Posts Tagged ‘Vauxhall Prince Henry’

Murray Aunger in King William Street, Adelaide and his team aboard three Dort cars prior to departing for Darwin in July 1922…

Members of that Adelaide to Darwin and return trip were, left to right, Aunger with Donald McCallum, the organiser and local member of parliament, the Hon Thomas McCallum and WH Crowder of the SA Lands Department, and Cyril Aunger with Captain Samuel A White a prominent ornithologist

This article is about the exploits of Horace Hooper ‘Murray’ Aunger (April 1878-1953), sportsman, overlander, adventurer, businessman and motor engineer – born at Narridy, near Clare, South Australia.

Educated in Adelaide he was later apprenticed in the Kilkenny workshops of G. E. Fulton & Co., consulting engineers. He later joined the cycle works established by Vivian Lewis, collaborating with Tom O’Grady in the construction of the first petrol-driven car in South Australia. I wrote tangentially about Lewis and his machines a while back, click here to read the story;

A sportsman of note, riding Lewis bikes, Aunger was the colony’s one-mile (1.6 km) champion in 1899 and in 1901 held the Australian 50 Mile record.

As co-driver and mechanic, Aunger made two attempts with Henry Hampden ‘Harry’ Dutton to be the first to cross Australia from south to north by car.

Then there were only 500 cars registered in South Australia. Motorists facing ‘a hostile society of luddites, horse loving reactionaries, regressive law makers and over-zealous police’ wrote Dr Kieren Tranter. Dutton was then the wealthy 28 year old heir to a significant pastoral fortune, the family owned Anlaby Station outside Kapunda. Aunger was the brain and muscle behind crossing attempts which Harry later attributed to in their entirety to Aunger’s ability.

The pair left Adelaide in Dutton’s Talbot on November 25, 1907. ‘Angelina’ was powered by a 3770cc water cooled, monobloc four-cylinder engine rated at 20hp and was fitted with a four-speed gearbox.

‘Darwin lay almost 2100 miles (3380 km) away. ‘Obstacles confronted them on long sections of the route: rivers, treacherous sandhills and boulder-strewn country had to be traversed which no modern motorist would tackle without the advantage of four-wheel drive. Beyond Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory, the partners met the pioneering cyclist FE Birtles. The pinion in the Talbot’s differential collapsed south of Tennant Creek, where the car was abandoned given the wet season’s onset. Dutton and Aunger returned on horseback to the railhead at Oodnadatta, South Australia, and then back to Adelaide’.

Aunger, Dutton and Dick the dog aboard Talbot ‘474’ at Burra on the second, 1908 trip (NM)

Determined to try again when the rains ended, Dutton bought another Talbot. This car, nicknamed ‘474’ after its registration number, was more powerful and had a lower axle ratio than ‘Angelina’ as a result of lessons learned the year before. Again with Aunger leading the charge, the pair left Adelaide on June 30, 1908. At Alice Springs, local special magistrate and postmaster Ern Allchurch joined the team. Ern’s ability to transmit messages along the telegraph line enabled them to keep in touch with, and confirm their position to the outside world.

Tennant Creek was reached in thirty days; the stranded ‘Angelina’ was repaired and driven in convoy to Pine Creek before being freighted by train to Darwin. Continuing their journey by car, the trailblazers reached their destination on August 20. International motoring circles recognised both expedition’s demonstrations of skill and endurance – it was one of the greatest pioneering motoring feats in Australia, the pair averaged over 50 miles a day over 42 days at the wheel. Talbot ‘474’ is preserved in the Birdwood Museum, in the Adelaide hills.

As I have written in previous articles about Australia’s pioneering motor sport days, speed-record attempts between Australia’s capital cities received wide publicity and the record breakers were our earliest motor-sporting stars.

Murray Aunger and Robert Barr Smith, Adelaide en route to Melbourne in February 1909, Napier (SLSA)

In 1909 Murray accompanied Robert Barr Smith in his Napier to set a new time for the Adelaide-Melbourne journey, the pair held the record for only a few weeks.

Aunger regained it in February 1914, driving a Prince Henry Vauxhall imported expressly for the purpose. He left Lewis Cycle Works in 1909 to establish Murray Aunger Ltd which held Willys-Overland, Vauxhall, Morris and Dort franchises.

Together with F. Bearsley – achieving speeds of over 80 miles per hour (129 km/h) on the pipeclay of the Coorong – their time was 14 hours 54 minutes. They improved the previous record time of GG White and Fred Custance set in a 35hp Talbot, 20 hours six minutes, which had stood for over five years by five hours 12 minutes.

At a time the only route to Melbourne included 90 miles of the dreaded Coorong in south-east SA, and then on to the border and into Victoria via Casterton, Hamilton and Geelong – about 100 miles further than the trip now. The 80 miles of the Coorong desert sand were negotiated in under two hours, the cars fastest speed of 80 mph was achieved on a 10 mile stretch of dried up Coorong lagoon.

