The RACV Heritage Collection shows how pioneering initiatives and services have responded to the needs of Victorians since 1903
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RACV has been serving the Victorian community since 1903. In that time RACV has built a collection of memorabilia ranging from historic photographs and vehicles to a trove of wonderful stories.
When RACV was established in 1903 there were 56 members, roughly the same total as the number of cars in Melbourne at that time. Three young men came up with the idea of founding the Club on a day trip to Tooradin: Harry James, Sydney Day and James Coleman.
Henry Sutton proposed the Club objectives as a social club for car and motorcycle owners to enjoy motor sports and touring. The Club also aimed to influence the formation of fair driving regulations, advocate on behalf of the motorist and encourage the improvement of roads.
Image: Sydney Day at the wheel of his 25hp Vinot-Deguingand after breaking the Sydney to Melbourne record in February 1910.
The first Club premises were three rooms rented from the Reform Club, at 243 Collins Street, including a billiard room, reading room and luncheon room/bar. By 1908, increasing membership led to a move to the larger Equitable Building at 91 Elizabeth Street. With female members welcomed to the Club the following year, an afternoon tea room and ladies’ lounge were added.
The Club built its own headquarters at 94 Queen Street in 1925, including a fine dining room and even its own hairdresser. Key post-war developments included the 1952 country club at Healesville, complete with extensive sporting facilities, and new headquarters at 123 Queen Street, which the Club moved to in 1961.
Image: RACV Golf Tournament, 1959
Motor racing, hill climbs, petrol consumption tests and reliability trials were key events in the early Club calendar. Motor sports not only tested the abilities of the driver but the capabilities of the vehicle. Test results were published to encourage manufacturers to improve car designs.
The most famous early event was the 1905 Dunlop Reliability Trial between Sydney and Melbourne. It was organised by Harry James, RACV foundation member and Dunlop advertising manager. The one female contestant, Mrs Florence Thompson, was one of the 16 who finished from 23 starters. The great Australian poet AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson, editor of the Sydney Evening News, reported on the contest.
Image: Automobile Club of Victoria members taking a turn around the Aspendale Park Racecourse track, 1904.
Road safety and transport planning
Road safety was an RACV priority from the start. From 1909 the Club was manufacturing danger signs and distributing them to Victorian councils to erect at hazardous driving spots. The Club was also the first body to train drivers in how to drive. From 1907 it issued its own driving certificates to competent drivers over the age of 16. (Proof of driving ability was not a legal requirement in Victoria until 1910.)
RACV advocated for better and well-maintained roads, suggesting the formation of a main roads board in 1911. This was established as the Country Roads Board in 1913, which later became VicRoads.
Image: Traffic Rule Lessons at Caulfield South State School, 1962.
RACV’s first magazine was published in 1922 as a supplement to The Australian Motorist. Three years later a full monthly journal was launched, simply called R.A.C.V. With beautiful hand-illustrated jazz-age covers, it contained popular regular columns such as A Glance Beyond the Bonnet, with motoring news by Wayfarer. In 1928 it was re-named the Royal Auto Journal.
The Radiator, a black-and-white publication in newspaper format, arrived in 1936. According to the historian Graeme Davison, its national war-time circulation was second only to the Australian Women’s Weekly. It published essential advice on topics such as the use of alternative fuels during petrol rationing. In 1953 a new full-colour magazine, Royalauto, was launched and has since transformed into the current bimonthly member magazine RA, published in print and online.
Image: Royalauto cover detail, May 1955, depicting a member calling for roadside assistance.
Departments and services
The Heritage Collection contains RACV’s corporate records. It’s a fascinating account of services provided to members since 1903, including transport planning and advocacy, driver training, technical assistance, home and vehicle emergency assistance, insurance, finance, home security, leisure services, radio broadcasts, print publications and many more.
One of the earliest services established for members had benefits right across the community. The Touring Department was formed in 1914, and it was managed by George Broadbent, the famous map maker. It co-ordinated the installation of direction signs on Victoria’s roads to aid travel outside Melbourne and it also compiled a list of well-run country hotels that catered to the motorist. George Broadbent’s Road and Touring Notes column in the monthly magazine advised members of scenic spots around the state, the best routes to take and the condition of the roads. From its inception, RACV encouraged motorists to get out and experience the diverse beauty of Victoria.
Image: Cover detail of the RACV Accommodation Guide, 1961
Emergency roadside assistance
RACV commenced emergency roadside assistance in 1924. At the beginning the service consisted of four mechanics riding BSA motorcycles. They patrolled the main traffic routes in and out of the city during the week and the roads to the hills and the bay on Sundays, carrying their tools in sidecars. As well as having excellent mechanical knowledge, patrolmen were required to administer first aid if required. They dressed in a smart khaki uniform with royal blue collar and cuffs, a badged cap and gloves.
The size, scope and style of RACV's fleet of roadside assistance vehicles has changed greatly since then, but RACV still maintains a heritage fleet of 17 vehicles to reflect its history of assistance to members. The heritage fleet includes a 1937 Austin 7 coupe utility from the original patrol fleet of ‘little yellow vans’. Vehicles used for the Pilot Service, Traffic News Service, Driving School, On-site Vehicle Testing and even tow trucks are also included. They are regularly driven and displayed at RACV and heritage vehicle events.
Image: RoyalAuto cover detail, February 1968, showing a patrolman (driving a Holden EJ panel van) assisting members.
RACV provided services to members and Victorians from the outset, with an emphasis on delivering value though its motoring expertise. In 1908 Club volunteers treated 150 children from Melbourne’s hospitals and orphanages to a seaside outing at Aspendale. The day’s entertainment included Punch and Judy shows, pony rides, games and races, followed by refreshments at the Aspendale Chalet. When RACV suspended all touring and motor sports during World War One, the only event not dropped was the annual children’s picnic.
Its Volunteer Motor Corps service during World War One was the reason the then Automobile Club of Victoria (ACV) was granted its Royal prefix, a symbol of the appreciation of the Commonwealth. Members volunteered their time and vehicles to collect returning soldiers and nurses from ships at Princes Pier, Port Melbourne. By war’s end, 93,330 returnees had been transported in all weather. It was a monumental task for a membership of only 1400 men and women. This commitment to helping returned service personnel is maintained more than 100 years later as RACV staff and members volunteer to drive veterans to and in the Anzac Day March.
Image: RACV volunteer transport unit members transporting soldiers to the Caulfield Military Hospital during World War Two.