The 30-year hunt to find the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert bus: ‘My jaw was on the ground’

<span>Terence Stamp as Bernadette Bassenger beside Priscilla the bus in the 1994 Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.</span><span>Photograph: Latent Image Productions Pty Ltd.</span>
Terence Stamp as Bernadette Bassenger beside Priscilla the bus in the 1994 Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.Photograph: Latent Image Productions Pty Ltd.

Thirty years ago, a humble silver bus was transformed into a cinematic icon when the low-budget Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert became a heart-warming, Oscar-winning smash hit.

But for years, no one has known where the bus used in Stephan Elliott’s film went. Not long after the 38-day shoot finished in 1993, it seemingly vanished without a trace. This did not stop countless Australians from claiming they either owned it or knew who owned it, or that they had spotted it somewhere up and down the country.

The story of where she ended up, and how she was found, is worthy of a film in itself.

‘We were a bit suspicious at first’

In the 1994 film, Priscilla is home to drag queens Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving), Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce) and transgender woman Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp) as they drive from Sydney to Alice Springs.

In reality, Priscilla is a 1976 Japanese model Hino RC320. It was owned by Sydney company Boronia Tours before it was sold to a couple who leased the bus to Latent Images, the film’s production company, for the duration of the shoot in September and October 1993. Afterwards, the couple hired it out occasionally, including to the Australian band the Whitlams, who used it as a tour bus for six months in 1994.

But after that, Priscilla vanished without a trace.

Related: The Adventures of Priscilla – five things you didn’t know about the Aussie hit

For years, the bus was the white whale for curatorial staff at the History Trust of South Australia, who hoped to acquire it for the National Motor Museum in Birdwood, SA – home to several famous cars from cinema, including the Mad Max Bigfoot buggy.

So when a man called Michael Mahon got in touch with the History Trust in 2019 claiming Priscilla was sitting on his property in Ewingar, New South Wales (population: 67), no one really believed him.

“Michael sent a message saying he had the bus and wanted to sell it. I felt like I was in The Castle – I said, ‘tell him he’s dreaming’,” says Paul Rees, head of museums at the History Trust and former director of the National Motor Museum. “We were a bit suspicious at first, to be honest. But we put our Sherlock Holmes hats on and soon realised it wasn’t a joke, so we started our investigation.”

Curators spent months determining if the bus was truly Priscilla. “A few things really made us confident: it had the right number plates, the distinctive animal print curtains and dashboard cover, and the original name roller,” says Adam Paterson, manager curatorial at the History Trust.

Complicating matters were the many pretenders to the throne: there are many copies of Priscilla, including the bus that was driven around the 2000 Olympics closing ceremony in Sydney; another was made for the talent show I Will Survive; and the one used in the Priscilla stage show, now displayed in Broken Hill.

In the film, the bus is famously painted bright pink partway through – but because the film-makers could only afford one bus, they painted just half of it pink and left the other side silver so they could shoot out of sequence. Crucially, some old pink paint hadn’t been removed from a hinge.

“What convinced everyone in the end was the pink paint scrapings,” says Rees. “Curators are fantastically conservative - they will not jump until they’re absolutely sure. But I was jumping all over the place.”


Some facts and dates remain a little murky, but what everyone agrees on is this: the couple who owned Priscilla eventually broke up and one of them got the bus in the separation. That person drove it to their new partner’s place in Ewingar sometime around 2006, where it was eventually abandoned when that relationship ended. When the owner of that house in Ewingar died, it was sold – complete with Priscilla – to Mahon in 2016.

The fire went right alongside Priscilla and took out a van, a boat and two cars right next to it

Michael Mahon

“I’d been here in Ewingar for about six months when I went down to the community hall to say hello to everybody, and they said, ‘G’day! What are you going to do with the bus?’” says Mahon. “I said to the bloke behind the bar, ‘Why is everyone asking me about the bus?’ and he went, ‘That’s Priscilla!’ ‘Strewth,’ I said.”

Mahon did some research online and rewatched the film, then looked over the bus with fresh eyes. Everything matched, down to the number plates. He went on Facebook for advice on bus restoration, but “everyone thought I was an idiot and a liar because they thought she had been stolen or destroyed.”

Related: Gavin McOwan follows the route of Priscilla Queen of the Desert to Alice Springs

Eventually he made friends with a few enthusiasts, who told him the rusting vehicle outside his house was known by two names in the bus-loving community. “One was ‘The Hunt for Red October’ because they’d been looking for it for years,” says Mahon. “The other was ‘the Holy Grail’.”

By that time, the bus had been languishing outdoors for a decade. In the years following, it survived multiple bushfires and floods. In October 2019, when huge flames came within centimetres of the bus, a water bomb struck it and saved it.

