THE EXTRA MILE
It doesn’t get more iconic ’80s for many bus fans than an Australian-built and run ‘bendy bus’. Circa 2019, this old-school Volgren-bodied articulated Volvo B58 city bus still turns heads to this day.
They’re an oldie but a goodie now, but back then they were a newie and a goodie – for anything if not representing increased passenger capacity and strikingly different looks when they first rolled past on the street.
This one, owned by Driving Services Australia (DSA)’s Murray Kirkman – an Engadine, NSW, company servicing clients Australia-wide in logistic solutions for the transport industry – is no exception to the rule.
When ABC magazine spoke with Kirkman we soon got the idea that his company is successfully carving out its own slice of the pie by offering niche transport services to fill the gaps in a constantly changing and increasingly demanding industry.
“I started Driving Services Australia about five years ago. Since then, I have brought in a partner, Matt Gersbach,” explained Kirkman.
“We initially started off as Driving Services Australia offering relocations to the bus and truck industries, and we also supply contract drivers – predominantly back then for coaches – and then we moved into some truck stuff as well.
“Matt’s background is sales, not transport. Matt came on board pretty much as a sales rep. He has a lot of sales experience and we are both locals and grew up in the Shire,
so both local boys. I live two blocks from work, so guess I could walk here,” he said.
The pair started with one service area then, as opportunities and needs arose, they have grown and expanded to fill the gaps they found.
“Initially, we started with the relocations and then it went on to contract drivers, back then mainly for the truck industry. And then we picked up a driver contract with a television broadcast company. At one time we were supplying up to 15 to 20 drivers a week for that company and it just grew from there,” said Kirkman.
You soon get the picture that this entrepreneurial pair won’t stop while there are always new opportunities presenting themselves.
“Where we want to head next, apart from obviously growing the bus company, is into the driving services for new-vehicle deliveries, dealing with the major manufacturers, such as Volvo, Scania and Mercedes-Benz.”
When we first talked to Gersbach, he said: “We love driving this bus.”
I’ve never actually driven an old articulated bus and I guessed, being a 1980 model, it would be a pretty standard drive.
The shear length of the bus is quiet daunting and I was unsure what features it would have for the age that might make driving such a big vehicle easier, but both owners are pretty keen on this old girl.
It was the very first bus that Kirkman and Gersbach purchased, so we wondered if nostalgia played a big part in their obvious appreciation of ‘the Bendy’.
Kirkman showed me a photo he has of the Bendy when she was brand new: “I think for both the body and design in 1980 it was very much ahead of time. It has a lot of glass, big windows.
“The Holman family brought it from brand new and I think it was the first bendy bus at the time when Max Holman bought it. At the time
it was cream with a yellow stripe.”
It’s hoped someday it will be restored back to its original colours.
“The Bendy is always fun to drive. Being the age it is, it drives excellently, it’s just like driving a brand new bus.
“It was built in 1980, it is a Volgren body number 8, running gear is all Volvo B58 and, at a guess, I would say it’s around 270 horsepower.
“The capacity of the Bendy makes it very affordable for schools. We generally charge for a bus and a half. Makes more economical sense sometimes when schools just go over the numbers for one bus so this saves them hiring two buses, which of course needs two drivers,” explained Kirkman of the many reasons this old girl is a popular local.
“The kids love it, they all run to the back, especially the primary school kids!”
So what about fuel consumption given the age of the vehicle and the huge carrying capacity – does it chew juice?
Kirkman replied, “It’s pretty good on fuel, being a Volvo helps, and it doesn’t use any more than the other buses, just two extra tires on the road and it carries
I think for both the body and design, in 1980 it was very much ahead of time.
more passengers – but fuel consumption is surprisingly pretty standard. It just needs standard maintenance. I think predominantly since day one it has been a charter bus, so it hasn’t had the wear and tear of being a route bus.”
Driving an articulated bus did have me a bit nervous; the shear length and differences in cornering will make for a different sort of drive. So what’s to be aware of?
“Yeah, driving forward because even though it’s an ’80s bus it has a steerable tag on it. That was a bit ahead of its time. The driving forward helps you go around corners. It’s actually easier to get around corners than a rigid, but you have to be aware of the steerable tag cause if you do a hard left or right it can swing out. It also makes it interesting to reverse,” Kirkman laughed, but I think I’ll leave reversing to someone else today. He laughed a lot at this, but this was one laugh too many.
He did give back some confidence by saying, “Believe it or not, you would be surprised where you can get it. I regularly take it to the shopping centre. It looks long, it has only got a short wheelbase in the front half of it, but with the steerable tag you’ll be surprised!”
The 1980 Volgren-built articulated bus is used predominantly by DSA for charter work, seating a huge carrying capacity of 122 passengers – 74 seated and 48 standing (that’s one big people-mover).
The dual doors make for easy passenger loading, the flat floor all the way through makes it easier for elderly, disabled or
parents with prams.
Back in the day, as a kid in the ’80s, it was a treat just to get a ride on one. They were the first type of bus to put something really different and exciting onto the Sydney streets. Times haven’t changed in a lot of ways and kids still gravitate towards these buses; they do put a whole new slant to sitting on the back seat.
Taking off, we are surprised at the torque and we’re really aware that you feel like you are filling up the lane. Driving in the centre lane on the highway and you just have a feeling of needing to be a bit more mindful of your size than a standard bus. The torque was good even up some of the inclines we did, as we guess it would need to have pretty powerful grunt for when its full loaded; quite impressive from the old Volvo.
At a whopping 17 metres in length she certainly is long. For an older model there is great vision – as Kirkman said earlier, it has impressive glass areas for its age. There is a split screen with a bit of a curve on it, but the driver’s area has really good visibility. There are blind spot mirrors – not sure if these are original from new or are post market, but they look the era and still work effectively, no complaints.
Like with a lot of these older buses they are built tough. In three years it has had no major mechanical issues, just regular maintenance. How strong it still goes and what good mechanical shape it is in is testimony to the power of the trusty Volvo. Sitting on the highway at about 75km an hour, it just wants to go. It is speed limited to 80km/h for safety when fully loaded, but the power is there.
Cornering was easier than anticipated. It didn’t get to do any suburban sharp cornering, but it wasn’t an issue. The steering is neither light nor heavy, just a great match to the chassis. I’ve driven a fair few retro buses in my time and steering is usually one area where you notice a big difference between the old and new vehicles.
This bus could be driven all day and you’d not feel fatigued. Sometimes the older buses – like older cars – are a lot more work to drive, but this one is pretty easy driving.
Having done a school bus run for many years myself, for the age of this bus there is very little difference in the drive between what are the modern buses and this old retro girl.
This bus is 38 years old and, yes, buses and coaches have advanced leaps and bounds in safety, fuel economy and green features, but when you combine a Volgren with a Volvo ‘the Bendy’ certainly has been a stayer.
Kirman and Gersbach said we’d love ‘the Bendy’ and it was certainly a fun drive and a good bit of nostalgia.
The NSW government has begun to phase out bendy buses because of their footprint in busy urban areas, but we guess while old girls like this one are alive and going strong, primary school children will, for a bit longer, get to enjoy the thrill of a ride on a ‘Bendy’.
In terms of DSA, Kirkman says he felt that when handing sometimes millions of dollars’
worth of new vehicles, a company should expect more than “just a driver” or delivery person.
He explained the process, saying it was a simple one: “Busy companies don’t always have the man power or time to do the time-consuming task of vehicle transportation and delivery, DSA makes it easy for our clients.
“We can do it completely – and pay for fuel, return flights, Ubers and taxis, all the services involved, so that the customer doesn’t have to worry; we take care of it all.
“Our biggest trip has been from Sydney to Perth and that takes about four days. I’d always wanted to drive across the Nullarbor, but I’ve done it about 18 times now!” said Kirkman, laughing.
“I think what sets us apart from our competitors is that our guys are bus-background people, so we don’t send a truck driver to relocate a brand new coach, which a lot of our competitors in the relocation industry will do.
“We found that customers don’t want that; they want someone that knows and drives coaches and is familiar with the operations and environment, so we cater for that,” he explained.
“I think we are diverse; we are pretty passionate about our work and our industry. Offering the services we do, we cover lots of different facets of our industry. It keeps the work varied and interesting,” he added.
“We are members of BIC and BusNSW. We know the industry. Constantly dealing with the public means bus and coach drivers naturally have to have a higher level of customer service; that same aspect doesn’t exist in the trucking industry – it’s just a different environment. If you are delivering millions of dollars’ worth of truck, a certain level of service is needed, our drivers can deliver that,” stated Kirkman.
