Nowadays there’s no mystery about motor cars. They infest every road and are driven with varying degrees of competence by teenagers and grandmothers. When it comes to buying a car, schoolboys can usually give their fathers all the performance figures of the leading makes but back at the dawn of motoring things were very different indeed.

Between fifty and sixty years ago the tempo of Australian life was undergoing a radical change. The horseless carriage had ceased to be a mere curiosity and was developing into a status symbol. Coachhouses were being turned into garages, hay and chaff were giving way to oil and petrol, as chauffeurs in dustcoats and goggles chugged about the streets in massive, backfiring cars with great gear levers and brake handles on the outside of their bodywork. The motor age had levers and brake handles on the outside of their bodywork. The motor age had arrived – but there were very few who knew much about cars. The biggest problem confronting a man buying his first car was where to get advice on the most suitable machine. To meet this need a Sydney newspaper published the first motoring columns, which makes fascinating reading in our space age.

Intending buyers of a horseless carriage were warned that no single make was ideal for the whole of New South Wales because country roads were often full of pot holes and cart ruts. Then followed some advice that is still good today – “do not take your wife with you when selecting the automobile or you may find yourself choosing a machine for the shape of its radiator and bonnet”. He might have added its colour, the pattern of its upholstery or the note of its big brass bulb horn!

Those early cars were not intended for long journeys: you bought a vehicle adapted to your own district. When you visited a car dealer you were encouraged to tell him the nature of the roads and the gradient of the hills in your neighbourhood.  “Never buy a car of less than four cylinders” was the golden rule “. . . and insist upon magneto ignition”. No motorist in his right mind would consider battery ignition alone, especially if he lived in a country district where it was practically impossible to get a battery recharged. The new motorist was told to look underneath the car before he bought it and make sure that all the machinery was enclosed against dust, sand, stones and water splashes. Then there was the matter of the radiator – “examine the radiator and ensure that it is large enough for  this climate. European radiators will often boil in the Australian sun and you will find yourself adding water at every town and village”. There was so much to be learned by horsemen buying their first car – “have the carburettor explained to you by an expert” . . . “make a special study of the car’s springs and their ground clearance to make certain that the machine will negotiate the ruts of your district” and “money should not be skimped on tyres because narrow pneumatics are apt to get caught in tramlines”. It is ovious that car dealers were looked upon as mere hucksters – “don’t bother with a guarantee because it is not worth the paper it is written on; the terms can be so easily evaded by dealers”. 

Yes, choosing one’s first car was a fearsome business in those pioneering days. Now we have just as much trouble buying a horse! 

Philip Geeves

(Originally printed in the June 1968 newsletter of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.)



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