1908 Talbot - First Across Australia
At the dawn of the motoring age, over a hundred years ago, adventurous Australians were taken to the new fandangled machines and testing themselves and the cars as they blazed now well travelled routes across Australia. We look at the first vehicle to cross Australia.
All Pics courtesy & copyright of the National Motor Museum, unless otherwise noted.
When the party of three weather beaten men drove into Darwin on the 20th August 1908, in an equally weather and trail beaten British made Talbot motor car, they became the first to drive a car across the Australian continent.
It was a feat that had taken two years, two tries and two cars and only after 42 days during their second effort had they managed to break down the tyranny of distance between Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, and Port Darwin, then the 'capital' of the Northern Territory of South Australia.
At this stage of the evolution of the motor car it was later said that, 'motorists faced a hostile society of Luddites, horse-loving reactionaries, regressive law makers and over zealous police.' (see: www98.griffith.edu.au – search: the history of the Hatse-wagons)
The car of the masses, the Model T Ford, was yet to be introduced to Australia, there were only around 500 cars registered in South Australia (up from 140 in 1905), and the first West-East crossing by vehicle (by the incredible Francis Birtles) was still a few years away.
Harry Dutton, who owned the Talbot, was the 28 year old heir to a pastoral fortune and living at the family home of Anlaby Station, just outside Kapunda, northeast of Adelaide. In 1907 it was decided that he would attempt the first south-north crossing of the continent, a distance of around 3400km.
With him would be Murray Aunger, whose Harry's father had recommended as the companion for the trip. Murray had helped found the Lewis Motor Works in SA in the late 1890s, he built the first car in the state in 1900, while the Lewis Company was by 1907 a major supplier of cars to wealthy South Australians. He was the brain and the muscle behind the attempts and Harry was to later say, 'The trips success was attributable entirely to the ability of Mr Aunger'. Murray, while not only a whiz with anything mechanical, later went on to hold a number of Australian motoring records.
The first attempt left Adelaide on the 29 November 1907 in a 20hp Talbot motor car they had christened, 'Angelina'.
The Talbot cars, built by the Clement Talbot Limited in London, had quickly gained a reputation for being well made, efficient and fast and it was the first car, in 1913, to cover 100 miles (160km) in one hour. They were also expensive; a factory refurbished chassis was advertised at the time for £450 (about $65,000 today), and a body for £350 (about $50,000 today); that was more than most complete new cars, when the annual wage in Australia was just £158/year (about $22,500 today)!
A 4-cylinder 3770cc water-cooled engine with mono-cast cylinders and a bore and stroke of 100x120 powered the vehicle. It had a rated output of 20 horsepower or 15kW (the later 1908 model had power increased to a mammoth 25hp or 18.6kW) and a recommended cruising speed of around 75km/h (45mph).
These English cars often blew out, or dripped, more oil than they actually used, as they had no oil seals as we know today. Water use was also considerable, although the Talbots were equipped early on with a water pump, which made them more suited than many other makes to Australian conditions. The vehicles would also need greasing regularly, with the recommended interval being just 500 miles (900km).
The vehicle weighed around 1280kg and had a wooden body with a box featuring vertically opening doors in the rear. It had a wheelbase of 9ft 8in (2.95m) and a track of 4ft. 7in (1.4m).
The Talbot was fitted with wooden spoke artillery-type wheels, originally running 880mmx120mm clincher (or beaded) type tyres, and because of the normal 60psi tyre pressure required, were highly susceptible to blow-outs and coming off the rim. Dutton or Auger never mentioned that, and they reported having only three punctures for the whole of the second trip. Maybe that was because they were probably running lower tyre pressures because of the rough, mainly sandy terrain and slow going, or that they were using Michelin all-terrain type tyres, having a steel stud tread pattern; that's a tyre brand that is today still synonymous with great off-road rubber, although the steel studs have gone.
The front wheels were on a standard axle on semi-elliptical springs. The live rear axle was on half-elliptic springs and a transverse spring, giving the rear suspension a great degree of flexibility to cross rough terrain; there were no shock absorbers.
The gearbox was a three-speed unit and included a reverse gear, while the diff was of a conventional beveled gear drive with fully floating hubs. The footbrake operated on the transmission, while the handbrake operated a contracting band on the rear wheels only. There were no front brakes!