They also broke the Adelaide-Broken Hill record in the same car.

Murray Aunger and, perhaps F Bearsley, testing their Vauxhall Prince Henry in 1913/14 (SLSA)

Better management of the South Australian Railways (SAR) and the need for a railway line from Adelaide to Darwin was a thread which ran through the next phase of Aunger’s life.

By 1920 the railway system was crippled by mismanagement and failure to invest. To that end, newly elected Premier, Sir Henry Barwell, appointed American William Webb to run the SAR. By 1926 the state had the most powerful locos in the country, the grand Adelaide Railway Station was Webb’s monument.

In 1922 Aunger joined another expedition – the one featured at the outset of this article – of three cars which travelled from Adelaide to Darwin and back. The group included his brother Cyril, Samuel White, H Crowder and a local parliamentarian, the Hon Thomas McCallum and his brother Donald McCallum. They explored settlement possibilities, inclusive of a railway along their route.

Samuel White in a ‘The Register’ article wrote that there was much public wrangling about the route of the north-south rail line. The plan was to drive the proposed course from Adelaide to Darwin, and then return to Adelaide via Queensland to see for themselves the nature of the terrain, its obstacles and opportunities.

Aunger, ‘the greatest overland motorist in Australia’ was engaged by the group to organise the trip. This included shipping fuel, provisions and spares sent months ahead to Oodnadatta and then 700-800 miles further north by camel train. Teams were also sent from the Darwin end as well, to be prepared for what was a large group of intrepid, influential travellers.

Aunger selected and prepared three American Dorts, machines built by the Dort Motor Car Company of Flint, Michigan. These hardy, Lycoming four-cylinder, 30 horsepower vehicles were stripped of top protective equipment and doors to make them a lighter and more suited to the demands of the Australian bush.

The three Dorts en-route to Darwin in 1922 (SLSA)

Murray was again called upon to assist in providing cars and logistics to the government in assessing possible rail routes, organising a trip in June 1923 from Adelaide to the wilds of Oodnadatta, Alice Springs and Central Australia, again using three Dorts.

The expedition was three weeks, the all-star cast included the State Governor, Sir Tom Bridges, Premier Sir Henry Barwell, William Webb, Chief Commissioner of the South Australian Railways, Thomas McCallum, who organised this trip, the earlier one in 1922 and two others. This time the Dorts were further modified with removable grips for the tyres. The party travelled by train from Adelaide to Oodnadatta, picking up the Dorts at Terowie, between Burra and Peterborough.

After returning, both the Governor and Premier called on the Commonwealth Government to extend the railway, the line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs was completed in 1929.

Later in 1923 the SAR sought cars suitable for running on rails. By November, Aunger had modified one Dort, eventually ten were in service, but they (or perhaps their drivers) were accident prone with some fatalities from collisions and roll-overs.

The first of these accidents occurred on the Clare line in December 1923 when a Dort collided with a gangers trike – fortunately the employees aboard the trike were able to jump clear. The driver of the Dort was Webb – his passenger the State Premier, Barwell. The nature of their business was Sir Henry’s attendance at a bowls tournament with Webb the taxi-driver!

Murray Aunger and the SA State Governor, Sir Tom Bridges aboard a Dort at Oodnadatta out front of the Pub (SLSA)

In 1925 Webb persuaded Aunger to become the motor engineer of the SAR, on a salary of £1000. There had been a large increase in the use of motors in the railways and Webb had commenced bus services to various parts of the State. A number of politicians believed Aunger had received favoured treatment from Webb. Webb was the subject of ongoing bitter political attacks for the American’s revolutionary changes to improve systems, processes and viability of the SAR. Aunger twice visited Britain and the USA in the course of his SAR duties.

In 1930 Webb returned to America. For several years attempts (after the Hill Labor Government lost power in 1927 and Butler Liberal Administration in 1930, in part over ongoing railway deficits and their impact on the State budget) were made in South Australian political circles to wreak petty revenge upon Aunger, despite his important part in rehabilitating the State’s railway system. He was dismissed in June 1937 for contravening Section 37 of the South Australian Railways Commissioner’s Act.

On June 6, 1942 he re-married, his first wife having died some years before, they moved to Melbourne. Aunger died on September 14, 1953 at Mordialloc, aged 75.

Whilst there is plenty of material on Aunger’s life in South Australia there is little I can find about his time in Victoria. If any of can fill in the gaps it would be great to hear from you – the fellow certainly had an amazing life of sporting, commercial and pioneering success!


‘The Register’ 22 August 1922, ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’- article on Aunger by John Playford, ‘Lassetters Gold’ Warren Brown, Trove- various

Photo Credits…

State Library of South Australia, National Motor Museum


Dunlop ad celebrating the Aunger/Bearsley Vauxhall Prince Henry Melbourne-Adelaide record breaking run in 1914.



tarrant 2

(Algernon Darge/SLV)

Harley Tarrant ‘tears’ down Sandown Racecourse’ back straight in his Argyll to win the 3 mile race ‘for heavy automobiles’ on 12 March 1904…

Runner-up of the event organised by The Automobile Club of Victoria was Tom Rand’s Decauville, Tarrant’s average speed, 26mph for the 3 miles in a time of 6 minutes 55 seconds.


