The Whenuapai Bus Co Story

by Robert Winchester

First published in Omnibus Bulletins 17 & 18 Nov.Dec 1982

This company began its operations in the area north-west of Auckland city in March 1946, but its origins can be found in a series of events spread over the previous decade.

In the 1930's Whenuapai and Hobsonville were largely farming areas, and transport was provided by a service car making one return trip per day between Helensville, about 25 km to the north, and Auckland. The timetable of this service was rather inconvenient for the farmers of the area. In 1935 the licence for the run was taken over by the Auckland Bus Company (ABC), a company well known in west Auckland for the sometimes eccentric behaviour of its proprietor, Mr Robert McCrae. The ABC service ran to the same inconvenient timetable as its predecessor, but in the late 1930's activity at the Hobsonville Air Base increased considerably, and the ABC instituted a service to and from Hobsonville. Because the large number of Air Force and Public Works employees in the area were given priority on the buses the settlers of the area derived little benefit from this service, even after the timetable was extended in 1940. A public meeting, organised by Mr Jack Scott, a local farmer and later a Cabinet Minister, was held between the settlers and the ABC at the Air Base gates. The ABC was asked to provide more services, but refused to do so.

During 1943 the Air Force began providing its own transport service, and the ABC withdrew its service altogether for a time, but later re-introduced a skeleton service. For a short period the Air Force buses carried civilians. The poor service caused dissatisfaction among the settlers, and two packed public meetings, under the auspices of the Massey - Birdwood Settlers Association, were held about this time. At the second of these a proposal was made by Mr A G Frankham, a local poultry farmer and Auckland shipowner, that the settlers should form their own company and apply to the Transport Licensing Authority for permission to run the bus service themselves. Mr L J Carpenter and Mr J W Manifold were given the task of raising the 10,000 capital needed to start the service. They scoured the district and by mid- 1944 succeeded in their task with the result that the Whenuapai Bus Company was incorporated as a public limited company on 6 November 1944. Mr Frankham became chairman, Mr Manifold deputy-chairman, and Mr Carpenter later became manager. Another director was a Hobsonville carrier, Mr Edgar Smithies, and it was to him that the licence was issued on 8 March 1945. The WBC then bought the licence from Mr Smithies for 25.

A bus company cannot operate without vehicles, and in 1945 these were hard to find. Eventually, after a world-wide search by letter and telegram, two Ford V8 chassis were located with Messrs Stan Andrew Ltd at Pukekohe, south of Auckland. These were bought by the WBC and sent to Wellington for bodies to be built by New Zealand Motor Bodies. These vehicles arrived at the WBC garage near the gates of the Whenuapai Air Base (now Airport Motors) in March 1946. They were painted Air Force grey and yellow, Mr Manifold's entry in a competition run by the company to choose its colours. (Air Force grey is still used, but the yellow has been replaced by cream with red lettering.)

Bus operations commenced on 11 March 1946, with immediate benefit to the residents of the district. Secondary school children, who had previously had to make their 11 mile way to Avondale as best they could, were now able to travel directly by bus, with a saving of at least an hour a day in travelling time. Workers travelling in to Auckland city made similar savings of time. Late in 1946 the company was offered 3 acres of land on the Main North Road (now SH 16) at Brigham's Creek, near the Whenuapai turn-off. On the land was the remains of a burnt-out tobacco kiln and drying factory, and this was converted with considerable ingenuity into the depot which the company still occupies.

The ABC was annoyed by the success of the newcomer, and late in 1946 instituted the first of a long series of unnecessary, expensive and acrimonious legal battles with the WBC which were to continue for over 20 years, ending only with the death of Mr McCrae in 1969. The ABC decided to resume services to the Whenuapai - Hobsonville area and, it appears, was able to get the Licensing Authority to instruct the WBC to cease operating. The WBC ignored this order, which caused the ABC to increase its services from 6 to 70 per week. In spite of this improvement, the local residents stood by their 'own' company and the ABC services carried few passengers. In November 1946 the Licensing authority modified the WBC timetable and allowed the ABC to practically duplicate it, although some efforts were made to prevent a clash of services. The WBC successfully appealed this decision, with the result that the ABC was restricted to its former timetable, leaving the major share of the services in the Whenuapai - Hobsonville area to the WBC. The appeal authority considered that there was room for only one major operator in the district, and as the ABC had previously given a hopelessly inadequate service, the WBC, in filling the gap, was entitled to priority. The WBC had no pick-up or set-down rights until the northern boundary of Henderson Borough and could not therefore compete with the ABC in the Henderson area. Pick-up rights on the ABC services to Helensville and Muriwai, which ran through the WBC area, remained as a source of disagreement. One of the results of these battles was that the WBC for many years rarely paid either director's fees or dividends, as legal fees ate up the profits.

