13 Apr 2024

Long-lost Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus to be restored to former glory

2:08 pm on 13 April 2024

By Harvey Biggs, Josephine Lim, and Hannah Ross for ABC

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert 
Year : 1994 Australia
Director : Stephan Elliott

It is forbidden to reproduce the photograph out of context of the promotion of the film. It must be credited to the Film Company and/or the photographer assigned by or authorized by/allowed on the set by the Film Company. Restricted to Editorial Use. Photo12 does not grant publicity rights of the persons represented. (Photo by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Archives du 7eme Art / Photo12 via AFP)

A campaign has been launched to restore Priscilla, the bus in the iconic 1994 Australian film. Photo: AFP / Polygram Film Entertainment

A campaign has been launched to raise money to restore the iconic silver bus at the centre of the Oscar-winning 1994 Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The bus was thought to be lost for almost 25 years until it was discovered in a paddock on a property in Ewingar in New South Wales in 2019.

History Trust of South Australia chief executive officer Greg Mackie said restoration of the 1976 Japanese model Hino Freighter had already begun with plans to display the bus at the National Motor Museum at Birdwood in the Adelaide Hills.

"It had survived bushfires and floods, but was very much in need of some big tender loving care," he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

"We had to go through painstaking lengths to confirm [it was the original] because there were many contenders of this iconic object from Australian cinema history."

The South Australian government has provided $100,000 (NZ$108,838) to the campaign, which is looking to raise a total of $2.2 million (NZ$2.39m).

"It's an important piece of South Australian history, but also an important piece of Australian cinematic history and it belongs in a museum," Education Minister Blair Boyer said.

Property owner made contact to sell bus

Restoration of the bus is taking place in Brisbane and is expected to cost $750,000 (NZ$816,000), with additional funds needed for a display at the museum.

"We want to create a bespoke, unique, world standard visitor attraction of Priscilla in an interpretive presentation with screens and moving images," Mackie said.

The interior of the Priscilla Queen of the Desert bus.

Photo: Supplied / History Trust of South Australia

The restoration is expected to take up to 18 months, with an aim to have it on display at the museum in 2026.

It was hoped the bus could become roadworthy so it may be driven to different events, but the History Trust said it was unclear whether that would be possible.

For years, staff at the History Trust of South Australia searched for the bus which after shooting on 'Priscilla' wrapped in 1993, was used by Australian band the Whitlams as a touring bus in 1994, and then disappeared.

The case of the missing piece of Australian cinematic history was solved in 2019, when a man contacted the History Trust to say he had the bus on his property in New South Wales and was willing to sell it.

Having the holy grail

Michael Mahon said he bought the property, and unbeknownst to him the bus in the paddock, in 2016.

He said the property belonged to musician Ian Ross East, whose friend brought the bus to Ewingar when she moved there.

After the community told him about the bus, Mahon did some research on the provenance of the bus and started making calls.

"I had all bills of sale, I had a copy of the contract with the movie and the rego papers - a complete history of it, and since [then] I've given all that to the museum," he said.

"Talking to people in the bus industry, they just said 'Priscilla? That's the hunt for Red October, they've been looking for it for years.'

"They've been calling it the holy grail and I said 'well, it's at my place'. Everyone just didn't believe me."

The Priscilla Queen of the Desert bus sitting in a paddock.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus was discovered in a paddock on a property in New South Wales in 2019. Photo: Supplied / History Trust of South Australia

Mahon said the bus, as well as the movie, was "iconic before its time".

"I can see a piece of Australian history is going to be saved and it will belong to all Australians," Mahon said.

Mahon said the bus was nearly destroyed when a bushfire razed across the property in 2019.

"The fire burnt right alongside Priscilla under the front bull bar, took out two cars in front of it … I couldn't believe it was still here," Mahon said.

Luckily, a helicopter dumped a load of water over the shed just in time to change the direction of the fire away from the bus.

The property owner hopes to visit the museum in Adelaide and screw on the original number plate on the bull bar during the unveiling, expected to take place in 2026.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert bus next to burnt out cars in the bush.

Priscilla came close to being destroyed in a bushfire in 2019. Photo: Supplied / History Trust of South Australia

Mackie said the trust bought the bus, and "now it's got a long journey and we'll be raising money for its restoration as we go".

He said the cult film was part of a vibrant era in Australian cinema that sparked cultural conversations, amplified queer identities and helped launch "the international careers of Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce".

"As a gay man who was coming into my identity through the HIV-AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s, the advent of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert absolutely transformed my sense of my place in the world," Mackie said.

"I know that has been repeated millions of times around the world.

"It's not only about drag queens, it's actually about the common humanity of every single one of us - that's what gave Priscilla its potent power."

The film's director Stephan Elliott has been consulted throughout the project.

"We had heard so many rumours about where she had ended up and had given up hope of finding her again," Elliott said.

"But when they [SA History Trust] showed me the photographs, I knew immediately just by looking at the bumper at the front and the carpet inside that we had found it.

"The film seems to carry through generations, and this is a chance for possibly many more generations to feel its message of love, tolerance and living your true self every day."

- This story was first published by ABC.