By Geoff Foster (with assistance on the body list from Hayden Ramsdale and Nick Wilson), Research material included various issues of ABP, Truck and Bus and Australasian Bus & Coach magazines.
For over 25 years Australian bus and coach operators enjoyed the reliability, quality and innovation that was synonymous with the North Coast Bus and Coach name, regularly written in shorthand as both Northcoast or NCBC. Founded in 1985, North Coast Bus and Coach’s reputation grew from a leading coach repair and refurbishment workshop into one of Australia’s foremost bus and coach designers and manufacturers.
But in the continuation of an unfortunate trend, the increasing use of cheaper imported bus and coach bodies by Australian operators has claimed Northcoast as another victim in the local bus bodying stakes, following the decision of Mills Tui to withdrawn from the market in 2012. In February 2014 North Coast Bus and Coach announced its intention to cease manufacturing buses although its service and repair business will continue. This article will therefore take a look at just on a quarter century of bus production by the company with an accompanying body list detailing the approximately 600 buses produced.
The company was started by Daryl Wells, Wayne Smith and his wife Raelea in 1985 as a bus repair and refurbishment business. It was originally based in Maroochydore, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, but relocated to 21 Enterprise Street, Caloundra in 1990 as expansion of activity into bus and coach design and construction required additional space for growth. Wells had been trained as an apprentice at Denning, working there for 11 years and rising to foreman. He then spent two years at GBW where he met Smith who had been with them for 11 years, having also started as an apprentice.
The pair decided to set out on their own with a new body building venture, producing their first completed bus in November 1986 for the late John Masterton of Bellarine Bus Lines in Victoria. The body was built on a second hand Leyland Leopard chassis which had formerly carried a Freighter body for Melbourne Brighton Bus Lines. Masterton was happy with the quality of the coach and returned to Northcoast to have a Leyland Tiger bodied in 1987 followed by two MAN day charter coaches and a Mercedes 0303-3 touring coach all in 1994, followed by a Scania K93CR in 1997.
The first buses produced were two axle coaches and school buses. Later on the company added route bus and three axle coach designs and the look of the coach bodies was refreshed several times over the course of the production run. On September 11 1989 former Scania salesman Tim Robertson joined Northcoast as sales manager, later becoming a part owner. By that time the company had grown to employing 20 staff. Robertson’s career had included managing a tyre agency and concrete truck driver before joining Scania, initially as a truck salesman, moving to the bus division in 1985. At that years bus show in Sydney he had the job of showing off a 49 seat semi coach with stretched zinc-anneal side panels, alloy bin doors, and bonded windows on a Scania K93 series chassis fitted with 49 reclining Saydair seats and a rubber floor on a dropped aisle. This unit was subsequently sold to Brisbane’s Sundowner Coaches.
Into the Express Market
In 1990 Northcoast produced their first two express coaches for a new Brisbane-Sydney operation, Casino 99 run by Richmond Coaches of Sydney. The body was to a new design to meet demanding specifications from Richmond’s Alan Richardson who wanted a coach with 48 seats, toilet and spacious bunk accommodation, including change and wash room space, for an off duty driver. The unit was positioned between the front entry door and front axle and was fitted with a TV air conditioned, wash basin, mirror and a seat with entry from the either the front stairwell or a secondary exterior door. The style was in some ways reminiscent of Denning’s Landseer and the body was mounted on a Scania K113TR tag axle chassis.
This period also saw the production of several two-axle coaches on Scania chassis for Don Hazell’s Hobart Coaches, who used them on his commuter services from Hobart down the Derwent Channel and to the Huon Valley as well as on charter.
Midi Bus and Coach
The 1990 bus show saw Northcoast display another innovative vehicle, this time a Hino 4×4 built for dealer Motorama. The coach had a sharply angled front with high raked back windscreen. The 20 seat coach was intended for off road work in Western Queensland and interestingly appears as a 1989 build in the body list. The next version of a minibus was not until 1992 when Northcoast bodies its first Mercedes LO812 for Kangaroo Bus Lines. These midi buses became quite popular with some operators and although Custom Coaches and Alan B. Denning produced the bulk of this output, others such as Northcoast also produced them in reasonable numbers over the remainder of the nineties.
