What happened to the classic Aussie motel?
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.”