Harley Tarrant left, Argyll 10HP and Tom Rand Decauville 16HP 2nd. Sandown Racecourse, 12 March 1904 (Algernon Darge/SLV)

the ozzie

Three motor contests were run at the ‘Commercial Travellers Association’ annual picnic at Sandown Racecourse on 12 March 1904…

Melbourne weekly ‘The Australasian’ reported the event in its 19 March 1904 issue in the formal and amusing language of the day;

‘The Automobile Club of Victoria’ had another good turnout last Saturday in response to an invitation from the Commercial Travellers Association to be present at their annual picnic on the Sandown Park Racecourse’. Around 1400 people attended in total.

sandown blokes

Sandown racecourse 1904. ‘Curved dash’ Oldsmobiles (Algernon Darge/SLV)

‘Upwards of 25 cars left Alexandra Avenue (South Yarra, a distance of about 25Km) and proceeded at a leisurely pace via St Kilda, Caulfield, Oakleigh and Springvale. During the afternoon the number of cars swelled to 85, while there were more motor cycles as well. The road was in a terribly dusty state.

At the course the conditions were more enjoyable. The three motor contests were watched with interest by the picnickers, the ladies especially evincing much enthusiasm.


sandown scene

Sandown Racecourse 1904. 1400 attended, most arrived by train, here alighting at Dandenong Station. Car make and model unknown (The Australasian)

The presence of a neat electric car in which were seated 2 ladies, one of whom handled the motor with the skill of an expert, aroused the admiration of the gentlemen and the envy of the ladies. It was indeed a novel sight and will go a long way to removing the impression existing that an automobile is difficult to manage.

It may now be confidently stated that automobilism has caught on, and it will be found that with such persistent and persevering advocates as women-folk can be when they desire anything, their gentlemen friends will capitulate and procure cars. (very delicately put, cars and anything else!)

After the races were over the cars were rushed by all the ladies; all wanted a ride around the course and the drivers had a busy time for an hour or more’


‘The Australasian’ does not report the order in which the contests were held, but ‘The Age’ does, it was as above so James Robert Crooke won the first four wheel motor contest/race in Victoria and Australia…

‘Nine out of 16 entries faced the starter in the Voiturette race. There was some delay owing to a false start but an interesting race resulted. Receiving a 500 yards start, Crooke was first in 3 min 55.5 seconds from Kellow from the 50 yard mark in 4 mins 2.5 seconds’.

jr crooke

James Crooke pictured in 1915. Winner of the first motor car race in Australia, 12 March 1904, Sandown Racecourse (

Crooke is a notable motoring and motor racing pioneer himself, he established the Aspendale Racecourse, the horse racing facility later modified to accomodate a Speedway.

The main threads of this article are the 1904 Sandown event, the early history of the car in Australia until The Great Depression and Harley Tarrant and his cars.

An article about Crooke the ‘bushranger, master marksman, champion jockey, race promoter, track owner and racing driver’ as his descendants website describe the man is a fascinating topic for another time!


J R Crooke leading the first car motor race in Australia, the Voiturette event, first of 3 races on the day, 12 March 1904 , Sandown racecourse (unattributed)

Unfortunately all of the published pictures of Crooke on the day are ‘ropey’ and hence i have not led with a shot of Crooke’s winning Locomobile, a 41/2 HP 2 cylinder steam engined conveyance built in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Second was the 5HP, single cylinder, petrol engined Humberette ‘raced’ by CB Kellow. Humber built these cars at a factory in Beeston, Nottingham, UK.


Another shot of the Voiturette Race; looks like JR Crooke in the 2nd placed car here, but on his way forward in the short 1.5 mile race (The Australasian)

Some modern reports have it that Harley drove one of his own Tarrant’s but ‘The Australasian’ and ‘The Age’ results say the victorious car was an Argyll, a 10HP, 2 cylinder petrol engined car made in Bridgton, Glasgow, Scotland. It is one of the makes for which Tarrant’s business ‘Tarrant Motor and Engineering Co’ held the franchise, others included F.I.A.T, Sunbeam, FN and De Dion. Their premises were in Russell Street, Melbourne and later Queensbridge Street, South Melbourne.


Colonel Tarrant in Argyll 10HP, winner of the first ‘Dunlop Reliability Trial’ between Melbourne and Sydney, February 1905. (Algernon Darge)

‘The Age’ reported that the times were ‘nothing sensational owing to the heavy nature of the going’, the ‘roadster motorcycle race excited the most sensational interest. The machines were sent around at terrific speed-over 30 miles an hour’, the winner C Mayman from HB James and AE Sutton, make of machines not disclosed!


