Alan B. Denning, a true pioneer of the Australian bus and coach building industry in Australia, passed away on 11th January 2013 at the age of 82. From the late 1950s to the 1990s he was synonymous with innovation in coach building running two bodybuilding forms which carried his name and also with coach air conditioning.
Alan was born in Brisbane on 13 February 1930 and left school at 14 during World War Two to become an apprentice sheet metal worker at Archerfield airport which included repairing of combat planes. At the end of the war and a subsequent reduction in work, Alan’s apprenticeship was transferred to Coachcraft which built both truck and bus bodies.
After several post apprenticeship jobs he established his own panel beating company in 1950 on the corner of Ross Street and Annerley Road, Wooloongabba. In addition to repairs he also developed body products including hearses, ambulances and designing a canopy with sliding windows for a Holden utility. In 1956 Alan began building bus bodies, having adopted the A.B. Denning & Co name and the first vehicle built was a Ford(?) for Miller’s Coaches who operated on the Brisbane to Tweed Heads corridor.
This was followed by several Internationals with side loader bodies, typical of the era with customers including Border Coaches and Glanville’s. Hannaford’s of Tamworth used one on the daily Tamworth to Port Macquarie service.. One of these units lasted in service until the late 1970s on a school run at Deepwater, New South Wales. Other early buses were a bonneted Dodge bus for Coachways, Murwillumbah, a Bedford SB3 for Bill Mitchell’s Brisbane Bus Lines and several Bedford J series buses. 1959 saw the first standard type bus built and 1960 saw the first coach produced – a rear engine conversion of a Bedford SB3 chassis for Rex Law’s Redline Coaches.
From 1960 to 1963 the factory was located in Fairfield Road, Yeerongpilly and, as demand expanded the floor space was doubled during this time. Chassis conversions were also performed by the chassis re-engineering division, mostly involving converting front engine chassis to rear engine. In 1962 Denning released their “Highway Traveller” coach, modelled at least in part on the US manufactured GMC PD4106 coaches imported by Ansett Pioneer and also influenced by the results of an 1960 overseas trip by a then 24 year old Russell Penfold of Greyhound Coaches. Alan Denning was then 31 years old and was given the task of constructing a new coach body to the Greyhound specifications.
An advertisement in the March 1962 issue of Truck and Bus Transportation featured the first of these Greyhound coaches, which was built on a Commer Avenger chassis and was placed on a regular run from Toowoomba – Brisbane – Gold Coast and return each day. The coach featured large luggage bays as required by Greyhound, a rear mounted Commer TS3 engine coupled to a four speed synchromesh gearbox. The body was all steel monoconstruction frame and chassis panelled inside and outside with 18 gauge aluminium and fibreglass, insulated with two inch fibreglass strand mat blankets. Fibreglass was used for the windows, air duct and taillight surrounds. Fluted aluminium was used for the external body trim. Seat frames and trims were based on those used by Greyhound in the USA. The coach carried Denning body no 12. The T&BT advertisement also stated that coaches were in build for Qld, NSW and SA operators at that time. Deliveries in 1962 included an underfloor engine AEC and two Albion Clydesdales for Lewis brothers, Adelaide, one being the first rear engine Clydesdale.
During 1962-1965 various versions of this coach body were built for many operators, predominantly those involved in long distance express and touring work. Additional coaches were built for Greyhound and also for Rex Law’s Redline Coaches, Border Coaches, Hannaford’s of Tamworth, Jayes of Newcastle, Amberley-Rosewood and Edwards of Armidale. These were predominantly on Leyland, Albion and Commer chassis though there were also bodies built on Bedford SB and VAL chassis and Ford Thames. Some of the Redline Coaches were rebuilds of other chassis. Four 35 foot 45 seat rear engine Leyland Lions were built for Sandgate Black & White.
To meet the increased demand for his products, in 1963 Alan had moved to larger premises at Rayneham Street, Salisbury. Customers in the mid 1960s included stalwarts like Greyhound and Redline whilst adding customers including Forest Coach Lines, Skennars, Cobb & Co (Qld), Thompsons Roadliners, Melbourne, Melbourne Motor Coaches (Australian Pacific), Murrays, Canberra, Fearne’s of Wagga and Grenda’s. The Highway Traveller design was supplanted by the Denning Squareline from 1966 at about the same time as another bodybuilder Pressed Metal Corporation (part of Leyland Australia) purchased a majority shareholding in Denning. This resulted in Alan Denning becoming both a Director of PMC as well as being the Managing Director of Denning. A new and larger plant was constructed in Landseer Street, Acacia Ridge.
The Grenda order, referred to above, was significant as, in addition to acquiring two 41 seat straight deck coaches on Leyland Royal Tiger Cub chassis, the third coach, completed in September 1966, was something revolutionary. This was the first Denning monocoach, powered by a GM engine and a new raised deck 41 seat version of the Squareline body.
Alan also built a prototype bus No 10 for the Brisbane City Council in 1966- their first rear engine city bus built in Australia and the unit on which the 400 buses were based that were built to take over the trams.
1967-1970 saw a gradual acceptance of the Denning monocoach (most being built to the more rounded design which supplanted the Squareline design as well as continued production of coach bodies on other chassis, notably Albion Vikings, Bedford VAMs, Commers and Internationals. There were many repeat orders from customers already mentioned and many new ones also joined the fold.
In 1968 Denning was successful in securing on order to build 136 bodies on Leyland Panther chassis for the Brisbane City Council, adding to a similar order being constructed by Athol Hedges. This led to route buses being produced for other customers using a variant of the coach body design, two significant orders being six Leyland Panthers for Grenda’s in 1969 (which later went to Brisbane Bus Lines) and another four Panthers for Melbourne-Brighton Bus Lines in 1970.