In 1992 Kangaroo Bus Lines purchased three for their Deception Bay route service, the Northcoast version of the LO812 having a noticeably smaller “snout” than those produced by some competitors. The air conditioned buses provided an hourly service between Caboolture and Redcliffe during a period when urban development and patronage offering was not yet sufficient to justify the use of full size buses throughout the day.
“The Finest Vehicle to date”
The September 1991 issue of Truck and Bus Transportation carried a write up on a far from standard three axle Volvo B10M Mk III / Northcoast charter coach delivered to Bill Walters South Burnett Coaches operation at Kingaroy. It was the first coach in Australia to feature Volvo’s then new top rated THD102KD supercharged 9.6 litre engine.
Bill Walters was concerned that he provide a very safe coach and was reported as being very satisfied with Northcoast’s approach to rollover strength by providing extra side and roof stability and a metal rather than plywood roof. In addition to roof hatches two side emergency exits were included.
The 48 reclining seats were Saydair series 91 with lap seat belts fitted (far from standard two decades ago) covered in Holdsworth material in an unusual scheme featuring lilac, pink and grey tones The coach was equipped with a toilet, 14 cubic metres of rear and underfloor bin space for both luggage and food but no drivers bunk, being intended for touring rather than express work.
Thermo King supplied the air conditioner and ducted floor heating vents were also included. Other innovations included a hostess seat that disappears under the floor when not required, a folding table attached to a bin door to facilitate food preparation a hot water tank, smart folding luggage trolley and ramp for unloading the spare wheel. The rear panel of the coach was covered by a mural depicting a rural scene of the South Burnett region.
T&BT summarised the body as being “without a doubt the finest vehicle this highly regarded body builder has completed” and “sets new standards in safety for the Australian Bus and Coach Industry” The bus was displayed at that year’s Sydney Bus and Coach Show.
However it was another coach displayed, a Scania built by Northcoast for Network Coaches on the Sunshine Coast which won the coach of the show award that year! This was a K93 coach which could be set up with either 53 seats or 49 seats and a removable toilet, located on the offside in the first bun accessed from the inside via easy stairs and from the outside for servicing. A drivers bunk was included over the front axle rather than over the chassis as on the Casino 99 coaches. This innovative layout has since become quite popular and Northcoast supplied a number of similar units to operators including Picton Coaches.
Consolidation and Growth in the mid-1990s
Some operators now started becoming more regular customers at Northcoast. One example was Cooma Coaches who took delivery of three Scania coaches.
The March 1993 issue of ABC covered the launch of Northcoast’s new city bus design as supplied to Hornibrook Bus Lines in Brisbane on Mercedes 0405 chassis. This body was designed specifically to suit lower step height/ entry chassis. As with many of Northcoast’s customers, price and location of the bodybuilder, plus a willingness to customise to the individual operators specifications were quoted as reasons for using the Northcoast product. The bodies featured a lowered left hand side windscreen allowing more light into the stepwell area for easier boarding. The new body style featured low interior noise, a light and airy interior with bright blue covered Saydair Metro 92 seats, bonded windows with two hoppers and roof hatches and galvanised steel tube framing. The two Hornibrook units have now passed to Torrens Transit in Adelaide.
With two of the company’s principals having an apprenticeship background, it was not surprising that Northcoast was also committed to training for the future of the industry. This commitment showed itself in being recognised as the Employer of the Year at the 1993 Queensland Training Awards. At that time there were six apprentices out of a staff of 30, the company was training staff in new products and new technologies. The company also celebrated in October with seven new coach orders received.
At the NSW regional bus conference Northcoast revealed another new body style for school buses or non-citybus metropolitan operators, mounted on a Hino RG197K chassis. This body featured a more curved shape and incorporated the use of Magna headlights and Falcon taillights and moulded fiberglass wheel arches.
For Northcoast the 1994 bus show was perhaps more memorable for a near miss at starting a bushfire. After delivering the two show coaches to their new owners (a Scania K93 for Picton Coaches and a MAN 16.290 for Sunraysia Bus Lines), the team were returning from the show by car when the gearbox seized at 0400 near Warwick. The area was in drought and the grass started to smoulder from the radiant heat. They put it out but then an oil line broke starting another fire and enveloping the car. Fortunately some passing fisherman had some water in buckets, which helped prevent the fire spreading further. It was all rather ironic given that the Northcoast stand at the bus show had a snow theme, most suitable for the artic conditions experienced that year!
