Driving through the back streets of Winnellie can feel like you’re in a different part of the country. It’s not the lush green landscape that we’re used to – it’s stark, industrial, and you only go there if you know what you’re looking for. This might explain why the St John NT Mechanical Workshop is one of (we think) Darwin’s best kept secrets.
Mark Grahame is Darwin born and bred, and was at lunch when a friend who, at the time, was the Manager of the St John NT Mechanical Workshop, asked him if he would be interested in helping to start up the retail side of the workshop. Ten years later he’s the manager - not bad for a lunch break!
The Darwin Mechanical Workshop has three elements – the first is the retail side where people like you and I can book our cars in for a service or a rego check. There’s the area that specialises in ambulance servicing and repairs, and the best-named section, body building. No, the workshop doesn’t have an F45 hidden inside it, the bodies being built are ambulances!
It might be surprising to know that there’s no ambulance factory that churns them out – they come to the workshop as a blank canvas and are fitted out by the St John NT Mechanical Workshop team. If you’re wondering what kind of cars make the best ambulances, for Mark, there’s no question.
“Before my time they were using Ford F-Series trucks as well as GMCs for ambulances, but they got outdated by the more nimble Mercedes Benz Sprinter.” Said Mark. “We have a lot of people trying to get their foot in the door with vehicle proposals, but having driven and worked on them for the last fifteen plus years, nothing beats the Mercedes!”
While St John NT also has a Mechanical Workshop in Alice Springs, body building is unique to the Darwin location. And ambulances for St John NT aren’t the only bodies being built here. The workshop has contracts with mining sites, Australian Federal Police, NGOs and Government clinics who need to transport rural patients and of course, our volunteer vehicles.
When asked what the biggest challenges in this job were, Mark stated that it was about balancing the inclusion of all the necessary equipment inside the ambulance, working out the power requirements to run it and keeping in mind the weight limits of the vehicle. “We can’t just throw everything in so we have a mobile hospital, so we really have to work out the fine line between getting the equipment in that the Paramedics need, and staying within the weight limit.”
Just like most businesses throughout the Territory, the Mechanical Workshop suffered due to COVID-19. “We’re still feeling the impact in terms of vehicle body building and actually getting a hold of new vehicles to turn into ambulances. The factories overseas all shut down, so the pool of new vehicles depleted and in turn the second hand market went crazy!” Mark laughed.
“The retail mechanical side slowed right down for probably a month and no one knew what was going to happen. We had to cordon off the three workshops from each other, we couldn’t have staff mingling and we couldn’t have the public interacting with the ambulance side of the workshop for patient care reasons, so that was really difficult”.
Things took a turn for the better once Government COVID grants started rolling in. “Our bookings went out of control! People decided to work on their cars and travel within the Territory, driving from Darwin to Alice Springs and things like that.”
The lifespan of an ambulance is five years, or 250,000km. Do they get a retirement party when they hit the mark? Kind of! A ‘decommissioned’ ambulance has all the stickers pulled off, the emergency lighting removed and any parts that can be recycled for newer builds are taken out. “We’ll see if we can utilise the vehicle for the volunteer service or somewhere else in the organisation but if we can’t it’s put to auction and begins its second life, usually as a campervan”
If you look out for them, you can see old ambulances driving around Darwin, kitted out with bunk beds. “You can generally tell because they have a ‘whale tail’ on the back” said Mark. This looks like a spoiler, but it’s at the top of the car and once would have housed all the emergency lighting so Paramedics can see what they’re doing in the back of the ambulance.
When asked if he enjoyed his work, Mark responded “I’m a lifer! I love this place to be honest. Coming from a small private workshop and being introduced to this organisation, my first couple of years flew, they felt like they were weeks. I woke up one day and I had been working for St John NT for about four or five years. Where did that time go! I really enjoy working for St John NT.”
And if that kind of passion doesn’t make you want to get your car serviced there, how about the fact that between the team they have almost a century’s worth of experience? “One person isn’t getting rich by someone bringing their vehicle here” Mark explainsed “We’re not for profit and all the revenue is going back into our volunteer service, which supports the community. You’ll see us at your school fetes, football games, supercars, everything! That’s what your business supports.”
Song of the week? “I don’t know about a song for the week, but my favourite is ‘The Middle’ by Jimmy Eat World”. Can’t deny that’s an absolute classic!
Photo: Some of the Darwin Workshop team, Maksim Liutyi, Rory Doust, Sean Cummins, Leanne Castro, Mark Grahame and Sam Sharples.