The First Car Around Australia by Paul Blank
This is the story of a remarkable little car's great adventure.
Around the time of the dawn of motoring and new kind of adventure developed. Exploration of new lands was still one of the greatest challenges for mankind, and motorcars added an extra dimension to the possibilities.
By the 1920s car manufacturers also realized the publicity benefits of their cars conquering exotic lands, and the company founder Andre Citroen was probably the most adept at this. The crossings of the Sahara and into China by Citroens became renowned world-wide, with news-reels and magazine stories showing these great escapades.
Australia was one of the great unconquered challenges. In 1925, a 22-year old Western Australian evangelist, Nevill Westwood set off for a trip to the North-west of Western Australia in his 1922 model Citroen 5CV. Not long before, he had bought the second hand Baby Citroen, which had already covered 40,000 miles.
Taking his friend, student Greg Davies in the passenger seat, the journey would eventually take on incredible proportions. With no intention to gain notoriety or fame, ultimately their trip would take them right around Australia – and into the history books as the first ever to achieve this.
If you thought that a tiny 2-seater car with an 856cc 4-cylinder engine would be the best suited car for such an adventure, you'd be right. Considering Nevill was six-foot-three and Greg measured an inch taller, they would have been a very tight fit in the cockpit of the car they dubbed 'Bubsy'. In spite of its diminutive size, lack of power and simple specification, Bubsy proved well and truly up to the gargantuan task, but it wasn't all smooth sailing.
Andre Citroen had been among the pioneers in car mass-production and his small 5CV, introduced in 1922, proved to be an exceptionally popular model, with over 80,000 made. The 5CV sold well in Australia too, as a competitor to the Austin 7 – with over two thousand 5CVs being sold in Australia in the 1920s.
Bubsy wore the stylish French boat-tail body, with seating for two and a little space behind the seats with an external lid for access.
Luckily for future generations, Nevill Westwood photographed and wrote letters about his driving adventure. Reading through letters written to “My own dear Mother”, and his sister Ethel (Nevill nicknamed her 'Etheline' after the fuel…) provides a fascinating insight into the journey.
The journey began in Perth on August 4th, 1925, with northern WA in mind as the destination, and missionary work the aim.
With the charming style of a well brought up young lad, Westwood wrote to his mother on August 13th: “Thursday we travelled to Three Rivers Station and had the pleasure of crossing the Murchison, Gascoyne and Roebourne Rivers all in the space of a few miles”.
They faced extremes in temperature - from as low as minus 5 degrees C to the greatest heat Australia can dish out, all in an open car with no heater or side windows.
In some places the locals came to the aid of the intrepid adventurers – many of them never having seen a motorcar before. One evocative photo taken en route shows a team of aboriginal women on a tow-rope hauling the car over a creek-bed at Fitzroy Crossing.
The further the adventurers went, the rougher and less populated areas became. Sometimes there would be 1500 kilometres between homesteads or towns.
The bush tracks were little used, and in many places had disappeared altogether. The letters describe progress often at walking pace for days, with scrub, ant hills, fallen trees, rocks and other impediments needing to be dealt with. Their pick and shovel were worked hard, and the little car was used to move some objects beyond the powers of the two men. September 22nd 1925, at 1.30pm saw the lads cross into the Northern Territory.
The route took them through places such as Marble Bar – the hottest place in Australia and on the Madman's Track – where many a gold prospector had perished, reputedly having lost their minds.
While tackling the Madman's Track the fuel tank of the Citroen sprang a leak. A rubber hose was joined between an extra fuel can and the carburettor, but after a while, the rubber perished. The solution was that Westwood kept his finger on the hole in the fuel tank and operated the controls with help from Davies who was calling directions – because Westwood's view was obscured in his contorted position plugging the hole…
On entering the Northern Territory, Westwood was advised that theirs was the first motorcar to have travelled from WA to the Territory.
