how to move a heritage electric trolleybus you can’t drive within 48 hours

how to move a heritage electric trolleybus you can’t drive within 48 hours

It started with a 5pm text from Drakey, who runs Middlesex Mill just down the road.
“Hi. Just noticed this old tram bus on Grays. Thought you might be interested. Problem is the auction ends in 2 hours!”
I couldn’t help myself, of course. It was a beautiful old thing, looked rusty and a bit worse for wear, but it had potential. Doesn’t almost everything?

It was a 1950s WAG Tramways Trolley Bus that used to run on the Claremont Line, an historic, electric mode of transport somewhere between a tram and a bus. We probably had enough projects on the go.

There was no way we’d be able to inspect; the bus was 300kms away, the auction clock ticking, the yard closed. The fine print said if we bought it, it had to be out of the holding yard by Tuesday of the following week, otherwise Grays would seize ownership. Monday was a public holiday. So I made a few calls. The promise of adding to our quirky Museum of Transport collection was an opportunity we decided not to pass up. Electric Ute in 2014, Vintage Train Carriages last year, and now… a trolleybus? Why not.

Forty-eight hours later the sun was setting, the truck was approaching, and we were madly shovelling mulch for the bus to go onto. No time for forming a pad in advance for this project! We were barely ready when the glaring white truck lights turned into our curving, tree-lined driveway.

The truck driver came over, looking thoughtful.

“It’s going to be pretty tight getting in here,” he said. “Where are you going to put the bus?”

“Backed in here alongside the shed”? I said hopefully, to which he shook his head.

“No way I’m getting in there. If I drive the truck onto that grass I’ll never get out.”

“Ok then… how about just here, straight back?”

“We’ll give it a go.”

The guys from Swan Towing in Bunbury had a fair bit of hero about them from the start. I pointed out all the plants in the driveway the driver was fine to squash as he came through. He was to avoid squashing our Golden Ash tree.

It was something else seeing this enormous truck coming up the driveway in the moonlight, with a huge bus on the back. What was perhaps the tightest three-point turn in trucking history was extremely impressive. Once the drop off point was lined up, he came over again.

“You gonna steer her into place, then?”

“You mean, the steering actually works?” “Oh yeah, and the handbrake!” “Uh…. ok!” I climbed up and took the wheel of the big ol’ trolleybus and steered, well, tried to. I used all my might to shift the old handbrake, but didn’t. I’m not sure I actually did anything.  But the bus came off the truck, didn’t smash  any orchard fences, or harm any apple trees.

After a 48 hour mad scramble to pull it all off, I felt like… I’d been hit by a trolleybus. So what on earth are we going to do with all these trains, and the trolleybus?

Just yesterday it was suggested we restore the trolleybus and convert the interior to a recording studio. The “Story Bus” could record stories from the land, by everyday heroes across our South West. We’ll let that one percolate over winter. What do you think we should do with this wondrous old bus?

How the first train carriages came to spark placemaking

How the first train carriages came to spark placemaking

Forget travel to exotic climes. The glorious winter sun is streaming in the carriage windows, adorned with views of Stellar Violets garden, and thousands of apple trees giving over to slumber. Bright red steel baggage racks give bold architectural lines to the interiors. It’s flush with old red carpet floors, teal blue seats, and emergent dreams for a refurbishment. 

A neat little springbok decal adorns the double entry doors, and one original window in the “east carriage” – that’s the one I’m in today. Built in South Africa, in 1961, and 1964, they weigh about 20 tonnes each and sadly came sans the bogies, which weren’t even for sale, being far too valuable. I was told our carriages have been to Manjimup and Pemberton before, on the railway last time.

I often lament the lack of passenger rail in our quiet part of the world, and I hope, perhaps foolishly, to live to see it return one day. In the meantime, we’re travelling without moving at Stellar Violets, sitting in these sunny carriages. Five days on, this is still might be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. 

The great carriage moving day was months in the making, and thanks to co-ordinating a number of pretty exacting contractors, it went off without a hitch.

We knew we needed a space to hold host workshops, meetings and events. A space to work in, with room to play. I just didn’t know it was going to begin with two twenty metre long carriages built in South Africa.

A chance search on GumTree for second hand french doors earlier this year first sparked the notion to put a train carriage in the garden. The first I found was cute, with french doors. It was pretty small though, and way too expensive, we decided, for the limited purposes it could serve.

I couldn’t get the idea from my mind. Another Google search late one night unearthed two South African beauties from Hotham Valley Tourist Railway in Pinjarra. The last two for sale in a batch of fourteen they were moving on.