In the 1995 suppliers directory produced by ABC, North Coast Bus & Coach advertised these as their basic specifications:
- Full fibreglass roof, front and rear headers
- Full aluminium bin doors
- Bonded saloon windows
- Stretch Bonded side panels
- Fully sealed and rust-proofed framework with Northcoast’s own rust preventative measure)
- Fully insulated roof and walls.
Northcoast also reported that for 1994-95 their financial performance was the best to date having adopted a policy of consolidation and gradual growth over a ten-year period. Wayne Smith said that Northcoast had strived to improve its production and administrative procedures and was winning new customers.
At the 1995 bus show Northcoast displayed a 48 seat Volvo B10M coach for Sunstate, another 48/53-seat convertible Scania for Picton Coaches and a 57 seat Csepel stockie which ended up being purchased by Booth of Mudgee.
In July 1996 it was announced that North Coast Bus and Coach and P&D Coachworks in Australia and Designline in New Zealand were entering an alliance with Argentinian body builder Zanello for Cummins engine school buses through Zanello’s agent Sedisa. Northcoast supplied drawings of the ADR compliant school bus to Zanello and three staff oversaw the production of seven vehicles with kit-based production to follow.
After a big launch at the 1997 bus show, suffice it to say that the Sedisa branded vehicles were not a huge success (one Melbourne operator had two declared unroadworthy in the first month!) and there are still a few operators whose complexion will turn bright red at the mention of that name. Sedisa’s Director was a gentleman called Antonio Rodriguez and buses were actually built in Mexico. A year or so later he turned up as Angel Castilli flogging Neocar buses from Macedonia which were an equally big hit.
1997 saw Northcoast crack the WA school bus market with a delivery to Gidgesprings Bus Service. In a double first the bus was also the first Metrotec delivered to WA. Northcoast’s Bus Show display for that year comprised an MAN 24.420 for Picton Coaches and a Scania K93 for Roadcoach with a new body style.
Low Floor Design
1996 saw the production of Northcoast’s first ultra low floor buses for use as tarmac buses by Qantas at Sydney Airport. The 45 seat two door buses were built on Scania L113 chassis and featured the then new but now standard concept of a flat floor from the front door to behind the rear door with a raised rear section.
1996 saw deliveries of a midi bus version of this body to Brisbane’s Park Ridge Transit on MAN 10.155 chassis. These were the first new route buses introduced after the Pulitano family took over the former Greyhound school bus business. A review in ABC found the no-step body to be easy to access, the drivers area to be well set out and with excellent visibility. The main saloon was flat floor with three easy steps to the rear section. The bus was fitted with 31 Saydair seats and large bonded top sliding windows. Phil Pulitano described it as “a little beauty”. The MAN midis were followed by five Scania L113 school coaches.
Northcoast also developed an innovative new low floor design for Qantas on a MAN 14.220 chassis with two and one seating for tarmac use by flight crews. The low floor design was known as the Buddina.
The late 1990s saw North Coast Bus & Coach combine with Volvo Australia to win a significant order for three axle coaches for the Australian Defence Forces on Volvo B12R chassis. The body style for these units was known as Currimundi. One of these was road tested by “Truck and Bus Transportation” for their June 1998 issue with the sections relating to Northcoast summarised below:
- A four step entry and gently sloping ramp led to a otherwise flat floor cabin
- Styleride G2 reclining seats were fitted trimmed by Holdsworth in “Tiger Rainbow” with the first row of seats slightly lower than those behind (which has become a fairly standard practice today in touring and express coaches).
- For military use the floor covering was limited to vinyl.
- Air conditioning was provided by Coachair
- 8 cubic metres of underfloor bin space.
Having a cubicle at the rear, enthusiasts of the day naturally assumed that a toilet was fitted and recorded the coaches as C48FT. However the Air Force specification actually required cupboard space for hanging uniforms, so the standard toilet module was modified to remove the bowl and basin and add a sturdy hanging rail.
These buses have come into the private bus market in recent years and have proved to be useful acquisitions for their purchasers having relatively low mileage for their age and still in good condition. The smart move with the rear cubicle has enabled operators to either easily retrofit a toilet if required or to simply remove the cubicle for extra seats.