Clearly their journey was very different to the many factory-backed motoring expeditions which took place around the world. These lads had no spares and no support - relying on their ingenuity and faith. And a great deal of both were needed to ensure they could get through some areas.
Tyres were problem enough in cities in the 1920s and proved a challenge more than once for Westwood and Davies. From a letter dated October 11, 1925: “Next morning we started on the remaining 125 miles (to the next station) but more tube trouble developed. Next day we used up the remainder of our patches. We then ran for over 30 miles on one flat tyre filled up with grass and leaves, until we punctured another tyre, so we left the car and walked six miles to the Station. Mr Egan, the manager was just retiring but he soon made us welcome… Unfortunately they were just out of patch outfit (glue) or almost so. I put in part of a cow hide (killed that morning) on two wheels, but the tyres kept coming off. In this way we did 60 miles in two days.”
The car was left at The Pigeon Hole. On arrival at Victoria Station the boys discovered that the owners had no patch outfit as it was in their car, away at Katherine. There was however a vulcanizing machine, which Westwood spent two days “experimenting with” eventually learning to repair the tyres before a 40-mile horse ride back to the Citroen.
When the crew reached Emungalan, where the railway went to Darwin, Westwood took the train to Darwin, returning with a selection of new rubber. The rains had begun and the bush tracks became impassable, so ten days later, after the tracks had dried, they set off again, only to become lost a few days later. They continued, eventually stumbling upon the burnt out wreck of a car, which Francis Birtles had abandoned after one of his exploratory drives. Its location was known and thus helped get Westwood and Davies back on course. Later, the Overland Telegraph line helped keep the adventurers on track.
Further across the Northern Territory the dark soil, wet by the rains, was then baked by the sun into a rock hard ridged surface, which limited the car to slower than walking pace.
In some areas which horse-drawn vehicles, and the odd Model-T Ford frequented, the tracks were too wide for the Baby Citroen. Some of the photos that the clever solution was to remove the slightly dished, disc wheels and re-mount them backwards, thus increasing the width of the stance of the car. The rear mudguards had been touching the tyres at times, and were discarded. “It has in some ways improved the look of the car.' Westwood reckoned.
The intrepid adventurers crossed into Queensland on October 29th at the rabbit-proof fence. Soft sand in creek beds were a problem noted, but luckily the Citroen was quite light and could be dug out and pushed, or pulled.
At one point when the little car ran out of fuel, a herd of cattle converged on it. Davies readied his revolver while Westwood filled the tank from a fuel can. They moved on without the need to use the gun.
Another time; “We drove until the petrol ran out… and I then footed it in to Anna Plains, 20 miles”, Westwood reported to his mother, who was no doubt a little concerned at the adventure her young son had undertaken. Still, there were crazier exploits under way. In the same letter Westwood gleefully announced he had met a pair of men who were walking around Australia!
The only serious mechanical trouble was when the gearbox suffered a stripped gear – a tow by horse and some work by a blacksmith and Bubsy was back on the road. But after one mile the repair failed and had to be redone. Later in the trip the rear axle had to be removed and straightened – the job done on a railway line.
As the journey progressed some publicity started to appear about the trip. Sponsorship in the form of six Rapson tyres and tubes at a heavily discounted price, and a gift of a tyre pressure gauge were arranged.
The journey to Brisbane and then on to Sydney and Melbourne was far easier than the earlier part of the drive, as the areas were more inhabited and a better road system existed.
At Albury, Greg Davies stayed behind, leaving Westwood to do the rest of the journey home solo.
By mid-December the car was in Melbourne and word had been spreading of the marvellous adventure in the Baby Citroen. Westwood took the car to the Melbourne Citroen agent but found nobody there. Eventually finding a salesman he said: “after hearing my name he asked if I was the Overlander. On being answered in the affirmative he told me that all the men in the garage, the manager of the café and a number of others had driven out on the road to meet me.”
The drive onwards, via Adelaide was uneventful, but one letter mentions the loneliness of driving by himself.
The final drive into Perth, from Coolgardie was a 23-hour marathon. On December 30th, after 10,700 miles (17,200km) over 148 days, Bubsy and Nevill arrived home.
Some silent movie footage still exists of the car being welcomed back into Perth at the end of the journey, surrounded by other Citroens, driving through roads leading to the centre of the city.
In a letter written late in the journey Westwood makes mention off another Citroen which Gilberts (the Perth Citroen agent) had subsequently sent around Australia, “but nothing appeals to the public more than a private car performance.” Several others also began a similar journey at much the same time, however it was Westwood who was the first to complete the circumnavigation of Australia.
In 1929 Bubsy and crew participated in the “Western Australian Centenary Procession” with recognition as the first car to travel around Australia.
While at the time Westwood's adventure was acclaimed with newspaper and magazine stories hailing him a hero, little credit has been given since about this incredible journey for three quarters of a century.
The car was put aside and Westwood later used another, larger car for another similar journey, and also motorcycled across the country.
It was in the 1960s when Westwood's son Ron took over the now derelict but fairly complete Citroen, after Nevill had died. Ron had spent some years collecting spare parts from remains of other 5CVs as he travelled the countryside with his work, so he was well stocked for when the restoration would take place.
Well known Brisbane Citroen importer, dealer and rally driver Jim Reddiex decided to do a recreation of the Westwood drive in 1975, in a Citroen 5CV of his own. Ron Westwood decided that this would be the target for his restoration, however Bubsy was not yet finished when Reddiex got to Perth, though his crew enthusiastically took up the offer to visit the historic car. Greg Davies also came to see the car, which he'd last seen at Albury fifty year before. It brought many a tear to his eyes seeing Bubsy again, and helpfully, he was able to explain what the various non-original holes in the dashboard had been made for.
Ron eventually finished the restoration of Bubsy, which had retained many of its original components and fittings. The car sat rarely used under his house in the Perth hills.
This writer tracked the car down in 1985 and Westwood was pleased that someone cared enough about his Dad's old car. As a result, the car was shown to the public at the Classic Car Show at Lilac Hill near Perth in 1986. A photo of the car, publicizing the car show appeared in the newspaper, and again, Greg Davies, by then in his mid-eighties, went out to see Bubsy – a car which had been a part of such a significant event in his life. I had the pleasure of meeting the frail Davies and showing him the car.
Ron had always dreamt of taking the car out again on a trip circumnavigating Australia, which almost happened in 2000 as a 75th anniversary run. The car was re-restored, but with Ron's advancing age and financial support for the trip hard to find, the idea was called off at the last minute. Looking at the tiny car today, it is hard to imagine it would be easy driving it a few kilometers on a sealed road - let alone 17,000 kilometers over impassable ground that a modern four-wheel-drive would struggle with.
Ron was getting too old to use the car and wanted it to be looked after appropriately. Recently, with some help from this writer, the car was purchased by the Museum of Australia and it travelled to Canberra, had further restoration work conducted and is now a prized exhibit – daily getting the recognition it well deserves.
In 1925, one of the last great motoring challenges was taken on, in perhaps the least likely car. Today Bubsy remains an incredible testament to the sheer bravery of those pioneering motorists.
Left: Bubsy today, resident in Canberra.
Citroen 5CV 1923-1926
Engine: 856cc in-line 4-cylinder, detachable head. Side valves. 2-bearing crankshaft. Bore & stroke 55mm x 90mm. Thermosyphon cooling (no fan). Battery ignition with Delco distributor. Solex carburettor and magneto from 1924.
Transmission: 3-speed gearbox, floor mounted gear-change, rear wheel drive
Power: 11bhp @2600rpm
Suspension: Quarter elliptic leaf springs all round
Dimensions: Wheelbase 7'4 ½ “, lengthened to 7' 9” in 1924
Tyres: 700 x 80, increased to 715 x 115 in 1925
Production: 80,232 were made