Keeping the wheels of entertainment turning

Keeping the wheels of entertainment turning

Covid-19 has put the brakes on many businesses – not least of which are circuses. JARLATH SWEENEY visits a circus in Ireland, and finds out how – post Covid-19 – it plans to keep the Big Top open…

Within weeks of rolling out of Claremorris in Mayo, headed for County Leitrim, the entire cavalcade of Tom Duffy’s Circus came to an abrupt halt in Galway.

Its planned annual ten-day season at the City of the Tribes never even began. The government had just announced that all public events were to be curtailed – and that included the circus performances scheduled for Galway. As family member David Duffy stated on RTE Radio 1, the oldest running circus in Ireland had never encountered such challenging times.

Nevertheless, although the shows themselves might not be taking place, there is plenty to interest truck enthusiasts. Seeing a colourful circus or carnival convoy on the road, with different makes and models towing trailers of all shapes and sizes, is entertainment itself. One has to be impressed with the condition of the various truck models that play a key role in bringing the circus to town. Keeping the fleet in perfect mechanical order and looking good is David’s labour of love. Over time his choice of vehicles has evolved – from classic British brands to Swedish and French vehicles.

“Purchasing the vehicles is my responsibility, and the customising of the designs and the colour schemes was my idea,” he says. “I played around with a few livery designs for a while and I settled on the current version about 10 to 12 years ago. I like to keep it like this now, because it kind of stands out. When we are on the road we get lots of nice comments on social media. In my dad’s day, when they used to travel early in the morning, especially with horse-drawn caravans, the kids would meet the circus a mile or two outside the town and they would run alongside the horses, but now we travel at night because there are a lot of vehicles to transport and we don’t want to block up roads.”

To some observers, the trucks are as interesting as what happens inside the Big Top. Taking pride of place among an array of Volvos, Renaults and MANs is the ERF EC11, a 4×2 tractor-unit, first registered in 2004. It’s one truck that he doesn’t wish to replace.

“Usually, as soon as a truck starts giving me little problems I get rid of it, because those little niggles always end up being big problems. In the last few years we have been getting younger trucks, and that comes with its own problems, with everything being electronic and computerised now. I only have one ERF left, and that’s the only truck that I always get repaired. I don’t like throwing money at a vehicle, it’s not cost-efficient; but that ERF, nobody wants me to get rid of it, even the show people.”

Then there’s the trailer line-up which varies widely, from standard drag box bodies to fifth wheel motorhomes and caravans. “There’s nothing in our fleet that’s driving on its own, whether it’s a car, 4×4 or van, and some will have two trailers behind.”

“Purchasing the vehicles is my responsibility, and the customising of the designs and the colour schemes was my idea,” he says. “I played around with a few livery designs for a while and I settled on the current version about 10 to 12 years ago. I like to keep it like this now, because it kind of stands out. When we are on the road we get lots of nice comments on social media. In my dad’s day, when they used to travel early in the morning, especially with horse-drawn caravans, the kids would meet the circus a mile or two outside the town and they would run alongside the horses, but now we travel at night because there are a lot of vehicles to transport and we don’t want to block up roads.”

To some observers, the trucks are as interesting as what happens inside the Big Top. Taking pride of place among an array of Volvos, Renaults and MANs is the ERF EC11, a 4×2 tractor-unit, first registered in 2004. It’s one truck that he doesn’t wish to replace.

“Usually, as soon as a truck starts giving me little problems I get rid of it, because those little niggles always end up being big problems. In the last few years we have been getting younger trucks, and that comes with its own problems, with everything being electronic and computerised now. I only have one ERF left, and that’s the only truck that I always get repaired. I don’t like throwing money at a vehicle, it’s not cost-efficient; but that ERF, nobody wants me to get rid of it, even the show people.”