Truck and Bus criticised Northcoast for the placement of some control switches and the side rather than on the dash and for a sometimes confusing door opening mechanism. There were also issues noted with resonance from the refrigeration system and inadequate airflow to the driver’s area. This was not the only Defence order and by 2009 Northcoast had supplied 29 coaches to them.
A New Shed
In 2000 Northcoast relocated to new and larger premises at 21 Enterprise Ct, Caloundra, capable of holding up to 17 vehicles in build as opposed to 4-5 in the old building. The old building was retained as the frame shop, thus separating steel fabrication from the finishing area. At this time Northcoast were producing 4 vehicles a month and aiming to increase to six. Wayne Smith explained his parts allocation and spec sheet systems to Truck and Bus Transportation for their July issue that year.
The new shed had for distinct areas for interior, exterior and paint plus an area for assembling of Irisbus chassis. The latter was part of a partnership with Irisbus (a worldwide merger of Iveco and Renault though Renault pulled out again in 2001) which had entered the local private bus market earlier that year, having previously sold mainly city buses to Canberra and Perth. Northcoast displayed a stock Irisbus FRH coach at the 2000 Sydney Bus Show (held in April that year so as not to clash with the Olympic Games in September) and was heralding the coming of the PR100 and low floor Agoraline models. Many of the early Irisbuses were delivered to the notorious King Brothers for their NSW north coast operations and included a batch of low floor citybuses with Northcoast’s Downtowner body (see below).
The early years of the new century also saw the development of a small market in New Zealand with newly built coaches exported to several operators including Scenic Tours and Invercargill Passenger Transport.
The “Downtown” City Bus
Following an extensive research and development program, Northcoast Bus and Coach’s Downtown City Bus featured one of the lightest and strongest City Bus frames available on the Australian market. At up to 1000kg lighter than many of its competitors, the Downtown offered reduced operator costs and vehicle emissions, while significantly improving the handling and braking of the vehicle. Northcoast conducted tests using a Scania L94UB chassis over a 102km suburban route with 74 stops, returned a fuel saving of 5.7 litres per 100km based upon a 1000kg weight difference between the two runs.
The Downtowner body was also applied to the first of the Irisbus Agoralines to be launched in Australia in October 2000.
The Downtowner was a striking design with a “fish bowl” look to the front, which was refreshingly different to the offerings of other body builders of the period.
North Coast Bus and Coach’s Downtown City Bus features included:
- High traffic non-slip Tarkett finishing on the floors.
- Wheelchair accessibility and ease of entry and exit for passengers.
- Ultra modern seating and designer trim to complement the interior space.
- Low ramped floors.
- User friendly disabled access.
- Clearly distinguished destination signage.
- Fully ducted a/c system for superior heating and cooling.
- Quality insulation for reduced driving noise and improved temperature control.
- Optional flush mounted hopper windows for more airflow.
- Fully galvanised steel frame construction with corrosion protection.
- Smooth, uninterrupted body shape for ease of washing.
- Large engine doors, and easy access panels for easy maintenance and reduced downtime.
- Composite stretch panels for easy repair.
- Modular front and rear panel design for easy replacement and cost effective repairs.
- Stylish, ergonomic drivers console for comfort and practicality.
- Ergonomic dash arrangement to reduce driver fatigue.
Into the Big League: Ventura and Metro Tasmania
Northcoast was able to attract and retain a number of repeat customers for their low floor bus body. A local Queensland example was Caboolture Bus Lines for both low floor buses and school bus/ coaches. Early 1998 saw Northcoast gain a significant new customer in Melbourne’s Ventura Bus Lines. Deciding to move away from Volgren Ventura placed an initial order for 13 Scania L113CRL and L94UB low floor buses with Northcoast.
Some of these were built to the Buddina design and were delivered in 1998 – 2000. Several of them featured in the Ventura 75th anniversary celebrations in late 1999 including one in a special mural livery depicting the development of the company. Ventura #147 was displayed at the 1998 bus show. Subsequently a further 20 Scania L94UBs were ordered to the Downtowner design with a more rounded front, delivered in 2002-2003.
