Building a future
by David Lysons
Just picture the scene: 1947, a mid-week morning in a little village in Cheshire England, south of Manchester. School children playing in the village school playground. It must have been a Tuesday in the second week in July because it was sunny. From around the corner and stopping outside the school came a bus chassis, stripped of its body, and a driver sitting on a wooden seat wearing pilot's goggles as there was no cab or windscreen. Watching agog was a little lad (me) with his mouth open at this fascinating contraption. The driver turned out to be a friend's father who was a mechanic who converted old buses to trucks. There was a great shortage of trucks as a result of the war.
I fell in love with this contraption and decided I was going to make such things. I also made up my mind to get away from bombed out Manchester and the frightening bombers and spitfires constantly on the prowl from Ringway Airport, now Manchester Airport.
I was born, it is thought, with a twisted bowl and had constant stomach ache and diarrhoea. By the age of eight my health was improving and by 10 I was cooking with gas, thanks to my mother's nursing (she was a decorated war time nurse). School was hard as I'd missed so much due to sickness, but at the age of 14 I won a scholarship to a technical college and by 17 I was a student engineer going through the hoops of heavy truck and bus manufacture and design for the then big UK truck company, Fodens Ltd. My wish to design trucks was coming to fruition. Alas the company is no longer operating but has left a fine history.
In the early 1960s they were having trouble getting competent engineers to work in South East Asia (although they would be based in Sydney), so I applied. It would also get me away from what was still the grotty old Manchester struggling to completely recover from the devastation of the war. When I was initially interviewed for the position the general service manager said, in a broad Cheshire accent, 'bloody 'ell lad, nobody's asked to go there since before the war'. I got the job.
I had to finish my studies and take periodic service tasks to get a feel for things around the UK, Portugal, France and the Faraka Dam project in Northern India. This was 1965. I arrived in Sydney Christmas 1966 on a two- year contract. It was a great job for a single bloke: company flat at Manly, salary, car and sensible expenses.
By that stage, our English vehicles generally were losing their sparkle in overseas markets
by not keeping up with the times. We needed to rethink what we produced, so with an old drawing board, slide rule, a major workshop facility and small assembly plant in Perth I
hit the road with a small group of practical engineers.
The first problem tackled was that the rear suspension produced far too a harsh a ride, so we took it to bits and redesigned it by softening the springs and relieving the leaf ends with slipper facilities. It was a great step forward but I was deemed presumptuous for challenging the factory whizz kids. However, when the British Army ordered 1100 medium mobility trucks with this suspension, trucks which saw admirable service in the Falklands and the conflicts in the Middle East, I was given a model and a gold pen by the sales department and told to keep quiet.
I worked there for six years before I decided it was time to move on. I was offered
a position running the assembly plant in Perth to build the then new concept Mercedes buses for Perth transport authority. This was some time before Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide had them. More of my wishes were coming true about making and to some extent designing heavy vehicles – getting away from what to me was the nightmare of Manchester – and I was being paid for it. But there was more to come.
With the engineering team I had, we were able to produce numerous vehicles under the Foden name. These were quite successful, much to the Foden factory's chagrin. My dream
to make and have some design involvement had come to fruition. The down side of these endeavours was that it undermined a stable family life and I ended up single, with a substantial monthly maintenance overhead and living a single life until I found my feet again and a new partner.On the second day after arriving in Sydney, I ended up in Rose Bay on the harbour. There were two Sunderland flying boats moored at the sea plane depot, which I'd always wanted to see. It was great to see them taking off and landing on the harbour among all the other craft. I felt what a great place Rose Bay would be to live. Now guess where I reside? I'd like to say that when I met my current partner she lived in Rose Bay and I made my mind up to be with her there and then, but it didn't quite work out like that. However, the story of that fascinating meeting will have to wait for another time.