Charlie Mayman aboard his 7th ‘Beauchamp’ machine, the ‘Track Racer’ built in December 1902. ‘Motor built by Beauchamp’s a single of about 4HP, machine weighs 120Lb. 26 inch wheels and Dunlop tyres’ (Serpolettes Tricycle)

A little bit of research suggests that the first 2 bikes in the race of Charlie Mayman and Harry James were ‘Beauchamps’ built by Mayman at Edward Beauchamp’s cycle works in The Arcade, Chapel Street Prahran, an inner Melbourne suburb.

James was Dunlop’s Advertising Manager, Mayman built 2 bikes to James’ order for Dunlop. It may also be that Arthur Sutton’s machine, he was a friend of Mayman’s, was also a Beauchamp.

Mayman built 9 machines before his short life ended after a tyre blew on a machine he was riding at Eaglehawk’s Canterbury Park, near Bendigo in Victoria’s ‘Goldfields’ area on Boxing Day 1904. Just 24, he was an amazing engineer, he built himself a car in 1903/4 and a gifted rider with the world at his feet.


Charlie Mayman in the car he built himself, inclusive of engine. ‘Shows the prominent racing motorcyclist in his home manufactured car in St Kilda Road, Melbourne in 1903’ is the photographers note (Algernon Darge/SLV)

Motor racing started in France, the first ‘motoring contest’ took place on July 22, 1894. Organised by a Paris newspaper, the Paris-Rouen Rally was a 126 km journey. Count Jules Albert de Dion was first into Rouen in 6 hours 48 minutes, an average speed of 19 km/h (12 mph). The official winners were Peugeot and Panhard as cars were judged on their speed, handling and safety characteristics. De Dion’s steam car needed a stoker which the judges deemed to be outside their objectives…


Jules Albert, Count de Dion was first into Rouen in this team powered De Dion towing ‘une Caleche’. Among the passengers are Count de Dion, Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt-Rothschild and write Emile Driant (unattributed)

And so commenced a period of racing unregulated cars on open roads between cities in Europe. This evolved after many deaths, from racing on open to closed road circuits. During the Paris-Madrid road race in 1903 a number of people, both drivers and pedestrians – including Marcel Renault were killed, the race was stopped by French authorities at Bordeaux.

Further road based events of this type were banned.


Marcel Renault, Renault, before his fatal accident on the 24 May 1903 ‘Paris-Madrid Trail’ . He crashed near the town of Couhe Verac and died 48 hours later without regaining consciousness . The event was won by Fernand Gabriel’s Mors from Louis Renault and Jacques Salleron in Renault and Mors respectively (unattributed)

By Sandown’s 1904 event motor racing was already 10 years old but the impact of the competition on the 1400 present to see the deeds of Melbourne’s pioneering motorists was significant and must be seen in the context of the time in Australia.

There were less than 300 cars in Victoria in 1904, the population of the state was 1.3 million people. The rarity, novelty value and impact of the noisy, fast by the standards of the time, technological wonders cannot be overstated.

There are now around 4.55 million cars and 5.9 million people in Victoria, 1 car for every 3300 people in 1904 compared with 1 car for every 1.23 people now.

Whilst motoring was in its pioneering years the car was getting plenty of press about its impact, expected benefits, as well as perceived negatives about changes to existing paradigms. The local papers were full of commentary about the draft British ‘Motor Car Bill’ to regulate the use of cars for the first time in the UK and Melbourne was ‘abuzz’ with the new technology.

sandown kids

Sandown Racecourse 1904 (SLV)


Astronaut James Irwin, Apollo 15 mission, 1 August 1971 with the ‘Lunar Roving Vehicle’ at Hadley-Apennine, The Moon (NASA)

It is sobering and amazing to look at the 10 years olds in the Sandown picture above and imagine their reflections as 80 year olds looking at the Moon Vehicle during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission. Or as a 90 year old being blown away by the outrageous looks and speed of Mario Andretti’s ‘ground effect’ Lotus 79 in 1978. The Wright brothers first ‘heavier than air’ human flight took place only a few months before the Sandown meeting at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina on 17 December 1903.

All in those childrens lifetimes.

The other worldly nature of the Moon Vehicle and Lotus 79 would have been as impactful at the end of the car enthusiasts lives as the Edwardian conveyances competing at Sandown all those years before were at the start of their time in an amazing century of technological progress if not peace on our planet…


Andretti, Lotus 79 Ford, 1979 German GP, Hockenheim, car not as good in ’79 as ’78. It raced on when the ‘wingless Lotus 80 bombed that year (unattributed)

The Car in Australia; Early Years…

An Australian Government publication ‘Linking a Nation’ forms the basis of this summary of our early years of motoring.

The motor age began in Australia, as elsewhere in the world, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The first Australian experiments in car construction were in the late 1890s involving both steam and internal combustion engines, both of which were successful.

It soon became clear that for purposes such a cars, internal combustion had advantages over steam. Steam remained favoured for early buses, trucks and mobile machinery.