ABC magazine road tested one of Ventura’s L94UB / Buddinas for their February 2000 issue noting in particular the change to curved windscreens away from Ventura’s usual preference for flat screens and also the neat and comfortable working area for the driver with all the gauges being in easy sight and driver only Coachair aircon. One of the Downtowners, #114 in the fleet was also the 100th Scania bus delivered to Ventura and was featured in ABC in March 2004.
However, their most notable bulk customer was Metro, Tasmania who took delivery of 41 12.5 metre rigid “Downtowner” 46 seat bus bodies on Scania L94UB euro III chassis (fleet nos 204-244) plus an additional 14.5m bogie bus unit, #245 The November 2001 issue of Truck and Bus Transportation carried the announcement that Scania and North Coast Bus and Coach had won Metro Tasmania’s city bus tender and the first bus was handed over to Metro CEO Laurie Hansen on 16/7/2002.
Ten each were delivered in 2002 and 2003 then nine in 2004, seven in 2005 and the remaining six (including the bogie) in 2007. All are still in service with Metro today except for #229, built in 2004, which was destroyed by fire. When Alexander Dennis re-entered the Australian bus market in 2008 with the Enviro 200 (the successor to the Dennis Dart) the demonstrator unit carried a shortened version of the Northcoast Downtowner body. This 11.3m 42-seater bus was displayed at the 2008 Busvic bus expo
New Coach Bodies – the Protégé and the President
North Coast Bus and Coach released a new look coach body, the Protégé, at the 2001 Sydney Bus Show. It was built on a Scania L94IB chassis for Sydney’s Transit Scenic Tours. It was fitted with 48 stylride seats, toilet and Coachair air conditioning. At the 2002 Victorian Maintenance Conference they displayed the first of an initial order of four Mercedes 0500RF coaches for Melbourne’s Crown Coaches. Again there was good repeat business here as Crown took some 33 North Coast Bus and Coach Protege bodies on Mercedes chassis between 2002 and 2012.
The Protégé was available on either two or three axle chassis. An early customer from New Zealand stated “The way the whole body is designed around the engine and gearbox is a dream. The noise insulation is also superb. Another notable feature was its light weight in comparison to competitors models,” The President design won Coach of the Show at the 2003 Sydney Bus Show for a Roadcoach, Goulburn five star coach (TV 2797) which featured Styleride leather seats, a wood trim dash and (in a back to the fifties move) wheel spats as specified by Roadcoach owner Billy Smith.
Caboolture Bus Lines also selected the President for their entry into the five-star coach market when they launched their Signature brand. The five-star coach body was mounted on a Mercedes 0500RF two-axle chassis and brought off the double header winning Coach of the Show at the 2004 NSW bus show. The impressively finished vehicle featured gold stars over a base silver livery. More gold stars were in the stairwell and through the coach interior. Caboolture Bus Lines was a steady (though not exclusive) purchaser of Northcoast bodies for both route and school bus applications for over a decade up to 2011. Neighbouring operators Bribie Island Bus Service and Coast & Country Coaches also took some Northcoast bodies Mercedes and Scanias.
Asia Motors also selected Northcoast to body the first Hyundai Aero 3 three-axle coach in 2006 and in that year Northcoast also built seven new Scania Coaches for John King’s Premier group. Five of these were 56 seat 14.5m three-axle Scania K114IB express coaches, allocated initially to the Brisbane – Cairns run and still in regular front line service today. Premier dubbed them the Supercruisers and they featured glare free windows, upgraded toilet and washroom facilities, wheelchair accessible hydraulic lift mechanisms and additional legroom. The other two were a pair of two-axle Scania K94IB day charter coaches which were similar to a previous unit supplied in 2003.
According to figures published in ABC magazine in 2004, as part of a larger survey of bus production nationally, North Coast Bus and Coach is shown as having produced 159 buses across the six years as follows:
- 1998: 28
- 1999: 25
- 2000: 17
- 2001: 22
- 2002: 35
- 2003: 32
The most interesting observation to be made from these figures is that that Northcoast’s performance was worst in the year 2000 which in fact had by far the most numbers of Australian built buses produced across the period (1,117 the next highest being 959 in 1999). However in general terms Northcoast was more or less on a par with similar sized rivals Express, Coach Design and P&D Coachworks.
