I am always interested in chasing up the stories behind some of the old, historic vehicles we have here in Australia, and they often have a fabulous story to tell.
One that grips the imagination more than most is Francis Birtles’ ‘Sundowner’, now in the National Museum of Australia, often on display in the main hall.
Made famous by Birtles’ exploits around Australia, it gained enduring fame when it became the first vehicle to drive from London to Melbourne in 1928. It was an incredible achievement.
But there are others.
At the National Motor Museum (NMM) in Birdwood, South Australia, which houses one of the greatest collections of vehicles in the country, you will find a heap of interesting, old vehicles.
The outstanding one, no doubt, is the 1908 Talbot that was the first vehicle to drive across the continent from Adelaide to Darwin. In fact, it did the trip a few times and is now in impeccable condition in its new home.
One that caught my eye on my first visit to the NMM was a not-so-shiny slab-slided affair that I wanted to know more about. When Matthew Lombard, the curator at the museum, contacted me to let me know the original owner of the vehicle was in town, I organised a quick trip to see the vehicle and to yarn to the guy.
Meeting up with Brian Materne at the museum I got the story of the ‘Overland’, as Brian called his vehicle, and the trips he and his wife, Julia, had done in it.
Based on a 1952 Vanguard it had a 2088cc four-cylinder engine producing a staggering 51kW at 4200 revs. Top speed was reported to be in excess of 120km/h, but Brian reckoned his less-aerodynamic vehicle cruised effortlessly at 90km/h.
In 1962, once Brian had the Vanguard back home, he found the body riddled with rust, so he removed the body and after much deliberation fitted a wooden box on the chassis, where he told me, “I thought it would make a good driving position”.
The body was then mounted to the chassis on nine engine mounts, while the canopy was removable with roll-up curtains and an inbuilt roof rack. The seats – pretty basic I gotta say – were hinged to allow for the stowing of rifles and spare parts behind them. A 40-litre water tank, an axe and a shovel were mounted below the tray.
The front coil suspension remained unchanged, but Brian changed the rear leaf springs to heavier duty Holden springs. During all this work the vehicle was completely rewired, even though Brian was not an auto electrician, welder or mechanic. Finally, he christened the vehicle Overland. A bloody good effort you gotta say for a home mechanic with very limited resources!
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With his wife, two kids and the family cat they toured all over the country between 1963 and 1991. In between travelling, there were jobs working on or managing remote sheep properties as far-flung as Lake Everard Station in South Australia, Gunbah Station near Hay in western NSW and finally, in 1979, Wilgena Station near Tarcoola in the west of SA where they stayed until 1991. All were reached in the mighty Overland.
In 1992 the Overland was bought by the Australian Motor Vehicle Museum in Sydney, but when that museum folded the vehicle found its way to the NMM.
It is now on display amongst a whole range of many fine automobiles, some much prettier and far more expensive but few with more travel credentials – and the only one that hasn’t been manufactured in a factory.