Not all diamonds last forever

Not all diamonds last forever

Id-Djamant, or The Diamond, stands proud and tall in a 4,500 square feet workshop.

Unfortunately, after July 3, this is the corner it will occupy for years to come, when more modern, EU specifically-built buses take over Maltese bus lanes.

The Diamond is one of the 70 or so Maltese buses, which will be kept for private use on individual owners’ initiatives. This bus is the apple of Frans Attard’s eyes.

Mr Attard, from Luqa and known as Il-Kalakku, is a coach builder, bus repairer, owner and driver. In the past 16 years, he oversaw the building of 30 vehicles, eight of which roam Gozo’s streets. However, come the new year, he is unsure about his company’s existence.

“I didn’t learn the coach-building trade from anyone but I had always wanted to create something from scratch,” he explains.

After gaining experience in the vehicle repair and maintenance industry, Mr Attard built his first Maltese route bus on a London bus chassis in 1994. Happy with his first attempt, he moved on to building private hire coaches and 18-seater minibuses. However, this time, he also built his own chassis at Malta Drydocks.

The minibuses’ chassis were baptised with the anagram for Ta’ Frans: Saftran. The bodies for all of his vehicles carry the anagram Scarnif (Francis).

Mr Attard grins, the look in his eyes reminiscent of that of a childbearer. “Then, around seven years ago, the government issued permits for low-floor bus building with European specifications,” he adds. Predicting these buses would be more expensive if they were to be imported, Mr Attard sketched a plan for Maltese low-floor buses. He brought the equipment from Europe and assembled the bus.

“My greatest satisfaction is that I managed to build shorter, more spacious, lighter and stronger coaches than the ones brought from abroad. This results in lower fuel consumption,” he says.

Between 2003 and 2004, Mr Attard’s company built nine coaches, the only Maltese low-floor buses. Others were imported from Turkey, Spain and China under the brand names Leyland and King Long among others.

About 20 people work on one vehicle during the building process. “This is all going to be lost,” the 51-year old owner sighs. “I do agree with a reform of some sort because not all drivers are well educated and with the present driving schedule we spend a lot of idle time. However, we are going to kill part of Maltese culture.”

His voice quivers. Insisting he is unsure what the repair and maintenance procedure will be, he fears the reform might kill other local trades related to bus repair.

“I have been stabbed with a double-edged knife,” Mr Attard stammers.

His son, Mauro, who although still 18 is very knowledgeable in the field, fails to understand why the Maltese bus culture will be put aside.

“At the moment there aren’t any indications about whether a transport museum will be set up. If there were any indications, I would be the first to face the issue and work on it. This is all part of my life,” he says, pointing around him.

“I feel we will be making the same mistake we did years ago. And we are going to lose part of our ancestral heritage.”

There does not appear to be any firm arrangements to open a museum and preserve the more interesting old buses, according to Keith Till, a retired transport photojournalist.

A UK resident, Mr Till has for the past 25 years visited the islands on an annual basis, encouraging worldwide transport enthusiasts to visit Malta.

“When the low-floor buses were introduced and more than 100 of the old ones were scrapped, a few were retained and were stored outside for possible use in a museum. Consequently, over the years, they deteriorated rapidly and were finally placed in a building at the drydocks. I think by now they are beyond restoring because the last time I saw them they were just wrecks,” he notes.

Mr Till has led parties of UK bus enthusiasts to Malta with the intention of riding on and photographing the old buses. “If the old buses are just going to be sold by the Maltese government for scrap it will be very difficult to persuade these people to visit Malta in the future,” he says.

The Attard family feels Maltese vintage buses could be put to good use in other ways. Some are used for wedding celebrations.

Mr Attard says: “I think we can still keep the old buses. All we have to do is change the engine to conform to EU standards and use these buses on tourist routes. This is a pure Maltese trade and we are going to lose tourists together with the buses.”

His son adds: “We’d rather be restricted with regard to how many times a year we can operate these vintage buses to remain within EU emission specifications. This would be more encouraging because it’s very hard to let go of a precious diamond.”

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