The Brisbane Sulky

Italy has Ferraris, Germany the Porsche, England Aston Martins. Long before these marques hit the road, the sunshine state had the ‘Brisbane’, or maybe ‘Queensland’ sulky. These single ‘horsepower’ vehicles were so popular and commonplace north of the border Queenslanders didn’t realise they were a distinctive local style, rarely seen in southern cities. Indeed the name ‘Brisbane sulky’ was what they were called interstate.

Sulkies in Australia evolved in Sydney in the 1880s and ‘90s. The addition of a dashboard up front, mudguards (or ‘wings’) over the wheels and three spring suspension turned the plain American road cart into the stylish ‘Sydney sulky’. The straight shaft Sydney sulkies became far and away the most popular passenger vehicle in Australia, but Brisbane coachbuilders didn’t mind adding a few innovations of their own. It is hard to say who first made the Brisbane style sulky, but Yorston Brothers of Woolloongabba began advertising ‘cradle shaft’ sulkies in 1900. (Brisbane Courier 13 August 1900, p2.)

Image courtesy of Australian Coachbuilder & Wheelwright, November 1913.
Image courtesy of Australian Coachbuilder & Wheelwright, June 1909.

Shafts, for the uninitiated, are the two long lengths of timber out the front of the sulky with a horse in the middle. Passengers have to step or climb over the shafts in straight sulkies to get in. In contrast cradle or ‘drop shafts’ bend down between the seat and the dashboard making it a whole lot easier to enter. There was a popular belief that cradle shafts were invented for a customer with a wooden leg. Sadly the story is unverified but the sulkies certainly did become popular, particularly with women who had to climb into vehicles while encumbered by long dresses.

The trade journal The Australasian Coachbuilder and Saddler (May 1902, p39) noted that a Yorston Brothers’ drop-shaft sulky was ‘of a style very much in demand in Queensland’. Mortimer and Guilfoyle of Petrie Bight won a prize that year at the Brisbane Show for their cradle shaft sulky. (BC 15 Aug 1892, p7).

Image courtesy of Australian Coachbuilder & Saddler, July 1898.

Soon cradle shaft Brisbane/Queensland sulkies were being made all the well-known coachbuilders; Jolliffes, the Austral Carriage Works, and the Federal Carriage Company in central Brisbane; and Plucknetts at Chermside; Krugers and AE Roberts in Ipswich, and many more. The style even spread to country regions, hence the confusion of whether they were ‘Brisbane’ or ‘Queensland’ sulkies. the Builders included the Box Brothers at Pittsworth, AH Whitaker in Bundaberg and HA Fitzalan in Bowen. JF Chaffey in Glen Innes and JJ Saunders in Guyra, northern New South Wales, also made cradle shaft sulkies but that was about as far south as their popularity extended.

 A later feature introduced to these Brisbane sulkies was a cranked axle, made lower than the centre of the wheels. As a result floor could be lower, which also enabled easy access and provided plenty of leg room. (AC&W June 1911, p92.) Even at this stage, ten years after their introduction, Brisbane cradle shaft sulkies were still considered a novelty by the Sydney based trade journal in spite of their ‘almost universal use in the Northern capital.’

Image courtesy of Australian Coachbuilder & Wheelwright, June 1911.

The popularity of the cradle shaft Brisbane sulkies belies the difficulty for coachbuilders building them. The big bend in the shafts was produced by immersing the timber in steam for a couple of hours, and then clamping the still hot timber shafts in a frame called a former. Vice-like screws in the former were tightened to form and hold the bends in the shafts, which stayed in place once the timber cooled.

Larger coach builders had steam boxes and boilers, but this equipment would have been beyond the scope of small carriage and wheelwright workshops. They could buy the shafts from Morris’s Steam Coach and Wheel Works at Rosalie Brisbane, ‘the largest steam works of its kind in the colony,’ which manufactured vehicle components and wheels for ‘the trade’ as well as their own line of vehicles (Warwick Argus 19 Aug 1899, p1).

The Brisbane cradle shaft sulky is an example of local innovation in technology; local preferences in comfort and style; and a developed Brisbane manufacturing sector in the early years of the twentieth century. The Brisbane sulky may not keep pace with Ferraris, Porches and Aston Martins but they could hold their own for grace and elegance, at a much more reasonable price!

Jeff Powell
Curator, Cobb+Co Museum

Title image caption: A drop shaft sulky, Australian Coachbuilder & Saddler, 1902.