1890 - 1912

Chapter 1

The automobile arrives in South Australia

This is not a history of the motor car in South Australia but of a company which sells and services it. Even so, something needs to be said about the development of motoring in the State in general, for companies such as the one whose history this book describes played their part in the early story of the motor trade in South Australia.

This is not a history of the motor car in South Australia but of a company which sells and services it. Even so, something needs to be said about the development of motoring in the State in general, for companies such as the one whose history this book describes played their part in the early story of the motor trade in South Australia. In fact when Behrens & Marshall, as the Maughan Thiem company was first called, made its appearance it was only some fourteen years since motor vehicles had made a tentative and exploratory appearance in the state.

World developments in motor travel began to catch up with South Australia in the latter half of the 1890s in two nearly simultaneous ways. On the one hand a few pioneers produced their own experimental automobiles, and on the other hand some began to order vehicles from overseas. Naturally enough, the local products of that time were of great importance and interest to their creators and those associated with them, but it was to be some time before cars were produced commercially in South Australia, and these early experimental models had little effect on early motorised transport.

The imported vehicles came in far greater numbers and were more important to the community of that time and, incidentally, for the fortunes of those who sold and serviced them.

It is usually agreed that the honour of being South Australia’s first car builder belongs to David Shearer of Mannum, a maker and repairer of agricultural machinery. By the 1890s he was working on the production of a steam-powered vehicle which subsequently performed well for some years between Mannum and Adelaide. It was said to be capable of developing 20 horsepower, and on a trial run in June 1899 it carried six people as well as its supply of firewood and water. While Shearer was producing his steam car Vivian Lewis of the Lewis Cycle Works, his foreman T.P. O’Grady, and another employee Murray Aunger were working on an internal combustion engine in their factory in McHenry Street. They were assisted by the fact that a Mademoiselle Serpollet, a relative of the French family of motor manufacturers, brought to Adelaide a petrol-driven Gladiator tricycle to exhibit on 30 May 1898 during a race meeting at the Jubilee Oval run by the Ariel Cycling Club. The machine proved to be temperamental before its public and was taken for overhaul to the Lewis Cycle Works, which had the South Australian agency for Gladiator cycles. This gave Lewis, O’Grady and Aunger the opportunity to examine the internal combustion engine, and they in turn produced a small 3-horsepower air-cooled engine which was fitted to one of the tandems used as a pacing machine on the race tracks. It was fuelled by kerosene with tube ignition; later O’Grady converted it to petrol and electrical ignition. The modified engine was mounted on bodywork made by Duncan & Fraser, and the result was a small four­ wheeled vehicle, chain driven and guided by means of a steering wheel. The early versions of both the Shearer and the Lewis vehicles were tested on South Australian roads about 1898, and claims are made that each was first actually on the road. In the following four or five years a few more local products appeared on the scene and rendered fair service to their inventive owners.

While some produced their own horseless buggies others began looking to more established sources overseas. About the time that Shearer and Lewis were testing their vehicles Mr Gordon Ayers ordered from England a Dechamp Victoria and Dr A.H. Gault an American two­cylinder New Orleans. Ayers’ car was imported for him by Vivian Lewis, who assembled it in his factory and shortly afterwards imported a Gladiator car for Mr Bertie Barr-Smith. Others followed, and in September 1903 fifteen motorists formed the Automobile and Motor Cycling Club of South Australia, later to become the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia. In 1905 it already had a membership of 79, which rose to 95 at its meeting on 16 October of that year. In all they owned some 25 different makes of car. The most popular was the Oldsmobile, of which there were probably 45, then the De Dion numbering 25 and the Darracq 18. Some of these vehicles were put through their paces in various trials and endurance tests, as of course were their drivers. In April 1903 B. Thomson and A. Day, in a 6-horsepower De Dion Bouton, took four days to complete the first recorded motor trip from Adelaide to Melbourne. In 1905 a Darracq won a hill-climbing contest on the Norton Summit road at an average of 28.4 miles per hour.

The most sensational event occurred in 1908, when H.H. Dutton and H.M. Aunger spent June to August crossing Australia from Adelaide to Port Darwin in a 25-horsepower Talbot.

In the first decade or so imported automobiles rapidly multiplied on South Australian roads. By September 1905 the number stood at about 120, in 1907 about 306 cars were registered and 429 in 1908; in 1910 the number was 1376, by June 1913 it was 3313 and by 1916 it had risen to 7400. The motor car was becoming a permanent and more obvious aspect of the South Australian way of life, and its debut met with a rather mixed reception.

