Motor cars and freeways: measures of a South Australian love affair Peter

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Motor cars and freeways:

measures of a South Australian love affair

Peter Donovan

South Australians, like their interstate relatives, fell in love with motor vehicles, and car ownership became a common dream during the first half of the 20th century. This love affair helped to transform many traditional social practices and attitudes, along with the physical nature of South Australia's towns and cities. It even affected the architecture of the family home, the ownership of which was the other great dream of Australians. The love affair with motor cars began long before Tom Playford’s premiership, but it reached its most hedonistic peak during the latter years of this period. Motor vehicles became more affordable and vast amounts of money were spent to make it easier for South Australians to travel further, faster and in more comfort than before.

South Australians saw their first motor vehicle in the late 19th century. However, for many decades automobiles remained the playthings of the rich and successful who could afford to import cars from overseas. The League of South Australian Wheelmen, formed in September 1903, was the forerunner of the Royal Automobile Association.1 These were exciting days when adventurous motorists captured the attention of the nation with major feats of endurance, or going where men in motor vehicles had never gone before, only to be followed immediately by others trying to better each new record. In 1903, Ben Thomson pioneered a route from Adelaide to Melbourne via the Coorong, taking almost four days for the journey. Richard Duncan soon lowered the time to less than three days, and then Murray Aunger and Albert Barr Smith claimed the record for the journey in 22½ hours in February 1909. The year before that Aunger, with Harry Dutton, had become the first to drive from Adelaide to Darwin, after abandoning an attempt in 1907. The adventurer Francis Birtles, together with Sidney Ferguson, became the first motorists to drive from Perth to Sydney in 1912; once they left the cities these pioneers had to blaze their own trails or follow the tracks cut by horse-drawn wagons.

The increased popularity of the car had far reaching effects which were evident in the planning and appearance of the new subdivisions about Adelaide in the 1920s. There was no longer a need to provide stables for horses, but rather private garages for cars and neighbourhood garages with kerbside petrol bowsers. The motor car also began to change work habits. The travelling salesmen of the pharmaceutical company F.H. Faulding & Co. began making their country visits by motor vehicle rather than by train, while members of the South Australian Pastoral Board made their inspections of far flung pastoral stations by car rather than horse and trap.

Despite these developments, in the 1930s, the private use, indeed the possession, of a car by middle and working class South Australians remained a luxury. The number of motor vehicles had increased steadily after the First World War but levelled off in 1929 and fell away during 1930 ‘as a result of the general depression and the unfavorable seasons in several parts of the State’.2 New car registrations slumped from 9,946 in 1927 to 2,401 in 1930 and only 544 the following year before rising again to 5,406 in 1938.3 Soon after the worst effects of the Great Depression had begun to ease during the late 1930s, South Australians were again at war, and many of those who possessed motor vehicles had to put them on blocks until they returned from the conflict or until petrol rationing was lifted.

Boom years

The situation changed soon after the Second World War. The immediate post-war years were the boom days of the Playford government, reflected in part in the number of motor vehicle registrations in the state. The number of motor vehicles on the road – including heavy transport vehicles — rose dramatically after the war, particularly after the commonwealth government discontinued the rationing of petrol in February 1950. Many ex-servicemen who had acquired driving skills during the war bought surplus army vehicles at post-war disposal sales and set themselves up in business as road hauliers.

New motor vehicle registrations, 1944-65


Motor cars

Commercial vehicles+

Motor cycles































































































































+Includes trucks, buses, vans, panel-vans, utility trucks, ambulances, hearses and, until 1951, station wagons. *Until 1951 these figures were included with commercial vehicles.

(Wray Vamplew et al., South Australian Historical Statistics, History Project, Sydney, n.d., p.309.)

