Historic Car Brands
There had been several attempts to manufacture an Australian built car during the closing years of the last decade of the 1800s – all of them watched with interest by young engineer, Harley Tarrant.
In 1897 David Shearer had built a steam-powered car in South Australia. Hebert Thomson from Armadale in Victoria also built a steam-powered car, which he christened the Pioneer – aptly named – in 1897.
Thomson was keen to promote his vehicle by showing it to the masses, having already exhibited it at the Cycle Exhibition held in the Exhibition Building Melbourne during 1897. He thought agricultural shows were major events in the lives of the Australian people, so his first port of call was to be the Royal Easter Show in 1900. He shipped it aboard the coastal ship MV Allinga, together with himself and his cousin Edward Holmes, bound for Sydney.
After the Royal where it had attracted much interest, he decided to drive it back to Melbourne, going via the agricultural show held in Bathurst. The Pioneer again attracted a great deal of interest at the Bathurst Show.
When the show was over, Thomson in company with Edward Holmes, pointed the Pioneer’s tiller south. One can only imagine what the condition of the inadequate tracks in NSW were like in 1900, when only a moderate rain event would no doubt render them impassable. Driving a motor car on this terrain would either be an act of stupidity or extreme bravery and there were no garages or service stations if a breakdown occurred.
The fact that the journey took 56 hours 30 minutes of driving time is testament to the durability of Thomson’s steam powered machine. They had travelled 493 miles (794km) at an average speed of 8.72 mph (14 km/h). This feat greatly impressed Harley Tarrant.
Our first petrol powered car – the Tarrant
Harley Tarrant was born in 1860 at Clunes in country Victoria, son of Joseph Tarrant, a gold rush miner and his wife Caroline, both from Oxford, England. After attending Clunes Grammar School, Harley became very interested in the concept of automobiles.
His father was by then a keen newspaper publisher, who firstly owned the local Clunes Gazette and later both the St Kilda Chronicle and Prahran Chronicle. That gave young Harley exposure to a plethora of articles from overseas journals, in particular, about the progress of the automobile in other countries.
Harley was a civil engineer/surveyor and, while working on the Nullarbor Plain, he dreamed of motor vehicles traversing this great expanse. He began to write articles about automobiles that were published in a cycling magazine, titled Austral Wheel.
He was keen to become involved with the motor car, thinking that steam and electric engines wouldn’t suit Australia’s vast landmass and topography. He then became interested in mechanical engineering and decided to build an engine using kerosene as fuel, with well-known bicycle maker Howard Lewis as his partner.
The design failed as a car engine, but it became a commercial success as a stationary engine for pumping water and was sold throughout the country – giving him capital to continue his dream of building a motor car that would carry the name Tarrant.
In 1900 the Tarrant Motor and Engineering Company was formed and the partners moved to premises in South Melbourne. Tarrant and Lewis worked night and day building a lightweight two-seater, with an imported Benz internal combustion petrol engine.
On completion they set out on its maiden voyage – at 11pm at night. Tarrant with Lewis riding shotgun, drove up Elizabeth St Melbourne and climbed Haymarket Hill. As they rolled down the other side gaining speed, Harley discovered his braking system wasn’t very effective. He had the presence of mind to switch off the engine, providing some degree of engine braking, while Lewis jumped off, using all his strength to drag the car to a dead stop.
Back at the workshop the next morning they busied themselves readdressing the braking system and rectifying the problem to a more than satisfactory conclusion.
This first car cost £200 to develop and build. It was sold to Chandler Bros – the principals of D & W Chandler Ltd – for £275. It was the first retail sale of an Australian-manufactured, petrol-driven car in this country.
Mr W Chandler took his family on a Christmas motoring holiday and the car gave little trouble, except for a succession of annoying punctures that delayed their progress.
During their first year of ownership, the Chandler brothers, it was reported, had driven it some 8000 miles (13,000km) and had spent little on mechanical repairs. Harley Tarrant was quick to capitalise on the success of the Chandlers’ experience and he widely advertised the fact that a Tarrant car could travel 25 miles in one hour (40 km/h), using only one gallon of petrol.
The duo went about improving the car’s design and building a more powerful, twin-cylinder engine.
During this time, they met up with a young man named William Ross. He was fascinated by automobiles and had just returned from Britain. He had gained an engineering degree at Melbourne University and, wanting to learn more in the UK, had travelled to Scotland, joining Hosier Engineering, the builders of Argyll cars.
In 1903 the Argyll factory was doing very well and wished to expand into overseas markets. William could see an opportunity and with Argyll’s permission, he sailed back to Melbourne with the appropriate documents, to search for and appoint an Argyll agency in Australia.
The Tarrant-Argyll trio in 1903
Tarrant and Lewis were keen to become involved, so they took up the agency and invited Ross to join them as a partner. Tarrant was to oversee engineering, Lewis, sales and Ross, the commercial aspect and most importantly, ordering of Argylls from Scotland.
While Tarrant concentrated on developing his own cars to his design, the company’s income came from selling imported cars. They had added the De Dion-Bouton car agency to their automotive sales company and they also started the Melbourne Motor Body Works, appointing James Flood, who had recently come to Australia with knowledge gained in the motor body building business overseas.
James Flood designed and Tarrant’s body shop built the first fully-enclosed car body made in Australia. It was fitted to a Fiat chassis for a doctor, who wanted full weather protection when doing his rounds.
The Tarrant business grew and moved to larger premises, to accommodate the addition of both Rover and Mercedes car agencies and Thornycroft and Commer trucks to the stable. With these added sales the company became very profitable. The body-building division also profited, building the bodies for other makes.
