Coach, horsedrawn, park drag, timber / metal / cotton fabric, made by Vial & Sons, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, probably 1886
The early growth of the coachbuilding industry in Australia was based on the structure and practices of the industry in England. From the 1850s, American coachbuilding practices and horse drawn vehicle styles exerted an increasing influence on the local industry, initially resulting from the repeal in 1849 of the British Navigation Acts, which had prevented trade with countries other than Britain.
For the Australian coachbuilder, the most significant aspect of this American influence was the availability of carriage building machinery. A range of specialised machinery was imported from the United States for use in Australian coachbuilding workshops, most of it designed to facilitate the production of wheels.
A typical Australian coachbuilding workshop in the latter half of the 19th century comprised five divisions of activity, each supervised by a skilled tradesman.
The body maker or body builder was responsible for the design and preparation of the body frame, panels and shafts or poles to which the harness would be attached. Sometimes this tradesman would work with the blacksmith to construct the undercarriage (traditionally referred to as the "carriage"), although a specialist "carriage builder" may be employed for this purpose.
The wheelwright turned the wheel hubs or centres on a lathe, drilled the hub to house the cast iron axle box, cut mortises to receive the spokes and fitted felloes (sections of wheel rim extending over two spokes) or, on smaller wheels for American carriage types, semi-circular, steam bent "half rims".
The wheels were then ready for the blacksmith to cut, shape, heat, forge and "shrink" the steel tyres onto the wheels by the rapid cooling by cold water of a red hot tyre dropped into place over a wheel rim. Each tyre contracted as it cooled and imparted enormous strength to the wheel structure as the tyre tightened around the frame of felloes of half rims. The axle and all other "ironwork" for the vehicle such as springs, shackles, steps and lamp irons were prepared by the blacksmith.
The trimmer made the hood or applied roofing material and made side curtains, seat squabs and cushions using leather, imitation leather (fabric impregnated with rubber and called "leatherette"), horsehair and canvas. Finally, the painter prepared fillers and mixed paints and primers in preparation for painting the vehicle by brush, using finely pointed "dagger" brushes for detailed work. The coach painter's most valued expertise lay in the steadiness of hand and wrist action employed in the detailing of his paintwork with thin stripes of brightly coloured paint to adorn wheels and body panels, although park drags were typically minimally detailed with so called "striping". The finished job was covered in two coats of protective clear varnish.
Commencing in the 1850s, the more mechanised American industry influenced this traditional structure. The use of coachbuilding machinery enabled coachbuilding firms to save time and labour on manual tasks in the construction of each vehicle. However, the main benefit of the machinery was its capacity to reduce production costs through economies of scale. The machinery was used to mass produce identical vehicle components which could then be partly assembled into vehicle sections such as buggy bodies, wheels and spring assemblies. These could then be provided in bulk to carriage builders by coachbuilders' suppliers' firms. This led to a centralisation of the industry with fewer firms operating on a traditional basis (such as Vial and Sons) and more carriage factories in towns and suburbs, carriage showrooms in urban areas (known as "carriage bazaars") supported by coachbuilders' suppliers firms. These were the main technological developments that led to the changes in the industry that in turn hastened the demise of companies like Vial and Sons.
"Park drag" is a colloquial English term for a gentleman's private coach drawn by four horses. They were used to carry groups of passengers on excursions to race meetings, picnics or meetings of a coaching club. These vehicles first appeared in England in the Regency period (the 1810s) when four-in-hand driving (that is, holding the reins of four horses in harness) became fashionable. Their design was based on the mail coach of the late 18th century, later revived as a "road coach" In the 1860s. All these vehicles were characterised by a large, fully enclosed "U" shaped body supported on a perch undercarriage, a front and hind boot to carry luggage, four sturdily-built, dished wheels and outside seats mounted on the roof and the front and hind boots for the driver, grooms and passengers. The body was usually finished in sombre colours, unlike the strikingly coloured mail coaches. A common feature was a drop down panel at the rear of the hind boot to provide a table for picnics.
