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How the car changed Australia

This is a sneak peek into edition 27 of Traces!

By Ann Wilcox, Old Treasury Building

We live in a material world. The things we own, the clothes we wear, and the houses we live in all express who we are, or who we want to be. But if there was any single object that defined the 20th century in Australia, it was the motor car.

We live our lives surrounded by stuff – more of it than in any previous generation. Have you ever thought about the objects in your life – your telephone, TV, recipe books, childhood toys? How important are these objects to you and your family? Are there things you absolutely cannot live without?

In a new exhibition at the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne – Belongings: Objects and Family Life – we are interested in the objects associated with family life. And one object in particular radically altered family life: the motor car.

In 1925, there was one motor vehicle to every 24 Victorians. By 1945, there was one car for every 14, and by 1969, the ratio was one to three. Within a generation, the motor car moved from being a preserve of the wealthy, to being within reach of ordinary working families. Alongside home ownership, the family car became part of the ‘great Australian dream’.

The car completely transformed family life. For the first time, it was easy to visit relatives and friends, go to sporting events, or take a trip to the beach. The ‘Sunday drive’ supplanted the Sunday church service as the favourite family outing.

Cars created a new suburban landscape, enabling the establishment of sprawling suburbs of quarter‑acre blocks. With access to trucks, manufacturers could establish their factories on greenfield sites far from rail and port facilities. Workers followed, and new suburban developments mushroomed in Melbourne’s outer ring. Most of these new estates were poorly served by public transport, making families entirely dependent on the car.

To read the rest of the story, check out the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: Russell Beedles borrowing the new family car, a Ford Prefect, at the Yarra Boulevard, 1957. Image courtesy of Museums Victoria

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