How RACV earned its ‘royal’ charter

Living Well | Ian Munro | Posted on 03 October 2016

When members of the Automobile Club of Victoria were moved to do the right thing in WWI, officialdom was quick to recognise their efforts. 

It began with something like military precision. More than 100 private cars parked two abreast in Bay Street, Port Melbourne early one September Friday in 1915 before marshalling on Station Pier. Organised by the Automobile Club of Victoria, they were to provide transport for troops returning by hospital ship from Gallipoli.

As instructed by the Club, they assembled by 7.45am and drove on to the pier to meet the first troops at 8.30am for a welcome home procession and transport to hospital.

Soldiers homecoming in RACV transport

Troops’ emotional homecoming

And that is where emotions overcame order: “Pretty girls cast flowers into the motors as they passed while those who recognised sweethearts, brothers, husbands and sons leapt on the footboards of the cars, and, flinging convention to the winds, greatly embarrassed the bronzed heroes by openly hugging and kissing them,” observed The Argus newspaper.

“In many cases the cars were already full, and girls, and even elderly matrons were seen clinging in a most precarious manner.”

The next day The Age reported: “The Automobile Club had calculated on transporting 209 Victorians, 51 South Australians and 23 Tasmanians but when the final tally was made it was found that 314 had crowded into the motor cars.” A few enterprising troops from New South Wales and Queensland evidently opted for some early time ashore.

Such scenes became familiar to the volunteer drivers. Between September 1915 – when the Club’s role organising transport for soldiers returning from active duty in World War I was formalised with the Defence Department – and February 1920 when the last troopship berthed at Port Melbourne, more than 21,000 private vehicles and motorists greeted 282 vessels, offering transport to 93,350 soldiers.

RACV war transport pin

‘Royal’ prefix earned

In the interim and precisely a century ago, the Club acquired its “Royal” prefix, an honour conferred by King George V in October 1916 in recognition of the work of the Club’s members which extended to providing cars to the Defence Department and raising funds for patriotic causes. Known from that time as the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, it was the first motoring organisation in Australia to achieve such recognition.

Club president, Dr R E Weigall, attributed the honour to “the very commendable way all motorists had responded to the call of Empire”, reinforced with the activity of the RACV as a body, officially and otherwise.

The Argus commented: “Quite apart from the laudable patriotic work in which members are still engaged – that of conveying the returned wounded soldiers from the ships to the city and giving them a welcome back and also treating them to weekly excursions during their convalescence – the fact of its being the largest and most active club of it kind in the Commonwealth has been a potent factor, together with its high standing, in securing for it the right and title to be called the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria.”

With cars still a novelty, the Club had about 1200 members of whom hundreds acted as volunteer chauffeurs for the military. Many were women, like Mrs A H (Diana) Fisher of Brighton, who also drove officers from their Melbourne barracks to troop encampments at Broadmeadows and the Showgrounds.

Motoring skills competition

Diana Fisher was prominent at the club’s “Patriotic Gymkhana” in March 1915 that was held to support the Belgian Relief Fund, an international effort to supply food to German-occupied Belgium. The gymkhana featured novelty events and tests of motoring skill. For her part, Mrs Fisher won the “gate driving” competition for women. Drivers had to pass through 10 gates, with three of those passes in reverse, with points deducted for any collisions. The gymkhana raised more than £385 ($37,700 today) for Belgian relief.

Many other women served as drivers including Mrs E W (Janet) Cox, wife of one of the club’s then vice presidents, and a Miss Ruby Davidson of West Melbourne who drove a Metz, a marque produced in Massachusetts until the early 1920s. Other marques of the time included Talbot, Studebaker, Dodge and Fiat.

Club foundation member Harley Tarrant, whose company had produced one of the first Australian made petrol-driven cars, was crucial to introducing cars to the armed services and in organising the Club’s volunteer motorists. The Club supplied motorised ambulances to the Defence Department and a “touring car” for the use of medical staff and supported patriotic events. Some 400 members drove joined thousands of marchers at the Win the War Day fundraiser in February 1917.

Vehicles meeting the hospital ship

Trips for convalescing veterans

It also organised trips for convalescing veterans as Club magazine – The Motor World – explained: “Numerous excursions have been organised to our several country resorts – Warrandyte, Frankston and Mornington, Dandenong and Berwick, Gisborne and Macedon, Cheltenham, Lilydale and Healesville, Ferntree Gully and Sassafras – while there also have been garden fetes and private invitations to outings or indoor entertainments.” Some country excursions were escorted by “breakdown cars” carrying volunteer mechanics to ensure none of the soldiers were stranded by the roadside.

Demands on the volunteers were endless. Troopships sometimes berthed at the rate of more than one a week. In the final year of the war Club members and other motorists greeted 68 ships. “Were it not for the voluntary work of the motorists the Defence Department would have been saddled with large expense in providing transport for the men…(and)…the returned men would have received no public welcome,” noted The Motor World in August 1917.

Troop ships met in WWII

During World War II the practice of Club members meeting returning troop ships was revived and the scenes of hundreds of cars parked at Port Melbourne pier awaiting returning soldiers and nurses repeated many times. A corps of drivers comprising men aged over 45 and women of any age was formed to act as couriers in the event of air raids. Again, the Club supplied military ambulances raising £32,941 (equal to $2.65 million today) for the purpose.

What began at Station Pier in World War I, and which was recognised with the conferring of the prefix ‘Royal’, is reflected today as members volunteer their cars to enable veterans to participate in Anzac Day commemorations.