4 Dec 2023

Who’s for Hire?

by John O’Brien

“There is no production vehicle quite so fast as the hire car.” Until the recent batch of all-power-instantly electro-rockets, that maxim held pretty true. The only other ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicle to come close was the taxi, and these are being Uber-ed out of existence.

Driver for Rent

See, I have experience with both. Before joining the rock circus, I drove taxis for a year. Five nights a week, I’d walk around to the depot – a convenient five-minute stroll from our Richmond share house – and jump behind the wheel of a Silver Top. Changeover was at 6pm and it was usually best to get cracking straight away before the night got too long. Which meant contending with the dregs of peak hour traffic while picking up as many late commuters as possible.


Initially approaching it as a rough and ready cabbie for hire, I soon realised that this gig was all about customer service. Do you drive fast, or slow? Do you talk, listen, or travel in silence? How far do you go to assist passengers, either personally or with luggage? These questions must be answered quickly to set the appropriate tone for the journey right from the outset.

I got very good at summing people up in a matter of seconds. When you are in a confined space with random strangers, it is crucial to get this call correct. Particularly when they are off their heads or generally unbalanced. In the enclosed bubble of a car cabin, personal safety dictated identifying whether the client was a physical threat or not. Get that wrong, and it’s a trip to hospital or worse.

Opening the door for the old ladies before driving sedately and cautiously, helping with suitcases or shopping, identifying when to yack or shut up – these nuances went a long way at payment time. I got more tips than most in our depot. And not always for playing nice. Some punters would offer extra to hit their destination quick; more than a few mad rushes to the airport were well rewarded.


Road rules seemed more guidelines than fixed boundaries at times. These got well and truly broken when I launched a car full of teenagers across Dandenong Rd. They’d jumped in at Brighton and said, “how fast does this car go, driver?” “Buckle up and hang on” was my response. I gave them a thrill and they emptied their pockets of change at the other end for providing exactly the service they wanted.

The XE and XF Ford Falcons we drove were extraordinarily average but very predictable to throw around. We got some early Series 1 EAs, but they were awful to drive, so I stuck with the trusty old boilers. Take a standard sedan, attach a dome light and it’s like unlocking a secret upgrade to your favourite Need For Speed roadster.

88 was my regular, a smooth XF with only about 350,000km on the clock. It had a really good radio until some casual got it swapped out one night. Dispatch was all analogue back then and being able to win a job by hitting the button quickest made a big difference to payday.

One year of taxis was enough to start driving me crazy. I fell into the rock world and upgraded to hire cars as my regular mode of transport. Falcons, Commodores, and Taragos were the mainstay of 90s touring. Without having to worry if your day driver had a ride, these things got put through hell. If it broke, you could just call up the hire company and get it replaced.

Which is what happened when PK drove a near new Holden wagon at 200+kph from the ‘Gong to Sydney. Wouldn’t start next morning, so we rang up and demanded a new one. I mean, how could they provide us with such a lemon? They probably knew we’d thrashed it, but car hire business was still good at the end of the golden age of touring. So, they promptly brought us out a new vehicle to (ab)use.

Another case of outright debasement occurred anecdotally in Perth. DH and BP were hooning through Perth, chasing another hire car at great speed. The lead car slowed in time, but DH went straight through a roundabout at 160+, taking out several telco sub stations, going through a fence and ploughing into a field. Neither were harmed but the car was a write-off. From memory, they blamed brake failure and got away with it.

Post show one night the singer took off in the tour car, more than a few beers in. He was trying to impress his new lady friend. She wasn’t so enamoured when he totalled the vehicle. He swore he hit a ‘roo but we knew he’d done some accidental cross country manoeuvres cos he was pissed.

The worst crime with hire cars I can admit to was leaving a chocolate bar in the centre console of one wagon. It melted in the heat and got all around the transmission selector. I fudged a cleanup, but the hire folks were on to us. For the next year, every time it was my name (or that band’s name) on the pickup, we’d get that exact same unit back, even when there were better options on the lot. And it still had brown smudges next to the gear lever.

Rental and/or General

The previous anecdotes are about chartered vehicles. Live events also have plenty more rental requirements. PAs, light shows, video gear – few acts could afford to own all this equipment. Even the production companies that they hire from may not fully own the show gadgets. Such a large capital investment can result in multiple lease arrangements and funky deals with the bank, renting someone else’s money to top up the inventory with the latest shiny things demanded on tour riders. A veritable ongoing Ponzi.

If you own the trucks that move all that gear around, you’ll likely take care of them. If you rent them from someone else, they might just be the fastest rigs on the road. One production company I worked for had mostly sensible Hinos or Isuzus. They also had a V8 petrol powered 13 ton International. Fully loaded, it drank juice like a convention of winos. Unladen, it was an absolute rocketship and was super easy to get the front wheels off the ground. A lot of fun was had dragging off hot cars at traffic lights, but it proved way too thirsty to keep in a profitable working fleet.

Nowadays, I rent out my keyboard and mind. When I get the two functioning together, it produces an income. It’s less exhilarating, but a whole lot safer than going sideways on the road for a living.

Body and brain for rent. When it comes to commerce, that’s what you are, what we all are. Workers for hire, whether casual, part-time or full-time. Unless you own the business, then you get to rent out the staff on your employ. Kind of like a landlord for human capital. You can use those mad profits to lease an exotic urban tractor. At least you’ll look stylee on the traffic cameras as you speed past them on the way to losing your license.


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