Cars became more affordable in the post-war years as wages and salaries rose faster than the cost of living. The award wage for clerks, which was £4 2s 6d in 1938, increased to £6 13s a decade later and more than doubled in the following 10 years to £14 9s 6d. The wages of storemen increased similarly, from £4 12s 6d to £6 5s and £13 17s during the same period.4 Costs did not rise to the same extent: many items considered to be essential, such as bread and milk, even petrol, were tightly controlled by the government. Indeed, ‘between 1916 and 1956 the basic wage rose 392 per cent and the minimum award rate 502 per cent whereas prices increased 309 per cent’.5

The new circumstances were reflected in the development of ‘Australia’s Own Car’, the Holden, which heralded a new era in motoring in Australia. The first FX Holden rolled off the assembly line at the General Motors-Holden’s Fishermen’s Bend factory in Victoria on 29 November 1948, the bodies having been constructed at the company’s plant at Woodville in South Australia. The Holden went on display in Adelaide showrooms on 7 December 1948 with a price of £675 plus tax.6 It was an instant success with the waiting time for orders soon extending to three years; by 1951 the company had produced 50,000 units, but had orders for almost 100,000.7 Even though Nancy Buttfield was the daughter of Sir Edward Holden, the chairman of General Motors-Holden's Ltd who was grandson of the founder of the Holden saddlery and leathergoods business after whom the car was named, she had no special privileges and had to wait her turn.8

However, South Australians did not have to wait for a new Holden in order to enjoy the freedom provided by motoring. Nor did they have to wait for one of the new vehicles produced in South Australia after Chrysler Australia acquired control of the vehicle builder, T.J. Richards & Sons of Keswick, in 1951. The first motor vehicle of many, if not most, middle and working class families was probably acquired second-hand. In 1948 the cost of a 1940 Vauxhall varied from £350 to £450 from a second-hand car dealer; a 1935 Plymouth could be acquired for £360, or a Morris sedan from £275.9 Ten years later a 1951 Austin A40 could be acquired for £465 and a 1950 Holden sedan for £495.

The motor car gave South Australians freedom to move beyond the public transport network or the distances which they could travel by bicycle. A new lifestyle grew up dependent upon the private motor vehicle. South Australians were no longer constrained to patronise local stores or have home deliveries by butchers, bakers and greengrocers. Instead, it was to become the norm for them to make weekly purchases at large shopping centres. One of the first and largest of the new supermarkets was the Coles supermarket which opened at suburban Plympton, west of Adelaide, on 30 November 1966 with parking spaces for 110 cars.

Entertainment, too, was greatly altered by the motor vehicle. The first blow to the popularity of the neighbourhood cinema, which had been such an important social centre in the inter-war period, was the advent of the drive-in theatre. The first in South Australia was the Blueline, which opened on West Beach Road on 28 December 1954. The drive-in gave young couples more privacy than a love-seat in a cinema, but it was also popular with families since children could be readied for bed before they left the house and the younger ones could go to sleep at any time.

Many of the changes wrought by the popularity of the motor car were more subtle. The car, together with greater affluence and increased leisure time, permitted South Australians to participate in more leisure activities than had been the case in earlier generations. This was reflected by the steady decline in attendance at major football and cricket fixtures in the period from the 1950s: the decline was even sharper when attendances were calculated as a proportion of the rapidly increasing population.10 Motor sports grew in popularity. Enthusiasts formed the Sporting Car Club of South Australia on 22 May 1934 and through it sponsored major events, including the Australian Hillclimb Championship which was first run at Collingrove in the Barossa Valley on 15 March 1952 and has been held annually ever since. A motor racing circuit opened at Port Wakefield on 1 January 1953. On 19 August 1961 a new circuit was opened on what had been the wartime aerodrome at Mallala; the Australian Grand Prix was run there on 7 October that year.11

The mobility provided by the motor car weakened the sense of local identity. South Australians were no longer required to live near their place of employment or their friends and places of amusement. Grown children with families of their own frequently made their homes in areas distant from those of their parents and thereby often broke long family associations with a town or district. Even determinations about which League football club supporters followed became less dependent on place of residence.

The freedom provided by the car also prompted a decline in regular church attendance and hastened the secularisation of Sunday. This secularisation was most evident in those Protestant churches which emphasised Sunday religious observance in afternoons and evenings12 Anglicans found attendances declining at Evensong in particular, and Methodists and others re-scheduled Sunday school from afternoons to mornings in an effort to stem the defections, but to little avail.

