From Hooves to Highways

The Automobile Club of Western Australia:


Panel 2 - 1920s trial 2.jpg

Today, RAC is recognised as a trusted membership organisation offering myriad services throughout the state. In its infancy, the Automobile Club of Western Australia was proactive in fostering ‘automobilism’. Its core purpose was to advocate for West Australians in facilitating the evolution of the motor car in Western Australia.


One of the first major contributions to automobilism was the erection of street and road signs. RAC records show the Club began signposting in Perth, and on country tracks and roads throughout WA in around 1909 and incredibly, continued doing so until 1975.

“Letter from Northam road board suggesting the erection of sign posts at certain intersections in their district. Mr Strelitz moved that we reply asking for a list of direction boards required, and stating that the club will be prepared to fund the boards and have necessary printing done thereon if board will undertake to have them erected.”

Club minutes, 20 June 1912

“The secretary was instructed to write to the York, Greenhills, Beverley, Northam, Wagin and Toodyay roads boards stating that the Club is prepared to spend a certain amount on road signs in each of such districts, asking for their help and cooperation in the matter.”

Club minutes, 16 July 1912

ACWA-produced road sign to Ravensthorpe, in the RAC’s Archival Collection.

Removing Obstacles

“ was decided to write to the City Council and point out that lamp posts in the middle of St George’s Terrace ... the underground lavatories and telephone cabinets in the centre ... are a great obstruction to traffic, and provision should be made to remove same and the practice of erecting them at such places discontinued.”

Club minutes, 5 May 1920

“Mr Brooks reported that his car and another had collided on the Terrace owing to the impossibility of a driver being able to see the vehicle coming in the opposite direction … owing to the houses erected in the middle of St George’s Terrace. It was decided to write to Perth City Council pointing out the danger that existed, owing to these houses, and suggesting that they should be removed as early as possible.”

Club minutes, 8 September 1920

St George's Terrace, Perth, October 1936, courtesy Tom Clarke

St George_s Terrace October 1936, courtesy Tom Clarke.jpg

Registration Plates

1930s Swan Roads Board licence plate SW 2347, courtesy RAC Archives.

In 1906, after some debate about whether carts and wagons would also be subject to registration, the Club pushed for the introduction of motor vehicle registration plates. In a formula which continued into the mid-1950s, letters indicated the roads board in which the vehicle was registered, followed by the registration number. By 1908, 70 motor cars were licensed by the Perth City Council alone. With the minimum registration set at £2, this became a major source of income for each council.

Motoring Bylaws

The Club, in conjunction with Perth City Council, was crucial to the instigation of early regulations and bylaws - from the direction of traffic and regulation of speed through intersections (4 miles an hour = 6.5km/h), to each motor vehicle being fitted with mirrors and audible horns. Further, each car was to bear white front and side lamps, and red tail lamps to indicate the vehicle’s position on the road and the direction in which it was travelling, and registration plates were to be lit at night.

“On the motion of Mr Knapp seconded by Mr Gardam it was decided to write to City Council and point out that for the better regulation of traffic, it is desirable that your regulations should be that slow moving traffic on the roads should keep close to the kerb, and all fast moving traffic keep near to the centre of the road.”

Club minutes, 15 January 1919

“Dogs: It was decided to write the city council on the nuisance of dogs following cars and suggest a bylaw be passed to deal with the matter.”

Club minutes, 4 August 1920

Some of those early bylaws were modified or abolished only recently:

“No person shall drive a motor car ... backwards for a greater distance or time than the necessity of the case or the purpose of safety shall require.”

“Every person riding, driving, or impelling a motor car … who shall meet or overtake any animal which shall become restive or alarmed, shall stop … and shall remain stationary as long as may be reasonably necessary.”

“No driver … shall, when on such vehicle, be in a position in which he cannot have control over the same, nor shall he quit it without having stopped the machinery and taken due precautions against it starting in his absence, or allow it to stand on such road so as to cause an unnecessary obstruction thereof.” 

Construction of Roads

Through its members, the Club collated annual reports on the condition of WA’s existing roads, which led to decisions on what Club funding would be contributed, and to where, the following year. They purchased technical books on road construction and sent them to the various roads boards, then allocated finances to those boards to lay new roads, extend old ones, build and strengthen bridges, fix potholes, and repair damage caused by timber jinkers (wagons on which large logs are transported).