The vehicle was equipped with kerosene lamplights, a speedo and a gradiometer. Attached to the sides were a shovel, pick and an axe, while a rifle and a block and tackle made it into the survival/recovery kit. A complete set of spare tyres and a vulcanizing kit for repairing both covers and tubes were also carried, along with assorted spare parts. Provisions for a week were found a spot in the heavily loaded vehicle, which had been modified to carry 82 gallons (385 litres) of petrol. All up the vehicle weighed, for the trip, around 2.2 tonne.
Extra supplies of petrol and oil were sent ahead to Oodnadatta (the rail head for the Ghan Railway at the time), Alice Springs, Katherine (then called Catherine Creek) and Pine Creek, the latter just 225km south of Darwin.
The week before they set out the car was tested in the sandhills of Henley Beach, the Kapunda Herald newspaper reporting,
'... with grades of one in seven, and though the wheels sank to the axles, the car ploughed through the sand without difficulty. The car is cream colored, and not ungainly in appearance.'
Once the expedition set off, the first couple of hundred miles after leaving Adelaide the roads were good and the progress deemed to be 'excellent'. However, once they left the small town of Hawker, in the heart of the Flinders Ranges, the route followed the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL) and the horse track that ran beside it.
As they skirted around Lake Eyre numerous dry and sandy creeks were crossed and as the Brisbane Telegraph reported,
'Because of the steepness of their banks and the sandy character of their beds, in which the car wheels spun around uselessly, the motorists were obliged to construct corduroys in order to enable the car to negotiate these crossings.'
But even tougher going was ahead. When they reached Alice Springs on the 16th December, Harry Dutton wired from the Telegraph Station, which was subsequently reported in the Melbourne Table Talk weekly magazine later that month,
'...that he is perfectly satisfied that the notorious Depot Sandhills, which extend for twenty five miles between Horseshoe Bend and Alice Well, and of which overlanding cyclists have always given such a lurid report, are too much for any car without outside assistance.'
The report from Dutton went on -
'The country was practically a billowy sea of soft sand. When the 20hp Talbot was set at the stiff inclines the loose drift-sand offered no resistance to the tyres, which simply spun round at terrific speed and tore great gaping holes into the ground. Block and tackle were tried without success and even when the car had the assistance of a team of donkeys to haul it over the stiffest pinches there was considerable difficulty in steering the car, for the front wheels sank so deeply into the soft sand that it banked up in front of the front axle and had to be shoveled away. With a temperature of 114 in the shade, it can easily be imagined what Messrs. Dutton and Aunger went through out on the barren sandhills. So far they have experienced no trouble with the car, which is standing the rough use splendidly.'
The two men and the tough Talbot pushed on through the rocky barrier of the MacDonnell Ranges and out onto the plains and now they were plagued by tall grass and hidden termite mounds which would have threatened to smash the steering, suspension or diff. Here in this remote country, they met Francis Birtle's on his way south on one of his many cycling record attempts across and around Australia.
But the team's luck ran out soon afterwards. South of the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station (there was no town at this time) the pinion in the Talbot's diff collapsed and with the onset of the Wet season, the vehicle was abandoned. Dutton and Aunger simply returned south to Oodnadatta on horseback and then transferred to a train to travel onto Adelaide.
Undeterred by their failure, Harry bought another Talbot, this one a more powerful 25hp version, known as, Overlander (or '474' its rego number, but I prefer, Overlander). Once again it was modified for the trip, much the same as Angelina had been, and on the 30th June 1908 the two men once again set out from Adelaide.
They reached Hergott Springs (now Marree) on the 4th July and Oodnadatta after another week's hard work in the sandy creeks around Lake Eyre. The report written in the Brisbane Telegraph in September 1908, captures some of the harshness of the trip through the sandy country further north;
'Progress through this class of country necessarily was slow, an average of 40 or 50 miles a day being as much as could be maintained ... one occasion a full day's hard work only reduced the distance to Port Darwin by 10 miles ...'
At Alice Springs, the Telegraph Station Officer, Ern Allchurch, joined the two men for the rest of the journey and 30 days out from Adelaide, after a tough time in amongst the rocks and narrow passes of the MacDonnell Ranges, they came across the abandoned Angelina. The Talbot was in pretty good state considering its lengthy time out in the elements. Some of the car's woodwork had shrunk, the two rear tyres had perished, the locks were broken and some equipment had gone missing and there was a healthy collection of spiders, wasps and centipedes to clean out. But it wasn't long before the older vehicle was repaired and mobile once more with Harry at the wheel, while Murray drove the newer car.
