Ray Higginson – Aussie Battler (the Moonee Valley Bus Lines story)
Complied with notes from Geoff Foster’s interview with Ray Higginson on 12/7/12, with additional input from Craig Coop and Paul Kennelly.
If ever anyone could be said to personify the term “Aussie batttler” it is Ray Higginson. He is also one of the most genuine blokes you could ever meet with a great (and often wicked) sense of humour. He was the epitome of the self-made man achieving a successful business on the back of his own blood, sweat and tears, just plain hard work and also quite a bit of nous (street smarts if you’re under 40) as well.
Ray was born in 1928. His father had been running six solid tyre Thorneycroft trucks but decided to sell them the year Ray was born due to being told that pneumatic tyres were going to be mandated. The new family business was a 200 acre apple and peach farm at Yarrambat, near Diamond Creek. However the purchase coincided with the onset of several years of drought and also the great depression which combined to make the farm unviable (only 100 cases of fruit were picked). Ray’s father was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy.
Ray attended the Yarrambat Primary School and excelled to the point that he was able to win a scholarship at the age of 12. He chose to enter the Collingwood Technical School and study to become a motor mechanic. This was in conjunction with an apprenticeship with A. Walton & Sons who manufactured parts for Ford cars which had to be transported daily to the Ford plant in Geelong. His apprenticeship covered the years 1944-1948. In addition to motor mechanical work, Ray also did pressing and stamping work for them on weekends. He had to leave home at 6-00 am and walk three miles to Diamond Creek station not returning home until 9.00 pm at night on his tech school days. Upon completion of the apprenticeship, Ray got his A Grade mechanics license.
A mate of Ray’s, George Kolivas, was at this time driving for Reid’s who were one of several operators on what is now route 508 from Fairfield to Moonee Ponds. It was about this time that founder David Reid retired from the business and it was being run by his wife Alice and daughter Shirley. George suggested that Ray join him there as a mechanic and driver. He worked three months more for Walton’s then moved to Reid’s in late 1949 and was able to gain a heavy vehicle license though still under 21 at the time by being guaranteed by David Reid.
In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II visited Melbourne as part of a program of visits for the new Queen to the various countries which recognised her as sovereign – also the first visit to Australia by a reigning sovereign. One day Ray was sitting in his bus in the “mugs alley” section of Wellington Parade waiting to pick up his group of primary school children, who had been bussed to the MCG to welcome her, and was talking with Jack Merlo who also had a bus run in the Northcote area. Jack suggested that Ray buy his bus run and he did so. The route started at Beavers Road and High Street, Croxton and went via Beavers Street, St George’s Road, Lenister Grove over Atherton Road, then along Wales Street ending up near the corner of Millers and Gilbert Roads.
Unfortunately for Ray this was also the period where the use of private motor cars was really taking off and several key industries located on the route such as Containers Industries who relocated to Dandenong and Kayser Holeproof were selling up. After only a few months of operation, Ray found that his takings had dropped by about two thirds and he could not pay the wages. In late 1955 he had no choice but to take the buses off the road and inform the Transport Regulation Board he was closing the route. This happened to quite a few short mid suburban bus routes in this era so Ray was by no means disgraced or indeed alone in his predicament.
The fleet he ran had consisted of a 1946 International K5 with Grummet body ex the Hartwell to Ivanhoe run painted cream and green; a 1947 Dodge – Perkins/. Cheetham & Borwick 18 passenger and “stinky” a pre-war Federal with Perkins P6 diesel engine both painted red and cream. Ray put the Perkins motors in having bought them from Queensbridge Motors.
With the run now closed, Ray owed ten thousand pounds to Croxton Motors. He went back to working for Reid’s and Mrs Reid, knowing Ray’s ability, generously offered to pay off his debts, sell off the buses and to charge him no interest.
Ray worked very hard doing a lot of 4am starts and much overtime and had repaid the money within two years. This included the period of the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. Ray also reckoned Mrs Reid was also trying to marry him off to her daughter Shirley. But whilst working for Reid’s he had met Elizabeth Green (a doctor’s daughter) who was one of the passengers on his bus. They married in 1958 and eldest son Gary was born in 1960 followed by Craig in 1965 and daughters Julie and Pam. Gary and Craig, their respective wives and grandson Daniel all work in the business covering operations, mechanical and the office.
In this period Ray also remembers Reid’s taking delivery of several Symons & Fowler bodied 37 seat Bedford coaches with fibreglass roofs. These were some of the last buses built by Symons & Fowler prior to them being taken over by Ansair and were very classy vehicles for their time. Mr Symons was also a part of Arrunga Bus Lines (taken over by Jack Thompson of Thompsons Roadliners which was later owned by Nixon’s – Bell Street Bus Lines) whilst Fowler was Bill Fowler who ran coaches in Richmond.
Ray’s mate, George Kolivas, who had originally enticed him to join Reid’s, had by this time moved to working for John Neeson on the Moonee Ponds to Clifton Hill run – then a thriving route operating every 10 minutes in peak hour and a far cry from today’s route 504.
In 1960 Ray left Reid’s to join Neeson’s where he was appointed manager of the bus run after being there two weeks as the existing manager left. Mr Neeson had a stroke shortly afterwards. Ray recalls John Neeson as being a man who thought he was a cut above the drivers he employed and “he only spoke to me because he had to as Manager”. On being ignored one driver remarked “Even a pig will grunt” and was duly sacked on the spot. Ray asked him why and told him to find him another driver.
Neeson’s had run primarily Dodge buses up to this point and Ray was asked to rebuild a bonneted Dodge truck into a forward control bus which was then bodied by Cheetham & Borwick in 1960. However when it came time to drive it he found that when you turned the steering wheel to the right the bus went left! There was no option but to pull it all to pieces and start again to replace the steering box. When asked what had happened Ray responded “I made a mistake” and was not spoken to for a couple of months. Perhaps this is also why all of Neeson’s subsequent purchases were CAC/ Comair Bedfords!
In between the Neeson’s route and that of Reid’s was the run along Dawson Street from West Brunswick to Northcote (which became route 506). This was another of Melbourne’s multiple operator bus routes where various owners had 1-2 buses each and worked rotating rosters so as to balance revenue between them. When the Dawson Street Bridge was built over the Moonee Ponds Creek, the run was extended to Moonee Ponds. In doing so it partially replaced another route from Essendon and Moonee Ponds to Flemington Bridge which ceased around early 1958.
Prior to that a 1950 proposal with ratepayer support to serve the western end of Dawson Street rather than follow the original route via Pearson and Hunter Streets to Victoria Street had been opposed by the route 10A (508 ) proprietors. In 1958 the service operated until midnight Monday to Saturday and until 11.00pm Sundays at a frequency of about every 10 minutes in peak and every 15-20 minutes during the day. By 1970 it was a 20 minute off peak frequency then every 30 minutes in the evenings on weekdays, a 15-20 minute frequency on Saturdays until 6.30pm then every 30 minutes until midnight and every 30 minutes between 1.00pm and 10.00pm Sundays.
Vic Purser, one of the Dawson Street owners, approached Ray about becoming the mechanic to the Dawson Street bus group, offering 20 hours of work per week. At the same time he was also offered 20 hours per week by Bill Fowler, who ran six CAC/ Comair charter buses in Richmond. Ray accepted both offers and was then on two pounds an hour (double his previous wage with Neeson’s but with no holiday pay or sick pay).
Ray says the most difficult aspect of this was if there two breakdowns at once, one in Richmond and one in Brunswick, – in which case he would have to do a quick fix for one operator, then move to the other and come back to the first one to do a proper job later at night. Ray also spent additional hours doing driving on Sundays for Purser at one pound per hour.
The Dawson Street owners employed an inspector/ timekeeper, Mr Fitzpatrick, a former policeman, whose job it was to be present at Melville Road at 5.45am when the run started, to see that all the buses turned up at the appropriate times and rearrange the rosters if someone failed to front or was late. Late arriving operators were also fined five shillings per minute. The route required five buses in the AM peak and four in the PM. Mr Fitzpatrick also monitored timekeeping during the day and had authority to reallocate revenue if one bus was running late and robbing passengers from the following bus.
Another operator on the Dawson Street run was Frank Sherry who had earlier bought out George Deveson. Frank was often late to start the run and incurred numerous fines as a result. Ray got a share of the run using GJB a flat screen Bedford SB/ CAC and RT 481 an Ansair Transett both ex Sherry. Sherry also had HJY 524 an Austin/ Noreng which Ray also tried to purchase but it went to Joe Bellofiori instead.
A third operator on the run was Leo Dwyer who had two (later three) buses being GTO 950 Ford Fleetline and JCH 807 Bedford SB5/ Freighter both ex previous operator Jimmy Mearns (the Bedford had replaced LW 888 an Ansair bodied Reo). Dwyer had taken over Jack O’Dea (Dayjohn Investments) with the AEC Reliance and Phonse Wilkinson. The depot was at the rear of a service station at 70 Dawson Street, Brunswick opposite the Brunswick High School.
The Transport Regulation Board had for some years been pursuing a campaign to eliminate multiple operators from Melbourne bus routes. This had resulted in many buyouts and mergers or alternatively with the operators forming a company under which they could all operate. By the late 1960s the TRB was giving only limited term license renewals and had given an ultimatum that the practise of multiple operator routes was to cease by 1970.
The Dawson Street route was one of those being targeted and it was Leo Dwyer who incorporated the Moonee Valley Bus Lines name. Ray and Joe Bellofiori discussed the future but did not have sufficient funds at that time. Ray went to Vic Purser, who had been there well over ten years and was looking to get out, and Vic financed Ray into his Comair Bedford bus which rather annoyed Joe at the time. It had been arranged that Dwyer would buy out the others but at the end of the day he also could not raise the cash.
Ray and Joe took over control of the Moonee Valley Bus Lines business in 1969 with Ray owning the Reliance, the Comair and the flat screen CAC and Joe owning the Austin, JCH and GPN Ansair Transett. It was a risky venture as, initially, they had to go heavily into debt, however the run paid well and was not under threat from car competition. The depot was in the Golden Fleece service station at 73 Fletcher Street, Essendon. The premises had been vacated by Ryan Brothers after their takeover in Hills Bus Service with the West Essendon run. There was a period, when the Tullamarine Freeway was being constructed that the route had to be diverted along Brunswick Road for quite a few months.
However this property was later sold out from under them, Golden Fleece reneging on a verbal agreement for them to buy the property, and after overcoming many local objections and a six month wait, they were able to move around the corner into a former service station in Napier Street down the block from the Essendon Football Ground (Windy Hill), now approved as a bus depot in 1974/5. The operation remained here for nearly three decades. There was space at the back for parking up to about 8 buses and more space at the side of the old servo buildings which were now used as the office and workshop. Later on, when the growth of the fleet had outstripped the size of the property a yard across the road was acquired and used to park a few buses.
Ray and Joe took over Nuline Bus Service in 1972. Nuline at that time ran services from Caulfield to Middle Brighton, Middle Brighton to Moorabbin and Southland Shopping Centre, North Brighton to Hampton and North Brighton to Moorabbin and Southland. Prior to 1971 the main route had been 115A Caulfield – Middle Brighton – Moorabbin – Southland which ran every 15 minutes in peak and every 20 off peak and half hourly on Saturdays and Public Holidays.
Joe had never been entirely happy being second fiddle to Ray at Essendon and wanted to do his own thing.
They had met with Nuline’s owner Charlie Spence whilst on a charter job one day and did a deal to but the run and 14 buses for $100,000 to be paid off over five years. The Nuline fleet comprised a mixture of AEC Reliances with various bodies and CAC/ Comair Bedfords. The fleet was repainted from Nuline’s brown and cream to Moonee Valley’s white with red stripes. Two Comair Bedfords were transferred to Essendon along with two subsequently purchased coaches (see below). Later on another two Comairs moved to Essendon with the two door Freighter Bedford going the other way.
Soon after taking over they applied to operate a more direct service from Caulfield via Bambra Road, Thomas Street and the Nepean Highway to Southland but the Transport Regulation Board denied permission following objections from the Victorian Railways, Camden Bus Service and Southland Bus Service.
There was also a short lived off peak hourly run from Middle Brighton into Hampton which commenced on 26 March 1973. This caused some local furore at the time with claims that the North Brighton route was being neglected in the off peak and that the new route did not operate during the peak. The Middle Brighton to Hampton route disappeared at the end of its trial period with the North Brighton to Hampton also discontinued due to poor patronage.
After purchasing the run they also purchased the 291 North Road depot premises for a further $5,000 – which turned out to be a really great deal considering how property values in the area would skyrocket over the following years. This was all financed by Charlie Spence, which was how deals were done in the industry back in those days. Subsequent to this Ray ran the Essendon operation whilst Joe looked after things at North Road for the next 15 years. However this side of the operation did not really flourish.
In 1975, route 616 Caulfield – Middle Brighton ran 12 trips per day, however peak hour trips were between Caulfield and North Road only and there were no evening or weekend services.
Route 617 Middle Brighton to Moorabbin and Southland ran every 20 minutes in peaks and every 30 minutes off peak and on Saturday mornings. There were no Sunday services or evening services other than late shopping night; however football specials were operated to and from the Linton Street, Moorabbin ground for St Kilda home games.
Route 618 North Brighton to Southland operated half hourly in the peaks and hourly off peak on weekdays and hourly on Saturday mornings again with football specials to Linton Street.
Over subsequent years, the Caulfield run, originally the mainstay of the business, was downgraded to only three trips per day and eventually it ceased altogether. The fleet size also reduced from 14 to 12.
The AEC Reliances were replaced by mainly second hand Comair Bedford SB5s and then came more second-hand Bedfords with Smithfield, PMC and Domino bodies. It was not until 1986 that a brand new bus appeared on the routes in the form of a Volvo B6FA/ Newnham with a second such unit being delivered after the sale. Ray did not particularly like the AEC Reliances because of their propensity for blowing head gaskets regularly once the bus had passed the 100,000 mile mark – the Essendon based one was notable for this.
The North Road part of the operation was sold to Craig Coop, who took over on 1 January 1987 reinstating the Nuline name, and Joe Bellofiori left the business.
But going back now to 1970 it was now time for Moonee Valley Bus Lines to venture into coach operations.
Ray first got into touring work through association with the Pincini family who were also pioneers in the field with their Gippsland Educational Tours. In 1969 Boris (Pincini’s mechanic) was in the centre in one of their Freighter VAMs. He drove through water on Willoughby Station, north of Coober Pedy, resulting in bent con rods, broken pistons and valves etc. Ray was persuaded to go up there, fix it and get it back to Melbourne. He ended up doing a lot of work with them and had a high opinion of their operation.
Two university students Gary Scott and Dennis Healy were selling Central Australian tours through Monash University with Merv Peeler’s Hampton Red Bus Service providing two of their three Bedford coaches. Now in those days most of the roads in the centre were unsealed including much of the road up from Adelaide and also out to Ayers Rock. On most journeys the coaches would break down at least once, someone else would have to continue the tour and therefore the operator was losing money. The business was known as Expo Tours.
Merv Peeler wanted to sell out so Ray bought two of his coaches and charter licenses (the third coach a Comair went to Hoys at Wangaratta). The coaches were conveniently white and red. They did one tour along with driver Eddy Spiteri. At one point he neglected to put a cap back on the engine, then drove through a flooded river filling the engine up to the brim with water. He stopped and could only proceed to Ayers Rock after being rescued by a local property owner at Wintinna. Down the road he was able to get assistance with draining and replacing the oil and was thus able to keep going.
In 1970 the first new coach – a Freighter bodied Bedford VAM was purchased. He got advice from Ted Holzgrefe at Point Cook-Werribee who suggested he buy a Dodge V8 powered Freighter Bedford VAM, however Ray decided to go with the Bedford diesel version instead. This coach was better than the two Hampton Red buses (which were later sold to Tullamarine Bus Lines when they began a coach fleet) and did a lot of good work for the company.
Back on the Expo Tours front the business now had four partners, Ray the two now former university students (whom Ray distrusted) and Ted Holzgrefe of Point Cook-Werribee Passenger Service. Ted’s wife got his share when they divorced so Ray bought her out and then the other two all for $24,000 including the business two cars and a property on Hoddle Street. Ray rented out the roof space to radio station 3UZ for a billboard getting $180,000 in return!! Expo Tours did a lot of profitable business between Australia and the USA and was in good shape and with a good reputation in the industry until the September 11 2001 terrorist atrocity in New York impacted heavily on travel in both directions. Ray subsequently closed the operation but retains the company name. At the end of the day Ray ended up with $1 million which finally made him financially secure.
Red Centre tours were now run by an ex Centralian Tours contractor’s Albion Clydesdale and a Leyland Mastiff with Freighter “Moonraker” body purchased from Sinclair. The Clydesdale Ray described as being “already ruined” through lack of attention by its previous owner who met a violent demise after owing various people a lot of money.
Ray describes the Mastiff as looking great but having a crappy mid mounted Perkins V8 motor more suitable for a truck (the Clydesdale was a truck chassis after all). Coming down Bell Street one day, it began to boil but was able to coast along to the ring road at which point the temperature then came down! On the last trip Ray did in it coming back from Cairns through Rockhampton all the belts came off and there was not a drop of oil in it. The coach used 32 litres of oil limping back to Melbourne and coming into Sydney over the harbour bridge nothing could be seen but oil smoke! A heart transplant saw an in line 6v53 GM engine inserted with a consequential significant improvement in performance despite some issues with gear linkages required to avoid the mid mount motor.
This led to the purchase of more GM powered coaches in the form of several new Domino and Austral Tourmasters which became the mainstay of the coach fleet. Ray was lucky to acquire new quite new units second-hand in the wake up the collapse of Deluxe Coachlines and another was acquired from Kingston’s of Stawell. Most of these carried Expo Tours signwriting for at least part of their lives. Ray was so enamoured of the Tourmasters that he had three of them rebodied during the late 1990s which are still in service today.
At one point a new set of billies, each of which fit inside one another, had to be purchased as old ones were making people sick because their design meant they could not be cleaned properly.
The route service was expanded on 21 August 1987 with the purchase of Cunningham’s Bus Lines with route 503 Essendon – East Brunswick along Albion Street – a route which conveniently passed out the front of the Napier Street depot enabling easy driver changeovers. The fleet was not in good condition and there were several rather motley charter coaches including a rebuild of a Lewis Bros, Adelaide coach. Most of those not required were sold via dealer Bill Slattery, along with the Moonraker coach. There was also a yard in Niddrie which was used to store some buses and provide some space relief at Napier Street.
Ray says the Moonraker was sold to an aboriginal group who had no real idea of how to drive it and, as a result, broke down near Rockhampton. Regrettably, a bout of petrol sniffing resulted in ten of them being burnt to death, but their representative kept trying to blame Ray for having sold them the bus!
Route 503 had had a troubled history. As far back as 1958 the Transport Regulation Board had issued warnings to the the five operators (this was another multiple operator route comprising Messrs Ritchie, Dunn, Hinton and Morton and Mrs McLennan) about poor service on the then route 9A. This went as far as the TRB threatening to cancel all the existing licenses and to call for new applications to run the service. It was only in 1970 that Cunningham became the sole proprietor acquiring the buses of McLennan.
A 1969 timetable for this route shows three buses providing a 17 minute between peaks service with a fourth bus in the peaks running every 11 minutes. Services ran until 11-00pm weekdays. On Saturdays there were two buses all day with a third between 10.00am and 2.00pm and one bus in the evening from 7.00pm until 11.35pm. On Sundays, one bus ran every 40 minutes from 10.30am until 8.30pm.
On the route bus side, Bedfords were Ray’s clear preference for many years and just before they went out of production he bought two Bedford BLPs bodied by Austral which went on the run in 1980, He also bought three Bedford SB chassis which Austral bodied in subsequent years (the last entering service in 1985). After that he bought a Mercedes OH1316 (which he initially didn’t think much of but spent many years driving on a school run later in its life) then an Elwood, inheriting a second one with the Cunningham business and acquiring a third from Ventura.
The 1990s saw a change to Mercedes OH1418 chassis for route work and local charter. When the Metrotec chassis was launched in 1996, Ray acquired the PMCA bodied demonstrator unit for route work. With the introduction of low floor buses, four Volgren bodied Mercedes 0405NHs and one 0500LE have been purchased for Dawson Street since 1998 whilst two mid-size buses, one Mercedes and one MAN have entered service on Albion Street.
Having long outgrown the Napier Street premises the depot was relocated to a new location in Tullamarine Park Drive in 200x with the first purpose built workshop in the company’s history office and staff amenities and above all room to move. Whilst not as handy to the route services as Napier Street, the new depot is better placed for much of the school and charter service requirements with good freeway access.
Ray Higginson was inducted into the Australian Road Transport Hall of Fame in 2000, having made many good friends in Central Australia. He would like to see more buses placed in the Hall of Fame display in Alice Springs, along with the Lananda Tours Landseer. He would like to see his Bedford VAM/ Freighter (7) displayed along with tents etc. as it would have looked when parked for the night in the 1970s.
Ray was also awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by Busvic in 2011. Despite poor health in recent years he is still down at the depot most days of the week keeping a fatherly eye on things whilst Gary and Craig take care of daily operations, the workshop and office. Moonee Valley Bus Lines continues to be a successful route bus, school and charter coach operation.
Ray’s opinion is that Moonee Valley Bus Lines today is a marvellous operation and a multi-million dollar enterprise having started with just 20 pounds, having bought (mostly) the right vehicles along the way and employed many good people. Others reckon its also about a lot of damn hard work on Ray’s part—a job well done mate!
Sadly, Ray Higginson died shortly after this article was written 2013. His sons Gary & Craig and grandson Daniel all carry on the business with continued success.