Eagers Automotive history
Eagers Automotive Limited is the leading automotive retail group in Australia and New Zealand, with a long and proud history of more than 100 years, including an attempt on the Australian land speed record.
That history began with an Overland car franchise, back in 1913, when American-born Edward Eager and his son, Frederic, founded their family automotive business.
Claude Cox’s original Overland car was developed in the early 1900s by the Standard Wheel Company, of Terre Haute, Indiana. The fledgling firm had already changed hands once before John North Willys (pronounced Will-iss), who was a New York car dealer and major Overland customer, arrived to rescue it from oblivion in 1907.
Willys had ordered 500 Overlands and paid a deposit of $10,000. When his ordered cars were not forthcoming, he caught the train to Indiana, to find Overland on the point of closure.
Willys then secured credit, re-organised the company and, by the summer of 1908, he was able to secure a larger factory in Toledo, Ohio. The revitalised company’s production increased steadily until, by the beginning of WW1, only Ford could claim higher car production numbers.
Overland’s sliding-gear transmission replaced its previous epicyclic type in 1909 – co-incidentally when Ford introduced the Model T, with the latter form of transmission that it would use for the next 17 years!
All Overlands built before 1916 had right hand drive, after which the factory switched to left-hand drive.
Edward Eager was a native of Toledo, Ohio and had set up a shop selling used automobiles in the early 1900s. Eager then gained experience with foreign markets, working for both Goodyear and Henry Ford in overseas roles.
After a meeting with Willys, Eager was given responsibility for overseas sales of Overland vehicles, while Willys was to look after the US domestic market.
Eager was keen to make Australia his first port of call, as both the landmass and topography were similar to the USA’s. From his knowledge of the Overland’s specification and feedback about its durability from owners, he thought it would be a perfect fit for the land Down Under. He brought to Australia and New Zealand a demonstration car that he had shipped with him.
The car was very well received in both countries, with great interest from several car dealers he called on. A number of them placed orders and were keen to become Overland dealers.
Edward Eager’s next excursion was to some African countries, again with a demonstration vehicle in tow. The product reception was positive and, while in Cairo, he drove the Overland across the desert to the Sphinx, thus proving how well the Overland could negotiate the sandy terrain.
Settling Down Under
In 1912, Edward Eager decided to give up international travel and settle in Australia with his family, relinquishing the African and Asian territories. He disliked the hostile winters in Toledo and wanted to settle in the warmer climate of Queensland. He made Brisbane home and opened an Overland dealership.
His son Fredrick was then 24 and was keen to join his father in the car sales game. They found a small property in the CBD, registering the business as E G Eager & Son.
Then, a third employee, Wally Webb, a mechanic and engineer, was employed to run the workshop.
Edward found the competition from other Brisbane dealers to be quite cut and thrust. Of course, nothing has changed in over a century! One dealer – Canada Cycle & Motors (CCM) – was particularly competitive and represented several makes, including Studebaker.
These early days of the new car sales business were to become the dawn of motor sport. With dealers wanting to demonstrate the performance and durability of their brands, speed trials were devised, as were hill climbs around Brisbane. One of these hill climbs was One Tree Hill.
Edward asked their mechanic, Wally Webb, to prepare an Overland for such events. They also needed a confident driver and Edward asked his son Fred, knowing of his interest in driving, if he’d like to take on the challenge.
After Wally had completed the fine tuning of the car, which he had painted white, Fred then honed his driving skills in the car, which they christened Whitey.
Fred soon became a star at wheeling Whitey up One Tree Hill and was challenged by a CCM-prepared Studebaker, driven by their specialist driver, Alec Jewell.
The Studebaker had a six-cylinder engine, where the Overland was powered by a smaller four-cylinder unit, but the Overland was much lighter and somewhat more nimble than the bigger Studebaker. The two cars were matched against each other at several such events. Fred and Whitey became a winning combination.
At this point in the Eagers’ saga, we’re indebted to journalist Murray Hubbard, who has written a book about this fierce Queensland contest: Car Wars Down Under.
The two contesting companies decided to hold an outright speed test, to set an Australian land-speed-record for a petrol-powered car. Southport Beach was chosen and 25th December 1916 was the chosen date, when the tide would be low and the sand well-compacted.
The racing window was between 2:30pm and 4:30pm on Christmas Day; an hour either side of the tide’s lowest ebb. The Automobile Club of Queensland was in attendance, with timing equipment set up on a half-mile course.
Alec Jewell and the Studebaker made the first run, taking 22 seconds between the start and finish lines, with a recorded speed of 81.75 miles per hour.
Then Fred Eager and Whitey made their first run that was one second slower at 23 seconds. Fred went back for a second run and the elapsed time was 22 seconds.
Alec then took a second run and took 0.6 of a second off the previous run, breaking the deadlock in 21.4 seconds, at a speed of 84.5 miles per hour.
Fred then tried a third run but, was unable to crack his previous 22 second time. He had given Whitey his all but there was no way he could wring out any more speed. Alec, piloting the Studebaker, was declared the winner.
That very Studebaker and Whitey were both in great condition in 2022, with their current owners.
Gavin Mutton spent years locating the Studebaker’s original parts – many of which had been fitted to a corn harvester in the Darling Downs. Graham Crittenden found the Willys Overland in 1966, restoring it back to its original condition.
According to AutoAction the two cars that raced each other for the inaugural Australian land speed record made an appearance together at the Historic Leyburn Sprints in Queensland on August 20-21, 2022.
Eager to succeed
Canada Cycle & Motors (CCM) may have won the race back in 1916, but Eagers went on to bigger and better things. Those who have lived in, or passed through, Brisbane, have dealt with the company or seen the name of Eagers Automotive.
After establishing the first motor vehicle assembly plant in Queensland in 1922, Eagers secured the distributorship of General Motors products in Queensland and northern New South Wales in 1930, and ceased to be the Australian Willys-Overland importer.
Eagers was listed as a public company in 1957, under the name Eagers Holdings Limited.
A merger in 1992 with the listed A P Group Limited saw the addition of a number of new franchises and a name change to A P Eagers Limited. Further new franchises and geographic diversification followed.
The company name was changed to Eagers Automotive Limited in 2020, following the acquisition of the listed Automotive Holdings Group Limited (AHG).
The acquisition of AHG made Eagers the leading automotive retail group in Australia and New Zealand, with principal locations in Brisbane, regional Queensland, Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Newcastle/Hunter Valley, Tasmania and Auckland.