The Swanson and Waitakere districts, to the west of the WBC's area of operation, were served at this time by a service run by Mr A Burr, the licensee of the Huapai Hotel. In 1948 this operation was sold to the WBC together with two vehicles, a Graham Page service car and a Diamond T bus. A major problem with this run was that the road between Swanson and Waitakere, known as Tunnel Hill, was extremely tortuous, and although the ex-Burr vehicles could negotiate it safely, the WBC's 33 seat Ford V8s had great difficulty, having to set back on some of the bends. A 25-seat normal control Ford V8 with NZMB body was eventually brought from Christchurch especially for this service. The road was straightened in the 1960s and the WBC serviced the area until 1976 when the licence was taken over by Greenhalgh Coachlines ( now part of Ritchies Transport Holdings) based at Swanson.

The granting of the licence for the Auckland - Swanson -Waitakere - Kumeu service to the WBC in 1948 was opposed by the ABC and this led to further litigation before the WBC's right to service the area was upheld by the Transport Licensing Appeal Authority in 1949. At the same time an arrangement was made whereby certain ABC services to and from Muriwai and Helensville were allowed to pickup and set down passengers on the main north road between Huapai and Henderson on inward trips.

Despite its initial difficulties, the Whenuapai Bus Co was, by 1950, well established. It owned about 12 buses, mainly post war Ford V8s, and in the previous year had carried 410,000 passengers over 400,783 miles. From the beginning of operations in 1946 to mid 1950 over 1 million passengers were carried.

The dominant feature of the mid 1950s was the saga of the Fodens. Although parts of the story are probably known to enthusiasts the whole story bears retelling. It began in December 1953, when a company called Transport Bus Services, which served much of the area about New Lynn, collapsed. Its services were distributed among several other companies, and the WBC was allocated the Kelston area, a district well away from its centre of operations. The ABC as usual objected to this decision. To provide for the increased traffic, and to obtain vehicles more suited to charter work than the Fords, the WBC purchased five Fodens in 1954-5. These were rear-engined two stroke diesels (PVRF6) and are believed to be the first rear-engined buses in New Zealand. (Editor's note: The first rear end buses where Edwards pusher REOs) The bodies were designed and built by Hawke Bros in aluminium alloy, this material being used to minimise weight to give the widest possible availability on all classes of road. The design was based upon the typical English luxury coach of the period. The finished machines were most attractive, and said to be quieter than most cars. Both the company and the travelling public were delighted with their initial performance.

However, after only 10,000 miles each of the Fodens was found to be suffering from severe overheating, which had resulted in considerable damage to valves, bell housings and gearboxes. The cost of spare parts was very high, and the amount of time that the Fodens spent out of traffic placed severe strain on the remaining-vehicles. The problem was referred to the Foden plant in the UK, and after their construction of a 'mock-up' at the factory it was found that a two inch movement of the radiator fan during bodybuilding had reduced the engine cooling by 65 %. Once this was established the buses were overhauled, with the fan being moved to a more efficient position, and the troubles ceased. The WBC had the greatest praise for the assistance they received both from Foden's and their New Zealand agent during this episode. Towards the end of the 1950's service to Kelston was relinquished and the Fodens were no longer required. They were sold in 1958 to City Bus Services of Napier, passing eventually, through various take-overs to the Mount Cook Group and they remained in service in Napier until the late 1970s. One was shown in the City Bus Services livery on the cover of the first OB. The Foden PRV range was not a great success in the UK, being considered rather ahead of its time, and a relatively small number were manufactured with production ceasing in 1955.

The loss of the Kelston service was part of a rationalisation of services that was attempted between the WBC and the ABC as a result of the opening of the North Western Motorway in 1955. This brought major problems to both companies and appeared to be largely responsible for the drop in passengers and revenue which the WBC suffered in 1955/56. In 1956 the ABC was allowed further trips between Helensville and Auckland and along Lincoln Road, north of Henderson. An application by the WBC to serve Te Atatu North was refused. The WBC appealed both these decisions, but before the appeals could be heard the company also made representations to the Ministry of Transport regarding the antagonistic attitude of the ABC and the general transport situation in the area. As a result the Minister asked Mr N B Spencer to undertake an enquiry. Norman Spencer was Chairman of the Auckland Transport Board, managing director of the Passenger Transport Company (see OB 11/12) and one of the best known and most knowledgeable figures in public transport in Auckland. He recommended in his report, completed in June 1957, that the Kelston area should be transferred from the WBC to the ABC and that the WBC should take over Te Atatu North from the ABC. Other recommendations were that the ABC's Helensville and Muriwai services should remain unchanged, that all WBC services from Auckland to Whenuapai/Hobsonville operate via the motorway, and that both companies be alllowed to use Lincoln Road between end of the motorway and the Swanson Road corner. The WBC service would not then run through the commercial area of Henderson. The residents of Te Atatu North, who had been badly served by the ABC for many years, greeted the recommendation regarding their area with great enthusiasm. This, however, was not shared by the Licensing Authority who, while giving effect to the majority of Mr Spencer's recommendations, allowed the ABC to retain Te Atatu North, when the service to this area would have been a logical extension of the WBC operation, given the better access from the motorway.