A parallel story began when a young Harry Hawker joined Tarrant in the early 1900s as an apprentice mechanic, but left in 1907, to pursue a career in aviation, subsequently moving to the UK. He co-founded Hawker Aircraft after Word War I and became famous for producing military aircraft – most notably the Hurricane, Typhoon and Hunter.
Harley’s competitive nature and love of motor cars drew him into the motor sport arena, taking part in arguably, Australia’s first motor race, held at Sandown racecourse, in Melbourne, during 1904.
Tarrant’s next machine was 90-percent locally made, including the engine. It became the prototype for at least eight others, all built to suit Australian conditions – for endurance rather than speed.
Tarrant’s victory in the two Dunlop reliability trials of 1905, driving an Argyll and Harley’s success in his Tarrant car in the 1906 event, helped to develop confidence in local manufacturing.
Algernon Darge was a well-known Melbourne photographer and the image below was taken at the conclusion of the 1905 Dunlop Reliability Trial. On completion of the Sydney to Melbourne run, nine of the entrants were on equal points and a runoff to Ballarat and return was required to determine the outright winners.
The image shows the outright winner on the left – Harley Tarrant, the very upright gentleman behind the steering wheel, in his two cylinder, 10 hp, Argyll. The vehicle on the right is the 8 hp, single cylinder DeDion Bouton driven by J. H. Craven, the bearded gentleman, who was second overall and winner of the light car class.
Despite his competition successes, Tarrant soon found he could not compete with imports produced in larger numbers for bigger markets. Tarrant built about 16 cars between 1900 and 1907.
In the US motor city of Detroit, Henry Ford was forging ahead with dreams that were very similar to those of Tarrant. His Model Ts were being imported and they suited the Australian buyer and conditions perfectly, as they were affordable and built to withstand the outback terrain.
Put simply, they were mass produced and because of the mass production volume, were less expensive than the Tarrant. They suited farmers, who could afford them.
Tarrant, through his research, knew when he was licked. The Model T was direct competition for his Tarrant motor car, but it had more features, more power and was less expensive – despite being imported.
So, he shut down the production of his own car and acquired the Victorian franchise for Ford in 1907.
In 1908, knocked down versions of the Model T began arriving on Australian shores, to be assembled by dealers.
More than 15 million Model Ts were sold around the world between 1908 and 1927, with Tarrant earning his slice of the pie by having the foresight to see it would become a massive success in Australia.
Harley had already set up to manufacture motor bodies locally, because car bodies, being bulky, were expensive to import, so overseas manufacturers imported the rolling chassis, minus the body. Also, during World War I, Tarrant began assembling chassis from imported components. At this time the company also had a thriving spare parts and accessories, and repair business.
1906 Tarrant on display at the RACV HQ in Melbourne
Tarrant played an important role in local motoring affairs. He lobbied on behalf of the Motor Importers’ Association for better traffic regulations and served in 1906-10 on the governing committee of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV). Harley Tarrant was a foundation member of the RACV; a councillor from 1906 to 1910 and was awarded life membership in 1947.
He helped to demonstrate the capabilities of the motor car by organising and participating in the RACV’s competitions and tours. In 1904 he won an event in the club’s first motor race meeting, averaging 26 miles (42 km) per hour.
In 1908 Tarrant had become first commanding officer of the Victorian branch of the part-time Australian Volunteer Automobile Corps. From September 1914, with the rank of Colonel, he oversaw Commonwealth military motor transport.
The magnitude and urgency of wartime needs made mistakes inevitable. A 1918 royal commission report charged his administration with inefficiency and waste, alleging that the public had been misled by the extent to which Tarrant Motors was favoured with repair contracts. Harley accepted responsibility by resigning, but in 1920 he was honoured with an MBE.
Harley Tarrant then retired from the business, complaining of physical exhaustion … and a skin rash. Sufficiently wealthy not to need to work, he freely indulged his passion for camping and overseas travel. In 1932 he came out of retirement to take over production supervision at Ruskin Motor Bodies Pty Ltd, an affiliate of the Tarrant company.
A tall, dignified man with a bushy moustache, he had done much to pioneer and consolidate the first phase of the Australian motor industry. His wife Charlotte Jane, née Gill, whom he had married on 20 March 1901, at Balaclava, died aged 85 in 1945. Survived by their daughter Doreen, Tarrant died on 25 February 1949, aged 89, at his Toorak home.
The company was sold in 1950 to the Austin Motor Co (British Motor Corporation).
The last Tarrant
This car was originally manufactured in 1906 by Harley Tarrant and was recovered in 1932 by Maurice Shmith, a former employee of the Tarrant Motor Company. Shmith presented the car to Kenneth and Peter Holmes, grandsons of its creator, Colonel Harley Tarrant, in 1960.
They painstakingly restored it with their mother, the late Mrs Holmes, nee Tarrant, who was the mastermind behind the restoration, employing elderly tradespeople, who could apply the original early methods of car production.
Peter Holmes, Harley Tarrant’s grandson, was one of the restorers
This green Tarrant has a two-seater, roadster-style body that was reconstructed during its restoration. It is powered by the original Tarrant-built, four-cylinder, side-valve engine of 3.5 litres capacity, with a 15-hp rating. It is the sole surviving car made by the Tarrant Car Company and is arguably one of Australia’s most precious pieces of automotive history.
The Tarrant had pride of place at the opening of the West Gate Bridge in 1978, crewed by Harley’s daughter, Doreen and grandsons Kenneth and Peter Holmes.
After the restoration it was lent to the Birdwood National Motor Museum in South Australia by the family and was later purchased from the family by the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, because of its significance to Victoria and Harley’s involvement at the RACV. The Tarrant is now displayed in its head office foyer in Bourke St Melbourne.
In 1984 this car also appeared on a stamp in the ‘Early Australian Automobile Series’, issued by Australia Post.