From the moment Francis Birtles and Sydney Ferguson became the first to drive from Fremantle to Sydney, via Port Augusta and Broken Hill (a distance of about 2,600 miles, or 4,200km), others strove to make a race of it and set new records for the journey.
Birtles and Ferguson took 28 days, 1 hour and 52 minutes to cover the distance in 1912, but within twelve years (not withstanding the intervening five years of World War 1) the record was down to a mere 5 days, 21 hrs, 45 min. That time would be considered fast going even today.
Other records were being set and broken, including Fremantle to Sydney via Adelaide and Melbourne, a distance of 2,959 miles (4,761km), which thereafter became the "official" route for such attempts.
By 1928 the outright record had been lowered to 4 days, 10 hrs, 43 min by Australia's greatest racing driver of the day, Norman "Wizard" Smith - travelling almost non-stop with two relief drivers.
As with other forms of racing and trials, smaller cars had their own classes and in the same year the Light Car record for the journey was 8 days, 3 hrs, 30 min.
In 1929 a young adventurer from Warren, NSW, who had seen his first car at the age of eight, in 1914, set out to beat that record.
D. H. (Peter) Antill was the son of a grazier and had learned to drive that first car alongside his father. After working for a few years as a car salesman in Sydney, he returned to the family property in 1924, and soon afterwards bought an Overland light car. He was often seen tearing around the local area, learning the art of fast driving in rough conditions.
Four years later he bought a Riley 9 Special - so called because it featured twin carbs - from the Sydney agents Williams, Hill & Cameron Ltd for £385.
During the Christmas holidays he got into a friendly argument about the trans-continental record, which spurred him on to attempt to break it in his Riley.
Antill was a methodical person who wanted to leave as little to chance as possible. According to Jack Pollard, in his 1974 compilation book, One For Road (later republished as Great Motoring Stories of Australia and New Zealand), Antill went to Sydney to seek sponsorship for the attempt. "With assistance from Castrol Oil and Rapson Tyres, and advice from 'Wizard' Smith…Peter set out for the West carrying a large quantity of lithographed tin advertising signs, and equipped with a large notebook. He nailed the signs up at appropriate places to indicate gutters, rough sections, and danger points, and where possible to indicate the right road to follow on the return journey."
He also made copious notes about road conditions and hazards as he went, which in Perth he translated into an early form of pace notes for the return run.
In Adelaide he advertised for a companion for the drive over the Nullarbor and the Fremantle to Adelaide section of the record attempt. "My father had refused to let me make the trip alone past Adelaide because from there on water was scarce and petrol stops were often four hundred to five hundred miles apart at the sparse homesteads along that road", he wrote in Pollard's book. From six applicants, Antill selected Adelaide car salesman and mechanic Bill McGee, who turned out to be an ideal choice.
In the final run to Perth, the road wound back and forth, crossing the railway line many times, which led to a near disaster, as Antill continues. "The road climbed steeply up onto the line, so that our headlights pointed up into the sky, giving no warning of the turn that was hidden in the darkness below their beams. Off the road along the railway line lay the usual cattle grid-a pit dug deep, and covered by widely spaced wooden slats… When we hit the grid, a slat broke and a front wheel went down through it. We were travelling at only a few miles an hour so we suffered no hurt."
However, the car was stuck fast on the railway line. Fearing a scheduled train could soon appear and wipe out the car, he found a local linesman's hut, had the train stopped and, with the help of some of the passengers, extricated the Riley from the hole.
While scouting the route on the way over to Perth, the pair organised for fuel and oil to be available at strategic points on their return. The car was mechanically standard, apart from a second fuel tank of 8 gallons (36lt) capacity being fitted in the boot, special drain grooves ground under the rocker-boxes to try and make them oil tight, and the chassis and suspension being strengthened. A support bar had also been fitted between the headlights, to prevent them shaking loose on the rough roads.
"On the running-board we carried two gallons of engine lube oil, and four gallons of petrol in square two-gallon Cans", Antill wrote. "All were strapped down snugly, secured in position by wooden cleats nailed to the running-board."
After ten days in Perth to make some final preparations and wait for the best weather conditions, the pair set off from Fremantle at 4.30pm on Saturday 22 April 1929.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, about the crossing of Australia from coast to coast and setting a new record, and about the reenactment that took place 80 years later with the same car, then grab your copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, or subscribe now.
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