These decisions were the subject of an appeal lodged by the well-known lawyer, Mr Leonard Leary QC, on behalf of the WBC. The result of the appeal was that Te Atatu North remained with the ABC (which had belatedly improved its service to the area in an effort to convince the appeal authority that it was capable of running the service), but to assist the WBC the authority did cancel the ABC's pick-up rights between Huapai and the northern end of the motorway, which dated from the 1949 appeal decision.

The WBC struggled along in the early 1960s with apparently declining support, as the 1960 Annual Report requested more support from local residents. This year also saw the death of Mr A G Frankham, the former chairman and an indefatigable worker for the company. The turning point in the company's affairs came when, after a long struggle, it was granted pick-up rights in Te Atatu South and Henderson, a decision bitterly opposed by the ABC. It will be remembered that after the opening of the motorway the WBC' s services had bypassed Henderson. In October 1960 the company began running some of its services via Edmonton Rd, through Henderson, and along Lincoln Rd, but without pick-up or set-down rights in Te Atatu South or Henderson. In the meantime the area immediately north of Henderson, served by the ABC, had grown rapidly. This left the ABC in a relatively sound financial position while the WBC, still serving a largely rural area, was struggling.

In 1964 a partial relaxation of the ban on the WBC's picking up passengers in Te Atatu South and Henderson was allowed but both the WBC and the ABC appealed against this decision. At the appeal hearing the WBC was represented by the then Mr David Beattie QC (later the Governor General Sir David Beattie). The appeal by the WBC was successful, all restrictions were lifted, and the increased traffic resulting saw the company in a reasonably sound financial state. It is said that directors promised Mr Beattie a new hat if he won their case, and they kept their word.

In 1969 the ABC did give up its licence to Te Atatu North, and in an unusual arrangement the WBC and the New Lynn-based Commercial Buses took over the service jointly. A new company called Te Atatu Buses Ltd was formed and chartered vehicles from both the parents to run the service. The Auckland Regional Authority also expressed interest in taking over this service, but the residents of Te Atatu North did not want this, and the ARA was unsuccessful in its licence application. The dual arrangement continued for only 2 years and in 1971 Commercial Buses withdrew, selling 2 of their vehicles to the WBC and leaving the WBC to run the service alone. Also in 1969 the WBC took over Terminal Bookings Ltd , a small ticket and freight agency for several Auckland transport companies. The small profit this subsidiary made was a welcome addition to the company's profits before it was sold in 1978.

The year 1969 also saw a change in the company's management, with Mr L Moore and Mr W Johnson of the accountancy firm Lock, Moore, Spooner and Co becoming members of the board. Also joining them on the board were two sons of Mr A G Frankham. One of the first problems confronting the new board was that of vehicle replacement. By the late 1960's the Fords purchased he period 1946-51 were reaching the end of their useful lives. Most were sold in the years 1967-71, mainly into private ownership. After the disposal of the Fodens in 1958 few new vehicles had been bought, the newest vehicles being two Ford Thames Traders with Hawke bodies bought in 1961-62. A replacement program begun in 1967 and accelerating after 1969 saw the purchase of 4 NZMB Bedford SB3s, 4 NZMB Bedford VAM3s, and 6 Seddon Pennine IVs (4 NZMB and 2 Hawke) by 1973. A little later, 6 Hawke bodied Bedford YRT's(1975-77) were added. All these were new vehicles and together with the two 1969 Hawke-bodied Bedford VAMs obtained from Commercial Buses in 1971 constituted a relatively modern fleet.

