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The emerging automobile industry

Services for motorists

Tariffs aid and direct growth

Motor sport

The effect of war

Road safety

The secondary industries Commission

Emergency service vehicles

Australian manufacture

Post Office transport

Heavy haulage

Public transport

Farm machinery

VIP transport


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Back to Transport

The emerging automobile industry

Prior to Federation in 1901, Australian transportation relied on animal powered vehicles. On overland routes horse drawn vehicles were the main form of transport for travel, commerce and communication. Many overland routes were mapped with the purpose of connecting the population to train lines. Camel trains operated in the barren and desert areas, while bullock teams teams were used for heavy haulage.

The benefits to a large country of reliable, fast and affordable mechanical transport, however, were obvious as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Numerous engineering, coach building, bicycle and upholstery businesses moved into the early development of the Australian motor vehicle industry.

Experimental steam and oil vehicles date back to 1880, but a clever marketing stunt put Australian motor car engineering into the world spotlight. The road test of the Australian designed and manufactured �Pioneer�, driven by Victorian Governor Lord Brassey, was published in the Scientific American in 1897. The article claimed that Australia could become a world leader in vehicle manufacturing.

Over the next few years Australian innovators created numerous cycle-cars and experimental vehicles, including the prototype �Sutton� of 1899, which boasted front-wheel drive and four-wheel steering.

The proportion of local versus imported components has always been an issue in Australian motor vehicle manufacture. In the early part of the twentieth century, many motor vehicles were made from a combination of imported and local parts. Makes such as the Nielson, Australis and Tarrant sought, unsuccessfully, to attract buyers by advertising the amount of local content. Later, more successful attempts include the Australian Four and Six, and the Summit.

Tariffs, aid and growth of the new industry

Eager to promote the establishment of a local motor manufacturing industry, the newly formed Federal government began using its tariff powers to direct the emerging industry. The Royal Commission on Customs and Excise Tariffs (1904 to 1907) presented a report on motor vehicle tariffs. The report, Number 32, �Vehicles and vehicle parts, bicycle and bicycle parts, motor cars, motor lorries, traction engines, perambulators, go-carts, and children's iron tricycles� recommended a standard tariff of 25 per cent on cars, trucks and traction engines, but no tariff on components such as chassis, engines, etc.

Records of the Tariff Board, including the Tariff Legislation History Cards show the evolution of tariffs on vehicles and components.

First Model Ford shipped to Melbourne in 1904, NAA: A6180 8/8/84/4

First Model Ford shipped to Melbourne in 1904
NAA: A6180 8/8/84/4

By 1913, the motor vehicle industry employed about 13,000 workers. In 1917 Holden began motor body manufacture, making bodies for a variety of American and British vehicles. In 1921 the Ford Motor Company began assembling their own motor cars in Australia, and in 1925 established a chassis and body plant. In 1924 General Motors (GM) granted Holden exclusive rights to build GM cars and, in 1926, Holden built a chassis assembly plant.

This period of expansion saw employment in the industry grow to 27,000 by 1928. Many of these workers were employed in the five major body building firms � Holden and Richards in Adelaide, Smith & Waddington in Sydney, and Ford and the Melbourne Motor Body Works (later Ruskin) in Melbourne.

The Great Depression had a tragic effect on many small manufacturing concerns. Even the largest suffered � Holden was saved only by its sale to General Motors in 1931.

Australian body builders performed amazing engineering and design feats. Despite low production numbers, they were able to provide the tooling required for annual American model changes. They were also able to produce unique models, such as the Utility. One example of Australian engineering ability occurred in 1937 when General Motors considered introducing all steel bodies to their range of Australian cars. In GM�s opinion, Australian manufacturers did not have the technology or expertise necessary to produce all steel bodies, and suggested that Holden import fully assembled vehicles. In fact, Holden had been producing all steel Chrysler and Plymouth bodies in Australia since 1935.

Casual talk of full Australian car manufacture was beginning to be raised by Prime Minister Bruce in 1927. In 1930, the Scullin government introduced tariffs on imported motor vehicle mechanical parts, such as gears, axles, bearings and motor parts. By 1937 nearly half the factory cost of motor vehicles in Australia was attributable to local content; by 1939, 40 per cent of replacement parts were manufactured locally.

