Is it a buckboard?

Cobb+Co Museum has always wanted a Queensland buckboard, and we think we have one…

By Jeff Powell, Curator, Cobb+Co Museum

The American buckboard was about as simple a four wheeled vehicle as it was possible to build. They looked like someone had taken a section of picket fence, attached a wheel in each corner and placed a seat on top and halfway back. Comfort was not a major selling point for buckboards, but they were cheap, durable and easy to build. Flex in the slatted floor timbers provided springing, although sometimes the seat was mounted on springs. Buckboards were common in the American west from the middle of the nineteenth century but were not known in Australia until the 1870s. The Australian Town & Country Journal (12 April 1873, p13) carried an article titled ‘A cheap buggy for the bush’ espousing the virtues of ‘”buck board” of the American back woods’.

The Australian Town & Country Journal, 1873.

Well known Sydney coachbuilder WT Angus was advertising new and second-hand buckboards by 1877 (Sydney Morning Herald 4 Sept 1877, p3). They could not have been too common as the Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser was still explaining what constituted a ‘buck-board’ in 1881 (12 March, p416), but within a year or two imported American buckboards were widely advertised. £20- would buy an imported buckboard from coachbuilders such as Rutherford Brothers in Rockhampton (Morning Bulletin 4 Aug 1884, p1) or Cope & Newman of Boggo Road Brisbane. (Queenslander 5 May 1888, p714) Local coachbuilders were happy to import buckboards rather than try to compete with the price.
Dashboards and sprung seats were found on many buckboards by this time, but the unsprung undercarriage was still standard.

Alfred Shaw, Brisbane advertisement, QLD Figaro & Punch, 1885.

The absence of suspension springs was very hard on the buckboard passengers, as noted by a Brisbane Courier correspondent travelling between Cloncurry and Normanton.

…Riding in a buckboard without springs along a hard road, over which herds of cattle had been driven when it was boggy, is a sensation which suggests the ultimate displacement of the whole vital system… At the end of the journey it was pleasing to note that he (the writer) had, in the driver, a companion in distress. We were both, to use the expression of the driver, “a bit shook up” after our five days in the buckboard.

The Brisbane Courier, 23 July 1904.

It was suggested that the American buckboard ‘was a handy contraption for jumping logs and other obstacles, provided the driver could sit tightly enough to finish the journey… They should have been called buckjumpers instead of buckboards…’ (Nowra Leader 9 Sept 1938, p10)

Queensland buckboards

Some coachbuilders in the late 1890s started putting springs between the body and the axles of buckboards. Cobb & Co’s coach factory was credited with developing the ‘Charleville buckboard’ which had ‘springs beneath the seat, two under the body in front, and a third under the body behind…’ This reduced the jarring and noise travelling on rough bush tracks. Nielson’s Separation Coach Works in Rockhampton also produced a buckboard on three springs (Morning Bulletin 16 Dec 1898, p6). The Coachbuilder trade journal reported Mr Niedermeyer of Clermont ‘added springs between the body and axle’ of his buckboards which was also seen as an innovation in design. (The Australasian Coachbuilder & Saddler Feb 1899, p219)

Cobb & Co’s Catalogue or High-Class Vehicles, 1915.

Soon buckboards with spring suspension featured in all Queensland coachbuilders’ catalogues. The definition of what constituted a buckboard became imprecise to say the least. Queensland seemed to be the state where buckboards were most popular for drovers, bush mailmen, surveyors and the like, hence the term ‘Queensland buckboard’ often appeared in the Coachbuilder trade journal, but there was little uniformity in the style of these vehicles.

The Coachbuilder Book of Designs, 1901.

This vehicle without spring suspension appeared in the Australasian Coachbuilder and saddler in the Coachbuilder journal in August 1898 as a ‘buckboard waggon’, but in their compilation Coachbuilder Book of Designs in 1901 it had become a ‘Queensland buckboard’. And why not? It seems springs or no springs it could be a buckboard, and even a ‘Queensland buckboard’.

A Queensland buckboard on three springs, built by Anders Nielson, Rockhampton.
A two seat buckboard with or without springs could be a ‘Queensland buckboard’. Without springs above, appearing in the Australiasian Coachbuilder and Wheelwright, 1902, and below a buckboard with springs appearing in the publication in 1906.
This Queensland buckboard was built by the Austral Carriage Works, Brisbane, appearing in the publication 1909.

Cobb+Co Museum’s buckboard, or is it an express?

Which brings us to our vehicle at Cobb+Co Museum. If all the vehicles above can be buckboards, even ‘Queensland buckboards’ then ours probably is as well. It came in as a pile of ironwork from a creek bank near Stonehenge (QLD) in the 1990s, courtesy of long-time volunteer Ian Waples. The vehicle lacks a dashboard and brake bar, but we suspect with an ‘educated guess’ that the body looked very much like the one made by Austral Carriage Works. The plain seat and slatted floor fit the criteria.

A visit by volunteer Bob Edwards cast a bit of doubt the name of our vehicle. Bob came in to see what progress had been made on the ‘express’ wagon. Two side springs and elliptical springs at front and back makes this an ‘express’, sometimes referred to as a squatter’s express or a station express. Bob Edwards has been an Australian four-in-hand driving champion, represented Australia in international carriage driving, a Churchill Fellow, he stewards at the Royal Easter Show every year, has been a harness maker-saddler for five decades and advisor to Queensland Museum for thirty years. What would he know? Well a lot as it turns out. The plans below indicate our vehicle definitely has the express style undercarriage, so it may be called an ‘express’.

The Australasian Coachbuilder Atlas of Scale Drawings Series Two, 1902.

This was a little disappointing to a curator who has wanted to procure a Queensland buckboard for the Cobb+Co Collection for 30 years. However, coachbuilders took plenty of license naming their carriages, sometimes inventing a completely new name to separate their carriages from the competition’s models. Therefore I think it is legitimate for us to call our vehicle a ‘Queensland buckboard on express under carriage’, but we will be sympathetic to other opinions. (The taxonomy of horse drawn carriages is not a science. Can you imagine a zoologist having to name a mountain goat mounted on hyena under carriage?)

Cobb+Co Museum’s ‘Queensland buckboard on express under carriage’, presently being rebuilt by Andrew MacDonald in the Museum Workshop.

Buckboards in all their forms were a part of rural life for around 60 years carrying mail bags or drovers bed rolls, surveyor’s gear or the dairy’s cream cans. The imprecise use of the term ‘buckboard’ persisted beyond the horse era. Little runabout motor vehicles with wooden tray backs were often called buckboards in country areas until the term ‘ute’ became accepted in the 1950s.