Boom time Rolls: the story of SDB26 © Tom Clarke, 2018
‘As a uniformed schoolboy, I watched in wonder as women in smart suits by Balenciaga stepped from Rolls-Royces to shop in the market town’s Gray Street.’ Thus wrote Richard Zachariah about boom-time 1950s Hamilton in Victoria. His book The Vanished Land (2017) ranges nostalgically over the ‘disappearing dynasties of Victoria’s Western District’. My own car wasn’t owned by a dynasty, and it came from the Wimmera region on the northern fringes of the Western District, but the boom-time connection was the same. This is its story.
The early 1950s saw an agricultural boom in the fertile Western District and elsewhere in Australia. There was huge export demand for wool and meat, especially when the Korean War began, and wheat for the European market. Graziers and wheat farmers saw their incomes rocket to stratospheric levels and, to add to the bonus, their producing costs were relatively low. After a while a certain hubris and complacency set in – life was good, it would never end, why not spend up? Hence the good sales of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, and the gracious or even lavish lifestyles in the grander country homes. Many years later it all ended badly. Wool prices collapsed and tax bills piled up. But let’s bask in some of the reflected glory from those heady days.
01: ‘Mt Michell’ in 2009, rather parched ground but the grandeur of the portico very evident.
From ‘Mount Mitchell’ on the Sunraysia Highway at Lexton, 47km northwest of Ballarat, bachelor farmer brothers Frederick George Muller (1896-1986) and John (‘Jack’) Ernest Muller (1907-81) often banked £16,000 at a time during the boom. These staggering sums in other hands would have led to life being lived high on the hog. But their upbringing in the Muller family meant money was always conserved, which is probably why they could ride out the years after the boom ended.
There were actually three Muller brothers, the middle brother Edward Rudolph (1898-1987) at age 54 being the only brother to marry. The family was of German descent, with forebears arriving in Australia in 1851. Their German name meant they were ostracised during the Great War despite being loyal second generation Anglican Australians! All the brothers were born at Glenburn near Yea, sons of Friedrich August Rudolph Muller, and the whole family remained religious, their outlook probably coloured by the distressing treatment during the war. They had a wheat farm at Kinimakatka, near Nhill, where Fred in particular promoted a high-yield grain called ‘Dollar’. (Their relation Ernest Muller died at this farm in November 1938.) In 1923 Muller Sr. bought the ‘Woodstock Station’ pastoral property (1,214 acres or 491 hectares) near Avoca to farm with his sons. In 1936, after their father’s death in 1927, the brothers added ‘Mt Mitchell’ (2,590 acres or 1,048 hectares). Many years later, in the early 1960s, a further property was bought at Rokewood south of Ballarat. The pair of farming brothers did not socialise much locally but did dispense sums to religious charities. When younger, Fred participated in shooting competitions and Jack in cycling contests. They invested in livestock and machinery, and developed superfine merino wool. However, they spent next to nothing on the homsesteads themselves. Their grand interiors gradually became storage spaces. A housekeeper was employed to sustain their simple lifestyle. It follows that they never threw anything away and make-do-and-mend was the order of the day.
In this frugal context it seems extraordinary that the pair would buy a Rolls but they were looking for a sturdy car, not luxury. At first a Buick was considered but at Kellow-Falkiner, the Rolls-Royce official retailer in Melbourne, they were first offered a secondhand Bentley. When they demurred the salesman mentioned that a Silver Dawn was coming out for the Motor Show. ‘After the Show you can have that’ they were told. And that’s how it turned out. For modest brothers a ‘standard steel’ Silver Dawn seems more appropriate than a coachbuilt Silver Wraith. SDB26 was a stock order car timed for the Motor Show and so it had already been chosen in black with tan interior rather than anything more brash that could have put off potential buyers. The brothers were happy with that specification and paid a £500 deposit on 9 February 1951 and then waited.
At Crewe the car was built with the usual Colonial requirements, such as heavy duty front springing, export heavier bumpers, a rear lamps external override switch, oil-bath air cleaner, heavier damper settings, and dust proofed. She was delivered to the company’s Lillie Hall depot in west London on 8 January 1951 and shipped on the S.S. Ranchi on 9 February (a month lost before shipment). Looking the ship up on the internet I see she was launched in 1925 and scrapped in 1953, getting on a bit when she had SDB26 in the hold!
02-03: Some of the Crewe construction records for SDB26.
The Centenary Jubilee Motor Show ran from 18-28 April 1951 at the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne, opened by the Governor, H. E. Sir Dallas Brooks. Press reports usually covered only the Silver Wraith by Park Ward on display (WHD77) when mentioning the two Rolls-Royces and one Bentley. Kellow-Falkiner did well and took more orders, with 50 cars already on the waiting list caused by shipping delays (that slow old S.S. Ranchi again?!). They were also showing Riley, Wolseley, and Packard cars. The Australian Monthly Motor Manual May 1951 issue (that had somehow stayed with the car down the years) stated that ‘A Silver Dawn Rolls, and Bentley…make a very attractive showing’. The brothers would almost certainly have come to the Motor Show to see their SDB26 on display before making the final payment of £4,256.9s.0d on 24 May 1951 after delivery, the car now registered UV-603. The delivery almost one month after the Show, rather than immediately, seems odd. It was probably agreed at the time of the sale so that Kellow-Falkiner had a showroom car until the next one (already on its way) arrived.
04-05: Views of Silver Wraith WHD77 and Silver Dawn SDB26 at the Melbourne Motor Show in April 1951. Curiously, the latter’s mascot is turned the wrong way.
06: The magazine that actually mentioned SDB26 at the Show.
07-08: Cheque, mate! Proof of the amounts paid and when.
09-10: The guarantee sent from England in a cardboard cylinder (still with the car); and the encouraging letter sent from the factory at the start of the brothers’ ownership.
The brothers’ two previous cars had been Armstrong Siddeleys in 1929 and 1936 (both still at ‘Mt Mitchell’ in 1981). The Silver Dawn would have been quite a revelation by comparison but they used it modestly, reaching only 62,000 miles by 1981. Even when I got it the mileage was a reasonable 80,000. The car remains very original to this day, thanks to the brothers’ low mileage and no use of the back seat!
The Silver Dawn was maintained at Kellow-Falkiner beyond the three-year guarantee period but August 1957 seems to be the last ledger entry. As with many cars supplied to Victoria, the tail and number plate lights were controlled by an additional switch above the number plate box but this was bypassed in February 1955, presumably when the prewar requirement was revoked. (The switch is still there, a weatherproof press on/off type, and it seems the aim was to prevent anyone escaping detection after a night-time accident.) Other than that I don’t know how the car was maintained from the 1960s up to 1986, a local mechanic perhaps. Fred certainly did some chores himself.
11-12: Some Kellow-Falkiner servicing records for SDB26 up to 1957. (Courtesy of George Forbes)
13: A later view of SDB26 during Muller ownership showing its dishevelled appearance and the homestead with its overgrown garden and verandah posts hidden in later wooden boxes (now restored). Also glimpsed are the oversize heavy duty tyres that the Mullers preferred!
‘Mt Mitchell’ was sold by Fred Muller to Richard Salter in 1981 and it is not clear where Fred spent the following years. Richard restored ‘Mt Mitchell’ back to its early splendour and we were able to take SDB26 back there in 2009, later being given the cheque books (used in this article) that showed the purchase of the car. (I’m grateful to Denis Deasey, a friend of Richard’s, for springing into action on these relics.) In typical Muller fashion these had been left lying around the house! We saw the old large garage where the car had been kept for over thirty years. Yes, I scoured it in case any car parts had been left behind! Fred had been interviewed by The Age in 1981 and mentioned several things taken off the car for one reason or another. Amazingly, these items like the clock, radio, and arm rests had all survived.
14: The only picture of Fred Muller, and a bad one, showing him in 1981 at ‘Mt Mitchell’ with SDB26.
With ‘Mt Mitchell’ sold Fred held onto SDB26 and after his death it passed to his brother Edward. It was from his family that Dr George Tippett of Kew bought the car in 1987. George improved the car over many years, attending to the front suspension, repainting, and some chrome work as well as routine maintenance. I bought it in early 2008, with the intervention of my old W.A. Branch mate Andrew Brownell who had seen it for sale. It was fortunate that George included a lot of spare parts with the car. Andrew cared for the car at his Daylesford home until we arrived in early 2009 to use it for the first time. The time in between wasn’t wasted and Andrew gave the leather plenty of Connolly’s hide food and had the wheel discs rechromed. Yokohama radial tyres were fitted to replace the Dunlop crossplies. After 20,000 miles they are still very serviceable.
The biggest task was undertaken by Doug MacKay of Ballarat in 2008, fitting new pistons and rings because several of the original pistons had broken landings and rings. The hard chrome inserts in the bores were in fine condition with no ridge where the inserts ended so I opted to keep them in situ. In hindsight this might have been a purist choice too far because the new J.P. pistons and rings didn’t bed well, U.K. rings ditto, but Doug persisted and eventually American-made Egge pistons bedded in and we got back the smoothness and normal oil consumption that eluded us for quite a while. New big-end bearings were fitted at the same time. Andrew had meanwhile arranged a slap-up picnic at ‘Mt Mitchell’ as a sort of blessing for my union with the car! Along with Fiona and me, the congregation included Peter and Elizabeth Crauford, Denis Deasey, Darren Overend, Andrew as culinary choreographer, and Richard Salter our host. What an evocative occasion to start off my custodianship.
15: SDB26 back at ‘Mt Mitchell’ on 16 February 2009 with the house very shipshape.
16: The holy grail, SDB26’s garage attached to the house but no longer the original doors.
Fiona and I came from England to use it every couple of years until 2014 when I shipped it to the U.K. after much useful work was done on it by Lex Lynch. He undertook a total brake overhaul, installed seat belts, and sorted out the carburetter. His Bentley is the role model for all of us! Prior to shipment I ensured I could keep the original UV-603 on retention, and for a while we had WXU-518 on the car and then 08179H. Here in England it is now YVL-587, luckily no annual ‘road tax’ for older cars. The car has let us down only once, on the overlander to Albany in 2009 – a rear wheel bearing. Overall it has been a lovely car to own and use even though the prewar cars are my first interest.
17: Dr. George Tippett reunited with SDB26 in Kew, 2009. In the background Naomi Tippett and Fiona Clarke. The modern rear indicators were later removed and instead the reversing lamps have been pressed into service as flashers.
In the years since the car has been in England (not necessarily permanent!) I’ve had more chroming done, fitted a new radiator, new master cylinder, had the doors insulated as Lex suggested (to stop the tinny sound of all-steel bodies) and fitted a new exhaust system. I hope to rebuild and refit the original system with its nicer fittings. I retain original finishes where I can. For example, just wax on the interior woodwork creates a lovely appearance rather than redoing it in high gloss.
18-21: Views of SDB26 in England, showing off the original interior, the luggage straps all these cars had, the period rear reflectors that were the subject of a Rolls-Royce Service Bulletin, and the well preserved exterior.
One of the pleasures of owning a classic car, particularly a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, is ensuring it is complete in its fittings and accessories. For a prewar car this is a huge task quite often but the postwar cars also came with a fair number of things that often get lost or overlooked. SDB26 is fortunate, despite the brothers’ rough and ready ways(!), of remaining largely complete. Today it is fully complete, as these detail photographs attest.
22: Tools and handbook for the cabin. 23: Under-bonnet tools.
24: Tools fitted in the spare wheel area.
25: Useful manuals and special tools for the garage but not supplied with each car when new. The long tool is for removing inlet valve springs in situ and (left inset) is its companion which threads into the spark plug holes; the L shaped tool is for extracting the exhaust valve springs.
And what of SDB26’s ancestral home, ‘Mt Mitchell’? After the departure of Fred Muller it was painstakingly restored by Richard Salter, the site now being a smaller 766 acres (or 310 hectares). Since 2015 it has been owned by Kate and Simon Tol who have improved the house and grounds even more (the homestead site itself being 10 acres or 4 hectares overall). You can now enjoy the house and its farm yourself with holidays at the property. It truly is a distinguished home, built in bluestone and designed by noted architect Charles Webb who also created the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne. It was built during 1860-61 with 14 rooms and greatly enlarged in 1910-12 by architect Percy Richards, doubling its size. One day I really will have to take SDB26 back there again and let the car grace the house and grounds to rekindle its memories.
Acknowledgements: my thanks to Bentley MkVI enthusiast R. Andrew Brownell of Ballarat for checking over so many details and for looking after my car some years ago; and to George Tippett for his preservation of the car over so many years.