The 20th century was the great age of the automobile. Only as the century came to an end, and the implications of peak oil and global warming sank in, did we begin to fully appreciate how completely the car had revolutionised our lives. A hundred years ago much of Australia still lay beyond the reach of travellers. Horses, ships and railways had extended thin ribbons of settlement along the coast and into the outback, but movement along these pathways remained slow and halting. The tyranny of distance had been tamed a little, but travellers still endured the tyranny of the ticket and the timetable.
The car overthrew this tyranny. The self-driven, self-propelled motor vehicle was not only faster than the horse and buggy; it allowed driver and passengers to travel when, where and as often as they liked, dispensing with tickets and timetables. Contemporaries coined a word, ‘automobility’, to describe their new freedom. The car transformed the way people worked and played, and — in subtle but profound ways — how they saw the world. After a century of automobility hardly a square kilometre of the continent had still to feel the tread of the four-wheel drive or the sound of the CB radio.
Automobility was not a natural freedom; it took the concerted efforts of car manufacturers and dealers, oil companies, tyre manufacturers, motoring organisations and journalists to convert a sometimes sceptical public to the thrilling but costly, and possibly lethal, pleasure of the open road. For almost 40 years, Victoria’s leading prophet of automobility was the journalist and tourism promoter George Broadbent. In the 1890s Broadbent won fame as a champion cyclist before taking up motoring in the late 1890s. As a journalist for the Argus newspaper, he became a vigorous advocate for the interests of motorists, expatiating his favourite theme, ‘The motor as emancipator’. ‘From the earliest time extant, mankind in general, and the British race in particular, has been imbued with the spirit of travel and exploration’, he declared. In 1896 he published the first of many editions of his road map of Victoria and in 1910 he became manager of the touring department of the Royal Automobile Club. For the next 40 years, the name Broadbent became almost synonymous with the experience of travel in Victoria. As a child in the 1950s, I came to regard the purchase of a Broadbent map or camping and caravanning guide as the indispensable beginning to every family holiday.
In promoting motor tourism Broadbent found a strong ally in the Shell Oil Company. In a guide to motor trips around Melbourne, published by the company in the early 1920s, Broadbent pondered the motives that impelled so many Victorians to explore the nearer bush and countryside. Was it a love of natural beauty, a desire for a change of scene, or a longing for silent communion with nature?, he wondered. No, he concluded, it was ‘a desire for motion, an expression of the primal instinct for travel when Spring comes round again. It is the Touring Spirit.’ The phrase, nicely connecting the motive of the traveller with the product of his sponsor — motor spirit — was a happy one. ‘The proper modern way in which to indulge the touring spirit is by motor-car’, Broadbent concluded, ‘and the proper spirit with which to drive the car is Shell Benzine.’ The car helped to popularise another Australian institution: the long weekend. ‘Perhaps the chief advantage of the possession of the motor car is its adaptability to the needs and inclinations of the owner’, another Shell guide advised.
‘The motor car can be availed of at any hour of the day or night, and this has much to do with making the weekend outing an institution.’ Instead of the long trek by rail or steamer and charabanc to a hilltop or seaside guesthouse, the motor tourist could go when and where he pleased, camping or caravanning, or, after World War II, in a new style of accommodation expressly designed for the motor tourist, motelling. Despite Broadbent’s claims for the speed, ease and comfort of motoring, until the 1950s an excursion even to the nearer countryside remained something of an adventure. Shell Motor Tours Victoria advertised the company’s policy that ‘wherever the motorist should penetrate his fuel and oil should be supplied’, but he was also warned of the hazards of wet weather, unmade roads and steep hills. If the car broke down — and breakdowns were a more or less routine aspect of early motoring — then it was often up to the driver to effect running repairs. Among the plugs for Dunlop tyres and Shell motor oil, the early Shell guides carried an advertisement for Solv-Ol, the miraculous dirt-dissolving soap that enabled the gentleman-motorist to appear, no longer bespattered with oil and grime, at the end of his journey.
In promoting motor tourism, Shell Australia was following in the path already set by its British parent. Since the 1930s, when it began publishing its Country Guides to Britain, authored by ‘poets and artists with a bump of topography’, Shell had helped to promote an idealised vision of the historic English countryside of village greens and hedgerows, thatched cottages and parish churches. The car was a symbol of modernity, but, paradoxically, it also helped to cultivate a new sense of the past. In Australia too, the arrival of mass motoring not only changed our ideas of the picturesque but of the historic. ‘In the motor-car we can travel and see in an hour wider country than our forefathers saw in a day’, observed James Valentine in his Then and Now: Historic roads around Sydney. ‘So swiftly can we get from place to place that perhaps we can spare time for a little day-dreaming once in a while, and people those old ways with some of the sights and sounds which were an everyday matter in the long ago.’1
The documents and objects in this exhibition are a nostalgic evocation of the beginnings of the motor age. But they are something more. The old-time motor garages, with their rows of competing petrol brands, so evocatively captured in a series of snapshots by a Shell rep, the enamel signs, guidebooks, fold-out maps and hand-powered petrol bowsers also remind us of the revolutionary influence of ‘automobility’ and the ‘touring spirit’ upon 20th-century Australians.
Graeme Davison is a Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University. He has written widely on Australian history, especially the history of Melbourne, including The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978, revised edition 2004) and Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities (1978). He is a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998).
- James Valentine, Then and Now: Historic roads around Sydney, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1937, p. xii.