Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Flip Side: Women on the Redex around Australia Reliability Trials of the 1950s

Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Flip Side: Women on the Redex around Australia Reliability Trials of the 1950s

Article excerpt

In August 1953 almost 200 cars set off from the Sydney Showgrounds in what popular motoring histories have called the biggest, toughest, most ambitious, demanding, 'no-holds-barred' race, which 'caught the public imagination' and 'fuelled the nation with excitement'.1 It was the first Redex Around Australia Reliability Trial and organisers claimed it would be more testing than the famous Monte Carlo Rally through Europe and was the longest and most challenging motoring event since the New York-to-Paris race of 1908.2 That 1953 field circuited the eastern half of the continent, travelling north via Brisbane, Mt Isa and Darwin, passing through Alice Springs to Adelaide and returning to the start point in Sydney via Melbourne. Two Redex trials followed, in 1954 and 1955, and each was longer and more demanding than the one before. The last two trials circled the entire continent to include Western Australia, returning to Sydney via Perth and the Nullarbor Plain.3

In an earlier article, I examined those Redex trials as a popular celebration of coming industrialisation and material prosperity, which articulated a range of possibilities for what it meant to be Australian in that postwar era. The trials offered a performative affirmation of the capacity of settler Australians to fully possess the continent through the power of modern technologies and provided a locus for popular debate about some of the meanings of Australian modernisation in those postwar years.4 This article focuses more closely on one element ofthat larger national conversation about how a modern automobile culture would find a particularly Australian expression by exploring women's engagements with the Redex trials. Women's unexpected and enthusiastic participation in the trials, their tremendous popularity with spectators, as well as their high profile in media reports, provide new perspectives on the ways that automobiles were enmeshed in contestations over masculinity and femininity in Australia at that historical moment.

An around-Australia car race had been mooted since the 1930s, particularly to celebrate the sesquicentenary of British settlement in 1938, but it was not until 1953 that anything as ambitious was attempted.5 By then it was an idea whose time had arrived. As soon as the first trial was announced, the enthusiastic response from the public and the broad range of people who registered to enter the events caught even the organisers quite by surprise. That intense national fervour for around-Australia races was brief. By the end of the third trial, public interest in the events was evaporating and subsequent around-Australia reliability trials, such as the Ampol Trial of 1956 or the Mobilgas trials that followed, attracted much less national attention, barely registering beyond a circle of dedicated motorsport enthusiasts.6

For those three years, however, the Redex trials attracted extensive press coverage, as a burgeoning media network operating across multiple modes vied to bring stories and images to audiences across the country. Daily newspapers, motoring magazines, cinema newsreels, women's magazines such as the Australian Women's Weekly, popular publications such as Pix and Australasian Post, as well as nearreal-time reporting via hundreds of radio stations across Australia, reported in minute detail on the convoys of cars moving around the continent. Some media outlets, such as Sydney's Daily Telegraph, Brisbane's TheCourier-Mail and the Women's Weekly, entered their own crews, while others followed the field in airplanes.7 Ken Hall of the Australian newsreel company Cinesound pre-sold film footage to trial entrants to help finance the documentaries he later distributed to national and international audiences.8 Media images showed battered cars covered in advertising slogans as dots on a vast landscape. Film footage featured cars careering around corners on two wheels, with funnels of dust suspended behind them, or surging across swollen creek beds, spectators standing by ready to push them through if they stalled. …

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