J2AoTgUm Shearer Srtaem Carriage 3
Shearer Srtaem Carriage 3

Full steam ahead for this Shearer

ELECTRIC cars have come full circle since their golden era in the early 1900s when there were more than 300 brands  on the market.

Buyers can today choose from more than 100 models, mostly from China.

But preceding the first electric cars was the steam era, which for most of the 19th century drove the wheels and gears of the industrial revolution.

Australia was right up there with Europe, with Melburnians Herbert Thomson and Edward Holmes producing the nation’s first steam car — the Thomson Motor Phaeton, which was capable of travelling at 17km/h.

Three years later, in 1899, came the Shearer Steam Carriage, built by implement manufacturer David Shearer, who’d laid the foundation of his interesting steam carriage at the South Australian river town of Mannum. 

The Shearer’s somewhat crude underpinnings betrayed its farming heritage, yet it was built with little or no knowledge of automotive practice in other countries.

Even so, it was pretty advanced in that it had rack and pinion steering, pivoted stub axles and the action of a four-star differential mounted on the off-side rear hub.

David Shearer also designed the horizontal semi-flash type watertube boiler, while the vertical two-cylinder 20hp engine was the work of his nephew, John Shearer.

It propelled the 1.4 tonne vehicle to a speed of 25 km/h while its crude foot-operated spoon brakes did little to slow its progress.

The Mount Barker Courier of July 21, 1899, reported “some excitement was caused yesterday afternoon when Messrs D and J Shearer’s motor car steamed into the township. 

“Some of the juveniles seemed much puzzled when they saw the strange vehicle move about in all directions. 

“The car is good proof of the Messrs Shearer’s skill and enterprise.” 

Five decades later it was rescued from the site of the original Mannum works, restored by veteran car enthusiasts from the Sporting Car Club of South Australia and presented to the National Motor Museum at Birdwood.

Moreover, the Shearer is the only Australian-made car from the 19th century still operational today and a little while ago – well, 35 years ago — David Berthon, the revered NSW motoring writer and broadcaster and world authority on historic vehicles, took the Shearer and drove it in the famous London to Brighton Rally.

Here’s his experience . . .

“I always thought it was a shame it had never been taken on the London to Brighton Rally and I asked the Birdwood Museum would they consider letting me take it during our Bi-Centenary Year if I put a deal together,” he said.

“I had already brought the car over to the Sydney Motor Show the previous year.

“The History Trust of South Australia agreed, as long as I took a steam engineer, and the curator and his assistant with me. So I secured sponsorship and made it happen.

“It was a fun exercise assisted in the UK by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and the National Motor Museum of Great Britain.

1899 Shearer Steam Carriage
1899 Shearer Steam Carriage


The Shearer was a huge hit there.

A black and white photo from the front page of the London Times the next day was captioned: Australia’s oldest car, the 1899 Shearer Steam Carriage with a bunch of Ned Kelly lookalikes on the London to Brighton Run.

“With 150lb of steam the Shearer would move along around 20 mph on the flat, the performance helped by some Welsh steaming coal provided by Lord Montague that seemed to improve performance. 

“Braking was dismal with the wooden spoons on the steel rims of the cart wheels providing minimal retardation. 

“I nailed soft Michelin rubber on the spoons for greater effect, however they would nearly catch fire and smoke badly. 

“A vertical brake pedal and my 100kg weight had minimal effect.

 “As a last resort I had two-way communication with a supplied Range Rover and if I was going to lose control the aim was to bring it around in front to act as a brake.

“Fortunately for me and Range Rover it was never required, but once you started a downhill run the Shearer on such large wheels would want to run away.

“This was a fantastic exercise and created considerable interest on the run given the rather basic elements of this early Australian car. 

“We nearly made it to Brighton but some 10 miles from the finish one of the rear cart wheels started to fret in the hub and we were concerned it would collapse, not nice when you had 150lb of steam and a boiler on board.

“We did however manage to cover around 50 of the 92km course. Not bad when you consider the longest documented run for this car was in 1900 when David Shearer drove it 75km to Adelaide for demonstration at the Chamber of Manufacturer’s Exhibition.

“I was inspired early on during the run by the fact the Shearer was the oldest Australian car to ever motor past the famous Hyde Park corner.

“The reaction of the British public to this uniquely Australian car’s presence was one of sheer delight and the car and its crew were widely encouraged by cheering locals en route.

“To round off a wonderful association with this marvellous early car I was invited to Mannum in 1999 and drove David Shearer’s descendants down the town’s main street for the car’s Centenary celebrations.

“Perhaps the experience was best summed up by noted English motoring journalist Michael Worthington-Williams who wrote: ‘My enduring memory of the Brighton Run this year will be the 1899 Shearer Steam Carriage proceeding at glacial speed across Westminster Bridge, enveloped in clouds of steam, attended by the wickedest-looking bunch of Ned Kelly lookalikes I have ever encountered.

“This was quite a spectacle to view and went off with great gusto, leaving a steam trail which successfully confused all the entrants following.”

 The Shearer subsequently went on display at Britain’s National Motor Museum at Beaulieu for six months alongside some very distinguished company, like Lord Montagu’s 1899 4-cylinder 12 hp Daimler, the first British car to race on the continent and the first to carry British Royalty.

These days the Shearer resides in a special exhibit of Australian cars in the relatively new Pavilion at the Birdwood Museum.

1899 Shearer on London to Brighton Rally

Thomson Motor Phaeton 1900
1896 Thomson Motor Phaeton


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