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The National Motor Museum, Birdwood, South Australia: A journey of discovery

The National Motor Museum, Birdwood, South Australia: A journey of discovery

If you think this article is out and out promotion, well you'd be right. It absolutely is, it's one of the reasons Carligious started in the first place, to promote car stuff that matters to fellow enthusiasts. I'm proud to be South Australian and I'm proud of our car culture. What a lot of readers may not be aware of is, we have a world class motoring museum right in our own backyard.

Growing up in suburban Adelaide in a typical middle class family, the idea of going overseas or even going interstate for a holiday would have blown my little mind. You see, back in the good old days if you could afford to go overseas or even fly interstate, your parents must have been rich.

It was out of reach for most people to just casually hop on a plane and when you were lucky enough to go interstate, you travelled by car. Packing the family station wagon to the gills, the suspension groaning in protest, you'd head off to exotic locations like the Dromana Caravan Park in sunny Victoria; a nine hour drive from Adelaide where you had to listen to Dad playing Elvis' greatest hits on 8-track, over and over again. I thought my eardrums would burst!

Why am I rabbiting on about this? Much like the Dromana Caravan Park, the National Motor Museum has left a permanent mark on my psyche.

I think the first time I went to the National Motor Museum would have maybe been when I was 7 years old, it felt like it took forever to get there. I remember the twisty roads on the journey had me thinking, 'roller coaster' - I was amped up by the time we reached our destination.

I asked my parents, "where are we going?" Them telling me, "the Birdwood Mill", meant nothing to me. It was like, what do I care?

I was already car mad at this age and I had no idea what I was in for. I particularly recall a bright lime green car on display which rocked my world. I now know it was a 1969 Lamborghini Miura owned by a famous model called Twiggy. I didn't know who that was, she wouldn't have interested me anyway. I didn't really know how important the Lambo was and I just thought, man how cool is that.

That pretty much summed up my first experience of the National Motor Museum, just about everywhere I looked something new grabbed my attention, whether it was an exotic sports car, a crazy 1920's race bike which looked like you had to have a death wish to ride it, or some 50's big finned American monster that had me shaking my head... why?

Some history; the museum was first opened to the public in 1965 by Jack Kaines, a motorcycle enthusiast who wanted to share his passion, he had an extensive collection and wanted them on display for everyone to enjoy. Initially, only motorbikes were exhibited and over the next 10 years, the museum rapidly expanded to include curios, collectables, objects d'art, and an aircraft, alongside the motoring collection.

The museum changed hands during the expansion phase and was purchased by a group of private investors. Then the financial and petrol crises of the mid 70's struck - cars and car culture went out of favour and the museum hit hard times. It was looking like the important collection built up over the years was to be dispersed and the museum closed, no longer being profitable.

South Australia had a very progressive government at the time, its leadership recognised the historical importance of the collection. The museum, its entire collection and surrounding grounds were purchased outright in 1976 so everyone could continue to enjoy what it had to offer.

I was lucky enough to speak to current Director, Paul Rees and Curator, Matthew Lombard (themselves, car enthusiasts) about what sets the National Motor Museum apart.

They said, the National Motor Museum is a true museum, not just some motley car display, it is Australia's largest automotive exhibit and is a hub for Australian car culture and history.

They voiced, "... history wasn't just some static thing which gathered dust in the corner; it should be fluid, vibrant and animated. Having an appreciation of our history helps us as Australians identify what we are today and how we got there, not only that but it can also give us a possible glance into our future.
With the vast distances involved in travelling our great continent, car culture played a large part in shaping that history.
We are participating in creating history, even as we live our daily lives and that is exciting in itself."

One very significant way the National Motor Museum promotes this is to connect people with car culture first hand.

The museum has extensive affiliations with South Australia's largest motoring clubs and many important car events which are noted both nationally and internationally which are held on the museum grounds. Just to name a few:

The annual Bay to Birdwood is the largest, continually held motoring event for veteran, vintage and classic vehicles held anywhere in the world. Run by the museum with its partners as not-for-profit, it is a world class event and attracts thousands of visitors to the area. The next Bay to Birdwood is happening on the 25th September 2016.

Also, the Rock and Roll Rendezvous, another big annual event held on the museum grounds. It focuses on fun and entertainment, looking back to the rock and roll era and how cars played a big part in defining what it means to be Australian. Hundreds of classic vehicles gather together, celebrating car culture, period music and dancing, fashion along with children's activities. Big hair, big fins and chrome aplenty - just another reason why the national motor museum is culturally significant. The next Rock and Roll Rendezvous is on the 9th of April 2017.

Besides the fun, Paul and Matthew also expressed the serious business of how and what to preserve for future generations to enjoy and how to get people to connect with what's on display.

As time marches on there is a realisation that you can't keep every display. As the people who are directly connected to the car paraphernalia presented pass on, it becomes more important to convey broader slices of history so the viewer can gain a sense of how things were.

That's why the national motor museum actively changes their displays to achieve that sense of 'being there'. You can see it in the 20's old style garage/workshop display, the recreation of a classic 50's diner, including an old school drive-in theatre. Most recently they have the Sunburnt Country display which presents a panorama of Australia's own unique love affair with the car and includes iconic vehicles, legendary people, motoring innovation and adventurous journeys. Special attention is of course given to the birth of "Australia's Own Car" in 1948 – the Holden.

What does the future hold for the National Motor Museum and what of today's cars being tomorrow's classics? Paul and Matthew see a need to prepare now for our future history. As cars become more and more complex so to, will the preservation techniques needed to maintain our automotive icons. I was thinking, yeah, it's going to be a real pain to restore a 2014 HSV GTS.

To that end, the museum is also creating and maintaining a national storehouse of data, being the George Brooks Library which is undoubtedly one of the world's most significant motoring libraries.

The books and manuals provide reference material for most makes of cars and include parts catalogues, repair guides, tool catalogues, sales brochures, motoring fiction, travelogues, marque specific publications, historical reference books, owner's manuals, instruction books, mechanical engineering reference books, restoration guides, automobile encyclopaedias, and registration details.

The library also holds posters, sales brochures, VCR's and DVD's, 16 mm and 35mm cine films, and thousands of photographs and negatives.

The George Brooks library is a national treasure in its own right.

If you've a car passion and kids which you want to share that passion with, the National Motor Museum is a must see venue. Do yourself a favour, head out to Birdwood, it's about an hour's drive from the Adelaide CBD, through some of the most picturesque driving roads the Adelaide Hills has to offer... that and it's a cracking drive in itself. Make a day of it, you'll be glad you did.

Many thanks to Paul and Matthew for their insights.

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