The Banana Boat
Because I was a part time driver, all other drivers did passenger runs as well as school runs. I always got the bus no one else wanted. Bus 37 and 38 were really only International trucks with bus bodies built onto their chassis and they handled like trucks. Bus 43 was a 1942 model Ford factory built bus. She was streamlined, beautifully finished and lovely to drive, but she had only a twenty-three passenger loading. It was very hard to fit fifty or sixty passengers into her. Next up the list were two 1947 model OB Bedford buses 44 and 49. These were fitted with Chevrolet 6 cylinder engines. They were nice to drive on the flat, but very slow on the hills. To compensate for the small engines, they were fitted with a very low ratio differential. The only redeeming feature of the OB was a square body. It was much easier to squeeze more passengers into them. All other buses at US Motors were the later model Bedford’s. The reason the OB Bedford’s had Chevrolet engines was that straight after the war a lack of raw materials made it impossible for Bedford to manufacture their own. But now the SB models were completely English built. The English, if they wanted more power, simply built bigger engines. So the SB engine was huge, about three times the size of the Chevrolet engine. And they were a very impressive engine, power plus.
Every second Sunday I did a passenger bus run from Gembrook to Belgrave. I started at Emerald and had the pick of the two newest buses we had, bus 69 and bus 70. They were terrific to drive. About this time, the bus workshop at Ferntree Gully did me a big favour, although they did not know it, and nor did I. In their wisdom, it was decided to buy two new SB engines and fit them to the SB's with the biggest mileage. By that time they had about 200,000 miles up. The second hand engines were to be kept as spares. Not a bad idea, but after so many complaints from drivers about bus 49, it was decided to fit one of the spare engines into her. Not much was worked out in advance on how practical it was to fit a huge SB engine into the tiny space the Chevrolet engine had taken up. It took a lot of work. Cross members changed, the tail shaft shortened, and a lot of head scratching. The engine fitted beautifully but they had forgotten the radiator and grille. So sub frames were welded to the front of the chassis to accommodate the radiator and grille. Unfortunately, the result looked terrible. Now because of the bigger and longer engine, the gearbox was about a foot further back into the body. So the driver could not reach the gear stick but an extra foot welded onto the gear stick fixed that. But it gave the gears an airy, fairy, feel. To add insult to injury, a decision was made at the top to paint this new treasure a rather bright yellow. Remember, this was about the time of Harry Belafonte’s hits, one of which was the Banana Boat. Poor old 49 was irreverently nicknamed the Banana Boat. But colour did not put any of the drivers off wanting to try out. This is a very special machine. But every one of them had scathing reports on poor old 49. None wanted to drive this heap of junk as one driver put it. Drivers would pick even 38 in preference after hearing first hand from all who had tested 49. What a disaster it was.
I was getting a very uneasy feeling that I just might end up with this lemon, no pun intended, and surprise, surprise that is exactly what happened. I looked at the bus roster one day and there next to my name was 49. I pleaded with Don to give me anything else. But the word had come down from above, 49 had to be used. She had cost an arm and a leg to refurbish and must be used. Buses 37 and 38 had just been sold, so the only spare bus was 43. Ah well, if it had to be I would try to pick something nice about 49. The seating was good, vision all round was ok, but after that I struggled. The sliding windows were metal frames with felt runners. Good when new, but when no felt remained the noise of glass on rattling on metal was nearly deafening. For the first week, trying to even think was hard. But after a week something happened. The same had happened when I started at Newport workshops and the noise was nearly impossible. There, after a week, the noise disappeared. Here with 49, the same thing happened. The noise of the windows disappeared. Strange but true. The first week driving 49 was a nightmare. The gears were terrible and sometimes for a second or two I did not know if I had it in gear or in neutral or even what gear it was. I was having second thoughts about bus driving, this was no fun. But after about a week I had got used to the gears. Driving with big loads in the hills, it was important to change down the gears early to keep the engine revs up. But changing down early with 49 only made for a very slow trip up the steep hills. So I experimented a bit, keeping it in top gear longer, and found that because of the low diff she was flying up hills in top gear when all other better SB’s were in third gear. I even had to throttle off at times to stop catching up to better buses in first gear. I think I could easily climb straight up a brick wall. What an eye opener this old yellow bus was. But still in the lunch room the other drivers laughed at me and ridiculed this old treasure. And there was no way I was going to set them straight.
I was checking the roster one day about two weeks after getting 49. The roster was outside Don Cameron’s office. Don called me in.
“How is it going Rob?”
“The old girl was hard to get used to.” I said.
“But it is much easier to handle now.” Don laughed and said. “Why do you think I drive bus 47? It has a very high seating position, and like 49, it has a very long gear stick. It takes time to get used to it. The other drivers will not take the time to get used to anything that is a little bit different. Bus 47 looked like the American greyhound buses. I do not have a clue where she was bought from. 47 was different from all other buses at US Motors.” So said Don going on.
“You and I won’t have any trouble with drivers wanting to take our buses will we?”
As I walked away from Dons office I realised that 49 was my bus for as long as I wanted. That was a nice thought, and I was very pleased with that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. With a much lighter body than the bigger SB Bedford’s, and an engine the same size, 49 had a much better power to weight ratio. Add the very low ratio diff and 49 was ideal for this hill country. She was indeed a little beauty.