In December 1939, the government entered into an agreement with Australian Consolidated Industries (ACI) for the production of vehicles, based on 1938 legislation enabling the payment of a bounty on the production of each engine and protection from foreign-owned competition. The Motor Vehicles Agreement Act 1940 gave ACI practically exclusive rights to manufacture chassis and engines in Australia. The combined effect of the Motor Vehicles Agreement Act and the Bounty Act was to prohibit companies with less than two-thirds Australian ownership from building engines or chassis. Due to the outbreak of the World War ll, however, ACI�s production never eventuated.

The effect of war

During the war the government, through the Department of War Organization of Industry and the Department of Munitions, called on local manufacturing industries, including the motor vehicle industry. The Departments� powers under National Security Regulations included the control over materials, manpower, resources and organisation of production to secure the maximum war effort. Within the Department of Munitions, the Automotive Engineering Panel was responsible for investigating and providing advice on the production of motor vehicles (such as armoured fighting vehicles) required for defence.

Existing industries participated in the manufacture of munitions, machine tools, machinery, instruments, aircraft and military vehicles. Government contracts allowed for the establishment of more modern and larger foundries and factories. Increased manufacturing capacity and defence demands for state-of-the-art equipment had positive effects on the industry. The quest for technology, experience and innovation provided a modern and efficient industry, ready for the return to civilian manufacture after the war.

The Secondary Industries Commission

Before the war ended, the government recognised the need to assist industry to move from wartime production to civilian production. The Secondary Industries Commission within the Department of Post-War Reconstruction had, among its functions, the responsibility to:

  • investigate industries to determine possible post-war strategies, such as assistance;
  • assist in the transition of industry from war to peace production;
  • dispose of surplus government-owned manufacturing facilities, such as munitions factories; and
  • encourage the establishment or expansion of particular industries.

The Commission was instrumental in having the ACI Agreement and the Bounty Act repealed, allowing foreign-owned companies to establish chassis and engine works, and paving the way for the construction of complete vehicles.

The Department of Post-War Reconstruction wrote to every known manufacturer and assembler of motor vehicles and motor vehicle components, seeking to establish the state of their development, their plans for future production and their desires for government assistance. The Department was prepared to offer financial assistance and tariff protection to assist a company to manufacture entire vehicles in Australia. The replies and the Commission�s deliberations on them can be found in files held by the National Archives.

Five proposals for the manufacture of complete cars were received.

  • Ford (US) proposed to produce a wide range of cars and light trucks based around the Ford V8 engine. Ford sought specific tariff protection, protection against domestic competition and some financial assistance to establish operations in Australia. It proposed to generate capital with a public share float that would have placed 40�49% ownership in Australian hands. Although Ford�s proposal was the government�s first choice, its major drawback was the requirement for a very high level of direct assistance.
  • Chrysler-Dodge (US) proposed to establish a company wholly owned in Australia, but supported by access to Chrysler corporation design, research and development. The company proposed to manufacture Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and De Soto cars, and Dodge and Fargo trucks under license from Chrysler Corporation (US).
  • The Rootes group (UK), makers of Hillman, Sunbeam, Singer, Humber and Talbot cars and Commer and Karrier commercial vehicles, proposed to establish a manufacturing plant for British small and medium passenger cars and truck chassis.
  • Lord Nuffield, head of the Nuffield group (UK), makers of Morris, proposed to establish an assembly plant and body building facility for British manufactured vehicles, and to gradually increase local content to the point of complete vehicle manufacture.
  • General Motors-Holden informed the Department of Post-war Reconstruction that it was already well advanced with designing a car for manufacture in Australia. Holden indicated it would proceed regardless of the outcome of the government�s investigation and tender process, and argued for equal treatment in respect of any tariff concessions available to any other manufacturer. Some concessions in relation to import duties were also sought, together with an undertaking that the government would not enter the vehicle manufacturing business itself.

The Cabinet decided to support both the Holden and Ford proposals, though Ford would be offered less assistance than requested. With government support, it was hoped that 45,000 vehicles would be manufactured in Australia each year to supply an estimated market of 75,000.

Although Cabinet identified two major drawbacks to the Holden proposal � a limited range of vehicles and uncertainty in the plan � the low requirement for government assistance made it attractive. The major drawback of Ford�s plan was the requirement for a high level of assistance.

The government considered the Rootes and Chrysler proposals �somewhat nebulous�, with no time frame or guarantee of substantial local content. They also rejected the Nuffield proposal as it was initially only for the establishment of body building facilities, with no guarantee of full manufacture.

The Cabinet made a counter offer to Ford, sent by Prime Minister Chifley, outlining the assistance the government was prepared to offer. Ford rejected the government�s offer in 1946 and decided to reduce the pace of its expansion into full scale manufacture.

