What happened to the classic Aussie motel?

Outside Oakleigh Motel in Australia

Sarah Harris

Posted June 25, 2019

Comedian turned design buff Tim Ross takes a drive down motel memory lane.

Just like any kid who ever stuck their head through the breakfast hatch, comedian turned design buff Tim Ross found untrammelled delight in the roadside motel. Every detail, from the princess sash on the toilet seat and cold toast in shiny white paper bags to the air conditioner with a death rattle, underscored the adventure that was the great Australian family holiday road trip.

For the erstwhile Triple J host this meant always being in the middle of the back seat of the Kingswood, copping the odd elbow in the head from one or other of his older brothers Stephen and Campbell, while mum Jennifer nursed warm home-made pasties wrapped in a tea-towel, dad John drove, and the dog Ted farted contentment at the proximity of all his humans.

Are we nearly there yet? Small wonder that along the highway of memory, the motel is neon-lit in the collective psyche of generations.  

Now you can argue all the way to Lakes Entrance about which was the very first motel in Australia, but in Victoria the honour went to the Oakleigh Motel in south-eastern Melbourne with its eye-catching angles and over-the-top signage screaming STOP from the moment it opened in January 1957. 

Built by a used car salesman who had dreams of cashing in on the gold of the 1956 Olympics, “the Oak” represented not only a new building type, but with its futuristic American Googie architecture, was like a spacecraft come to land in Dandenong Road. 

Appropriately, motel is a portmanteau word created in 1925 by a Californian entrepreneur who was quick to recognise Americans’ increasing mobility, but unable to fit the words ‘Milestone Motor Hotel’ on the rooftop of his Central Coast establishment. 

The Great Depression and World War II severely arrested motel development, but by the late ’50s they were sprouting along highways and byways like apple cores thrown from car windows.  

“The thing I like about them is that they were the first big punches of modernity to hit the regional areas particularly,” says Tim. “You might get the odd house or a new civic centre or something in the ’50s and ’60s, but this was a place where people could actually stay and it was often their first taste of modernism.” 

Outside the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill

Outside the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

Even in the ’80s when Tim, then 11, was part of a family excursion to Sydney to see the musical Cats, motels seemed the height of hip to a boy from Mount Eliza. “I remember we stayed in a motel in Randwick and it had, like wow, … a lift!”

Following the success of his two-part ABC TV ode to modernist architecture, Streets of Your Town and his Man About the House series of live performances in significant mid-century properties, Tim has turned the in-built clock radio back several decades on this many-roomed, drive-in memory with a book and a new show.

Motel: Images of Australia on Holidays, compiled of photographs from the National Archives of Australia, is a clever adjunct to his new live show Motel – a mix of comedy, art and theatre devised in collaboration with his best mate and musical partner Kit Warhurst.

Once again the pair are using their subject as a backdrop making venues of places where you might once have comfortably ordered a Harvey Wallbanger or Grasshopper as an aperitif to your prawn cocktail or cheese fondue before hitting the hay.

Tim, who’s on a promise to take wife Michelle and their two boys Bugsy, eight, and Bobby, five, on a road trip to the Northern Territory, believes this kind of excursion is the glue of community.

“The simplicity of Australian driving holidays is something that we haven’t lost, but they are not as common. I think it is really important that we connect with who we are through the landscape and through travel within the country.

“When we do go to places within Australia, we connect with them and that gives us empathy. This is a very divisive time in our country and a celebration of what unites us is really important so you can relate to other people and other places and think, ‘Oh, I’ve been there’.”

Inside the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill

The foyer of the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill still rocks its colourful, original decor.

Tim’s favourite retro Australian road stops

Riverfront Motel, 11 Strathaven Drive, Rosetta, Hobart

This is a classic ’50s motel, just near MONA, and they have done a great job of maintaining some of its more interesting features. It has wonderful iconic signage in 1950s American style, some of the period colours, with floor-to-ceiling windows opening on to the river.

Hamilton Motor Inn, 422 Kingsford Smith Drive, Hamilton, Brisbane

A full-on multi-storey brown brick number with a lift so you really know you are in a city. It has a vinyl button-studded bar with a mirrored top. There is just the most wonderful hint of nostalgia when you walk in that you want to order a Brandy Alexander.

Black Dolphin Motel, 8 Arthur Kaine Drive, Merimbula

One of the first Australian-style motels in terms of its materials and aesthetic. It strove not to look like an American motel and was designed by the architect Robin Boyd. He didn’t like the American-style motels; the fibro and the rainbow colours. He thought they were a blight on the landscape and designed something more subtle using bricks the colour of the earth and wooden poles. It was a very beautiful motel and without a doubt very Australian.

Palace Hotel, 227 Argent Street, Broken Hill

Okay, so it’s not a motel, but it’s very cool. It’s the pub featured in the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it has the Priscilla suite complete with disco ball and glittery tiles which we stayed in with the kids. I love that hotel and I love Broken Hill it is just so interesting.

Town and Country Motel, 401-405 Liverpool Road, Strathfield South, Sydney

We did a show there. It’s a classic ’70s motel, dated in every way. It’s got the ubiquitous palm trees, the wood-panelled formal dining room complete with plaster busts, mirrored bar and lime-green doors.

Motel: Images of Australia on Holidays by Tim Ross, published by Modernister Books, RRP $34.95; for details of the Motel live shows, visit themanaboutthehouse.net