The South Australian group behind the manufacture of the Brabham BT62 supercar is positioning itself to become a major producer of electric buses for the emerging Australian market.

Co-located with sister company Brabham Automotive in Adelaide, South Australia, BusTech Group is gearing up to produce at least 60 electric buses for the NSW Government over the next 18 months after its recent inclusion on a list of approved electric bus suppliers. It also has orders for electric buses in Queensland, which it aims to start delivering in the second half of this year. The all-electric buses aimed at the Australian market will use a Proterra battery pack and drivetrain following a partnership with the US company.

Owned by SA-based Fusion Capital, which also owns Brabham Automotive, the company rebranded as BusTech Group in December 2020 following the 2019 purchase of Queensland-based Bustech, bringing it into the same group as SA-based Precision Buses. BusTech Group executive chairman Christian Reynolds says the two manufacturers first collaborated under a joint venture agreement back in 2017.

“We could see the opportunity to take more of a leading position within the bus space so we worked through a transaction to acquire Bustech to look at more of a national manufacturing and supplier footprint,” he said. “Fusion Capital saw the opportunity from the closure of Holden to bring together Tier 1 supply capability to basically look at how we could create a business from the stalled capacity within the vehicle space and that’s what has allowed us to move quite quickly. We went from four vehicles built in 2016 to a run rate now where we are building between 250 and 300 a year.”

BusTech Group has almost 300 staff, with 110 in Adelaide, about 170 at a manufacturing plant on the Gold Coast, and the remainder supporting national fleet operations and business development activities interstate. It also has a Tasmanian manufacturing partner, Elphinstone, which builds the XDi bus, designed and engineered by BusTech, for the Tasmanian market.

Until now, BusTech Group’s commercial production has focused on hybrid diesel/electric buses, often in partnership with international OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) such as Scania. It is now switching to all-electric buses and has a hydrogen bus in the project scope and design phase. It already has a number of all-electric prototypes, one of which runs on the Adelaide Metro North Adelaide connector route.

The NSW Government recently committed to transitioning its bus fleet to zero emissions within the decade, starting with 120 electric buses in 2021, and converting all 8,000 buses by 2030. Reynolds Bustech Group is now looking to establish a NSW manufacturing site following its inclusion on the procurement panel, which was its “most significant milestone to date” in relation to its zero-emission buses. He expects other states to follow NSW’s lead in procurement to the point where zero-emission buses became the baseline.

“We anticipate an acceleration of the market for vehicle replacement and what we’re looking to do is have installed capacity within the market to be able to service that,” Reynolds said. “With the transition to zero emissions there is an opportunity for the market to scale. Our volume could potentially scale up to around 500 vehicles a year, which is where the additional plants come in. I think we’ll end up scaling technical staff here in SA and we’ll scale up manufacturing and support staff in the territories where we are selling product to.”

In SA, Bustech Group took on some former Holden staff around the time of the Elizabeth plant closure in 2017, but Reynolds says the focus now is on attracting skilled expatriates wanting to return to Australia from the UK. He said there was also good collaboration between BusTech and Brabham Automotive staff in Adelaide.

“In the early days we provided a soft landing for a lot of (local) manufacturing staff and engineering staff, which has helped transfer knowledge capability into our organisation,” he said. “More recently we’ve been hiring Australians from the UK looking to come back home from a COVID-19 exposed position but who wanted to remain in automotive. We’ve brought engineers in from Jaguar Land Rover, McLaren and Aston Martin. The more that we’ve scaled, we’ve become a more attractive proposition for Australians returning home, and they bring new perspectives of niche vehicle manufacture and technology. That’s really helping the team.”

A former Tesla executive, Reynolds says the next 12 months would provide BusTech Group the delivery window for what it had been working on for the past four years: “It’s something that in the post-Holden era is a good demonstration of what’s possible; in the post-COVID era it should give us much confidence that we don’t need to be net importers of technology. It’s an opportunity for us to take matters into our own hands.

“I was part of the Tesla team in the early days that set up the Model S factory on the West Coast of America. The easy decision for Tesla would have been to go to the East Coast but the right decision was to stay on the West Coast because it bred the culture of the group. We have something similar here now – the easy decision would be to replicate the old business model with the new technology but the right thing to do is embrace what this new technology can bring to us in terms of jobs and transformation to see what’s possible.”