They reached the Tennant Creek OTL station soon afterwards and pushed on. On the 8th August as the party approached Daly Waters they were caught in a vicious scrub fire lit by a wandering band of Aboriginals. The were forced to make a 10 mile (16km) run through the inferno, puncturing three tyres on the fire blackened stumps; the only punctures suffered on the trip!
Luckily they made it safely through and a few days later reached the Katherine River, which surprisingly offered no great resistance to the group. The Edith Creek though, a little further north, by Dutton's report to the Brisbane Telegraph,
' ... proved a much more formidable obstacle. Here it was found necessary to cover the engines and rush the cars through the stream at top speed.'
Pine Creek, at the southern end of the then railway line from Darwin, and 69 miles north of Edith Creek was reached after a mammoth one day run. From here the men expected a relatively easy drive north but with the coming of the railway line the road to Darwin had basically been abandoned and its many bridges had been destroyed and the road washed away. Angelina was already struggling in the creek crossings (that extra 3.5kW, Overlander sported, obviously made a difference!) and was sent ahead on the train.
The party pushed on in the Overlander and at the now abandoned Union Town, not far from Pine Creek, the locals confidently predicted that the expedition would end in failure or disaster. With those dire words hanging in their ears the men drove on and at Bridge Creek a short distance further north found themselves looking at a sheer sided creek, eight to nine metres deep and with a sharp turn at the bottom.
Now the reporter with the Brisbane Telegraph started to get carried away, because I'm pretty sure, staid ol' Harry wouldn't have written this in his telegram:
'It was a case of "do or die." Reversing the engines, therefore, and pulling the brakes hard down, they launched the cars over the bank of the creek, and, after a looping-the-loop experience with a serpentine instead of a somersault turn at the bottom of the creek, each found himself rushing at the opposite bank, the steel-shod tyres striking showers of sparks from the boulders as they struck against them. Pluck and perseverance again were victorious, ....'
As they got closer to their final destination the jungle and verdant scrub closed in around them and they reported being covered in ants, spiders, 'and other pestiferous denizens'. The party drove into Port Darwin on the evening of the 20th August 1908 to 'public rejoicing' and later a function held in their honour.
While the men hadn't explored any new country or even blazed a new trail across the continent what they had achieved was hailed as a great achievement right across the continent and proved that the motor vehicle was a force to be reckoned with. The motor car though was to take another 20 or 30 years to supplant the horse and camel, but in the meantime other adventurous souls read about Duttons and Aunger's trip and set out on their own incredible travels.
A 100 years further on, we take our cue from such great Australian travellers as Len Beadell and the Leyland Brothers, but we all follow in Dutton's and Aunger's footsteps when we travel the Oodnadatta track, the old Ghan Line and the Stuart Highway north of Alice to Darwin. Tip your hat to them on the next trip north!
The Talbots and National Motor Musuem (NMM)
Angelina was sold and destroyed by a fire in 1915, although its box body is the one you see on Overlander today at the NMM.
The Overlander was used for many years on the Dutton's property and in 1959, Harry's sons re-enacted the trip and drove the vehicle once again from Adelaide to Darwin. There was a road by then but it was a bloody rough one – nothing like todays Oodnadatta Track or Stuart Highway.
In 1977 the Birdwood Mill Museum purchased the vehicle, which was in pretty good condition having been restored for the '59 trip. It was refurbished again for the 1988 Castrol Bicentenary World Rally and in 2008 the Talbot followed, but didn't drive, the original route as a travelling exhibition, Off the Beaten Track.
The vehicle is still in working condition and has pride of place at the NMM in Birdwood, South Australia.
While it is worthwhile to go to the museum for this vehicle alone there are many other standouts housed and on display here. These include Tom 'the Birdsville mailmen' Kruse' truck, the Leyland Brothers Land Rover, which was the first to cross the continent from Steep Point to Bryon Bay and many other truck and motoring classics.
For more on what to see at the NMM and on the Talbot go to: http://motor.history.sa.gov.au.
We'd like to thank the NMM, especially the curator, Matthew Lombard, for access to the vehicle and photographs and answering our numerous requests for information, as well as to the Talbot historian and vehicle restorer, Terry Parker.
All Pics courtesy & copyright of the National Motor Museum, unless otherwise noted.
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon