Football, meatpies, kangaroos and Thomson cars?
Herbert Thomson was the first person to design, build and market a wholly Australian-made car, 50 years before the first Holden.
Warren Brown talks to Matthew Churchwood, who has studied the steam car since 1995.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
We all like to think of the Holden as being our first locally made car, a sort of cultural icon.
But is it an icon or an impostor? If things had turned out differently fifty years earlier then we might have been singing ‘football, meat pies, kangaroos and Thomson cars’. And if its inventor had his way, then our cars would have been running on hot water.
So going for a drive would have been a bit like putting the kettle on for a cuppa. That’s because the Thomson car was steam driven. His original car is on display at the Melbourne Museum¹.
Isn’t this a beauty. There’s not a kilometre on the clock, because it hasn’t got a clock, and only one owner, and it wasn’t a little old lady who drove it to work on Sundays. It was the inventor and visionary Herbert Thomson.
Thomson was a Melbourne engineer who had the dream to mass produce an all-Australian-made car. And that was in the 1890s, fifty years before the first Holden rolled off the line. Now the amazing thing is, when Thomson drew up the designs, he had only ever heard of cars and seen pictures, but he’d never actually laid eyes on a real one².
Matthew Churchwood has studied the steam car since 1995.
When it first appeared on Melbourne streets in 1898, for a lot of people it was the first motor vehicle they had ever seen. It was a total novelty.
Why did he choose steam rather than petrol gasoline?
I guess at that time steam was still the technology of the day, most industry was run by steam power. Thomson had done most of his training in steam power. In fact he built his first steam engine at the young age of twelve and went on to found an engineering business in the early 1890s, likely building small steam engines and repairing them and so on.
When Thomson applied for a patent for his steam car he claimed it had about half a dozen innovations. So what passed for a technological breakthrough in the 1890s?
This looks like a hand brake but it’s the steering mechanism and unlike other cars of the era that had a boat tiller that he moved left to right when you push this lever forward it turned the wheels to the right and when you pulled it back it turned the wheels to the left — so it must have been a mongrel of a thing to steer.
But wait until you see what’s underneath. This is where all the fun of owning a Thomson steam car begins. Unlike other steam cars the Thomson has two speed gears and if you can see this belt on this little pulley well that’s great for driving up steep hills but when you get to the top and you want to get on the open road you’ve got to stop the car, climb out, get underneath, pull this belt off this pulley, and with a screwdriver get it on this bigger pulley, then you get back in the car and then you follow the open road. That’s all very well until you get to another hill and then you’ve got to go through the whole process and get it back on the little pulley again. And that’s a long way from a modern-day automatic transmission.
So what happened to the Thomson Car Company? We look around the streets today and we don’t see Thomson steam cars anywhere. When did it all start to fade into the distance for us?
The Thomson Car Company built about twelve cars up to 1903 and unfortunately they could never make them profitably to compete with the cost of imported cars and so eventually they went out of business.
So I guess Thomson’s car company ran out of steam!
Herbert Thomson died in 1947, the year before Holden began Australia’s passion for the locally made car, and perhaps it’s just as well because in the years before he died he’d come to the conclusion that as useful as cars were, they were in his words, ‘a positive nuisance’. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was the first person to manufacture and market a wholly Australian-made car and this National Treasure is where the dream began.
¹ Correction: The car held at the Melbourne Museum was built in 1898. An earlier model is held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
² Correction: The Thomson car was built by Herbert Thomson and Edward Holmes.