“The fire went right alongside Priscilla and took out a van, a boat and two cars right next to it,” Mahon says. “You wouldn’t believe it. It was 2,000-degree temperatures. The fire went straight over the roof of the house, the fireball was 50 feet above the treetop. But Priscilla survived.”

Right after the 2019 fires came floods, which made finding a new home for Priscilla even more urgent. “With all the rain, it started to really rust because it copped a lot of heat,” says Mahon. “Thankfully, the museum was in the same frame of mind as me - it is a true blue, ridgy-didge Australian icon. It’s got to be saved.”


“I’ve heard it so many times – ‘I’ve got the bus!’ – that it gets boring,” says Stephan Elliott, the director and writer of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. When the History Trust got in touch to see if he could help verify the bus’s authenticity, he was sceptical.

“But I was astonished when they showed me the photos,” he says. “I said, ‘There’s two things I need to see: the carpet and if there is a side-railing on the roof.’ They sent more photos and I immediately said, ‘That’s it. You got her.’ My jaw was just on the ground.”

The side-railing was installed on the bus’s interior so a camera could be hung from it “like a little cable car”, to allow for moving shots inside the bus while it was on the road. “It’s so odd, no one else would think to put it there,” says Elliott.

The director, who fondly calls Priscilla “the old bus and chain”, wrote the film at the same time as his 1993 comedy Frauds, which ended up being made first. The experience was “terrible, the whole Hollywood nightmare … I was completely ruined by the end, I was literally a dribbling wreck”.

Related: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert review – riotous return trip

“We were having an early production meeting for Priscilla and I said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t want to ever make a film again.’ Everyone was shocked. But Owen [Paterson, the production designer] said, ‘Well, there’s something that I’ve found and it’s about to pull up. Come and have a look.’

“So we’re sitting there in Paddington and around the corner she came. It was a very weird moment where I got inside the bus and I put my hand on the wall. I turned to everyone and said, ‘I think I can do this.’”

Elliott estimates he has seen 50 different copies of the bus over the years, “at premieres, Mardi Gras and daggy things”. “So to hear that the original was still alive, it was very special,” he adds. “I don’t understand how it is. It is just extraordinary.”


Given the complex nature of who actually owned Priscilla, having been abandoned on a deceased estate, the History Trust applied to the NSW courts to buy the vehicle as abandoned property in 2021, 18 months after Mahon first contacted them. This process required them to wait another whole year for someone to come forward to claim it as their own. But no one did.

Mahon was finally deemed the legal owner of the bus and sold it to the History Trust in May 2023. In September, “a whole army of very experienced mechanics and engineers” turned up to Ewingar to move her for the first time in at least 16 years.

“I was actually on leave but I drove myself all the way to NSW to watch it be moved – this is what a project like this does to you,” says Rees.

Related: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: rewatching classic Australian films

The bus’s flat tyres were carefully filled with air; if they couldn’t be filled or burst, it would become a much more complex operation. Everyone held their breath as the bus was wriggled “inch by inch” out of a tight spot on a slope, then down the hill on to a truck. Just as it went on, one tyre popped.

Ten or so Ewingar locals gathered to watch her go. (“Word started to spread and as the bus drove out, they all sort of waved goodbye,” says Paterson. “That was pretty cool.”)

Was Mahon sad to see Priscilla go? “Yes and no,” he says. “I believe museums are important, so it was going to the right place.” But long after she was taken, he felt a pang when he looked over the spot, “like something was missing”.

“Part of me was gone,” Mahon says. “But if it stayed where it was for another 12 months, it probably would have been unrepairable.”

Priscilla is now at a restoration business in Queensland, ready to be glammed up – but not too much.

“We are restoring it to the state it was in during the making of Priscilla because the film is why it is significant,” says Rees. “So if the crew say it was a bit manky then, then it’s going to be that way when we’re done with it.”

But Priscilla was almost 20 years old when she featured in the film and will turn 50 in two years’ time, so she needs a lot of work. The History Trust is hoping people around the world will help raise A$2.2m (US$1.4m/£1.1m) – a total that includes A$750,000 for an extensive restoration, including possibly making the bus roadworthy again. The rest will go to building an ambitious “immersive” exhibit, fit for a queen, in the National Motor Museum in South Australia. (The SA government has already committed $100,000.)

“She’s not in good shape, she’s not been loved and cared for. But she’s very, very salvageable – if you’ve got money to throw at it,” says Rees. “We want the exhibition to be fabulous. If we’re taking her on the road to Mardi Gras, we want that to be a fabulous experience. All those things cost a lot of money, as do the decades of care we will provide her with.

“It’s survived flood, fires, 16 years out in the open,” he adds. “But the film is all about survival – and somehow, the bus survived.”