As well as its impact on individual soldiers and their families, WW1 had a huge effect on Western Australian society, including on the burgeoning car industry and its auto club. Stephen Williams takes a look at WA and the motor-car circa 1914.

In 1914, when our troops were heading off to war, cars were few and far between in Western Australia. There were just 1500 automobiles on our roads – double that of 1901 when WA had joined the Federation – compared with 150,000 much more dependable horses. If you had been betting on car-versus-horse prospects at the time, it’s safe to say most people’s hard-earned cash would have been on the horse, along with proven motorised transport such as trains, trams and even motorcycles.

Population numbers also had been multiplying since the Swan River Colony gained self-government in 1890, surging from 45,000 to 320,000. Perth had been quickly transformed from a face-to-face town to a capital city with plenty of hustle and bustle. It had also acquired many graceful buildings, little in the way of slums or pollution, and was adorned with the beautiful Kings Park. On city streets even labourers’ attire included a waistcoat, tie and hat, while women wore long frocks and hats to go shopping.

Wild about the west

The economic spur for this rapid growth was Bayley and Ford’s gold strike in 1892 at Fly Flat near Coolgardie, which had the world going wild about Australia’s hitherto little-known west. Most of the influx to the state was “t’othersiders” from the recession-hit eastern colonies as well as the UK and Ireland. Next were “foreign Europeans”, about 6000 men and few women from Italy, Germany and Sweden. It was a very Anglo-Celtic place, and for most people, a lucky place. From 1890 to 1914, annual timber production multiplied 120-fold, gold 50, other minerals 30, while wool quadrupled. Driven chiefly by Premier John Forrest and engineer CY O’Connor, this was also a time of extensive public works – the
development of the railways, powerhouses, dams, pipelines and harbours that oiled production and distribution.

Western Australia was a free society with progressive voting rights and labour conditions. Seventy-five per cent of the workforce was working class. Women’s workforce participation rate was 30 per cent, although they had a narrow range of low-paid jobs, such as domestic, retail and factory work. There was universal schooling and housing was increasingly serviced with water, sewerage, gas and electricity. New suburbs sprang up near tram or train transport and home ownership was at 45 per cent.

Perth’s essential 1914 bone structure, with the focus shifted away from the river due to the coming of rail in 1880, had formed. The to and fro of rail passengers stimulated the growth of retailing between Wellington and Hay streets, which by 1914 had arcades and thriving department stores including Boans and Foy & Gibsons. Meanwhile, St Georges Terrace had become the banking and commerce hub.

The advent of war changed the outlook for the rapidly growing state. Most economic sectors were affected, including the seemingly over-optimistic car industry, which in WA had dealers spruiking 196 brands (compared with today’s 67 makes). They included “Skipper” Bailey, whose Hupmobile taxi sideline was doing well, MS Brooking, Percy Armstrong, William Attwood and Wentworth Winterbottom selling now unfamiliar automobiles including Darracq, Boyer, Waverley, Silent Knight,Calthorp, Hupmobile and Brush. Ford, Mercedes, Fiat, Dodge and Peugeot were already making their mark.


As a war measure, for each complete car imported, two bare chassis had to be brought in. This actually helped the coachwork industry, which grew to 100 businesses in the metro area by 1920. At one point during the war, petrol rations were two gallons a month, and both rubber and manpower were in short supply, with WA having Australia’s highest enlistment and casualty rates. Of 32,000 Western Australians who enlisted, tragically about 6000 perished and nearly 16,000 were wounded.

A collision between motor car and motor cycle on Mount Street.

A collision between motor car and motor cycle on Mount Street.

Newspapers, the only mass advertising medium, had staid content and layouts so promotional stunts were popular. In 1915, dealer Percy Armstrong demonstrated the suitability of Studebakers to Australia by driving one to Sydney in nine days. Seeking such rugged automobiles were the increasing number of farmers and pastoralists who were now buying cars. However, as the war news darkened, stunts not connected to raising funds for good causes were frowned upon. Even the annual Perth to Albany race was called off.

Racing was naturally frowned upon in the city limits too. As well as licensing cars and issuing plates to the cars in its precinct, the Perth City Council also set the speed limits: around corners the limit was 6km/h and elsewhere 16km/h, which was increased in 1918 to 22km/h, outside the busiest shopping area.

The Automobile Club of Western Australian (now RAC), which was only nine years old in 1914, played a dual civic role during the First World War – supporting motoring  and using the resources it had to help the war effort locally. RAC’s Manager Vehicles and Fuels, Alex Forrest, a great-great nephew of Premier Forrest, says the car industry and regulation was still in its infancy at the time.

“Cars were still a largely unknown technology among the majority of the population,” he says. “So there was a huge amount of work to do in establishing a road network and the infrastructure to support it such as petrol distribution and servicing”.

“As such, the RAC took on the responsibility of installing and establishing many of the networks and systems we take for granted today, such as mapping the state’s early roads, street signs, driver licensing and petrol supplies.”

“This strong civic-mindedness manifested even more so when war broke out, with RAC members offering their cars for use by the military to assist with the war effort. This included the use of private vehicles to transport injured soldiers from the old royal automotive club logoships in Fremantle to local hospitals and other transport tasks related to the war effort.”

While the war may have slowed the rate of car sales growth in WA, in the US the car industry was experiencing a massive advance in production speeds and economies. Until the First World War, most cars imported to Australia were French-made or English copies of Gallic designs. But war gave the burgeoning US car industry a boost. Western Australians found the high-riding rugged American models like Buick, Studebaker, Ford and Dodge better suited to our rough roads. It was during wartime, too, that Henry Ford honed the mass-production economies that would democratise car ownership from the 1920s onwards.

By 1917, the RAC’s magazine WA Motorist reported that the car was on the cusp of “becoming a poor man’s vehicle”. And credit also must be given to those supposedly overly optimistic car dealers. They had sensed the motoring groundswell and had put their money on the car rather than the horse. By 1925, horse numbers were in decline while cars numbered 25,000, many driven by women.

RAC and WW1

Early RAC members were a community‑focused group. The club’s magazine, WA Motorist, first published seven weeks after the Gallipoli landing, provides a sense of the members’ civic mindedness. The first issue said motoring affected “the welfare of the whole community and not just the wealthy”, citing mechanics, body builders, coach painters and chauffeurs as examples. Country members were invited to report “bad roads, local runs, accidents or near things” so the club could lobby “in a friendly way” to improve roads, mapping, safety and services.

During the war years, the club mobilised its members and the resources at its disposal to provide assistance to the war effort. The club’s war-time support included a major fundraising initiative for field ambulances. In 1915 members and other motorists donated £1000 which was cabled to the British War office for the purchase of two military ambulances. Both ambulances carried the inscription: Presented by the West Australian Automobile Club for service with the British Army in the field.

Members lent cars to locally-based military services to support their administrative work and transported sick and wounded soldiers from ships as they arrived in Fremantle harbour to local hospitals. Members also arranged club runs to take wounded soldiers from hospital on outings and sent parcels to  troops.

With the war affecting fuel supplies, the club raised concerns about the reliance on petrol and discussed alternative fuel sources. The club’s magazine included stories such as steam versus petrol for heavy haulage and the need to use less fossil fuels.

Readers were also given an insight into an aspect of US car culture, the highway “speed cop”. By 1917, the need for recruits to bring more order and safety to the roads was reflected in a full -page appeal: “Motor Men Think! Join Up! The Necessity Is Pressing.”