Report on Roads from The Automobile Club of Western Australia’s 1910-1911 Annual Report. Courtesy RAC Archives.

As an example of the Club’s early contribution to the State’s roads, in 1910-1911 the following funds* were contributed to the local roads boards for the building, extension, and/or improvement of:

  • Perth to Busselton Road - £500

  • Armadale to Jandakot Road - £500

  • The road from Perth to Welshpool to Kalamunda - £500

  • The road from Kelmscott to Roleystone to Kalamunda via Canning Mills - £1,000

  • Wanneroo Road - £600

  • North Beach Road - £1,000

  • Cottesloe Road - £500

  • Albany Road - £500

IIn return for their investment, the Club wielded its substantial leverage and insisted the local roads boards matched the Club’s contributions, which they all did.

*In 1910 £1 was around $135 today. The funds expended above amount to around $700,000 today. 

Road Map of the South West Portion of Western Australia, compiled by August Knapp, 1923.

First Road Maps

Having contributed so significantly to the building of many of the first proper roads in WA, the Club also produced the first reliable maps of WA’s roads.

“...officers connected with the club - Mr A Knapp more particularly - have been instrumental in preparing maps of the roads of the south-west by means of which it would be possible for anyone who has not traversed them previously, to go over them without fear of getting lost or entering upon a long stage which could not be completed before night fall.”

The West Australian, 28 May 1914

“The first road map ever issued in this State appeared about two years ago, and covered an area from Moora south to Albany, and east to Burracoppin on the Goldfields road. This map was not … absolutely accurate … and it was impossible to check the data supplied. Still … it was sufficient until something better could be produced.”

“Since then the work of road-mapping has been taken in hand seriously by the Automobile Club, … some fifteen hundred miles of the most used main roads in the South West to Perth to Moora, Toodyay and York to Pingelly, Perth to Bunbury and Bridgetown and the Leeuwin, with the mileages accurately registered on the speedometer.”

The West Australian, 12 February 1914

These early road maps led to the concept of ‘getaways’, either short day trips to the more picturesque parts of Perth, including Mundaring Weir (for powerful cars only) and Cottesloe Beach, or longer motoring journeys throughout country WA.

Mundaring Weir c1907, from The Motor Car in Western Australia, 1908. 

Mundaring Weir, c1907, MCWA.jpg


In the early 1900s when petrol was regarded as a byproduct of the oil companies, motorists, and those in the trade, had to import their own, and add red colouring to distinguish it from kerosene. In its first few years the Club succeeded in negotiations for fuel company concessions, as long as they could buy in bulk and store it. This was, of course, a boon for members.

As other clubs around Australia had done in the early 1900s, the Automobile Club of Western Australia began undertaking unofficial petrol consumption tests and reliability trials during WWI.

“Tests from the point of view of petrol consumption are held by the [other Australian and international] clubs and many motorists engaged in these trials are enabled to discover in their engines some weak points which will help them to get bigger mileages to the gallon than they were able to do previously. Inquiries made in the city during the past few days show clearly, that if some such tests were started by the local club, they would be patronised largely. The owners of cars are anxious for them, and the trade would, it is understood, assist as much as possible.”

The West Australian, 28 May 1914


Reliability trial about 1926. Shannon River near Nornalup, between Manjimup and Nornalup. Written on the back of the original images, inserted separately in the found copy of The Motor Car in Western Australia.

The first official reliability trial, including a petrol consumption test, was undertaken on 29 April 1922. The four day trial was so popular it became an annual event.

“The time schedule arranges for cars to leave Perth … at mid-day, and to arrive at Beverley in not less than 3, and not more than 4 hours … Cars, with drivers, passengers, official observers, baggage, etc, will have the petrol tanks filled completely at Perth. After being weighed, the cars will proceed to Beverley, where the necessary petrol to completely fill up the tanks will be measured and this quantity of petrol will represent the amount used on the journey … On Sunday the cars will leave Beverley for Williams via Pingelly, and on Monday the return journey to Perth will be accomplished via Pinjarra.”

The West Australian, 20 April 1922 

The results of the RAC’s first annual petrol consumption test and reliability trial, 29 April to 1 May 1922. Daily News, 3 May 1922.

Reliability trial about 1926. “Between Denmark and Mt Barker.”

St George's Terrace, Perth, October 1936, courtesy Tom Clarke

Mundaring Weir c1907, from The Motor Car in Western Australia, 1908.