“I come from a mechanical background and that knowledge
The Bendy is always fun to drive. Being the age it is it drives excellently; it’s just like driving a brand new bus.
certainly has helped me on the long hauls to troubleshoot or avoid issues. When hiring drivers, we like all our guys to have mechanical knowledge. Phone coverage can be limited on some stretches where it can be SMS only, so having the ability to understand mechanics and what is happening is vital on remote stretches,” he explained.
Yet it’s all about delivering exactly what the customer wants…
“A lot of people were looking for drivers and we found that we had a really good group of professional drivers around us. We have put a lot of effort into their training, making sure that their customer service, uniforms and presentation was just right, just to make that point of difference,” Kirkman said proudly.
“We have a team of contract drivers. We do quite a bit of contracting drivers for companies, predominantly at the moment for express. We supply drivers to come into express to Canberra and Melbourne. We make sure the guys are experienced, have had a lot of experience driving coaches and obviously high-end customer service, presentation, and we put our drivers through the company’s induction process so they know exactly what the customer wants,” explained Kirkman about yet another service DSA offers.
“When we do driver recruitment … I think the main benefits for a company is that it can save in both costs and time. Having someone do the interview process, we do all that for them, we get them through to our final level stage before we pass them on for the final interview with the customer. We have done a lot of recruiting for the mining industry, for the coach industry, where they have to be inducted and have medicals done, we do all the groundwork.
“So, we get all the requirements done before we pass them on to the client and they hit the ground running.”
ANOTHER VOID FILLED
Kirkman said, “We saw a void in the bus charter industry in the Sutherland Shire, so that’s why we started with Shire Bus Services. There was lack of charter buses in our local area. We started off with only one bus, but now we have six vehicles in a space of about three years.
“The bendy bus is part of this fleet. We mainly do school charter work and also train replacement on the weekends.
“Shire Bus Services is a very important part of our business, it just keeps growing. It’s mainly charter services and we are keen to keep expanding the fleet to meet our customers’ needs.
“We do all sorts of charter work, in schools, school’s sports, excursions and that sort of stuff, a lot of route work, train replacement work on weekends, and a lot of times during the week.”
So what of the other buses in the fleet?
“We’ve got the one minibus, which is a Volvo. I’ve got two 405 Mercedes, one being a low floor, and I’ve got three B10M Volvos.”
To keep up with all these different parts of the business, how many staff do they have on their books?
“There are 10 full-timers and then we’ve got two or three contractors; the rest of the staff are casuals. A lot of them are semi-retired, so that type of work really suits their lifestyle.
…it is a Volgren body number 8, running gear is all Volvo B58 and, at a guess, it’s around 270 horsepower.
All up about 45 at the moment,” Kirkman said.
“We always try to go that extra step in every part of the business, so whether it be with Shire Bus Services we do have a bit of an older fleet. We always make sure our vehicles are spotless and very well maintained. We make sure the drivers are always a step ahead with customer service, and actually their presentation is excellent, and they supply 100 per cent great service all of the time.
“We believe in going that next step, same with our contract drivers. We can turn up in uniforms, or our customer’s uniform. We are very flexible to meet the customer’s needs.
“We have good staff and we look after them by trying to make that ‘family business feel’. We go out with all the bus drivers, take them for a beer on Friday afternoon when the week’s work is finished. I think that is important. We put a lot of effort into our staff and so we’ve got good staff, we definitely don’t want to lose them. It’s worth going that extra mile.
“We find we attract good staff because there is variety of work in our company. One day they could be driving Shire buses and the next day they could be doing the vehicle delivery, it’s always changing,” said Kirkman.
After spending a day with him we can only guess that things at DSA will keep changing to meet what bus people need. It seems if there’s an opportunity then DSA will take it.
Above: DSA always tries to go that extra step in every part of the business, says Kirkman.Main: It’s hoped someday that ‘the Bendy’ will be restored to its original colours.Below: A bendy bus puts a whole new slant on ‘sitting on the back seat’.
Right:There is a split screen with a bit of a curve on it, but the driver’s area has really good visibility
Below right: DSA saw a void in the bus charter industry so started Shire Bus Services.
Below:Built in 1980, the bus is a Volgren body number 8.
Above:The shear length of the bus is quiet daunting.
Left:Like with a lot of these older buses they are built tough. Below:It’s 38 years old, but still a fun drive.
Left:A huge carrying capacity of 122 passengers – 74 seated and 48 standing. Below:Driving Services Australia prides itself on going that extra step.