on 17 February 1976, the Lord Mayor declared that:

  • The utmost attention is being given to ensure, for example, steps, easily negotiable by older and younger citizens; seats that are not only comfortable in themselves, but will be well spaced from one another; pleasant neat and serviceable interior trimming; modern and functional styling, and low internal and external noise levels.
  • The buses will be powered by rear-mounted turbo-diesel engines which operate in a quieter manner with less smoky exhausts, and more importantly, less harmful toxic gases are emitted.
  • Fully automatic gear boxes and power steering are provided to reduce the work loads of the drivers.
  • The remarkable new type of suspension is used to afford the best possible ride. Instead of riding on springs, the buses ride on two massive front anchored, fully oscillating a-frames, supporting at their maximum widths, air bellows and shock absorbers. Excessive side swaying, pitching and diving are thus overcome. These buses will be among the first of their type to operate in Australia.

A new look for a new era

In August 1976, Alderman Gordon Thomson, Chairman of Council’s Transport Committee, announced that the 98 Volvo B59 buses would feature a new colour scheme of ‘Yellow Fire’ (a cross between yellow and orange) and white, instead of the two-tone blue and white that had been introduced with the Leyland Panthers a decade earlier. This was to mark a new era of public transport in Brisbane under newly elected Lord Mayor Frank Sleeman. The buses would also feature a modern interior to give a ‘bright and spacious feeling’ and comprised of:

  • white ceiling and interior painted with hard, long wearing polyurethane paint for durability and ease of cleaning;
  • side walls were of melamine decorative laminate to mitigate the risk of vandalism and graffiti;
  • flexible P.V.C. floor sheeting to reduce noise levels and provide a stable surface; and
  • seats covered in orange fire retardant upholstery fabric.
The first Volvo B59 was completed by Domino Hedges in late August 1976 and became Bus 730 in Brisbane City Council’s fleet. It was the first bus to feature in the new yellowfire and white colour scheme. Photo: Brisbane City Council
The Volvo B59 buses featured a new modern interior designed to give a ‘bright and spacious feeling’. Photo: Domino Hedges Pty Ltd
The driver’s cabin of the new Volvo B59 buses. Photo: Domino Hedges Pty Ltd

Handover of the first bus

The first prototype Volvo B59 bus, numbered 730, was unveiled at a ceremony at City Hall on Wednesday, 8 September 1976 by Lord Mayor Frank Sleeman. Other attendees included Lady Mayoress Norma Sleeman, Alderman Gordon Thomson, Chairman of the Transport Committee, and Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The vehicle entered service on Monday, 13 September 1976 and offered passengers free travel for two weeks in order to elicit feedback on the prototype design and experimental air ventilation system. At the end of this period, the prototype bus was modified with extra insulation fitted around the engine compartment to reduce heat and noise, improvements made to the air ventilation system to increase passenger comfort, and the repositioning of some front seats to provide easier passenger movement. Full production of the buses would not begin until Council accepted this prototype.

Lord Mayor Frank Sleeman at the launch of Brisbane’s first Volvo B59 bus number 730 on Wednesday, 8 September 1976 outside City Hall. Photo: Brisbane City Council
Lady Mayoress Norma Sleeman, Alderman Gordon Thomson, Chairman of the Transport Committee, and Lord Mayor Frank Sleeman unveiling the new City Bus signage on bus 730. Photo: Brisbane City Council
Eager attendees at the launch of the first prototype Volvo bus at City Hall on Wednesday, 8 September 1976. Photo: Brisbane City Council
Bus 730 featured as part of Domino Hedges’ bus and coach show at Gold Coast Turf Club in December 1976 with over 160 bus and coach operators in attendance. Photo: Domino Hedges Pty Ltd

Construction at Domino Hedges

Following the successful launch of the first prototype bus, Domino Hedges commenced production of the remaining 97 bodies from September 1976. The bodies were built in accordance with Council’s specification and consisted of tubular steel framing with aluminium panelling and front and rear fibreglass headers.

Various stages of construction of the start of the remaining 97 Volvo B59 buses at Domino Hedges Northgate factory on 2 November 1976: Photos: Brisbane City Council
The 31st Volvo B59, bus 760, pictured four months after delivery at Chermside Shopping Centre on 10 October 1977. Photo: Brisbane City Council

New ‘Rocket’ bus services

The new powerful Volvo buses capable of speeds up to 80 kilometres per hour heralded the introduction of Brisbane’s first ‘rocket’ bus service route 269 on Monday, 18 April 1977 between Mt Gravatt and the City. The first bus departed from the Garden City ‘rocket terminal’ at 7.30am travelling non-stop to Elizabeth Street in the City and then onto Fortitude Valley. The buses were able to reduce travel time by as much as 10 minutes and took full advantage of the new Riverside Expressway. Further rocket services to outer suburbs of Brisbane were swiftly introduced by Council.

One of the last of the 98 Volvos, bus 818, is pictured at Toowong depot on 20 June 1979 with signage for the 251 city rocket route to Stretton. Photo: Brisbane City Council

Delivery of the last bus

The last of the 98 Volvo B59 buses, bus 827, was delivered to Council by Volvo Australia at a special ceremony to commemorate the opening of the Toowong Bus Workshops on Wednesday, 12 July 1978. This new facility, along with the additional 75 buses, had been majority funded by the Commonwealth Government under the capital works programme in the 1977/78 financial year. The total cost of the 98 new buses and the workshops was $11.25 million.

Bus 827 was the first bus delivered to the newly opened Toowong Bus Workshops on Wednesday, 12 July 1978. Photo: Brisbane City Council
Harry Jensen, Managing Director of Volvo Australia Pty Ltd, presented Lord Mayor Frank Sleeman with the ‘key’ to bus number 827, the 98th new Volvo bus purchased by the Brisbane City Council’s Department of Transport. Photo: Brisbane City Council
Lord Mayor Frank Sleeman unveiling the commemorative plaque at the official opening of the Toowong Bus Workshops on Wednesday, 12 July 1978. Photo: Brisbane City Council

Last bus preserved by QOCS

The Volvo B59 buses faithfully served the people of Brisbane for over two decades with the last vehicles being withdrawn from Council’s fleet in June 2002. The last of the 98 vehicles, bus 827, was donated by Council to the Queensland Omnibus and Coach Society for preservation in July 2002 after 24 years’ service.

Between September and November 2015, bus 827 was restored to original condition by Coachworks following receipt of a $5,500 Queensland Government Community Benefit Fund grant and private sponsorship from Coachworks, Patico Automotive, QBIC, Alpha Glass and PPG Industries.

Bus 827 was unveiled at Brisbane City Council’s Eagle Farm depot on 30 November 2015 to commemorate 90 years since the first Council buses operated. Photo: Nick Wilson
Bus 827 returned to the Toowong Workshops on Thursday, 12 July 2018 to celebrate the opening of that facility exactly 40 years earlier. Photo: Nick Wilson