Over the next few years production continued as follows:
- 2004: 32
- 2005: 21
- 2006: 19
- 2007: 31
- 2008: 21
This was a turbulent period for bus bodybuilding with the demise of Autobus, the advent of Denning Manufacturing, the arrival of the Chiron (UBC) bodied Daewoos, some penetration by Designline from New Zealand and the beginning of Chinese imports from BCI, King Long and Higer, although 2007 was a boom year across the industry.
2008 was a difficult year as Wayne Smith had to take extended time off due to illness requiring a General Manager to be employed. Wayne recovered and by 2009 his wife Raelee had rejoined the company, taking over sales and marketing responsibilities allowing Wayne to focus more on production.
Speaking to ABC magazine in 2009 Wayne and Raelee Smith were of the view that much of their success was due to having quality products, minimal warranty issues, personal relationships and the fact that every client, large or small, deals directly with the owners. They quoted as an example their ongoing relationship with the Defence forces (see above). The company’s mantra was always “excellence through design”
North Coast Bus and Coach gained an exclusive license for the Alcan Eco-Range Aluminium production system in Australia enabling it to significantly increase production levels and productivity whilst maintaining quality standards. The weld-less aluminium frames were produced in Malaysia through a joint venture partnership with Gemilang Coachworks, the largest bus and coach manufacturer in south east Asia, who had previously constructed some bodies on Mercedes and Nissan chassis marketed through Bus and Coach International.
The first two buses were launched on 28 April 2010 and were built using bolt up construction from kits supplied by Gemilang, taking roughly half the construction time of the more traditional steel framed bodies. Construction also required less skilled labour, which had become more difficult to obtain due to the mining boom.
The Pulitano family were the main customer for these bodies introducing over 30 low floors on Scania K230UB and Volvo B7RLE chassis into their Bus Queensland group fleets and Cranbourne Transit in Melbourne between 2009 and 2011. A slightly different design was applied to a pair of Mercedes 0500LE city buses for Merseylink in Tasmania in early 2011.
A school bus version of the aluminum body was also made available bodied on a Mercedes OH1830 chassis. Features included LCD screen mounted on a moulded header, CD and MP3 player, lightweight moulded racks, and a sleek fibreglass moulded dash. This was displayed at the 2011 Busvic conference, one of the few times Northcoast had displayed there in their own right, usually just having buses on one or other of the chassis manufacturers stands. In addition to the kit body the Mercedes chassis was also kit assembled by Northcoast, arriving in buggy form ready to be lengthened. The bus was claimed to be 95% recyclable at the end of its service life.
Most recently North Coast Bus and Coach partnered with Daewoo Bus Australia to body a BH117L chassis with a coach body built by Gemilang in Malaysia with Australian engineering and predominantly Australian materials and componentry The frame is galvanised steel tube with polymer coating. The front and rear headers are fibreglass, as are the side panels. Bin doors are aluminium. The Daewoo coach has Styleride passenger seats with plenty of headrest with easy-wipe leather inserts. Both floor and ceiling are carpeted, as are the overhead luggage racks. The demonstrator unit had 57 non-reclining seats but the package could also be set up as 53 reclining seats, or 53 fixed seats and a toilet. One was supplied to P&K Clarris of Wandoan in western Queensland as Northcoast body 625 of September 2013.
The arrival of Chinese bus manufacturers into the Australian market between 2007 and 2010 inevitably started to impact on local bus manufacturing as the imported units could be delivered at considerable cost savings to operators – of course it still remains to be seen whether these buses will also have the necessary longevity to be truly competitive.
Having lost many of its repeat business customers, Northcoast’s output dwindled during 2010 and 2011 to the point where deliveries of locally made buses ceased after the delivery of a Mercedes 0500RF to Melbourne’s Crown Coaches in early 2012. Gemilang had also gained ADR approval in its own right for their Malaysian built products, which have now started to appear in the local market.
In early 2014, announcing his intentions to close the manufacturing business, North Coast Bus and Coach Managing Director Wayne Smith said “We’ve stopped the manufacturing side of things but we’re still servicing and that Australian manufacturers are having a “tough time” at the moment. He said international suppliers are making their mark on the industry which is making it harder for local manufacturers. “We’re finding imports have really impacted the industry,” he says. “I think everybody’s doing it tough.” Smith said the company is committed to providing ongoing support to their thousands of customers throughout the country. “There aren’t many Australian builders out there anymore.”.