Transport school set with just one bus
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Now Russell Wallace averages 1,000 tests a year. He recounts to Jack Barfoot his experiences in driver training
JSSELL WALLACE finished his -my service in Singapore as e Warrant Officer Class 1 in large of a driving school. This ovided him with much of the !sic experience that he has put to his own school.
He set up what was to become e Wallace School of Transport th one aged 1950 AEC Mark III luble-decker bus with a foureed crash gearbox fitted with ur gears. "Not something you uld use with today's traffic," says.
The phrase "entrepreneurial ents" is a favourite of his. He es it to describe people who 3 their own man and have a Ise of adventure. By his own indards he is indeed an entreaneur extraordinary. Totally king in commercial experice, he founded and built up ttingham's largest taxi firm, lated a giant haulage group, J now runs a transport school bring drivers to test profincy on buses, coaches and avy goods vehicles.
'I must have personally ined at least 2,000 drivers, I the school itself must have idled some 50,000," he told • Currently he expects on ;rage about 20 hgv and psv ts each week, and around a 92 • cent pass rate "if trainees do at we recommend. In fact, I )pose the actual pass rate is re like 70 per cent," he adds h a little cynicism.
le was born in Manchester in ?2. "Fairly humble begings; mind you, I've been told t my great grandmother was reat business woman who ned the catering rights for the /dock Park Racecourse of the There's a family story that ! day on the way home from dock Park, the floor of the ch fell through with the ght of the sovereigns which • e the day's takings!"
dry wit and a ready fund of cdotes from the past make a genial companion. "I had trainee at the wheel of a ble-decker, with me hanging ;ugh the window behind him. ;e up, ease up,' I kept shoutas he approached this ionary van at a good forty, if anything the speed inised. "In the end I got through the window somehow and jammed on the brake. The trainee was sitting with his arms across his eyes and his legs drawn up high. 'What's the matter with you?' I shouted. 'Why didn't you ease up?' He looked at me in astonishment. 'I thought you said knees up,' he said, 'and I was very worried about what was going to happen to my legs when we hit that van'!"
At 14 years of age he started as a boy messenger with the Post Office in Nottingham. "I worked very hard," he recalled, "because I didn't want to be without money. That's been true all my life. Money has never come easily to me, but I've worked for it and never been without it."
Came the war and service with the Royal Corps of Signals as a linesman, electrician/signals, and in the Far East he became involved with the interrogation of Japanese prisoners, and then got into driver training.
Home again in Nottingham, demobilised in 1946, he found himself back in the Post Office, this time as an engineer. "It was a safe job, but poor money, and I seemed to be getting nowhere. There was too much form filling, too many controls, and I was climbing the ladder too slowly."
So he bought a taxi for £800 and began to ply for hire. "I vowed to myself that the taxirank for ten cabs would one day be filled with my own vehicles, and that's indeed how it came to pass." At the same time he did some coach-driving for various firms, Eventually, with some 25 cabs, uniquely fitted with twoway radio, he sold his share in 1956 and looked for something else.
The something else, a fresh field to conquer, was the area of haulage by heavy lorry.
"This was a completely new world to me, where I had no experience to help or guide me. I bought my first lorry and things went well, so I bought another one, and another, and a fourth, building it up all the time, and Hannibal Movements, as the company was spectacularly called, was doing fine.
"Then I became greedy, and I took over another firm, Centurion Transport, and brought people into the organisation with contacts and connections, until the whole thing just got too big. We had depots in Leicestershire, Kent, London, and a big repair depot in Derbyshire, but I felt sort of insecure, because we had become so big that I just could not control what I had. I didn't know what vehicles I had, what they were doing, or what was happening except under my own eyes.
"My big mistake, I think, was believing that other people would be as conscientious and hardworking as I was myself, and I had to experience the bitter pill that this was just not so. I think, too, that my judgment of people in those days was not as astute as it should have been."
By 1966 the haulage group had grown to around 350 lorries, but big was increasingly un
beautiful, and the advent of Government licence regulations and the consequent need for driver training provided Russell Wallace with a new idea. "The hgy regulations were obviously going to be an immense headache to the transport industry, so I thought if I can't beat them, why don't Ijoin them!"
He had already had a painful lesson in the need for good and careful lorry drivers. "We had this chap who drove out of the depot, pulling the pipe off the diesel pump as he went. Five thousand gallons of dies,e1 fuel then ran down the road into a pub and filled the cellar up. That put the pub out of business, and the insurance claim was utterly incredible. It took literally months to get the taste of diesel out of the beer.
"Another driver ran into a herd of cows in Gloucestershire, killed six of them, and ran the lorry 200 yards into a field where it sank fully loaded up to the bodywork, taking two wreckers two days to pull it out. The farmer was a magistrate, we discovered to our cost, and it all caused a great deal of trouble." But when he set up the Wallace School of Transport with one bus he went from strength to strength, working Nottingham in the morning, and Leicester from two o'clock until ten at night, when he would take it back to Nottingham.
