Cars crashed, bogged, and caught fire hundreds of kilometres from any hope of rescue – but more alarmingly, the winner threw sticks of gelignite to celebrate his victory.
Unimaginable today, but that’s how it was before the era of workplace health and safety.
There were 264 entrants flagged off from Sydney showground bound for Brisbane, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Mt Isa, Darwin, Broome, Meekatharra, Madura, Adelaide, and Melbourne … a gruelling 15,400km before finishing back in Sydney.
“Gelignite Jack” Murray in his Ford 1948 V8 led the pack as tens of thousands of Queenslanders watched the cars passing through the Gold Coast and Brisbane suburbs to arrive at the Ekka Grounds at two minute intervals
This Royal Queensland Historical Society archival photo shows the hectic scene as competitors lined up across the speedway track, ready for a 12-hour rest after that first leg.
There were strict rules for competitors. The cars had to be models available to the general public, with few modifications, and replacement of parts was strictly limited.
“Secret” intermediate checkpoints were set up to curb speeding.
The trial was aimed at showing motorists that a standard car was capable of travelling the primitive roads to most parts of Australia. It was eventual race winner “Gelignite Jack” Murray who captured the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
To celebrate his wins in each section, he let off sticks of gelignite in streets, country “outhouses” and under grandstands at football grounds.
The explosives were on board to clear any fallen trees or other obstacles blocking the narrow outback roads but were never used for that.
Instead, Murray gained his nickname, annoying some tired drivers and officials after he threw one stick into the bush near a Flying Doctor station resulting in an explosion that could have wrecked their delicate radio.
“They christened me ‘Gelignite Jack’ after the big bang in the tin outhouse at Townsville Showground,” he told the media. “Gelignite wouldn’t hurt a flea out in the open. It’s just the same as a cracker, only louder.”
Some rest stops were controversial. Drivers claimed local motels were making a fortune out of them and slept in their cars. Deep potholes played havoc, and one car caught fire and exploded while dashing across the Nullarbor. The driver and navigator scrambled to safety with no time to use a fire extinguisher.
Others were stranded trying to nurse their battered cars back to civilisation.
Murray who lost no points on the entire route was the popular winner and was mobbed as 200,000 people crowded the streets when the rally finished without a fatality.
It was reported that squads of police linked hands to prevent the crowds overturning the car when Murray claimed his first prize of $4000.
But that wasn’t the end of the scrutiny. Winning cars were impounded in a garage awaiting a check that vital parts identified with a special paint had not been replaced.
“The heavy-eyed, bearded drivers” who checked into the showground had only one complaint – it wasn’t tough enough, and they wanted more gruelling sections included.
Lynda Scott is a volunteer at the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. Visit queenslandhistory.org