Australian manufacture

Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley, at the launching of the first mass-produced Australian car at the General Motors-Holden factory, Fisherman's Bend, Melbourne, 1948 NAA: A1200, L84254

Prime Minister of Australia, Ben Chifley, at the launching of the first mass-produced Australian car at the General Motors-Holden factory, Fisherman's Bend, Melbourne, 1948
NAA: A1200, L84254

General Motors-Holden manufacture of complete vehicles began in 1948, and the Holden soon dominated the market. By the 1950s the car was well established in the capital cities.

Australian�s love of the larger car, partly attributable to the expanse of the country, has driven the motor industry. Numerous attempts to manufacture small �economy� cars throughout the 1950s and 1960s failed, including production by Sir Lawrence Hartnett of the �Hartnett� and later the more successful Lloyd-Hartnett. Production of smaller cars was mostly left to the British, but Japanese imports began to have a major impact in the 1960s, resulting in the assembly and then manufacture of Japanese cars in Australia.

Holden, together with Ford, Chrysler and the British Motor Company (BMC) dominated the market from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Click on the links below to see some of the locally manufactured vehicles from this period.

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British Motor Company

From the 1960s to the 1980s numerous motor vehicle producers established production or assembly plants in Australia, including Toyota, Volkswagen, Datsun/Nissan and Mercedes.

Heavy haulage

Traffic at the Sydney Harbour Bridge tollway, 1959 NAA: A1200, L32701

Traffic at the Sydney Harbour Bridge tollway, 1959
NAA: A1200, L32701

Development depends on transport, and some unique methods were used in Australia. Road trains � articulated lorries where the prime mover pulls two or more trailers � used in the outback are seldom seen elsewhere. The lack of rail transport in many areas means that heavy haulage is left to these behemoths of the road.

Similarly, the Thornycroft Antars used by the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SMHEA) were the biggest available at the time. These were used in tandem to haul the 120-ton transformers, the drivers communicating gear changes by intercom. The mighty Antar was originally designed for mining and oil field work. The SMHEA imported three of these enormous vehicles.

Farm machinery

This advertisement for the Chamberlain Type 40K tractor is in a Prime Minister’s Department file about the Australian manufacture of tractors, NAA: A462, 302/5/2

This advertisement for the Chamberlain Type 40K tractor is in a Prime Minister�s Department file about the Australian manufacture of tractors
NAA: A462, 302/5/2

The manufacture of farm machinery in Australia has a long history. The unique environment meant that many imported farm tools were unsuitable. Australian innovations such as the �stump-jumping� plough began an industry based on satisfying the demands of Australian rural industries.

As with motor vehicles, the government wanted to encourage the manufacture of farm machinery, particularly tractors. The Tractor Bounty Act 1939 allowed for a bounty of �72 for each tractor fully manufactured in Australia. After the war, manufacturers such as Kelly & Lewis, International Harvester and the Australian family-owned business, Chamberlain, began moving toward Australian manufacture.

By 1950, Chamberlain was producing six tractors per day, and employed approximately 1000 at its Western Australia factory. Increased imported competition and the relaxation of controls on the dollar resulted in Chamberlain merging with John Deere.

To see the records about farm machinery follow these links:


Although Government interest in motorcycles did not surface formally until the 1976 inquiry of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Road Safety into �Motorcycle and Bicycle Safety�, motorbikes have caught the imagination of the Australian public since their invention. Motorbike clubs and races are an important part of Australia�s motoring scene. Official use by the Post Office and police, make motorcycles a part of everyday life.

For more information about motorcycles see:


Advertisement for Chevrolet, 1926, NAA: A458, T374/1

Advertisement for Chevrolet, 1926, NAA: A458, T374/1

The Archives holds a variety of advertisements for motor vehicles. Many of these form part of our copyright collection, in series A1336 and A1861.

In 1926 the sales manager for Chevrolet in Australia wrote to the Secretary of the Prime Minister�s Department in Melbourne asking that he draw to the attention of departmental officers �the outstanding features of the Chevrolet Car�, priced at just �195. Anticipating the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra the following year, the sales manager wrote �We understand that quite a number of the Officers of your department will be transferring their home to Canberra in the near future. We feel that in making this change many of the Officers � will feel the need of a motor car for the use of themselves and families when located in Canberra�. With his letter he enclosed a catalogue giving the car�s specifications. The catalogue was circulated to all officers, but there is no indication whether it resulted in any sales.