In the main coachbuilders, wheelwrights, and others who catered for horse-drawn traffic had little difficulty in adjusting to this new phenomenon. The more far-sighted carriage builders found it simple to apply their skills to the automobile body, even though for a time some had good reason to believe that the motor car was a toy or a luxury which would never entirely replace the horse. And, of course, they had plenty of time in which to adjust. Even as late as May 1913 the motoring columnist of The Mail still found it pertinent, when commenting on the delivery of the fourth Commer lorry to the Municipal Tramways Trust by Eyes & Crowle, to add: ‘Surely this is another evidence of the passing of the horse! As a matter of fact, I believe the stables which formerly housed the horses used by the Trust are now being converted into a garage for the motor lorries.’ The following year the same paper found it newsworthy to comment again on the passing of the horse. The sub-headings read: ‘Motor Cars Becoming Universal. Fewer Horses and a Falling Chaff Bill.’ While horses were gradually yielding ground to the car, coachbuilders cashed in on the new market. By 1910 Holden & Frost, founded by J.A. Holden as a leather business in 1856, added to their illustrated catalogue a supplement for motor car owners and soon afterwards branched out into building bodies for cars and motor cycle side-cars. The Adelaide firm Duncan & Fraser, which was established in 1865 as a coachbuilding business, also found a new market in the car. The firm provided the body for Vivian Lewis’ little car and moved into the business of importing car chassis. For a time they had most of the motor business to themselves when they had the agency for the Oldsmobile, to which they added the Argyll and the Standard. In the firm’s 1919 publication Duncan & Fraser claimed to have been the first to have put the petrol-driven motor-car on a commercial basis in South Australia, and they certainly justified this claim by securing the agency for the Model T Ford car, for which they provided the bodies. So profitable was the automobile business that by 1919 Duncan & Fraser abandoned coachbuilding. The advent of the car gave firms such as these very little to complain about. They had time in which to accept the new reality, and they did so with obvious success. So, too, did cycle stores such as Vivian Lewis’ Cycle Works, which secured the agency for De Dion cars and later for other makes such as Talbot, Star and Renault; or Schumacher & Co, which introduced the Humber and Humberette.

The public at large, however, was far from unanimous in its reception of the motor car. Some welcomed it, others were indignant and apprehensive. When a Motor Traffic Regulation Act was introduced into the South Australian Parliament in 1904 both sides took up the cudgels and continued to wield them when an amending Act Relating To Motor Vehicles was introduced in 1907. In speaking to the 1904 Bill Charles Tucker complained that motorists ‘were simply running amuck’ with their speeding and reckless driving. His fellow member for Alexandra, Alexander McDonald, spoke of the large number of ladies in country districts who rode horses but were now afraid to venture out on horseback for fear of meeting motor cars. Stories of reckless driving, terrified horses, accidents and hair-raising escapes were recounted by others. The Premier and Chief Secretary, John Greely Jenkins, was less alarmed at prospects for the future. A year or two ago, he conceded, horses had been frightened by cars on the road he most frequently travelled, but now it was rare to see a horse shy. Other members of the House regarded the car as a sign of progress and were indignant at the suggested limit of ten miles an hour in the city. Peter Allen of Wallaroo said that the State would never progress if the rate of speed were so regulated that the slowest individual in the city could get out of the way of motors. Others wanted to know how a policeman standing at a street corner could judge the speed of a car with sufficient accuracy to gain a fair conviction. Would he perhaps be given a car and break the speed limit himself so as to keep up with the speeding motorist? Attempts were made to persuade the House that the car was safer and more amenable to control than was the horse and that accidents involving horses were far more frequent than those involving cars. Councillor J.R. Baker, a member of the Automobile Club and later its president, wrote in the press an article commenting caustically about ‘the lover of horses’ who thought the motorist had no right to the road at all, should stop his car for every horse, and apologise for his existence. There was no speed limit for horses, wrote Baker: and who would be prepared to say that the equine species would shy at a motor doing fifteen miles an hour and laugh at one going at ten? But the lovers of horses were not to be won over. In December 1907 Sir John Downer expressed the prejudice of many when he said that motor cars were nothing else than infernal machines which travelled the roads at any speed from ten to sixty miles an hour, did an enormous amount of damage to the highways, and committed an indescribable nuisance to people who were not rich enough to indulge in this intolerable form of amusement. In due course regulations under the Motor Traffic Regulation Act. 1904, were gazetted. Within the inner city of Adelaide the speed limit was set at 10 miles per hour and 4 miles per hour at intersections, and in Rundle and Hindley Street between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturdays the limit was 3 miles an hour. In specified metropolitan municipalities the limit was 15 miles an hour, and for the rest of the State 30 miles an hour.

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Further, if a driver left his car in the city he had to take precautions against its being started in his absence; to all intents and purposes the car could not be left unattended.

