On Australia Day, 26 January 2018, the CARnivale classic day display will be held in Parramatta Park in Western Sydney. The car I’ve chosen from the Museum’s eclectic automobile collection to exhibit at the event is a 20 hp International Auto Buggy made in 1910. There are two particularly interesting facts about this car: it was made by a huge US firm much more well known for manufacturing farm machinery, the International Harvester Company (IHC) of Chicago, Illinois; and the fact that it’s referred to as an “auto buggy”. Essentially, the car is similar to a horse-drawn buggy, modified and equipped with a simple motor and transmission. The most striking thing about the car is its tall wheels fitted with solid rubber tyres, which gave this type of vehicle the name “high wheeler”. At the time, eighteen manufacturers in America were making similar high wheelers including Schacht, Holsman, Fuller, McIntyre, and Galloway, although International models appear to have been the most popular in Australia.
Before the First World War, few people in Australia knew how to drive cars before they bought them, and International sent out an “expert” for a week with every auto buggy purchased to teach them. While other cars were described as toys for the rich, “used for pleasure and not for profit”, the International auto buggy was promoted as a useful vehicle for station owners, farmers, doctors, and town and country salesmen. It was said to be the cheapest automobile in Australia (at one third the cost of a conventional car), required much less maintenance, had durable solid rubber tyres rather than troublesome pneumatic ones, and didn’t need a chauffeur.
Apparently, the auto buggy’s practical no-nonsense design appealed to Australian farmers as they were easy to repair and could negotiate rough, muddy and rutted country roads which would clog the small artillery style wheels of ordinary cars. The high wheels provided good ground clearance of 37 cm (twice a modern SUV) to easily cross paddocks and a more comfortable, but bouncy, ride compared to the shaking and discomfort experienced driving at 24 to 32 kph on bad roads in the expensive conventional cars of the period. At 1 penny per mile for fuel, it was claimed that the International auto buggy was much cheaper and more convenient to run than horses, could cover twice the distance, and that the rear seat could be removed to allow it to carry up to 800 pounds (362.9 kg) of supplies and equipment.
In 1909 car ownership in Australia is thought to have been one in every 1,000 people, yet with such persuasive advertising it’s not surprising that in the months of March and April 1910, a total of 144 International auto buggies were sold in Australia. The model D cost £179 ($358) if paid in cash. A considerable number of the vehicles were sold in South Australia, where they were especially popular north of Port Augusta, with sales probably encouraged by an enthusiastic local agent.
For those of you who want to know what’s “under the bonnet” – though technically that’s not where the engine is – the International was powered by an air-cooled, four-stroke, two-cylinder, horizontally-opposed engine, with trembler coil ignition and side draught Schebler carburettor. It’s mounted under the left side of the car and a large flywheel is keyed and clamped by a bolt to the crankshaft on its right. Two fans, one for each cylinder, were driven by a flat belt. A starting handle projects from the left side of the car and is connected by reduction gearing and a ratchet with the running board hinged to allow access to it. The drive was taken from the 2-speed epicyclic gearbox by roller chain to the countershaft. A separate chain then took the drive to each rear wheel.
Up in the driving position, the car has a right-hand drive steering wheel, unlike other auto buggies from this period which had tiller steering. The footbrake is an external contracting type and operated on the differential, while the hand brake is an internal expanding type and operated on the rear wheels only. The gear/clutch lever is located on the driver’s right, the spark and throttle lever below the steering wheel, and the brake pedal beneath the right foot.
Production of the high wheeler auto buggies at IHC finished in 1911, and its conventional touring and roadster cars, introduced in 1910, didn’t sell well and weren’t made after that year. From then International concentrated on making auto wagons, called motor trucks from 1912, which continued in conventional and high wheeler styles until 1916.
Despite all its media hype, the International auto buggy was outdated in design even before it had arrived in Australia in 1909. There was no way it could compete with the famous Model T Ford which arrived here the year before and quickly wooed Australian farmers, doctors, tradesmen and clergymen with a staggering 250,000 of them sold in Australia.
The International came into the Museum’s collection in 1950, the gift of Claude Kellion from the Motor Wreckers Department of Kellion Bros Pty Ltd in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville, and donated in the memory of Reginald Clarence Kellion. It was restored by Museum staff in 1982.
According to a 1991 register of International auto buggies, it’s thought that about 25 of them survive worldwide so the Museum’s International will be a rare and interesting addition to the CARnival exhibits on 26 January 2018.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, January 2018
“Antique Automobile”, Vol. 27, No. 2.
“The High Wheeler Register”, Warrnambool, Victoria, August, 1991.
“The ‘I.H.C.’ Auto Buggy”, in “The Australian Hub”, 15 September, 1909, p.11.
Simpson, Margaret. “On the Move: a history of transport in Australia”, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2005.