Everybody Loves a Road Trip
27th May 2009 - 7th Aug 2009 at Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne
When UMA received the Shell Australia collection, we were delighted by the strength of the social history resources it contained. Take a road trip back in time that is sure to awaken memories of hot family summer holidays.
Helen McLaughlin, University Archivist
The road trip evokes many personal memories from the earliest days of my existence to the present. My early childhood memories are redolent with the nostalgia of the family road trip; although I am not too certain that it was such a cherished activity at the time. It seemed that as a family, every school holidays we were bundled into the car and heading off somewhere — road travel was de rigueur, and we criss-crossed the countryside with never a thought given to the convenience of air travel.
Rain, hail or shine, my parents were dedicated to both the long holiday road trips and the shorter weekend jaunts. Eventually rebellious, resentful teens put an end to the seemingly never-ending trips and picnics but this was but momentary. As we came of an age where we were able to drive ourselves, the hedonistic pleasure of piling into a car, heading nowhere, everywhere, the wind in one’s hair and the stereo way too loud was too pervasive to resist. The mesmerism of the white line dividing the highway, and the back roads twisting around the peninsula and the hills became intoxicating.
Themes of nostalgia and the exploration of not only the open road, but also of culture and myth and the Australian psyche abound in this exhibition. In particular, the Shell Company archives not only document the importance of the growth and use of the motor vehicle in everyday lives, which paralleled the growth of road building in the early 20th century, but also reveal an insight into the culture of the road trip and our history, particularly through the artefacts and photographs in the collection. At what stage did we stop calling service stations ‘lubritoriums’?
Road trip literary and film genres have contributed to the examination of culture and the contrast of ‘otherness’, reminiscent of a microcosm of comparative sociological and anthropological field trips. These are perhaps best examined by the beatnik generation, and the plethora of the American road trip novels — perhaps most famously Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1951) and more recently in films like David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Wild at Heart (1990). Australia too has contributed with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and the like. Posters, maps and memorabilia in the Shell Company collection echo this examination, providing guides and suggestions for exploration.
I guess the question we are left with is whether we have lost our sense of adventure with the advent of modern technology. Google Earth, global positioning systems, electronic navigation have somewhat taken the adventure out of the road trip. This exhibition gives us a chance to explore the nostalgia and longing for a bygone era and a fundamental piece of the Australian character, that of exploration and adventure, while revealing a wonderful business collection from the University of Melbourne Archives. Special thanks to the Shell Company Limited, donors of the Shell Company Historical Collection, Guy Featherstone, Shell Company Historian for his input and advice and to Davina Gibbs, Community Relations Manager, RACV Heritage Collection for organising the loan of additional items to complete the exhibition.
To receive a printed copy of the exhibition brochure, please email the curator, Melinda Barrie.
The Touring Spirit
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.
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.
- 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.
- Graeme Davison, Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2004, p. 77.
- 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 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.
- ‘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.
- Clive Turnbull and Associates, This Age of Oil: A history of the petroleum industry in Australia, Melbourne: Petroleum Information Bureau (Australia), 1960, p. 108.
- George Broadbent, The Touring Spirit, Melbourne: British Imperial Oil Co. Ltd, c.1920s. Shell Company Historical Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
- Discover Australia with Shell: Tips on packing for your tour, c.1960s. Shell Company Historical Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
- Shell Company, Let’s Go, 1956, copied by National Film and Sound Archive, reproduced courtesy of the Shell Company Australia.
The Shell Touring Service
The Shell Touring Service was an essential aspect of Shell’s focus on customer relations; in particular it provided a personalised mapping and service program for motorists when they went on holidays.
When a customer enquired at a Shell dealership for maps, the dealer would post the information to the state’s Touring Service office, which would post back to the dealer maps and other material specific to the customer’s enquiry. The dealer would call the customer about the maps, and would also ask them whether they required a pre-trip lubrication. Shell produced replica ‘passports’ for children that could be stamped at any Shell dealership with unique stamps. This encouraged customers to continue to use Shell dealers on their holiday. As the customer’s holiday details were lodged in the dealership’s records, dealers were encouraged by Shell to call or write to their customers upon return to enquire about a post-holiday service.
