Everybody Loves a Road Trip!

Melinda Barrie, Curator

Since the early 20th century, motor vehicles … have been broadly represented in cultural works and media … they communicate closely with the aesthetic spirits of modernity and its discontents. Vehicles add velocity to landscape’s powers, compressing distance and reframing senses of place. Containing, carrying and connecting people, knowledge, visions and voices.1

In the new landscape there will be cars and drivers of cars and signs saying FREE SWAP CARDS HERE … 2

Journey, distance and discovery are an entrenched part of the Australian psyche. This is evidenced in the vast distance travelled by the ancestors of our indigenous community many millennia ago when they first colonised Australia, the lengthy expeditions of more recent 19th-century explorers and finally in the large scale adoption of the motor car as a popular means of transport during the 20th century. Despite this long tradition of movement and travel it is only in recent times that immediate forms of transport have been available to the average person. This subject is further illuminated by Professor Graeme Davison in his essay .

In a sustained period of social and economic prosperity in Australia during the late 1940s and 1950s the motor car came to be an affordable commodity for the general populous. The number of registered vehicles on Australian roads increased from 852,384 in 1946 to 1.9 million in 1955. For the Australian population, the motor car was one of a catalogue of possessions that created the ideal picture of family life. These possessions, including televisions, refrigerators and washing machines, lay at the heart of post-war affluence and the new consumer economy.3

Without question the motor car is a mechanical product of the modernist movement of the 20th century. Its phenomenal popularity fuelled the widespread development of methods for mass production and its status as a symbol of freedom and power in art and daily life has firmly entrenched it in the popular imagination.

From our point of view today the motor car is an ubiquitous sight almost invisible in its commonality and everydayness. It is a means of transportation around town and is also utilised as a way of escape from urban centres for recreational road trips out of town. Virginia Spate comments that a characteristic of some modernist objects, constructions and forms that were once excitingly new, is how quickly they date and become commonplace. Many of these items are remembered from early adulthood and arouse an unexpected nostalgia, which would surely have been anathema to their modernist creators.4

It is this same sense of nostalgia which is triggered by the sight and sound of objects and reminders of the road trips which were commonplace for many of us who grew up in Australia between the late 1940s and 1970s. The theme of this exhibition is road trip culture, from the beginning of the trip through to journey’s end — from the picnic basket packed before leaving the house, through to the postcards and memorabilia we collect along the way as evidence of a journey completed. And to add a further historical dimension, mementos from the early road expeditions in the 1920s take us back to the days when motoring was still considered the province of the adventurer and the wealthy. Featured is a small plaque commemorating the journey undertaken by two ex-Geelong public school friends Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell who in 1928 travelled 1,755 miles from Perth to Adelaide. It took them two days and ten hours to complete. In some respects these two women ‘challenged traditional notions of femininity through their love of cars and proved they were articulate, confident, and mechanically savvy motorists in their own right’.5

Essentials for the road trip are the road maps and petroleum products. These items were supplied by the Shell Company, whose collection is now part of the University of Melbourne Archives, and forms the core of the exhibition.

A service unique to Shell at the time was the Shell Touring Service (STS), formerly the Overland Travel Service.6 From 1947 onwards the STS offered free maps and touring information.7 The STS had a network of outlets across the country and tour maps were kept up to date by the mapping unit which would periodically survey the road conditions and local topography. The Shell Company also had representatives in each region who would keep the STS informed on accommodation availability and any sudden changes in the weather or road conditions in their respective areas. Featured among the exhibits on display are road tour maps, including George Broadbent’s The Touring Spirit,8 and a quirky little brochure advising motorists not to ‘be a last-minute scramble-packer’.9

Screening in the exhibition is a Shell Company promotional documentary called Let’s Go dating from 1956. The film provides the viewer with a guided overview of the services of Shell Touring, promising advice on all aspects of motoring, including where to go and how to get there.10 The film was produced by awardwinning director John Heyer who during his eight year appointment at the Shell Company brought international attention to Australia’s vast outback landscape with all its extremes of topography and environment via films such as The Back of Beyond (1954) and Forerunner (1957).

No road trip is complete without a breakdown along the way. Photographs from the RACV Heritage Collection of patrolmen at work and items on display such as the RACV patrol vehicle’s phone and fire extinguisher remind us that help is not far away.

The aim of this exhibition is twofold: to invoke nostalgia and reminiscences about past road trip adventures with family, friends and work colleagues and to make us pause and consider the far-reaching influence of the motor car on our way of life.


  1. Australian National University, Cruising Country: A symposium and film event exploring automobilities in non-urban Australia, 2005, http://www.anu.edu.au/culture/cruising, accessed 30 March 2009.
  2. Graeme Davison, Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2004, p. 77.
  3. D. Catrice and M. Summerton, The Motor Garage and Service Station in Victoria: A survey, Melbourne: Heritage Victoria, Department of Infrastructure, 1997, pp. 13–14.
  4. 4 Virginia Spate, ‘Foreword’, in A. Stephen, P. Goad and A. McNamara (eds), Modern Times: The untold story of Modernism in Australia, Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2008, p. 3.
  5. 5 Georgine Clarsen, Eat My Dust: Early women motorists, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, quoted from a review at http://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/ecom/MasterServlet/GetItemDetailsHandler?iN=9780 801884658&qty=1&viewMode=3&loggedIN=false&JavaScript=y, accessed 24 April 2009.
  6. ‘Overland Service Notes: New motor pilot service’, Together: The house journal of the Shell organisation in Australia and New Zealand, no. 1, January 1930, p. 15.
  7. Clive Turnbull and Associates, This Age of Oil: A history of the petroleum industry in Australia, Melbourne: Petroleum Information Bureau (Australia), 1960, p. 108.
  8. George Broadbent, The Touring Spirit, Melbourne: British Imperial Oil Co. Ltd, c.1920s. Shell Company Historical Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  9. Discover Australia with Shell: Tips on packing for your tour, c.1960s. Shell Company Historical Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  10. Shell Company, Let’s Go, 1956, copied by National Film and Sound Archive, reproduced courtesy of the Shell Company Australia.