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The History of Australia’s Cars

Cars have always been a big part of Aussie culture since the very beginning of the 20th century. Cars and motorsport are in our blood, and looking at the history of Australia’s automotive industry, it’s easy to see why.

The “Phaeton” and the “Tarrant”

All the way back in 1896, two men named Herbert Thomson and Edward Holmes designed and manufactured Australia’s very first car. Dubbed the “Thomson Motor Phaeton” or just “The Phaeton”, this steam-powered automobile only had a top speed of 14 kilometres an hour – but that didn’t stop it from taking a 790 kilometre trip from Bathurst to Melbourne! Sure, it took over 50 hours to complete a trip that takes modern cars around 8, but for 1896 that was impressive.

After this development, work didn’t stop there. In 1901, businessman and engineer Harley Tarrant designed and produced the Tarrant automobile – the first petrol-driven car built entirely in Australia – with the help of bicycle maker, Howard Lewis. This car was powered by an imported 6 horsepower Benz engine. Later improvements to the Tarrant design include; the first fully enclosed car body made in Australia, and more locally produced engines as well as other necessary components.

Thomson Motor Phaeton
The Thomson Motor Phaeton

The first Holden

Holden went through quite a few changes before becoming the Australian icon it is today. Starting in 1856, J. A. Holden & Co began as a saddlery business founded by Englishman James Alexander Holden. In 1885, J. A. Holden & Co became Holden & Frost Ltd, after James Holden’s eldest son Henry James Holden and German H. A. Frost became business partners. In the early 1900s, James Holden’s grandson, took over the business and steered the business towards automobiles. They started out using their saddlery experience to repair car upholstery, but starting in the 1910s they ventured into car bodies and chassis.

After World War 1, Henry formed a new company which he called Holden’s Motor Body Builders Ltd, specialising in production of car bodies. In the 1920s, Henry found himself manufacturing car bodies for Ford Australia and General Motors Australia, becoming the exclusive manufacturer of car bodies for General Motors once Ford had their own manufacturing plant constructed in Geelong.

In 1931, General Motors bought Holden’s Motor Body Builders Ltd to form General Motors-Holden’s Ltd, for the purpose of using Holden to create a distinctly Australian identity. With this merger, Holden began to pursue a goal of making his very own Australian car. Eventually, after World War 2 put a hold on this plan, and after lengthy negotiations with GM, Holden got his wish. Using a previously rejected Chevrolet design, the Holden 48-215 – or just the Holden as it was commonly known as – was born.

Holden 48-215
The Holden 48-215

Ford Australia

As a true blue Aussie, I can’t talk about Holden without also mentioning Ford, can I?

In the mid-1920s, the famous Geelong Ford vehicle plant opened and quickly became the headquarters of Ford Australia. The first ever Australian Ford automobile was manufactured here, the Ford Model T. This was followed by the next Ford models, the Model A and the Model B V8.

One of the first ever examples of a “ute”, an iconic Aussie vehicle, was built here in the Geelong factory. Lewis Brandt, a young engineer and designer, took on the challenge after receiving a letter from an anonymous farmer who asked for “a vehicle to go to church in on a Sunday and which can carry our pigs to market on Monday”. Using a modified Ford V8 Coupe, Lewis extended the side and rear panels and added a hinged tailgate on the rear, as well as strengthening the suspension for load bearing. It came with a 5ft 5in tray, able to carry a total of 550kg (or 1200 pounds). This model became known as the Ford Coupe Utility – nicknamed the the “Aussie Kangaroo Chaser” by Henry Ford himself.

During the Great Depression, banks refused to lend money to farmers to purchase passenger cars, as they were seen as “unnecessary luxuries”. However, the Coupe Utility was classed as a working vehicle, which was accepted by the banks.

1933 Ford Coupe Ute
1933 Ford Coupe Utility

The history of the ute is hotly contested, some saying it wasn’t an Australian invention at all. It’s hard to say for sure, but we’re undoubtedly one of the first.

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