Thomson Motor Phaeton in 1900. Designed and built by Herbert Thomson and his cousin Edward Holmes in Armadale Victoria. They took the car to Sydney by boat for the 1900 Sydney Royal Easter Show and drove to Bathurst to the local show and then back to Melbourne on what passed for the roads of the day, getting frequently bogged. Trip took 10 days at 8.72 mph for the circa 500 mile journey. First car in Oz to be fitted with Dunlop pneumatic tyres, which were purpose built for it. Steam powered, 12 built, 1 exists today in the Museum of Victoria (unattributed)

Australia’s first petrol car (the first steam car was made by Herbert Thomson and made its debut at the Malvern Cricket Ground, Melbourne in June 1898) was made in Melbourne by Colonel Harry Tarrant in 1897. It was experimental but Tarrant learnt enough to begin production on a commercial basis in 1901. He was joined in the business by a Melbourne bicycle maker, Howard Lewis.

By 1909 Tarrant was a manufacturer, importer and distributor, building his own cars as well as acquiring the Ford franchise. This was the year Henry Ford began production of his famous T Model, the world’s first mass-produced car, so it was an astute business move on Tarrant’s part. Tarrant also had the Melbourne dealership for more exotic marques such as Rover, Sunbeam and Mercedes. A short biography of Tarrant and some photos of his cars is included at the end of this article.


The Perier family; Albert at the tiller, Jessie, Pauline and Norman, prepare for an outing in 1903. Car the first de Dion Voiturette imported to NSW by WJC Elliott in 1900 (AJ Perier/SLNSW)

Public reaction to the car was far from universally favourable. Conservative people tended to dislike them. ‘Young men with money loved the speed and freedom it gave and of course were resented by other elements in society for their selfish pleasures’.

Doctors soon found cars superior to horses and their early extensive use of cars to make house calls did much to make cars respectable. ‘Doctors on duty could not be considered maniacs selfishly out on a spree frightening horses and old ladies’….


Motor bikes, both solos and sidecars grew in number exponentially given the attractions of freedom and cost. Here an Indian sidecar at the Blue Lake, Mount Gambier, SA in 1914. Retention of the gents bowler hat at speed no doubt a challenge (SLSA)

Speed enabled people to lead more productive lives. The railway and the tram already had proved that, but since they were for public use, they seemed less self-indulgent than the car which was very much the preserve of the rich in its early years. The list of motoring attendees at the Sandown 1904 event is like an entry from the ‘society pages’ of the day.

Even though car numbers were low in the first decade of the twentieth century their impact was great.

The Australian Constitution (Australia as a country commenced on 1 January 1901, until then the colonies were separate) framed just before the motor age was silent on the topic of regulation so regulatory responsibility lay with the states.

The state with the most emphasis on moral improvement, South Australia first regulated the car in 1904. The South Australian parliament legislated for the registration of cars and speed limits in towns and cities varying between four and twelve miles per hour (6 and 19km/h). These reflected the rules under which trains travelled along Adelaide, ‘The City of Churchs’ streets.


King William Street, Adelaide’s ‘main drag’ on 31 May1914, the last day the Adelaide-Glenelg train came into the city centre. Now a tram makes the same journey. Not a car to be seen (SLSA)

In other states initial regulation was by local councils which imposed a wide range of speed limits; Sydney 8mph, in Parramatta 6mph and in Hunter’s Hill 10mph.

Very early in motoring history, Australian police regularly fined motorists for excessive speed. The police tended to ignore the local limits and instead rely on an old common-law charge which applied to horse drawn vehicles of ‘furious driving’. This infuriated motorists as it was arbitrary.

In New South Wales, the Motor Traffic Act of 1909 removed these anomalies and laid the foundation for statewide regulation, licensing of drivers and registration of vehicles (for a fee), and standardised speed limits at 15mph within five miles of Sydney’s GPO.

The principles it enshrined remain the basis of traffic regulation in Australia today.


Symbolic of the relentless pace of technological progress at the time was Harry Houdini’s  flights in Australia. He made 3 flights at Diggers Rest, 35 Km north of Melbourne on 18 March 1910. Voisin bi-plane. He made the second or third powered flights in Oz, Colin Defries the first at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney on 9 December 1909 in a Wright Model A  (Marcel Poupe/SLNSW)

‘Seeing their pleasures threatened by moral improvers, motorists began to organise. Led by Sydney theatrical entrepreneur Harry Skinner, they established the Australian Motoring Association in 1903, later the Automobile Club of Australia and from 1920 the Royal Automobile Club of Australia. This was a national body from the beginning with New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian branches. The flashy Skinner was all too typical of early motorists and was just the kind of person moral improvers wanted kept in his place!’


Vauxhall ‘Prince Henry’ ‘possibly being prepared for an Adelaide-Melbourne record run in 1913’. Such ‘events’ not unusual or legal at the time (SLSA)

The new Commonwealth Parliament was soon aware of the importance new automotive technology and in 1902 imposed customs duties on imported motor bodies to encourage local manufacture.

At the time and until the introduction of the Ford Model T all cars were handmade and most motor bodies were built by firms which also built horse-drawn vehicles. This meant that carriage builders could easily adapt to the new technology which to them was not new. Only the means of traction and the details of design had changed. Most chassis continued to be imported.

This prompted a short-lived revival of the carriage-making trade which had gone into decline in the 1890s with the popularity of the ‘sulky’ which needed no body. In 1917 the government banned motor-body imports, a year later eased to a restriction of one import allowed per two local bodies built.

The following decade was the heyday of the medium-sized motor-body builder, mostly former horse carriage builders, or firms like Smith and Waddington in Sydney who also built timber trams and railway carriages.

Motor body production reached about 90,000 by 1926. Of these, some 36,171 were produced by one firm, Holden Motor Body Builders, founded in 1920 by the Adelaide carriage builders, Holden and Frost. They produced their first motor body in 1917 and by the mid 1920s dominated the Australian motor-body industry.


Its all happening in Pitt Street, Sydney 1915, as it still does. This is near the Market Street corner, in what is now the (pedestrian only) Pitt Street Mall. Cars, cabs, buggies, trams and still very much present, horse drawn transport (SLNSW)

Car numbers, though, remained small. There were only 3,978 motor vehicles in all of New South Wales as late as 1911, just as the flood of Model Ts began to surge. They quickly replaced the horse-drawn carriage as the preferred means of city transport of the urban elite. The saddle horse quickly disappeared from city streets. It had always been an affectation of the wealthy urban male, a car was an excellent substitute.

Horsepower remained preferred for deliveries and short-distance cabs. Hansom cabs remained part of the scene in Australian cities right up till the 1930s. In 1911 there were just three motor vans in Sydney, compared with 1,303 horse vans. A decade later horses still predominated, with 1,603 horse vans and just 376 motor vans. By 1927, though, these proportions were just about reversed, with 2,016 motor vans but only 379 horse vans. A survey of Sydney traffic in July 1923 revealed that 39.2 percent of vehicle movements were by horse-drawn vehicles, 33.8 percent by car and 27 percent by motor van or lorry.  On that day most people out and about in Sydney were travelling on trams.

model t

Ford Model T. Overland adventurer Francis Birtles and Rex ‘the Wonder Dog’ in the back seat did 5600 Km from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory to Port Phillip Bay in Victoria in 1913. They camped along the way, catching ‘bush tucker’ and using fuel left by Ford, who sponsored the adventure at special dumps along the route . Here outside Tarrant Motors in Melbourne circa 1910 (Powerhouse Museum/SLV)

The introduction of the Model T Ford and the rapid improvement of engine technology during World War I led to the explosion of  car use. From 1911 to 1916 motor vehicle numbers in Australia almost quadrupled. They then more than doubled in the next five years (when markets were interrupted by the War) and quadrupled again to 1926.

American imports dominated the market. In 1917, the very worse year of the War, there were 15,000 cars imported; 10,000 Model T Fords, 2,300 Dodges, 1,500 Buicks and 1,200 other makes.

The Model T was designed with US conditions in mind, these were not so different from Australia’s with muddy or dusty roads and long distances. The Model T had simple, robust components, an austere, sturdy body and high clearances ideal for rural conditions in both countries.

With the growth of the Australian car market, and given high duties on imports, big manufacturers decided to establish plants in Australia during the mid 1920s.


Holden motor body works, Woodville, SA 1928 (State Library of SA)

Ford set up a factory at Geelong in 1925. In 1926 General Motors also established itself in Victoria, at Fishermen’s Bend near Melbourne. General Motors made this a joint venture with Holden’s of Adelaide, thus establishing the distinctively Australian, long-lived marque of General Motors Holden (GMH).

Both Ford and GMH assembled imported chassis at the works and built local bodies to fit on them. Almost immediately, the old timber carriage-building tradition began to die out, as these factories had metal presses. Body designs changed rapidly as metal bodies requiring steel pressings became the norm. Timber was still used for some features but in 1937 the first all-steel car was produced, anticipating the shape of the post-war industry.


Glenelg, a suburban Adelaide Beach, 1922. People came by tram, horse, buggy, bus or car. Suit de riguer, ‘Proclamation Day’ holiday. Driving your car onto the beach is still a weird SA thing to do on some Fleurieu Peninsula beaches (State Library of SA)

During the 1920s, the motor became a feature of everyday life for a large proportion of the population for the first time. In 1920 there was one car for every 55 people in Australia; by 1929 this had increased to one for every eleven people, compared with one car for about every four people in the 1970s and one for every two in 2015.

The figures indicate that in 1920 a car was a rare luxury, but that a decade later it had penetrated most middle class households and was quite widespread. By 1970, most people in Australia who wanted a car enough could have one, although a quarter of all households continued to choose not to have one.

During the crucial decade of the 1920s, car prices fell sharply while wages were rising. A new Chevrolet cost 545 pounds in 1920 but only 210 pounds in 1926. The cars were constantly getting better too; more comfortable and safer – with pneumatic tyres, all-wheel brakes and enclosed bodies making them far more convenient than early models which were only marginally more comfortable than a buggy.


Wentworth Autodrome, Sydney November 1933. L>R #3 Don Shorten, Rajo Ford Spl, #4 Charlie Spurgeon, Fronty Ford Spl and Fred Braitling, Alvis (Ted Hood/State Library of NSW)

‘The twenties saw the growth of motor sport, with speedways mushrooming all over the country and motorists’ organisations running all sorts of bizarre races and trials including ‘top-gear’ trials, where the aim was to go as far as possible without changing out of top gear.

With these activities the car really was starting to replace the horse, not just for transport but in the imagination and human psyche as well. As with the horse (especially the saddle horse), car ownership was an opportunity to demonstrate taste and its absence, affluence and masculinity, while having the practical mobility advantage’.


Photo-montage of the ‘100 Miles Road Race’, the second Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island in March 1928. Winner Capt Arthur Waite in an Austin 7 s/c top left shot three wheeling, #25 Cyril Dickason’s Austin 12 3rd and the Bugatti in the middle the T40 of Arthur Terdich 4th. Bottom right is Bill Williamson’s Riley 9 12th (The Australasian)

This increased use of cars of course required improved roads. Early motorists were rich, influential and had political clout. It soon became clear that motor transport was more than a hobby but an effective means of transport and the roads of the day needed to cater for cars and motorbikes.


Country road, country town road anyway! Liebig Street, Warrnambool, Victoria 1910. (Warrnambool Historical Society)

Most of Australia’s rural roads were in poor shape in the early twentieth century. The best were in New South Wales but even there earthworks were limited and surfaces rough. Victoria, the richest state with the best railways had the worst roads relative to its population and wealth because so much had been invested in its railways. Rural roads’ main transport functions were confined to local needs such as taking produce to the nearest railway station or port.

The beginnings of the motor age changed all that dramatically.

The motor age itself was anticipated by a decade by a new form of transportation which had similar, but more modest requirements than the car. This was the bicycle, which came to Australia in the 1870s and was extremely popular from the 1890. Early bicycles were not cheap, although prices quickly reduced, but they were almost free to run and sufficiently simple for their owners to maintain.

These were big advantages compared to horses. In cities, a bike could be put in a shed needing none of the space, feed and attention required by a horse…


‘Waratah Rovers Bicycle Club’ in tour, Picton NSW October 1900 (SLNSW)

Bikes had two disadvantages over the horse; they demanded human effort and needed good, smooth roads. The human effort factor was and is an advantage. The popularity of cycling increased the pressure on councils to improve the quality of streets, especially in the suburbs where cycling was most popular. At that time, most suburban roads were as bad as rural roads. Most were dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet, many degenerating into quagmires in prolonged wet periods.

Early bikes were cumbersome ‘penny-farthings’, which were harder to mount and every bit as nasty as a horse from which to fall. The development of the safety cycle, essentially the modern design with equal-sized wheels and a chain drive, made cycling safer than riding a saddle horse and far more accessible to women.

‘Cyclists were numerous enough to have political clout and their demands for improved street paving were vociferous and hence the standard of roads especially in the suburbs began to improve’, the ‘Linking the Nation’ report said.


As the Great Depression approached some outrageous innovation was taking place in Australia. The Chamberlain ‘Beetle’ here in Indian engined original form circa 1932 was a spaceframe chassis, FWD, independent front and rear suspension, 2 stroke, 4 cylinder 8 piston supercharged racing car! I wrote about it a while back (Chamberlain Family)

The Great Depression, which seems a good time to end this truncated history of early motoring in Australia, and then World war II affected motoring as much as other activities in the economy. 

The fall in car registrations shows that the Australian middle class felt the impact of the Depression and had to cut back on luxuries, cars an example.

Car registrations in New South Wales fell from a pre-Depression 1929 peak of 170,039 to 144,749 in 1931. Thereafter they recovered, passing the 1929 level in 1935 and peaking again at 207,446 in 1940. Registrations fell again to 172,028 in 1942, and were still at only 188,412 in 1945.

Petrol rationing through the 1940s kept car demand low and as late as 1950 there were still only 269,250 cars on New South Wales roads, less than 100,000 more than the 1929 figure. So, for the twenty years after 1929, the impact of the motor car was actually quite limited’.

That would all change post 1950 as the shackles of the War Years were removed, our economy surged on booming global demand for our products and crops and the availability of consumer credit increased but that is a story for another time…


First successful petrol driven Tarrant, built 1898, sold to DW Chandler in 1899. Top speed circa 30/35 mph. Picture in front of ‘first factory of the company, Bridge Road, South Melbourne’, no such address exists today. Only one of the 16 Tarrants built exists, owned by the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (W Stuart Ross)

Harley Tarrant was one of the pioneers of the early Australian Motor Industry…

This summary of his life, slightly truncated, is from the ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’.