Then there’s the trailer line-up which varies widely, from standard drag box bodies to fifth wheel motorhomes and caravans. “There’s nothing in our fleet that’s driving on its own, whether it’s a car, 4×4 or van, and some will have two trailers behind.”

Customised trailers

The main logistics trailers are all customised. “All eight platforms are identical in that we buy the standard chassis and build up from that,” he says. “Most of the box trailers are axle seat stackers, in that they fold out for the show attendees to sit. There is nothing around here that hasn’t been specified, manufactured or adapted to meet our needs. We tried to keep all the trailer chassis the same, with similar running gear, axles, wheels and tyres, and so on.”

Gone are the days when Duffy’s ran Fodens, Seddon Atkinsons and a range of ERF series. “It’s hard to get them now and difficult to obtain parts for them. That’s why we have moved to Volvos and Renaults. On site, we have our own mechanic operating out of our mobile workshop, equipped with everything necessary to get us from A to B. We can carry out minor repairs up to as far as maybe changing a clutch but after that it’s a garage job.” Attention to detail is to the fore outside and inside the ring, it seems.

“What I also have here, which is very important, is our own paint sprayer, so our mechanic does the touching-up on site. As soon as any kind of scratch or mark appears, we try to get it resprayed immediately, because it’s all about presentation and appearance. I don’t even like to have dirty tyres. If we come off a ground that’s mucky and then we go to a ground that’s clean, I make sure that we wash all the wheels. It’s like having a new suit with dirty shoes. I like the stuff to look smart and tidy.”

Focus on maintenance

General maintenance is carried out regularly, and the crew check oil, water, tyres, wheel nuts and (something relatively new to David and his crew) AdBlue. “I’m hearing about it all the time, as in recent years SCR diesels have come into the fleet.” This began with the arrival of Volvo FMs, replacing the older British marques, to be followed by Renault Premiums, a model David has grown to appreciate with its Volvo drivetrain, fuel economy and value for money.

“Around the site, there’s the odd DAF, Mercedes-Benz and a few MANs with various configurations, mostly 4×2 and 6×2 rigids – about 20 trucks in all. Tyre management is crucial, as any downtime holds up the show; every truck and trailer has a spare wheel, with the workshop carrying any odd-sized ones required for other vehicles. As the workshop truck and mechanic/driver is always the last in the convoy, he can pick up any problems along the way. The workshop is equipped with its own generator and compressors on board with air jacks and air guns, because we have to be efficient, we cannot afford to lose days.”

When moving from town to town, covering 80 venues in the season that begins at the end of January to November, prevention and preparation is key. By habit, they usually configure the parking of the trucks on the site as they arrive. There was a slight delay in getting to Claremorris from Ennis when a tyre blowout occurred, but from practice and experience, this was dealt with quickly, and the wheel and tyre were replaced in 15 minutes.

In winter, the fleet hibernates at its County Down facility in Donaghadee. Here, further repairs and maintenance are carried out. A Volvo FM with box body is located there as a spare vehicle, ready and willing to come off the subs bench when required. ‘Retired’ vehicles inevitably end up as scrap, salvaged for spare parts as needed.

Unseen logistics

“It’s more than just the circus that goes on. Logistics is the part that the public doesn’t see. They don’t realise all the work and expense that goes in. Some will complain about the price of a seat; they aren’t aware of all the running and operating costs, such as the vehicles, insurance, diesel, tyres,” David says.

At the time of writing it is unknown how long Tom Duffy’s Circus will be waiting to raise its tent. “The difficulty is that these people cannot rejoin their families abroad or join another circus troupe because of the air travel restrictions. As they don’t have an actual home here, they have to remain with us – but as we have no income, we can only pay them for a short period,” explains David. Currently, staff numbers amount to 50, many of them holding foreign passports.

Let’s hope that we can soon all enjoy everything that happens both inside and outside The Ring.

Jarlath Sweeney is owner and editor-in-chief of Ireland’s leading commercial vehicle magazine, Fleet Transport.

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