The role of Tom Playford

Tom Playford indirectly encouraged the use of motor vehicles in his role as premier. As leader of a government bent upon industrial development, he lavished support and resources on those government departments and agencies, such as the Engineering and Water Supply Department, the Electricity Trust of South Australia and the South Australian Housing Trust, which were charged with building the physical infrastructure to underpin the revolution to attract industry to South Australia. Historian Hugh Stretton observed of this policy:

state enterprises, hard-worked and low-paid and philistine but uncorrupted, build roads and bridges, pump Murray water to industrial and farm towns all over the state, and drain the nation’s best-sewered metropolis. Precious villages, precious trees and precious old oligarchs are trampled impartially if they get in the way of the lowest-cost routes.13

Another of these ‘philistine but uncorrupted’ departments and an agent of great social change was the Highways Department, which had been responsible for building better roads to accommodate the greater number of motor vehicles. As well as rebuilding the road network with bituminous concrete to make it suitable for modern vehicles — in accordance with a program initiated in 1923, but postponed by depression and war — the Highways Department was also called upon to act in concert with other agencies to implement Playford's policies. Thus, the department worked closely with the Housing Trust in the development of Whyalla and the satellite city of Elizabeth.

Although important, the Highways Department was not one of the chief engines of Playford's industrial policy and its commissioners were not among his inner circle of advisers. But a story told of Playford indicates something of the manner in which these agencies were accustomed to act at his direction. On one occasion, during the course of a telephone conversation with Highways Commissioner Frank Jackman, Playford pointed out that there were some dangerous bends on the road to his Norton Summit property. A suggestion from the premier was considered an order by some in the department, for very soon the minor work on the bends became a full scale project, with plant and trucks being detailed off to the site. Playford was soon on the telephone to the commissioner: ‘Frank, do you want to get me hung. Pull all that gear out of that road or I’ll …’ Playford was adamant that he should not appear to be using his position to have something done for himself.14 However, he was not so backward in using his position to advance particular policies of his government.

With the support of Playford, the 1960s were perhaps the most optimistic and dynamic decade in the history of the Highways Department when traffic engineers could dream grandiose dreams with a fair expectation that they might be realised. This was the era of freeway design and construction, when few dared question the scale of the projects or the need to acquire property so that they might be built. The editor of the News left little doubt about the necessity of freeways for Adelaide:

The soundness of plans to build freeways to cope with the increasing traffic as the metropolis of Adelaide expands is confirmed by the expert opinion of the professor at the school of traffic engineering at the University of NSW, Prof. W.R. Blunden.

After a study yesterday of morning peak traffic on Anzac Highway, Prof. Blunden suggested a north-south traffic freeway, coming close to the city on its west side, to carry great volumes of traffic now forced to use ordinary suburban roads ...

The basic concept is there, and its general soundness is unquestionable. In heavily motorised America, the freeway has proved an indispensable part of modem living.

The urgent need now is to put the planning into effect, to site the freeways, acquire the land, build them and use them before the city growth outpaces the planners. The longer the delay, the more difficult and more expensive the job will become.15

Most readers of the daily press, many of whom were motorists, did not challenge the wisdom of the experts and community leaders. On 11 October 1960 the Minister for Roads, Norman Jude, introduced into the Legislative Council a Bill to enable the government to build freeways and to proclaim them controlled access roads. It proved a welcome initiative.16

The 1962 Metropolitan Plan drawn up by the Town Planning Committee reflected much of the freeway debate to that time. In addressing the future of metropolitan Adelaide's road network the committee reported that:

Road widening, the improvement of intersections, more stringent control measures and the prohibition of kerbside parking at peak periods will be necessary to ensure a smooth traffic flow. These measures will give only temporary relief, and within a period of 10 years traffic congestion may become serious and the time, distance and cost of travel may increase to such an extent that a new type of highway, called a freeway, will become necessary to enable large volumes of traffic to run swiftly and safely.17

The committee’s 1962 report identified the need to construct 56 km of freeways and 225 km of duplicated road and envisaged that the major road system of metropolitan Adelaide would

include the construction of 98 miles [157 km] of new freeways, 53 miles [85 km] of new arterial roads, the widening from 66 ft to 80 ft [20 m to 24 m] of 171 miles [274 km] of existing roads under the Metropolitan Road Widening Scheme, and the improvement of some 450 miles [720 km] of existing roads.18

This direction and philosophy formed the basis for the department's planning strategy for the following decade.