This service was provided on a mass scale in all of the major states. Shell was aware that the Touring Service should be seen as ‘a means of building goodwill in order to obtain the end result of custom at Shell dealer stations’. Shell’s promotional material still today conjures up the nostalgia of the road trip.
- Raymond H. Murphy, ‘Touring Service’, Together, Sep.–Oct. 1959, pp. 4–5.
Before There Was Google Maps
The mapping of Australia’s roads began in some places before there were roads to speak of. In 1927 the Fiat Club of Western Australia sought help organising a tour from Perth to Melbourne. A Shell officer accompanied them, making detailed maps of the route and recruiting Shell resellers (dealers) to establish a distribution network. During the next five years, efforts were made to repeat the performance along the ‘Northern route’ to Darwin.
In a somewhat ironic start to the outback motoring industry, the refuelling stations were initially kept stocked by camel and donkey trains. In 1930, Shell launched the Overland Department followed in 1947 by the Shell Touring Service, one of the most developed and comprehensive mapping groups in Australia at the time. Or, as Shell put it in 1968 in the Shell Times, ‘Since the days when Shell announced that “it is safe to travel between Geelong and Melbourne” and “in the outback travellers need no longer fear from the natives”, the Touring Service has strived to supply the motorist with accurate maps and touring information.’
Without the help of satellite images and modern information technology, Shell employed local representatives to conduct regular tours of their area to keep up to date on road conditions as well as accommodation and tourist sites. These reports were then fed to the state offices of the Touring Service via telegraph or post and lodged in a card catalogue that contained an entry for every road in the state. This catalogue ensured that travellers who visited the Shell offices received timely and detailed information about the route they intended to take.
On our road trips today, we take for granted easy access to information about our destination and route. It is remarkable to think of the time and effort that was spent by Shell in providing these services before the development of today’s technology.
- ‘Around Australia in 280 pages’, Shell Times, vol. 7, no. 8, October 1968.
- ‘Horizons widen thru the Shell Touring Service’, Shell House Journal, April 1951. vG.F. James, ‘Broadbent, George Robert (1863–1947)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 7, Melbourne: MUP, 1979, pp. 417–418.
- ‘Maps in the making’, Together: The Shell dealer magazine, Mar.–Dec. 1961.
- ‘New motor pilot service’, Together: The house journal of the Shell organisation in Australia and New Zealand, no. 1, January 1930, p. 15.
Shell Travel Passports
In 1973 my parents drove my two sisters, brother and I from Canberra to Perth to spend Christmas with our grandparents. Before we set off we were given Shell travel passports. Every time we stopped at a Shell service station they would be stamped, often with an image designed to represent the region. I found this unbelievably exciting as a six-yearold and could barely restrain myself from jumping out of the moving car as it pulled into a station. The towns we travelled through were exotic to us — Coolgardie, Caiguna, Ceduna — and the official passports made the adventure feel even grander.
These passports represent a travel experience that has been lost. The days of watching the desert go by on long stretches of road with hot vinyl seats and windows wound all the way down are largely a thing of the past thanks to DVD players and air-conditioning. It was a rough trip across the Nullabor back then, but I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world.
A good number of Australia’s early, groundbreaking motorists were women. Among them were Kathleen Howell and Jean Robertson who in 1928 set a new record for the Perth to Adelaide trip of two days and ten hours. The two intrepid adventurers made many outback trips, from Melbourne to Perth, Melbourne to Darwin and through the Barkly Tableland to Brisbane in their Italian Lancia Lambda. In the process, they created some of Australia’s earliest outback road maps for Shell in exchange for fuel. Kathleen Howell, later Gardiner, recalled of the Lambda many years later, ‘She was really a lovely car but really the last car in the world for that trip because she had a low clearance.’
The precedent for skilled women drivers was established quickly after the introduction of the motor car into Australia. Indeed, Jean Robertson was a student of Alice Anderson, another remarkable motoring pioneer. Anderson grew up in Melbourne, the daughter of an engineer.Working part-time as a clerical worker, she developed an after-hours business driving picnic parties to the Dandenong Ranges. By 1919 she had built a motor garage and begun the Alice Anderson Motor Service, which included chauffeuring, petrol sales, vehicle repairs and a driving school. In her garage, Anderson ran motor mechanic programs for women.