Despite rapid residential growth in the Massey area in the 1970s the WBC suffered from the same financial difficulties as have beset almost every other bus operator in New Zealand in recent years. As noted previously dividends over the years had been small. In 1978 a dividend of only 5% was paid (together with an extraordinary dividend of 20% resulting from a win in a building society ballot). The 1978 annual general meeting was told that the dividend situation was unlikely to improve, and the meeting authorised the directors to seek a buyer for the company. At that time the company was not in severe difficulty but several factors combined to prompt this course. Considerations other than the low return on shareholders investment were that many of the shareholders were ageing, having held shares since the company's foundation; that there was no possibility of raising additional capital from existing shareholders to finance new-bus purchases; that the basis of tax and depreciation had been drastically and unfavourably altered by the 1976 Budget; and that because of its takeover of the functions of the Urban Passenger Transport Council the ARA would then control the issue of funds to private operators. By early 1979 no buyer had been found (the ARA had shown little interest) and it was announced on 1 February that the company would cease operating on 28 February, with the assets then being sold and the company dissolved. At this point the Waitemata City Council, a relatively new local authority whose territory included most of the WBC's area of operations, became interested. It did not wish to see the area serviced by the ARA as this would have necessitated the ratepayers meeting a large annual levy. Instead it was willing to assist the company to continue as a private enterprise and after much negotiation during 1979 an agreement was reached. The arrangement, believed to be unique in New Zealand, and which required special legislation, allowed all the company's staff and management expertise to be retained. The company also kept its land and buildings, but sold its fleet and other equipment to a new company formed to carry on the bus operating operation. This new company was called the Whenuapai Bus Co (1980) Ltd and was incorporated on 14 December 1979. The Waitemata City Council bought, all the shares in the old Whenuapai Bus Co and raised a loan for $420,000 which was then lent to the 1980 company to buy the fleet. The old company, now owned by the Waitemata City Council, changed its name to the Waitemata Bus Co and remains the owner of the land and depot which the new Whenuapai Bus Co leases. The two major shareholders in the new company are the old company's accountant Mr Wayne Johnson and the former manager Mr Reg Jenkins. The new company meets all service charges on the loan raised by the council and any surplus qualifies for Government subsidy for the purchase of new vehicles. The change from private to public hands also removed the tax liability. Since the reorganisation sufficient profit has been produced to purchase, with Government assistance, 8 new buses.

For the enthusiast some of these vehicles are of considerable interest. Two Bedford SB3s with standard NZMB Commuter I bodies (Nos 6 & 8) were added in mid-1980. These were followed a few months later by two Bedford YMTs with NZMB bodies based on the Commuter I design but obviously larger (Nos 2 & 11), which appear to be the only buses of this type in Auckland. Two further new Bedford YMT chassis (Nos 10 & 16) had transfered to them refurbished NZMB bodies from two of the Seddon Pennines dating from 1973 (Nos 18 & 19), and these two Seddon chassis are now being rebuilt by the company's staff and drivers before being rebodied. Late in 1982 the company took delivery of a new Bedford SB3 with NZMB Commuter II body (No 1) the first of this body style to appear in Auckland. This vehicle appears to have come with CNG conversion equipment. A new Bedford VAM with a modified Commuter II body (No 24) is almost ready for service.

In 1980 the company began a policy of naming its buses, with the first two names being chosen in a competition among pupils of Whenuapai School. The winners were "Western Wanderer"(No 6) and "Whenuapai Chieftain"(8). Subsequently new buses have been named "Spirit of Waitemata"(2), "Rangatira"(11), "Riverlea"(10), "Waimarie"(16) and "Taikata"(1). In addition three older vehicles have been named "Hobsonville Express"(3), "Whenuapai Express"(4) and "Manu-Rere"(17).

At this time the company, with routes to Te Atatu North, Massey, Hobsonville, Whenuapai, Herald Island and Riverhead is running a satisfactory service at no cost to ratepayers, and is making modest profits when many other companies are struggling. The arrangement with the Waitemata City Council may in fact serve as a model of public ownership - private enterprise co-operation which could have wider applicability in the future.

Sources:

This article has been compiled largely from newspaper reports and from the published decisions of the Transport Licensing Appeal Authority. Special mention should be made of an article on the early history of the company by Mr J W Manifold published in the Western Leader on 12 January 1971. Other reports used were:

Postsctipt

On 1 April 1996 Whenuapai Bus Co was purchased by Stagecoach. It continued to be operated as a standalone company until 31 December 98 when it was sold to Ritchies. By this time the Brighams Creek depot had been sold off and the company operated from Swanson Rd. The buses retained at Swanson where given numbers 600 greater than their Whenuapai fleet number. Some others were transferred to Ritchies coach fleet and given number in the 200 and 300 series. On 17 December 1999 the ownership of all buses was transferred to Ritchies Transport Holdings Ltd and the company ceased to exist.

An Illustrated Whenuapai Bus Co Fleet List

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