Ultimately, a freeway to the south-east of Adelaide, for which planning was already well advanced, was the only one constructed during this period. Somewhat ironically, the implementation of this project encouraged the first questioning of the philosophy which brought it about.

The South-Eastern Main Road was one of the most important of Adelaide’s arterial roads, yet the one with the most difficult alignment. Throughout the 1950s the department had implemented initiatives to relieve congestion on the road, particularly on that part between Glen Osmond and Crafers, but these were little more than temporary solutions. During the early 1960s arguments were advanced for the construction of a freeway of the type that had revolutionised traffic movement in major American cities. Departmental officers, many of whom had studied American practice at first­hand, had kept an eye on developments elsewhere and were convinced of the benefits of freeway construction.19

On 5 February 1962 Playford’s cabinet agreed to engage the services of an American consultant to advise on a proposed first section of a freeway to continue from the widened Mount Barker Road. Once the preferred alignment was determined, the department commenced acquiring the necessary property and carrying out the detailed surveying for the project. The first section of freeway was only about 4 km long, but it included major interchanges at Crafers and Stirling and required the department to acquire all or portions of 80 properties and 25 houses.

Land acquisition proved tricky, but was not permitted to stand in the way of such an apparently necessary project. As one commentator noted: ‘A highway through his park scandalized one commonwealth cabinet minister out of his country seat and all the way to England without stopping’.20 The battle for Arbury Park, the home of federal Minister for Immigration, Alexander Downer, became a celebrated affair, although this was only one of the properties affected by the alignment of the freeway immediately beyond Stirling. The department went out of its way to avoid antagonising property owners unnecessarily and considered several alternative routes, but the most economical one passed through Downer’s 93-hectare property and within 200 m of the front door of his two-storey Georgian style home.

News of the department’s plans was published on 2 May 1962, although surveying of the route had already been underway for some time. Several people were outraged and criticised the route proposed for the freeway, among them the noted architect E. Kenneth Milne, who had designed Arbury Park and considered the government’s intentions ‘a complete tragedy’.21 Downer stoutly opposed the plan and instructed his lawyers to negotiate an alternative route, even offering land at the rear of the house for the freeway. Paradoxically, the more Downer opposed the route the more difficult it became for the department and the government to compromise lest they be accused of pandering to wealth and influence and further disadvantaging others with whom the department was also negotiating.

The furore was so great that Playford became involved personally. He telephoned Frank Jackman and asked for a briefing on the alignment of the freeway, saying: ‘If you can show me that this is the only way that you can go, I'll back you’.22 Jackman convinced him that there was no other viable route and thereafter Playford, who was never a close personal friend of Downer, would brook no compromise that would create extra expense or imply a political deal. He instructed Norman Jude, the Minister for Roads and Transport and an Adelaide Club colleague of Downer, to resolve the issue.

Downer ceased further opposition soon afterwards, and in December 1963 the federal government appointed him as successor to Sir Eric Harrison, the retiring Australian High Commissioner in the United Kingdom. On 28 April 1964 Downer revealed that he had reached an agreement with the state government for the acquisition of property. He and his family left Adelaide the following day to take up his appointment in London. Fortunately for the department, no other acquisition proved as complicated or as drawn out as that of Arbury Park.

Preliminary work began on the Crafers to Stirling section of the freeway in December 1965, although difficulties with some acquisitions meant that the actual earthworks for the undertaking were delayed until February 1966. The first part of the South-Eastern Freeway, the northern carriageway, was opened to traffic on 1 February 1967, but was not officially opened until 28 February 1969. Even then this section was not finally completed until the Crafers interchange became fully operative on 28 May 1969.


Although construction of the South-Eastern Freeway continued after the defeat of Playford’s government, the end of the Playford era coincided with the end of the heady days for those responsible for designing major engineering projects in South Australia. The first part of the South-Eastern Freeway was completed as designed, but the design of its continuation was far more modest. Perhaps more importantly, many South Australians had become cynical about the benefits of bigger and better roads and more conscious of the social and environmental costs. No longer did many of them consider the removal of road-side trees and buildings as a reasonable price for what was called progress. This became evident in 1966 when the Campbelltown Council, with Highways Department funding, proposed to widen Montacute Road and marked 130 gum trees for destruction. Controversy ensued, led largely by Dr John Coulter, a research officer with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The high point of the opposition to the tree-felling was a demonstration in front of Parliament House. Eventually, about 40 trees were spared.