These regulations were modified in later years, but motorists were and remained indignant at the limits placed on their freedom which seemed to them to be unrealistic and discriminatory. For a time little was done to placate them. Police traps were set over distances of a quarter of a mile over which motorists were timed by police using stop watches, and in due course the journal of the Automobile Club and the newspapers advised their readers where police had set traps to catch the unwary. Then technology came to the aid of the police; it was reported in August 1913 that the latest mode of trapping motorists in the busy streets was by plain clothes detectives carrying speedometers on push bicycles. Car owners saw all this as a form of persecution, and it took a long time for hostility between motorists and the authorities to subside into a degree of mutual respect. In time, of course, this happened. The number of motorists steadily increased and infiltrated parliaments and city councils. Nor, in spite of Sir John Downer’s opinion, were they merely the rich indulging in an intolerable form of amusement. By 1910 the 1376 cars registered in South Australia were owned in the main by farmers, doctors, flour millers, wine growers, stock agents, dentists, solicitors and other professional and business people. Country centres such as Kadina, Maitland and Mount Gambier had their fair share of the infernal machines. The motoring public was rapidly including the upper and middle classes of society whose views, channelled through the Automobile Club, were bound in the long run to get some hearing.

They in turn gradually accepted the need for controls, even if they continued to protest when they seemed archaic or unnecessary.

By 1914, two years after the establishment of Behrens & Marshall, the swelling number of motorists in the State owned between them no less than 232 different makes of car. Of these, the makes with the highest number registered in South Australia were:

Car Make #
Ford 1142
De Dion 285
Talbot 245
Humber 202
Argyll 180
Overland 145
Star 139
Flanders 134
I.H.C. 115
Oldsmobile 111
Studebaker 103

These figures make it quite obvious that by 1914 the car most often seen on South Australian roads was the Model T Ford, the first Ford marketed in Australia.

Henry Ford had said, ‘I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be so low in price that no man will be unable to own one.’

The introduction of the Model T on 1 October 1908 came near to fulfilling his desire. On 10 December 1915 the millionth Ford car was built, and six years or so before that date the Model T Ford had come to Australia and to many parts of the world.

The Model T appeared in South Australia in 1909, and its impact on motor registration figures is apparent. In 1908 cars registered in South Australia totalled 429; in 1910 the figure was 1376. This flimsy-looking 20 horsepower vehicle, half the weight and about half the price of most other makes, found a ready market. The Ford Motor Company of Canada Limited, incorporated 17 August 1904, had engaged the firm Markt & Hammacher to handle its exports, and the firm’s agents travelled the British Empire promoting the Ford car. Australia and other dominions quickly developed into important markets. When production of the Model T ended in May 1927 world-wide sales totalled well over 15 million vehicles.

The rapid spread of the popular ‘Tin Lizzie’ was followed almost as quickly by the repetition of Ford jokes. Behrens & Marshall, under which name Maughan Thiem first traded, decided to collect some of the prevalent Ford jokes as an advertising stunt, presumably on the principle of joining what cannot be fought. In response to popular demand the firm had them printed in 1916 in an advertising booklet ‘Fun and Fancy about Ford’. The reader was assured in the foreword that the jokes caused such whole-souled laughter that not even the staunchest Ford enthusiast would be offended. Fashions in humour change and today the jokes are hardly likely to produce much laughter, whole-souled or otherwise; but a couple of the jokes bear repetition, if only for their historical interest. One, obviously from across the Atlantic, told of the doctor who drove up to the general store in his new Ford one cold day in December, jumped out quickly, and threw a blanket over the car to keep the engine warm for re­ starting. A small boy standing near shouted, ‘No use covering it up, Doc, I saw what it is.’ Another was about the family suffering from ptomaine poisoning after being at a picnic. When the doctor asked if they had eaten something which had been left standing in a tin they realised the source of their trouble. The lunch basket had been left standing all day in their Ford car.

The booklet also repeated the rumour that with every Ford sold in 1917 two grey squirrels would be given away free. They had been specially trained to run along behind the machine and gather up the nuts as they dropped off.

The public jested about the Tin Lizzie but continued to buy it in large numbers, and firms selling and servicing it flourished on the proceeds. The coachbuilders Duncan & Fraser, which had added motor importing to its business, became agent for the Ford shortly after the first appearance of the Model T. The firm did a very brisk trade. In July 1913 in one fortnight 97 Fords arrived in Adelaide, all of which had been ordered before arrival, and in the twelve months to May 1916 Fords registered in the State numbered 573 while all other makes combined totalled 827.

The Maughan Thiem company under its earlier name, came into existence on the crest of this Ford wave. The staff of Duncan & Fraser included two young men who were to be of great importance to the new firm. One was an engineer and the other a clerk; and, apart from the fact that they both worked for the State’s Ford distributor, they shared a common interest in working on motor cycle engines. In July 1912 the engineer, Hubert Andrew Behrens, left to form his own business. The clerk, Alfred Ross Thiem, remained with Duncan & Fraser for a few months longer, although from the beginning he planned to join Behrens. The new partnership inherited their sound knowledge of the Ford and of the firm which sold it.