Robertson and Howell followed in the footsteps of other female outback motoring pairs such as Marion Bell and her daughter, and Gladys Sandford and Stella Christie. In fact, Howell and Robertson carried a gearbox to Sandford and Christie on one of their outback trips after the latter two had broken down and saved themselves by walking to a nearby station to telegraph for repairs.
Clearly, early motoring was not the exclusive domain of men. The promise of freedom and adventure that the unmapped tracks held for the early motoring adventurers of both sexes laid the foundations for the development of the road trip as the popular pastime we know today.
- Georgine Clarsen, ‘Anderson, Alice Elizabeth Foley (1897–1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, supp. vol., Melbourne: MUP, 2005, pp. 8–9.
- Georgine Clarsen, Eat my Dust: Early women motorists, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008.
- Anneli Knight, ‘Women at the seat of power’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February, 2009.
- Robert Murray, Go Well: One hundred years of Shell in Australia, Melbourne: Hargreen Publishing Company, 2001.
The Australian Car That Almost Was
Sir Laurence Hartnett had a long and distinguished career in the automobile industry, much of it associated with the American automobile giant General Motors. Sent to Australia in 1934 to take up the position of managing director of General Motors’ Australian subsidiary, General Motors-Holden, Hartnett soon realised the need for an Australian made car. For the next decade he passionately advocated for an Australian car manufactured in Australia for Australian conditions. In 1948 Hartnett’s efforts resulted in the locally manufactured Australian icon, the Holden.
Regrettably Hartnett was absent from the launch of the first Holden as disagreements between General Motors and Hartnett over the design and manufacture of the car had lead to his resignation in 1947. After his experiences at General Motors, Hartnett believed more than ever that Australia needed a car that was ‘manufactured, controlled and financed by Australians’. Hartnett took his idea for an Australian car to the then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, who gave it his full support. After a year of research Hartnett produced the first prototype of the Hartnett car in 1948. By early 1949 his project for the manufacturing of ‘the car for the Australian people’ was approved by the department of post–war reconstruction.
In October 1949 the Hartnett Motor Company Limited was officially launched, however it was to be a short-lived venture. The first blow to Hartnett’s dream came when the federal election of December 1949 swept Chifley’s Labor government from power. With less direct support from the government coupled with finance difficulties the Hartnett car began to falter. The final blow came when a dispute between a company subcontracted to manufacture components for the car became embroiled in legal action. In 1955 Hartnett conceded defeat and with only a few cars manufactured abandoned his dream for a truly Australian car.
Melinda Barrie, Curator
Thank you in particular to Katie Wood, Reference Archivist, UMA, for her significant contribution to the exhibition. Thank you to my colleagues in UMA, particularly Helen McLaughlin for her constant support, Denise Driver for her tireless effort and contribution and Sophie Garrett for her support and the loan of her picnic memorabilia. Thank you also to Brian Allison and Astrid Krautschneider, Grainger Museum; Monica Syrette, Grainger Museum, for her personal account of a family road trip and the loan of her passports; Kerrianne Stone, Belinda Nemec and Jason Benjamin, Cultural Collections; Caitlin Stone, Scholarly Information; Leanne McCredden, Special Collections; Jacqui Barnett and Stephanie Jaehrling, Publications for their consummate professionalism with regard to the development of our ideas for the catalogue and printed material.
Thank you to Dr Georgine Clarsen, Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Politics, University of Wollongong for her reference advice which proved to be invaluable for the story about the ‘women motorists’; Professor Graeme Davison for the catalogue essay and for speaking at the launch; Guy Featherstone, Shell Company Historian for his speech; Davina Gibbs, Community Relations Manager, RACV, for organising the loan of items from the RACV; and thanks to Leonie Hammill and Dr Ros Bandt individually for their sound practical advice when it was needed.
Cheers to you all!
To receive a printed copy of the exhibition brochure, please email the curator, Melinda Barrie.