Harley Tarrant (1860-1949), businessman, was born on 6 April 1860 at Clunes, Victoria, son of Joseph Tarrant, miner, and his wife Caroline, née Brownlow, both from Oxford, England. His father owned the Clunes Gazette and later the St Kilda Chronicle and Prahran Chronicle.

After attending Clunes Grammar School, Harley was articled to a firm of civil engineers; he worked as a surveyor on the Nullarbor Plain and from 1884 for the New South Wales Department of Lands. In 1888 he set up his own surveying business in Melbourne and undertook commissions for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works.

His interest in motoring began in this period. In 1897-98, basing his account primarily on overseas journals, he helped to publicize the new motor car in the cycling monthly Austral Wheel. His rural background and surveying experience had made him aware of its potential value in a country of immense distances and relatively few railway lines.

In August 1897 he patented an engine powered by kerosene, a fuel which he declared to be safe, cheap and readily available, whereas electric motors needed recharging stations and steam-driven machines were dangerous and ‘too heavy for rough country roads’. Although his first car was a failure, its kerosene motor proved suitable for such stationary work as pumping water to farm houses. By 1899 he sold his engines as far afield as Western Australia. With larger premises, he also imported cars, beginning in February 1900 with a Benz.


Harley Tarrant at the wheel beside his daughter and wife at the rear. Tarrant 2cyl 8HP won the November 1905, second Melbourne-Sydney ‘Dunlop Reliability Trial’. Car priced at 375 pounds (W Stuart Ross)

Business boomed and the profits enabled Tarrant and his partner in Tarrant Motor & Engineering Co. WH Lewis, to build one of the earliest Australian-made, petrol-driven cars: completed in 1901, it had an imported Benz engine.

Two years later their next machine was 90 per cent locally made, including the engine, and became the prototype for at least eight others, all built—to suit Australian conditions—for endurance rather than speed.

Tarrant’s victory in the two Dunlop reliability trials of 1905 and the success of a Tarrant car in 1906 helped to develop confidence in local manufacturing, but he could not compete with imports produced in larger numbers for a bigger market, especially after Tarrant Motors Pty Ltd acquired the Victorian franchise for Ford in 1907.

tarrant 2

Sir Russell Grimwade’s Tarrant 4 cyl 16HP car pictured in the 1906 ‘Dunlop Reliability Trial’ held over 1000 miles in Victoria. Class winner (W Stuart Ross)

Nevertheless, the firm made three aero engines for the military in 1915 and continued to manufacture motor bodies which, being bulky, were expensive to import. During World War I the company began assembling chassis from imported components; by this time it also had a thriving spare parts, accessories and repair business.

Tarrant played an important role in local motoring affairs. He lobbied on behalf of the Motor Importers’ Association for better traffic regulations and served in 1906-10 on the governing committee of the Automobile Club of Victoria, helping to demonstrate the capabilities of the motor car by organizing and participating in the club’s competitions and tours. In 1904 he had won his event in the club’s first motor race meeting, averaging 26 miles (42 km) per hour.

In 1908 Tarrant had become first commanding officer of the Victorian branch of the part-time Australian Volunteer Automobile Corps and from September 1914, with the rank of colonel, was in charge of Commonwealth military motor transport. The magnitude and urgency of wartime needs made mistakes inevitable. A 1918 royal commission report charged his administration with inefficiency and waste, alleging that the public had been misled by the extent to which Tarrant Motors was favoured with repair contracts. Harley accepted responsibility by resigning, but in 1920 was appointed an M.B.E. (‘Member British Empire’, an order of the British Empire)

After the war Tarrant retired from the business, sufficiently wealthy not to need to work, he freely indulged his passion for camping and overseas travel. In 1932 he came out of retirement to take over production supervision at Ruskin Motor Bodies Pty Ltd, an affiliate of the Tarrant company.

A tall, dignified man with a bushy moustache, he had done much to pioneer and consolidate the first phase of the Australian motor industry. Tarrant died on 25 February 1949 at his Toorak home.

The company was sold in 1950 to the Austin Motor Co (British Motor Corporation).

Photo Credits…

Algernon Darge,  W Stuart Ross, State Library Archives of Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia, NASA, Marcel Poupe, Ted Hood,, Chamberlain Family, Serpolette’s Tricycle


Australian Dictionary of Biography, ‘Linking a Nation: Australia’s Transport and Communications 1788-1970’ Australian Government Dept of the Environment, ‘The Age’ 14 March 1904, ‘The Argus’ 14 March 1904, ‘The Australasian’ 19 March 1904, 7 April 1928, Serpolette’s Tricycle

Tailpiece: Symbolic of the Technology and Progress of the time, Sydney Harbour Bridge nearing completion in 1930…

bridge plane

The 2 planes Charles Ulm’s ‘Southern Sun’ and a Gypsy Moth were added later (Edward Searl/SLNSW)