Colonel Harley Tarrant won the first automobile race in Australia, held at Sandown Racecourse

Saturday 12th March 1904

Colonel Harley Tarrant won the first automobile race in Australia, held at Sandown Racecourse. His interest in motoring began in this period. In 1897-98, basing his account primarily on overseas journals, he helped to publicize the new motor car in the cycling monthly Austral Wheel. His rural background and surveying experience had made him aware of its potential value in a country of immense distances and relatively few railway lines. In August 1897 he patented an engine powered by kerosene, a fuel which he declared to be safe, cheap and readily available, whereas electric motors needed recharging stations, and steam-driven machines were dangerous and ‘too heavy for rough country roads’. Although his first car was a failure, its kerosene motor proved suitable for such stationary work as pumping water to farm houses. By 1899 he sold his engines as far afield as Western Australia. With larger premises, he also imported cars, beginning in February 1900 with a Benz.

Business boomed and the profits enabled Tarrant and his partner in Tarrant Motor & Engineering Co., W. H. H. Lewis, to build one of the earliest Australian-made, petrol-driven cars: completed in 1901, it had an imported Benz engine. Two years later their next machine was 90 per cent locally made, including the engine, and became the prototype for at least eight others, all built—to suit Australian conditions—for endurance rather than speed. Tarrant’s victory in the two Dunlop reliability trials of 1905 and the success of a Tarrant car in 1906 helped to develop confidence in local manufacturing, but he could not compete with imports produced in larger numbers for a bigger market, especially after Tarrant Motors Pty Ltd acquired the Victorian franchise for Ford in 1907. Nevertheless, the firm made three aero engines for the military in 1915 and continued to manufacture motor bodies which, being bulky, were expensive to import. During World War I the company began assembling chassis from imported components; by this time it also had a thriving spare parts, accessories and repair business.

Tarrant played an important role in local motoring affairs. He lobbied on behalf of the Motor Importers’ Association for better traffic regulations and served in 1906-10 on the governing committee of the Automobile Club of Victoria, helping to demonstrate the capabilities of the motor car by organizing and participating in the club’s competitions and tours. In 1904 he had won his event in the club’s first motor race meeting, averaging 26 miles (42 km) per hour.

In 1908 Tarrant had become first commanding officer of the Victorian branch of the part-time Australian Volunteer Automobile Corps and from September 1914, with the rank of colonel, was in charge of Commonwealth military motor transport. The magnitude and urgency of wartime needs made mistakes inevitable. A 1918 royal commission report charged his administration with inefficiency and waste, alleging that the public had been misled by the extent to which Tarrant Motors was favoured with repair contracts. Harley accepted responsibility by resigning, but in 1920 was appointed M.B.E.

After the war Tarrant retired from the business, complaining of physical exhaustion and a skin rash. Sufficiently wealthy not to need to work, he freely indulged his passion for camping and overseas travel. In 1932 he came out of retirement to take over production supervision at Ruskin Motor Bodies Pty Ltd, an affiliate of the Tarrant company. A tall, dignified man with a bushy moustache, he had done much to pioneer and consolidate the first phase of the Australian motor industry. His wife Charlotte Jane, née Gill, whom he had married on 20 March 1901 at Balaclava with Australian Church forms, died in 1945. Survived by a daughter, Tarrant died on 25 February 1949 at his Toorak home and was cremated with Anglican rites. The company was sold in 1950 to the Austin Motor Co. (British Motor Corporation).

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