(Another) Citroën Centenary — from Australia

By Garth Foxwell…..

Well, it is now May 2023!

For Citroënists in Australia – and indeed the world over – this is a momentous month. A month for reflection and celebration. We note it by looking back (a bit!) One Hundred Years!

On April 29, 1923, the Perth, Western Australia newspaper – ‘The Sunday Times’ recorded a list of new motor vehicle registrations. One of the listings read as follows:-

“4223, Citroën car, Walter J Phipps, Slade Street Bayswater”

This is the start of something great! In this instance the Citroën was a Citroën 5CV (god forbid – marketed as a ’Baby Citroën’.) Soon this car would be a ‘Giant-killer’!

The journal of the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia – the ‘W.A. Motorist’ reported in its 20 May 1923 edition, that on May 1, 1923 two young men, Messers W.J. Phipps and J. Seery departed Fremantle and later arrived in Adelaide on May 14, 1923 in their 7.5 HP ‘Baby’ Citroën.

The vehicle as it appeared on its departure in the ‘W.A. Motorist’.

Other newspapers of the day report the arrival of the two in Melbourne as being May 14 and in Sydney on May 18. This seems the more correct couple of dates as their arrival in Sydney is reported in a Sydney newspaper dated May 19. Variously, different newspapers collectively provide a more complete record. Key points drawn from these newspapers are as follows:

  • The first striking point to note is that the vehicle is reported as weighing in total – ’18 hundredweight’! Not bad – some 914 kilograms of which the car contributed about 500 Kg! The added weight comes from carrying 23 gallons of ‘benzine’, eight gallons of water, oils, tools and of course, some personal requirements.
  • It seems the two originally set out from Western Australia with the aim of completing the crossing to Sydney in a record time. To do this they would ‘travel by day and night, one sleeping, while the other drove’. This is supported by the lighting set-up evident in the photo above. One large ‘spotlight’ mid-mounted above the radiator and two other lights – one mounted on each of the windscreen mounts and able to be manually directed.
  • Some distance (believed around three hundred kilometres, although reported as “100 miles”), east of Kalgoorlie (at Naretha), driving at night, they struck an unsighted tree stump and broke a wheel hub. Reports of a four day (in one case a five day) wait for replacement parts wrecked their record attempt too. The replacement parts were transported to them by way of the nearby railway.
Phipps and Seery and their Citroën with the Adelaide Agents – Maugham Thiem Motors
[image copyright to State Library of South Australia.]
  • While the record for the crossing was not achieved, they were reported as having established a record for a ‘light vehicle’ making the crossing – a distance of nearly 3,000 miles (roughly 4,800 km. Yes, there is a shorter more direct option, but theirs was by way of Adelaide and Melbourne!).
  • On arrival in Adelaide (stated as 1769 Miles in 157 hours of driving time), the two said they were on a ‘holiday trip’ to Melbourne and Sydney!
  • In one section of the trip from Kalgoorlie to Adelaide, through the ‘Yardu’ Sandhills (sometimes ‘Yadu’ or Yardea’), so arduous was the journey, it took 5 hours to cover 12 miles (19 km). It is said theirs was the first car to cross this area without the aid of real ‘horse’ power.
  • Phipps is also reported as having said he planned to undertake the trip by motorcycle but received an offer from the Agents of the small car to use one intead. He then asked Mr Seery to accompany him.
On arrival in Sydney (with the agents – Salmons Motors.)

As you look on…

Be assured, those of you in other places, this was a truly tough and significant journey! It is not known precisely, but it is likely that no more than 250 km of the total 4,800 km would have been on surfaced roadways. The rest dirt and sand! In fact the road (track) traveled – alongside the ’Trans-continental Railway’, is today basically dirt (gravel) from Kalgoorlie (Western Australia) to Port Augusta (South Australia), and no doubt still plenty more!

Who were these men?

Walter John Phipps was born in Surrey, England, coming to Australia in his late teens. John Joseph Patrick Seery was born in Perth, Western Australia. Both completed apprenticeships, Phipps in Electrics and Seery as a Mechanic. Both enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces. Phipps went in early in 1915. He suffered injury in the course of 1915 which probably precluded overseas service. Notably he served as a ‘Driver’! Seery undertook Mechanics duties and saw service in the UK and France. On return to Australia, Seery operated a Mechanics workshop some one hundred and sixty kilometres from Perth in a locality called Moora. How they come together to complete their transcontinental crossing in 1923 is unknown. Eventually, both leave Western Australia, Phipps to settle and live out his life in Burnie, Tasmania. Seery relocated to Sydney where he too remained the rest of his life.

So now, as the month of May 2023 passes, perhaps you might think of these two men and their wonderful and adventurous undertaking. One that contributed to strengthening the presence of the Citroën brand in Australia.

Perhaps cheekily, I do want to pose one other question. Might it be that another young West Australian – Nevil Westwood, saw the various reports of Phipps and Seery and was subsequently inspired? Inspired to go on to something greater when he and, for the most part of the journey, Greg Davies, circumnavigated Australia for the first time by car in 1925, The car of course was also a ‘Baby’ Citroën. Quite a thought!

Sometime towards the end of May, think of this as a good reason to pop the cork on a bottle of fine Australian ‘Sparkling Wine’ and celebrate the feats of Phipps and Seery in their Citroën 5CV.

Note: For further interest go to trove.nla.gov.au.  This is an electronic service of the National Library of Australia. Type in the ‘Search’ box the term ‘PhippsSeery’ and this should take you to several articles about this story. Another search term to do so is ‘PioneeringCitroens’. Enjoy!

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