In 1969, with buses and instructors at Nottingham, Leicester, Derby and Sheffield, he purchased a lorry for hgv training, complete with a 35ft-long exSadlers Wells opera scenery trailer which he turned into a mobile classroom. "What a great idea, I thought at the time. That was in the August of 1969, and I never had a customer until the next February!"
The early Seventies found him with schools at Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Oxford and London, "But oh dear, the problems they brought! Unbelievable! For example, at many of these faroff places the money could go through a filtering system, where it never reached my hands. If an instructor and a booking clerk got into collusion with each other, they were using my vehicles, time and fuel to train students and pocket the fee. I found I was being carvedup, to say the least. Then there were the frustrations of too many instructors at one school, two sick at another, not enough vehicles at another."
He found a solution in providing one central training school over which he had his own individual control. "That worked well, so well in fact that I found I could reduce the fees. But there was an optimum point beyond which the customer would not travel, so it was never the complete answer.
"The eternal problem with a specialised driving school is: where do you site it? How do you get your customers to it? How do you get you r instructors to it? And how do you regulate all this with the availability and whereabouts of your training vehicles? All too often you can end up with your customers in one place and your resources in another. If I ever completely re
solve that problem, then I've really made it."
At one time, with his own pilot's licence, he tried to solve at least the problem of being everywhere himself, with the use of a Cessna 180 light aircraft. "For some reason, this seemed to cause a lot of bitter anguish everywhere, from the tax man through the industry to the customer himself. As a viable proposition it worked, and it paid for itself in the long run. Politically, however, it just didn't go!"
Today, the Wallace School of Transport operates from London with its main centre at Nottingham, trainees from the former being commuted by coachlo the latter. He agrees this is by no means ideal. "It's much too far, and I am currently seeking a site, and that means at least an acre, somewhere between Birmingham and London, say at Milton Keynes, for example."
Problems do not seem to ruffle him over-much. Indeed, I suggested that he appeared to thrive on them. He smiled at the idea, but gave it serious consideration. "Perhaps the years of instructing people how to drive professionally give me an underlying calm," he offered.
"Certainly it enables me to recognise character or the lack of it. I am fairly well convinced that I can recognise what a man is and how he thinks within 15 minutes of sitting alongside him at the wheel. Sometimes, from what he says about other road users, I can even recognise his politics or his religion" — this said with a poker face which does not quite hide the humour behind it.
"And at a school like this I see every kind," he continued. "We recently had an elderly antique dealer in a fur coat who wanted an hgv licence so that he could drive his own artic, full of antiques, I suppose, across Europe. He got his licence eventually, but never can I quite picture him in the hgv scheme. We get many many women who want to be coach and bus drivers, and we've even had three redundant airline pilots who hoped to start their own haulage firm, "We get tearaways, too, want an hour's instruction and expecting to drive a double-decker bus at the end of it, and we get people who are incredibly stupid. I remember actually going on a test in the back of a doubledecker with the examiner, one young man behind the wheel and one upstairs waiting his turn. "The first lad finished, ending with the reversing exercise. 'Right', said the examiner to the second applicant as we all stood on the pavement, 'Do what your companion has just done', meaning of course the reversing procedure.
"The second lad climbed into the cab, and with the examiner and myself still waiting outside the bus, shot away in a cloud of smoke and dust down the road. The examiner and I walked wearily back the miles to his office, where we found the bus waiting, 'Have I passed?' the lad asked hopefully."
We talked about the emotional factors inherent in any area of instruction where the student must eventually face a stringent test.
"When they pass they come back 10ft tall, with embarrassing gratitude. But when they fail — oh dear, what a different story! Blame, abuse, hysterics, we've experienced it all. That very door has been off its hinges twice with force with which it was slammed! Sometimes, I must say, they came back later and .apologised."
Surprisingly for a man who is ostensibly the epitome of commercial venture, risk and gamble, he believes one of his major faults is over caution. "I feel that I am not happy in deep water, with one foot always on the bottom, holding back. I reckon if I had taken more chances in life in the past I would have gone much further."
He enjoys telling stories from a repertoire of 35 years, with raconteur's natural timing choice of words.
"On a test in Nottingham," relates, "at the time when tl used to allow the instructor tc in with the examiner, we ca up to a policeman directing t fic from a box on a raised dal: the middle of the street. He his arm out to stop us, but driver ignored this and w sailing past, at the same ti catching the constable's E with his offside mirror ( neatly tipping him out of the I on to the road.
"We stopped in some trepi tion, and the policeman ca up, dirty and dishevelled, trousers torn and his hell: dented. The examiner exple that the driver was takinc Ministry test. There was a k silence while the constable ti this information in. 'May I sume,' he finally said hem, 'that the result is already foregone conclusion'!"
Through the office windoys the Portacabin on the large or site behind the White City f. dium ("never have your book office apart from your site!) can see a young man in an a steadily mowing down a linE cones as he reverses. Rus Wallace sighs. "In this busin your best customers never co back," he points out.
• Jack Barfoot is editor Concrete.