The Beginning of the Motor Industry in Australia

It is very fitting that my Grandfather, Arthur Edwin Wood begins this story with his own words:

“Evolution of the Motor Industry and the Man Behind the Wheel…This is the story of a beginning – the beginning of a new era in Australian history. It is the story of the first petrol engine motor car ever to be manufactured in Australia entirely from Australian parts. This is also the story of the man behind the wheel, Mr George Winter Wood, who can without fear of contradiction, claim to be the pioneer of the Australian Motor Industry.

The story begins in a small workshop in Leichhardt, Sydney, where Mr Wood was busy constructing a motorcycle which, in 1896, became an outstanding success. This encouraged him to venture further afield and finally, in 1900, he introduced the “Australis” car to the Sydney roads.

The “Australis” was a single-cylinder, petrol engine motor car manufactured from all Australian parts.

It is fitting that this be a tribute to George Winter Wood and those who followed him in fostering Australia’s motor industry.

From an extract, The Automotive Industry Woman’s Day with Woman April 6, 1964:

“It is not generally known that when the automotive industry was in its infancy at the turn of the century, Australian designers were the equal of any in the world.

As far back as 1895, an Australian engineer, Mr G.W. Wood, helped by his father, produced the first completely Australian-made petrol-driven engine.

It is interesting to note that the first recorded attempt to produce a motor that would drive a bicycle was made by Mr Knight Eaton in 1893. It was unsuccessful. Then Mr Charles Highland of Sydney experimented in fitting imported engines to existing tricycles and bicycles as early as 1894. He too failed.

Mr G.W.Wood joined Mr Highland and they continued to experiment, without success.

According to ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ May 4th 1905, the honour of producing the first motorcycle, first motor, fore-car and tri-car belongs to Mr George Winter Wood and George Wood of Leichhardt. They were engineers and cycle makers and they studied exhaustively the theoretical side of the question before they decided to buy a set of engine castings. The result was an engine perfect in every detail, with every part machined by Mr Wood and his father. In 1895 the engineers fitted the engine to the back of the rear wheel of a bicycle. A year later, in 1896, they placed the engine immediately in front of the rear wheel and this was totally successful. Australia’s first Australian-made motor vehicle had become a reality.

The next step was a vehicle called the fore-car, which could carry one passenger, in 1897.

In 1889 Mr Wood made another motorcycle, possibly the first Australian-made motor vehicle sold, and it was still running in 1905 in Tenterfield, NSW. During the same year, he turned his attention to the tri-car which was a complete success.

Australis Motors was the name of the company Mr Wood formed in 1893, though he didn’t register the name until some years later. This was Australia’s first motor company.

Mr Wood produced Australia’s first motor car for a road test in July 1900, having begun production in 1899.

By 1905, the motor industry was becoming firmly established in Australia and, in NSW alone, there were 500 cars and more than 1,000 motor cycles. There were 250 cars in Sydney and 500 motorcycles.

Australian engineers, for some reason – possibly the lack of money – did not persevere with the production of motor cars and the country relied on imported vehicles. Big factories were set up in Australia by overseas manufacturers, but were only to assemble cars. It was not until 1948, when General Motors Holden opened its plant that Australia produced a wholly Australian car.

Since then, the Australian motor industry has made rapid strides and today Australian business “know-how” and efficiency and Australian tradesmen supply the bulk of Australia’s motoring requirements at a popular price.”

As the writer of this collection, I want to express my thoughts on the motor industry today….

The writer of the Woman’s Day editorial in 1964 certainly could not have foreseen what was to become of the industry. The motor industry in Australia has been running on empty since 2017. It is sad to see car manufacturing come to a close after such an innovative and defining period in Australia’s history. With competition from importers, free trade agreements with countries such as Japan and South Korea, and an inability of local manufacturers to adapt to changing customer preferences, I guess it was inevitable that manufacturing companies such as Toyota, GM Holden and Ford were to close their doors.

So many passionate inventors in our past, spent their time experimenting, designing, creating and producing all forms of transport to move us all around with ease and with very little in their budgets. Hats off to all those who kick-started the motor industry in Australia.

So, here is where the story of George Wood and George Winter Wood and their journey as engineers and inventors begins. Together they designed and manufactured bicycles, motorcycles, fore-cars, tri-cars, carburettors, the first Australian petrol engine and the “Australis Car”.

They were certainly pioneers of the motor industry in Australia.

NOTE: This is one of the chapters in a self-published family history book – Road to Australis: The Journey of George Wood and George Winter Wood – by Julie Graham, great granddaughter of George Winter Wood, and Elizabeth Porter (Wood), his granddaughter. Elizabeth grew up in Wilga Street, Concord and collated the majority of her family’s history. The family has presented us with a copy of the book for our archives and has given us permission to reproduce extracts, for which we thank them.

The Powerhouse Museum has the Australia engine in its collection at the Castle Hill Discovery Centre.


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