Vehicle building in Australia

Written by Jeff Powell, Cobb+Co Museum

Anders Nielson’s Coach Factory in Fitzroy Street Rockhampton, around 1900.

October 2017 marks the end of motor vehicle building in Australia, but the industry goes back further than most people realise. The first car with a ‘Holden’ badge was built in 1948, but Holden in Adelaide had been building car bodies for General Motors’ Chevs, Pontiacs and Vauxhalls since the 1920s. GM-Holden had assembly plants in other state capital cities by the 1930s. Ford Australia also had assembly plants in Australian capital cities since the mid-1920s. Yet vehicle building in Australia began even a century before the earliest motor cars.

Sydney Gazette & NSW Advertiser 17 July 1803: page 1

Sparks was not the only workshop in Sydney building wheels and carts. William Carf’s wheelwright shop in Bridge Street Sydney was alongside blacksmiths Thomas Randall and Richard Harding, who fabricated ‘ironwork for carts, wagons and other carriages.’(SG&NSWA 10 Feb 1805: page 1; 19 May: page 4) Horses were in short supply but bullocks were widely used. Many carpenters built rustic bullock drays and wagons, and just ordered the metalwork and wheels from the ‘smiths and the wheelwrights.

As colonial Australia spread wheelwrights and blacksmiths were among the first tradespeople in any new settlement. Most started off building carts and wagons, but produced passenger carriages as the human and horse population grew. There were hundreds of wheelwright and coachbuilding shops across Australia. Lachlan McLean’s workshop in Queen Street Brisbane built farm implements and ‘drays on the shortest notice’ for Queensland’s earliest free settlers in 1842. (Moreton Bay Courier 15 April 1848: page 1). (Moreton Bay Courier 15 April 1848: page 1)

McLean was joined by Ballantyne and McNab in Queen Street, Bennett and Edds at Petrie Bight, and the Grice Brothers at South Brisbane in the 1860s. (Post Office Directories) Their workshops used steam-powered woodworking machinery, and employed 30 or more wheelwrights, coachbuilders, blacksmiths, coachpainters and upholstery trimmers to build a range of carriages, carts and wagons.

The tradespeople were highly skilled, but the vehicle industry in Australia also used mass produced components from America and Britain in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

Sunday Times, Sydney 11 March 1906: page5

Motor car chassis were arriving at Australian ports from the early 1900s, and local coachbuilders were happy to build bodies for the new ‘horseless carriages’. Early car bodies were made from timber, plywood and some metal sheets and simply bolted onto the chassis.

Holden’s Woodville plant South Australia, 1927. The bodies are Chevrolets or Pontiacs for General Motors, 21 years before the first ‘Holden’ car. (State Library of South Australia. BRG 213/1/3/72)

The move to mass produced motor cars was a gradual process, and the trades adapted to new demands, as the name of the union shows in the 1930s. What had started as the Carriage-Makers Society in the 1890s transformed into the ‘Australian Coach Motor Car Tram Car Waggon Builders Wheelwrights & Air Craft Rolling Stock Makers Employees’ Federation.’ (ANU Archives. Deposit Z610 – Vehicle Builders Employees Federation of Australia, Federal Office deposit.) Australia’s vehicle building industry adapted to challenges and new technology over 200 years, and may do so again. Cobb + Co Museum features 50 examples of buggies sulkies and wagons made by Australian wheelwrights, coachbuilders and blacksmiths.

Skerman Brothers, Coachbuilders and Blacksmiths Dayboro Queensland, 1905.