‘I got to go to places I never dreamed of’: Wall of famer reflects on memorable career

Like many operators, Bernard ‘Bernie’ Bianchi was committed to the industry long before he ever had the chance to hold a licence.

Attending St Joseph’s College in Toowoomba, Bernie would watch the prime movers cruise along James Street from his carefully selected window seat in the classroom.

He recalls thinking to himself, “One day, I’m going to drive myself a big truck up that road.” Although there is a high fence that now blocks the school’s view of the road, an addition to the architecture Bernie believes might’ve been put in place at the urging of his frustrated teachers.

This moment in the classroom was fondly remembered by Bernie, when he later drove his truck up the familiar street.

Bernie first started driving when he was just 17, carting chickens for a poultry abattoir in an old Bedford. After travelling between Brisbane and local farms in Toowoomba for 12 months, Bernie knew it was time he branched out, taking a role as a driver’s offsider for a furniture removal business.

Here, he began the first of what would be many decades of interstate runs, touring from Toowoomba to Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide every fortnight. For all the opportunities and obstacles that the transport industry presents, Bernie reminds operators to appreciate their unique privilege to “see the country and get paid for it”, recounting “I got to go to places I never dreamed of going in a car.” 

Jewells, a furniture removalist, had an opening for an owner-operator and a 20-year-old Bernie promptly seized the opportunity. While Bernie jokes that today’s operators would laugh at the proposition of tackling the 17-odd hour hike from Toowoomba to Melbourne in his International ACCO Butterbox, he and this prized truck clocked up millions of kilometres in their cross-country adventures. 

The ACCO Butterbox was every bit a fighter. Bernie describes encountering a swiftly rising creek out of Surat in 1978. Unable to pull up the fully-loaded Butterbox in time, Bernie had no choice but to follow the road into the creek. The side-exit exhaust typical of the ACCO at the time meant the machine’s engine seized and Bernie and his offsider were left hoping that the rising water would soon subside.

Instead, the truck began to float and the pair were forced to escape through the driver’s window, swimming to a nearby tree in time to watch the Butterbox drift away. 

Bernie remembers, that even during what would be most machine owners’ worst nightmare, he thought the ACCO still looked very impressive, “Like the Queen Mary sailing down the river!”

A tow back to Toowoomba, a three-week visit to the mechanic and a new engine was the remedy required to get the ACCO back on the road, and Bernie and his Butterbox were reunited. Despite this misadventure, Bernie is grateful to have had an otherwise safe career.

Bernie cautions today’s operators to be aware of and drive to their own capacity. Although he credits a safer industry to improved working conditions, he prompts operators to be mindful not to drive fatigued as the consequences can be fatal.

Bernie and his prized truck clocked up millions of kilometres in their cross-country adventures.

Still a little discussed reality of the job, Bernie recounts, “I’ve seen some bad accidents on the highway. You try and get some sleep and you can’t help but think about what you saw.”

He recalls that these nights were stark reminders of all the time spent away from his wife and two daughters, asking himself, “Why am I out here? I should be home with my family, getting a good night’s sleep.” 

Brief as it was, Bernie treasured the time he was able to spend at home with his children. The family were accustomed to the routine, the girls often waiting to hear the sound of the truck coming up the road so they could greet their father at the window on his return.

Sunday was Bernie’s only day off and, even then, he would spend several hours washing his truck and trailer and effecting any repairs that needed to be done before the new week started. His daughters would play in the truck while Bernie washed it, which he mentions made the task far more enjoyable.

While out on the road, Bernie was sure to phone his wife, Madonna, every night. He tells of calling Madonna one morning instead and her answering immediately with, “What’s happened to the truck?” 

“She couldn’t believe I might just be calling her to say hello,” Bernie remarks, quickly adding, “She was right though. I needed $3000 worth of repairs!”

Nowadays, Bernie is home every night. He currently drives a school bus from Millmerrin to Pittsworth, calling on the experience he gained over 18 years driving coaches for McCafferty’s earlier in his career.

While he says he doesn’t regret any of his time in transport and is thankful for the financial freedom it has provided him, Bernie, at 67, now enjoys having the weekends off to spend time with his grandchildren. 

Bernie says that his 2016 induction into the Wall of Fame at the National Road Transport Museum made him feel ‘important’, a feeling that can be rare in the underappreciated transport industry. 

He takes pride in the fact that, for years to come, visitors of the Hall of Fame will be able to view his frame on the Wall and say, “Bernie Bianchi worked hard all his life!” 

Bernie notes that the “massive” grounds on which the National Road Transport Hall of Fame is built lends itself to a comprehensive picture of the transport history, able to display all the different industries that rely on trucks and their operators. 

Walking through the National Road Transport Hall of Fame and seeing firsthand how far transport has evolved in Bernie’s time in the industry makes him wonder where it will be in the next 10 to 20 years. 

The National Road Transport Hall of Fame shares Bernie’s passion for storytelling and its underestimated ability to unite the industry and foster friendships.

It is a privilege to tell part of Bernie’s story and we are honoured to be able to recognise another much-loved industry member on the Wall of Fame.

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