For a time, Highways Department engineers continued to plan grandiose projects such as the system of metropolitan freeways outlined in the Metropolitan Adelaide Transportation Study (MATS) which was undertaken ‘to devise a workable, acceptable and adaptable plan to guide traffic and transport development of Metropolitan Adelaide up to the year 1986’. MATS was initially welcomed by the Advertiser, which considered it timely.23 However, the ultimate rejection of the essential features of the study by influential South Australians, largely because of the immense impact the freeway network would have on the metropolitan area, especially to the west of the city, indicated that the government, the planners and the press had misjudged the mood of South Australians. Succeeding governments did nothing to implement the key recommendations of MATS and, after the Australian Labor Party returned to power on 2 June 1970, the plan was pared down and then scrapped.

Only Playford’s most ardent supporters mourned the defeat of his government on 10 March 1965. ‘He had been there too long’, observed a journalist from the Bulletin, ‘Even the Advertiser could barely disguise its yawns. It was a time for change, for new faces, new ideas’.24 Playford may have left ‘a lean state administrative apparatus which seemed particularly attuned to his own ideas about personal integrity, budgetary frugality, economic growth and public welfare parsimony’1,25 yet neither Playford nor the administration seemed closely attuned to the current mood of many South Australians, who rejected the notion of freeways even though they had cause to welcome the conveniences that freeways promised. South Australians had become ever more dependent upon motor vehicles for work and recreation. The metropolitan area had been extended further north and south and the government was hardpressed to service the extended area with public transport. South Australians responded by buying more motor cars. There were 27,567 new car registrations in 1965, up from 18,801 a decade earlier. However, many South Australians had become concerned with quality-of-life issues. They remained in love with their motor vehicles for the convenience that they offered, but were no longer prepared to have towns and communities sacrificed simply to provide bigger and better roads.

1 Stuart Nicol, Bullock Tracks and Bitumen: South Australia’s motoring heritage, RAA SA, Adelaide, 1978pp. 12-16.

2 Annual Report of the Department of Highways and Local Government 1930-31.

3 Wray Vamplew et al., South Australian Historical Statistics, History Project, Sydney, n.d., p.309.)

4 See South Australian Government Gazette, 1937, p.894; 1938, p.624; 1947, p.96; 1948, p.1063; 1957, pp.1015, 1133.

5 Wray Vamplew, ‘South Australians 1836-1986: a statistical sketch’, in South Australian Year Book No. 21, Government Printer, Adelaide, 1986, p.66.

6 Advertiser 7.12.1948.

7 Shane Birney, Australia’s Own: the history of Holden, Golden Press, Sydney, 1985, p.80.

8 Nancy Buttfield assisted by June Donovan, Dame Nancy: the autobiography of Nancy Buttfield, Nancy Buttfield, North Adelaide, 1992, p.72.

9 Advertiser 27.11.1948.

10 Vamplew, p.53.

11 Dennis Harrison, With Casual Efficiency: the story of the Sporting Car Club of South Australia, Sporting Car Club of SA, Unley Park, 1994.

12 Vamplew et al., p.20.

13 Hugh Stretton, Ideas for Australian Cities, 2ed, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1975, p.152.

14 Interview with Jack Holton, former Assistant Chief Engineer of the Highways Department, 24.4.1991.

15 News 11.8.1960.

16 Advertiser 13.10.1960.

17 Town Planning Committee, Report on the Metropolitan Area of Adelaide, Adelaide, 1962, p.282.

18 Annual Report of the Highways Department 1962-63; Advertiser 2.10.1963.

19 Advertiser 4.10.1958.

20 Stretton, p.152.

21 Advertiser 4.5.1962.

22 Interview with Holton.

23 Advertiser 23.12.1964.

24 Bulletin 6.8.1966.

25 Andrew Parkin, ‘Transition, Innovation, Consolidation, Readjustment: the political history of South Australia since 1961’, in The Flinders History of South Australia: political history, ed. Dean Jaensch, Wakefield, Adelaide, 1986, p.293.

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