What are we going to do with them? Read more about Placemaking at Stellar Violets. Interested in other heritage rail vehicle acquisitions we’ve made? The next unexpected find was Trolleybus 854, that used to run on the Claremont and Wembley lines in Perth.

photo: Pete Bowdidge

2014 WAVE Electric Vehicle Festival, Stuttgart

2014 WAVE Electric Vehicle Festival, Stuttgart

Coming face to face with a stuffed horse was not what I had expected at Europe’s biggest gathering of electric vehicle enthusiasts. We were in Germany, and likely to see a world record broken, when over 500 electric vehicles gathered together in Stuttgart.

Having just converted the Stellar Violets ute to 100% Electric, it was exciting to see so many unique custom electric vehicles,  as well as the latest offerings from car companies like Tesla and Mercedes.

But it was weird seeing that horse. Its empty black eyes and elegant form, ghostly proud. I eye-balled it for a while, then got the creeps and walked on into the exhibition. It was the Mercedes Museum, and we were there because our host, Jenny, was wildly enthusiastic about it.

We soon understood why. The exhibition was a world-class look at the history of transport, as much as the history of one car company. If we pause and think about human history, it wasn’t so long ago that we depended on the horse, and sail boats, to get ourselves around, and literal horse-power. For thousands of years, that was how it was.

How will it be in another 100 years? Another 1000?

What I liked most about the exhibition was the feeling I was left with. Like at the end of a great film, when it says, “to be continued”.

The last exhibit was a hydrogen fuel cell electric car. It’s obviously not the final answer. The story isn’t over because we’re living it. We’re creating it. What will transport look like in ten, 20, or 100 years? Horses? Hydrogen fuel cells? Or something that hasn’t even been invented, or discovered yet?

With the historical context for the event well and truly under our belt, we hit the parade ground in front of the museum early the next day.

Our Couchsurfing hosts, Jenny and Stephen, were pretty excited about it too. Stephen and his university mates had built an electric beach buggy to go into the parade. No beaches around to test it on that day, but they took me for a spin anyway. We tore around the carpark at mach 3!

Just a few of the 500+ vehicles and their proud pilots, from all over Europe.

Thanks a million to Jenny and Stephen, you were wonderful hosts. Kudos to the fantastic travellers’ network, Couchsurfing, for connecting us.

Electric Dream Come True: 100% Electric Farm Ute

Electric Dream Come True: 100% Electric Farm Ute

Living in Electric Dreams: How it feels having built a 100% Electric Farm Ute

To start off, there’s a fun little button between the seats that you flick to green or red. Green means forward, red is reverse.

I feel so Marty McFly / Back to the Future every time I do it! Never mind the giant red “Isolator” button, which looks like if you hit it, you’ll be ejected right out of your seat!

Now that’d make those boys at the Manji Speedway across the road sit up and take notice. Maybe. Anyway, hooray! Stellar Violets’custom built 100% Electric Ute is going like a smooth, silent electric dream come true.

I wouldn’t say I was “into cars”, exactly. We were contemplating what project we could do for Stellar Violets Living Museum back in 2012. At some point in our researching, it seemed that the efficiency and environmental benefits of electric motors made for a worthy route to explore further.

We wanted a ute, but there weren’t any commercially produced EV utes in the world, yet. If we wanted one, we’d have to find a way to build it.

We soon unearthed an electronics genius. Rod Dilkes, of EV Power, Margaret River, who along with his offsider, a talented maker/fabricator named Jamie Pardoe, agreed to our project. These guys are seriously skilled. When I speak of their genius and talent, I don’t do so lightly. After many works work, we got the green light in February to take it to Perth or the engineer’s stamp of approval. Green: that’s the go forward button, remember?

Taking a newly converted, unregistered electric vehicle a long distance takes some planning, and some guts. Never mind the energetic heckling from my Uncle Ray, who was very much amused by it all.

“What happen’s when you run out, you gonna call me? Better get a generator for the back,” he quipped, laughing heartily.

We had an idea how far it could go. Rod reckoned 170kms, and if we travelled slowly, maybe a little further.

We had to take the ute to Perth be get it assessed by an engineer. As it happened, at the time, a bosom buddy Catherine Marriott had recently moved to Binningup, about 30kms north of Bunbury on the coast. How convenient! By modest calculations, we could drive from our place in Manjimup to her – just – before needing to charge!

“Donnybrook”55% battery left, 98kms down,”I reported, typing furiously. I was like a spy, or pilot, or something. Cruising down the highway in a 100%, smooth, silent, electrified utility is amazing. You actually feel like you’re gliding.

“37% and 133kms down, turnoff from Dardanup Bunbury bypass, looking good.”And then we were turning off to Binningup, 28% charge left, first leg to Perth down, success was ours, we knew it but we couldn’t say it until we were plugged in at Catherine’s, safely, deliciously chargin’up for more…

“Captain’s log: 156.5kms down, 27%. Mission complete. Deploy the electric cord!”