The popularity of four-in-hand driving in Britain and, by association, the park drag, was initially confined to the period from about 1815 to 1840, after which the advent of railways quickly diminished the attraction of long distance travel by coach. A revival of interest in four-in-hand driving took place in the 1860s with the new term "road coach" being applied to vehicles for public transport while the private drag enjoyed renewed popularity.
These trends were reflected in Australia, where English coachbuilding practices, carriage driving and vehicle styles were closely watched and imitated by the emerging well-to-do in Sydney. English built mail coaches were imported and used in the first regular services in the colony which began in 1821. Although their rigid construction gave passengers a hard ride on the rough roads and their high centre of gravity made them unstable, the English mail coach design had remained essentially unchanged when the first locally built coach emerged from the coachbuilding factory of Mr Foord Bayliss in January 1832.
From the 1820s, wealthy landowners such as George Ranken and Alexander Berry had imported their own coaches for personal use (Alexander Berry's travelling chariot is in the Museum's collection). The Sydney Herald carried advertisements for "London built carriages" recently arrived by ship, while in 1827 one observer described Sydney's South Head Road as "the grand equestrian resort along which gigs with well dressed people may be seen daily careering" (Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales, London, 1827).
The Sydney coachbuilding firm that was to become Vial and Sons was probably established during this period. It was formed by Messrs Lyle and Company to serve the growing market for carriages and coaches in the English styles from their premises at 279 Castlereagh Street. The company was later purchased by Mr Charles Martin (or Martyn) at which time Lyle and Company were the longest established in the coachbuilding trade in Sydney. Mr Martin sold the business to William Vial senior in 1851 and appears to have set up another business at 240 Pitt Street South.
The timing of the purchase of the business by Mr Vial snr is ironically significant, for it was on the cusp of a revolutionary change that was to take place in the coachbuilding industry in Australia that would ultimately bring about the collapse of the company.
Until 1849, the British Navigation Acts had prevented Australian colonies from trading with countries other than Britain. Their repeal in that year permitted trade with the United States which was a source of an enormous array of manufactured goods, including horse drawn carriages. Compared with the Australian industry, the industry in North America was far less deferential to British tradition, served much large market and was more adventurous in developing vehicle types - principally the four wheeled buggy and its variants - that were more suited to the needs of a large continent with new frontiers. Not surprisingly, these characteristics were very attractive to the Australian market, especially after the discovery of gold in Australia in 1851 which soon led to an enormous increase in demand for wheeled transport.
For the Australian coachbuilder of the mid-19th century, the most significant aspect of this American influence was the availability of carriage building machinery. Commencing in the 1850s, American buggies and other light vehicle imports were accompanied by a range of specialised machinery from the United States for use in Australian coachbuilding workshops, most of it designed to facilitate the production of wheels.
The introduction of American horse drawn carriages and coachbuilding practices into Australia adversely affected the market for traditional carriage building, especially at the high end of the trade. Companies like Vial and Son (as it was then) were most vulnerable and, recognising the threat to their businesses, they increased their vehicle range to include the new American carriage designs and developed their own versions using locally available timber.
However, traditional carriage building firms In Australia's main cities had also relied on a lucrative country trade for substantial Income. The coming of the railways to Australia in the 1850s gradually reduced the need for country families to maintain elaborate carriages and their accoutrements. They now had a choice of travelling by train and, where necessary, to use a cheaper and more practical American buggy for horse drawn transport.
A newspaper report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 13 March 1868 reports on an incident that fate determined was to raise Mr Vial's profile in the community from its already respected position. Prince Alfred, then Duke of Edinburgh, was visiting Sydney the previous day and was attending a luncheon at Clontarf. An unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of the Prince by a Mr Hassall. He was restrained by Mr Vial who just happened to be in the crowd of admirers and onlookers. The excited account of the event describes how Mr Vial "sprang upon the dastardly assailant, pinioning his arms to his side." Needless to say, this notable act of heroism did no harm to Mr Vial's reputation or, no doubt, to the fortunes of his business.
Mr Vial snr continued to manage the business until his death in 1877, when his son, William G Vial, took over. Mr Vial junior maintained the reputation of the firm and took a personal interest in its activities. He personally supervised all branches of the coachbuilding trade at the company's Paddington factory, which included bodymaking, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, trimming and painting. In 1879, the company submitted several entries in the Sydney International Exhibition and won a "Commended" award for its Landaus, a "Highly Commended" for its Victorias and one "First Degree of Merit Special" for a Florentine Phaeton.
The park drag was built in 1886, at which time the company was apparently known as "Vial and Sons", as displayed on the brass hubcaps. This is an indication that William junior had been joined by at least two sons in the firm at some stage. It is notable that the drag was ordered and built during prosperous times before the collapse of the land boom and the economic crisis of the early 1890s. There is no information available about the client who ordered the drag but it is safe to assume that its new owner was wealthy. However, the peak of the industry had already passed, especially for large, expensive vehicles such as a park drag which would require significant costs to keep and operate.
Messrs Vial and Son were featured very positively in an article in the local trade journal The Australian Coachbuilder and Saddler of 10 November 1890. Notably, the timing of the article was just prior to the depression that led to a marked decline in the trade and in the fortunes of the company. The writer describes Messrs Vial and Son as having "established a reputation throughout the whole of Australia for the excellence of workmanship and finish displayed in the manufacture of their brougham cabs, and in all fine carriage work" and that "whose reputation as coachbuilders is so well established as to render any comment from us superfluous". It was noted that they took orders for one hundred special vehicle orders annually. Mention is also made of many special vehicle styles developed by the company such as the "Hyde Park buggy", which could be converted into three versions to vary the accommodation for passengers and luggage.
In September 1906, the same journal, now The Australasian Coachbuilder and Wheelwright, reported on the death of Mr William G Vial due to a heart attack. The article states that the company ceased to trade early that year, when Mr Vial's ill health had compelled him to "retire from the contest". The writer expresses the view that Vial and Sons had been more affected by the downturn in the economy more than any other coachbuilding firm in Sydney. This suggests the degree to which they had relied on the demand for traditional English styles and high class carriage building. The article eulogises Mr Vial as "greatly esteemedĀ?in the trade" and as "having a great fund of knowledge of the history of coachbuilding In New South Wales." He left a widow, one son and six daughters.
Nothing is known of the history of the park drag until 1949, when it was purchased by Mr Raymond Greenaway, the father of the present owner, from a man simply known as "Smithy" through a Mr James Cranner of Kogarah. In December 1952, Mr Greenaway and a friend Mr Robert Shoesmith travelled in the coach from Lakemba in Sydney to Harrington on the NSW north coast. They purchased horses from Mr Lionel Ware of Leichhardt, then the third generation proprietor of what has become the oldest horse stables in Australia which is still in business today.
Mr Greenaway took the coach to public events such as the visit of the Queen to Liverpool when she was visiting Australia in 1954 and he drove the coach around Sydney showground when American film and television actor Hopalong Cassidy was a guest star.
The coach was housed at Lakemba until 1976 when Mr Greenaway moved to Uranquinty in the Riverina. Mr Greenaway's son Paul carried out some restoration work on the coach from the time he visited his father there in 1980. In 2005, Mr Greenaway took the coach to Adelaide where his son arranged to have more extensive work undertaken by Peter Foster, a horse drawn vehicle historian and restorer.
The current appearance of the coach reflects the restoration work undertaken by Mr Foster.
He describes his first inspection of the park drag: "My first reaction when I saw this extremely rare Australian built park drag (was that it was) sturdy (and) functionally basic, with a refined simplicity that wasn't evident in both the American and English equivalents". He also states that "This is one of the most intact vehicles I have worked on inĀ?three decades of restoration". His aim was to retain this originality and, where it had been previously compromised, (such as the poorly executed replacement for the roof covering), repair the vehicle sympathetically using authentic methods and materials that are modern equivalents of those used at the time.