Follow the links below to other pre-war advertisements and brochures:

Services for motorists

Cover of The Motor Car magazine 1919, NAA: A1336, 8091

Cover of The Motor Car magazine 1919, NAA: A1336, 8091

In the 1920s, a profusion of oil companies selling various brands of fuel appeared. To entice business, some turned to additional services. Popular at the time were tour maps and maintenance guides [A1336, 19209]. Clubs and associations also began to emerge, offering motoring advice and support. Motor magazines soon followed, reporting on motoring feats and advances.

View some of the contents [A1336, 8091] from this 1919 publication, The Motor Car.

Motor sport

Motor sport was well established in Australia by the 1920s, but gained national attention with the RedeX trials of the 1950s. For a glimpse at the past of Australian motor racing, follow the links below.

Road safety

Drawing for a poster 'You Shall Not Kill! High Speed can be Deadly', NAA: A1861, 7601

Drawing for a poster 'You Shall Not Kill! High Speed can be Deadly', NAA: A1861, 7601

With the dangers of driving readily apparent, road safety began to feature in the public eye. The National Archives holds road safety warnings and messages in our copyright collection, including posters, songs, board games and car bumper stickers. The Australian Road Safety Council was established in 1947 as part of the Australian Transport Council. A set of road safety posters is held in our Sydney office. Minutes of meetings of the Council are held in our Victorian office. In 1972 Australia led the way in vehicle safety as the first highly motorised country to introduce compulsory seat belts in cars.

Search records for:

Emergency services

Police, fire and ambulance vehicles are often custom built or may be modified versions of regular vehicles. Some emergency vehicles, however, are more standard � recognisable only by the lights, sirens and insignia. The types of vehicles used vary across regions due to environmental differences and the availability of local specialist body builders. Follow the links below to see some of the vehicles used.

  • Police motorcycle [A1200, L26695]
  • Police patrol car [A1200, L51152]
  • Police patrol car [A6180, 20/5/75/50]
  • Fire brigade, Darwin [A1500, K3088]
  • Bush fire brigade, Monaro Highway [A6135, K28/7/75/53]
  • Early Canberra ambulance [A3560, 17]
  • Tasmanian mobile x-ray unit [A1200, L441]
  • Bega District Ambulance Station [A1200, L39418 ]
  • Specially equipped heart ambulance, Perth [A1200, L81106]

Post Office transport

The Post Office used all manner of transport to deliver mail, depending on the volume, distance and remoteness of the address. Some examples of Post Office transport are:

  • Horse [C4076, HN261]
  • Sulky [C4076, N983]
  • Passenger coach [C4076, HN852]
  • Motor lorry [C4076, N7255/2]
  • Camels helping pull motor lorry [C4076, HN186]
  • BSA motorbikes [C4076, HN81]
  • Chevrolet van [C4076, N957a] and utility [C4076, N841b ]
  • Pantechnicon [C4076, N3143b]

These and many more images can be found in the master set of Post Office photographs, dating from 1901.

Public transport

Urban and interstate bus transport has been a feature of Australia since the emergence of motor vehicles. Originally buses were made by using custom built bodies on commercial vehicle chassis. Some were based on passenger vehicles. In the 1950s, purpose built vehicles became more common.

Taxi firms made use of popular passenger vehicles. Companies in major cities are renowned for their colourful paintwork, used to distinguish them from their competitors. Colour schemes, logos and slogans were copyrighted. The links below give some examples of these from our copyright holdings.

VIP transport

Traditionally, vehicles for visiting heads of state are English limousines � Rolls Royce and Daimler for example. The Queen, however, brought her own limousine for the Royal visit in 1970. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Commonwealth cars were usually large American cars such as Chryslers, Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Buicks, Fords and the like. Until the late 1960s, the �big three�, Chrysler, Ford and Holden, relied on American imports for their �up-market� models. A changing of the guard in the late 1960s, however, saw a move toward Australian made Commonwealth cars, with both Holden and Ford manufacturing large V8 powered cars similar to American vehicles. Prime Minister Menzies preferred to be driven in a Rolls Royce, while his replacement, Prime Minister Holt, chose to drive himself in a Pontiac.

Obtaining more information

The records described in these pages are just a small proportion of our collection relating to transport. We suggest that you browse the Fact Sheet index under the heading �Transport and Communications�.

Keyword searches of the RecordSearch or PhotoSearch databases will yield many additional records.

If you have an inquiry about any of the records described in these pages you can use our reference inquiry form.


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