A second manufacturing plant, known as Denning SA was established in Adelaide to support a contract to build 291 AEC Swift 691 buses for Adelaide’s Metropolitan Transport Trust. These were built between 1970 and 1973. Denning SA also produced 18 straight deck coaches to a new design, different to that built in the Queensland plant bodied on proprietary chassis. Some monocoaches which were very similar to the Queensland s design were also produced as well as a few bodies on Mercedes 0302 chassis. The plant closed in mid 1974.
A further change to the body design, introducing the first of the “classic” Denning bodies came in 1971, however this time also saw Alan’s departure from the business due to disagreements with Leyland who had bought him out completely by 1969. Alan spent time at a fibreglass boat building business he had established as a sideline in 1968 and also project managed construction of a new factory for Volvo.
Alan Denning returned to A.B. Denning as Managing Director in 1973 at about the same time as the first 40 foot Denning monocoach (body no 429) was produced for Sunliner Coaches of Umina NSW. This tag axle coach quickly set the standard and was followed by many similar units over the next few years. However after several years he once again left – this time for good – in February 1976.
The A.B. Denning company and coaches bearing the Denning name continued to flourish with the introduction in 1979 of the new Denning Denair model, featuring air suspension. A chassis only version was also introduced, known as the Denflex and a new lighter duty route/ school bus body was designed to carry this with Sunshine Coast Coaches a significant customer. The Denflex chassis could also be bodied by other builders.
The Denair proved incredibly popular with both express and tour operators and was produced up until 1984 when it was replaced by the Denning Landseer design which became even more popular and is widely recognised as one of Australia’s classic coach designs. By this time Leyland had renamed itself and Denning was now a division of Jaguar Rover Australia (JRA). For bodying on other chassis marques, the “Majestic” design was introduced. 1998-1992 also saw the production of many double deck coaches, notably for Deluxe Coachlines, Australian Pacific and AAT-Kings.
From 1993 the company was merged with Austral as Austral-Denning and a new design the Highlander replaced the Landseer. A series of ownership changes and mergers saw the disappearance of the Austral-Denning name after 1996 when JRA became the Austral Pacific Group.
But rewinding the clock to February 1976, Alan Denning teamed up with Athol McKinnon to form a new company Denning McKinnon & Co. The pair designed a new version of the integral monocoach which they dubbed the Denmak. This was a rather squarer looking coach that the comparable Denning monos but was very sturdy in construction. After just one year, Denning McKinnon was sold to Domino Industries and the Denmak coach was redubbed the Domino Tourmaster, a design which, with a few changes along the way, was to remain in production for nearly twenty years including a further change of ownership and name to the Austral Tourmaster. The model was deleted in favour of the Highlander following the merger of Austral with Denning.
Many heated discussions have been held by coach drivers over the years over the relative merits of the Tourmaster versus the Denair / Landseer – what can certainly be said is that both models were very suited to Australian touring conditions, particularly to the rugged terrain of the outback.
After leaving Denning McKinnon, Alan was involved in designing GM powered coaches for Mount Cook Landlines in New Zealand (known as the Mt Cook Denning) and with helping Ansair set up to build their new design body on the Mercedes 0303 chassis. In 1978 he and his son Boyd established Konvekta air conditioning (renamed Coachair from 1982) which quickly became the predominant supplier of coach air conditioners in Australia.
Alan and Boyd sold Coachair in 1991 and returned to the consultancy business, now joined by his other son Wade, conducting various projects in the USA, Mexico and parts of Asia. This included a long term relationship with Cycle and Carriage of Singapore who commissioned them to design a new bus body that would allow the manufacture of all components by sub contractors with assembly in a central location under Cycle & Carriage’s control. This was intended to produce mostly school buses on Mercedes OH1418 chassis.
What eventuated from 1994 was the production of the bodies in kit form in Australia which were then exported to Singapore for assembly. The Dennings also undertook a second project to develop an new ultra modern vehicle for marketing in several Asian countries. This was followed in 1995 by a re-entry into the Australian market under the name Alan B. Denning & Associates using a design similar to that which had been developed for Singapore.
The factory was located at 22 Colebard Street, Acacia Ridge and the first bodies were Mercedes OH1418s for Marsh of Nimbin, Minden B.S. Qld, Emmet of Nimbin, All Green Tours, Sydney and Kings of Kempsey. After that, chassis bodied were more diversified with full size bus and coach bodies fitted to most contemporary chassis from Mercedes, Volvo, Scania, MAN – most being marketed as the “Galaxy” body.
In addition there was a range of mid size buses, marketed as the Corsair. Most of these were in the 30-40 seat range and were predominantly on Mercedes and MAN chassis though others bodied included Optair, Kia, Volvo and Irisbus. The Corsair range included a number of 4WD units for Fraser Island and Downunder Tours.
The other model produced was the Vario minibus, the majority of which were built on Mercedes 812 and 814 series chassis with many produced for Harry Blundred’s Sunbus, Qld and also for Surfside Buslines. Some mid size coach bodies were also built on Mercedes Sprinter and similar chassis.
In 2004, at the age of 74, Alan decided it was time to retire from the industry and the family sold A.B. Denning to new owners, who have continued the business under the name Denning Manufacturing. The new owners initially continued to produce the midi coaches and an updated Vario 2 but from 2005 have gone “back to the future” producing the now popular integral construction Phoenix range of two and three axle coaches and a low floor route bus which are a modern day version and fitting successors to the classic Denning coaches and Denflex buses, though GM power has these days given way to Caterpillar and Cummins.
Alan Denning is survived by his three adult children and seven grandchildren but, beyond the family, his name will continue to be remembered throughout the Australian bus industry for many more decades.