Caravan, fast food, 'Harry's Cafe de Wheels', metal / timber / vinyl, maker unknown, used by Harry Edwards and Alex Kuronya, Australia, 1945
More than a pie cart, the venerable establishment known as Harry's Cafe de Wheels is a unique piece of Sydney's history, and the stuff of legend and myth. Originally known simply as Harry's, one story states that it became a 'Cafe de Wheels' due to a council regulation that mobile food vans had to move a minimum one foot per day. With customers' cars often crowding the entrance to Garden Island, Harry's was a thorn in the side of the Navy for years.
Harry's typically Australian fast food, especially his classic pie 'n' pea floaters, captured the public's imagination and made the Cafe de Wheels a unique part of the city's nightlife. It attracted blue collar workers, sailors, taxi drivers and late night revellers from Kings Cross. It even became a tourist attraction. International celebrity visitors included Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum, Shirley Maclaine, Phyllis Diller, Colonel Sanders and Elton John. Local supporters included John Laws, Mike Walsh, Kerry Packer and Olivia Newton-John. Despite this glamorous patronage, Harry's maintained an egalitarian reputation. Musicians, streetwalkers, dancers, policemen and bookmakers could be seen late at night devouring meat pies, hot dogs and crumbed sausages alongside judges, politicians and society's well-to-do. With its romantic location between the 'Loo and the Cross, Harry's was a meeting place where social classes intersected. It represented something quintessential about the personality of Sydney.
Alex Kuronya, who operated Harry's Cafe from 1975 and donated this superseded van to the Museum in 1985, was a Hungarian-born refugee from Austria who arrived in 1950. He maintained the traditions of Harry's Cafe de Wheels and even answered to the name Harry. He was known to greet customers with a friendly 'Hi ya handsome, what'll it be tonight?'
Revitalised under the ownership of Michael Hannah, who acquired the business in 1988, Harry's Cafe de Wheels remains a famous Sydney landmark that continues to flourish at Woolloomooloo, selling the same style of cuisine that made it famous. The food is now supplied by Hannah's Pies, whose bakery outlet is located next to the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo.
The van's chassis of welded steel tube appears to be of one-off handyman manufacture. The van's shell is crudely constructed from sheet steel, which has been bolted to a welded angle iron frame. The shell has been subject to heavy use, with numerous dents and scratches, as well as welded patch repairs and open bolt holes. It has been modified by the insertion of an exhaust fan and the attachment of water outlets and electrical fittings. Demountable advertising signs were attached to either side of the serving hatch. The original timber floor has been patched with masonite and covered with vinyl.
In 1938 Harry 'Tiger' Edwards first opened a food cart at the corner of Macleay St and Cowper Wharf Road in Woolloomooloo. When war broke out he joined the army, serving with the 2/2nd Machine Gun Battalion in the Middle East. He was wounded and discharged in November 1942 suffering from severe asthma. Edwards was said to be 'quite a character', a gambler and a man who liked to be his own boss. He drove a taxi and a fruit truck before rigging up an old army ambulance as a mobile canteen which he operated at rugby league matches and other sporting events. In 1945 he swapped the ambulance for a makeshift caravan - the one in the Museum's collection -- and parked it outside the Garden Island Naval Dockyard.
When the police told Edwards to move his van as it was disrupting traffic, a thief mysteriously stole the wheels. This was in 1945 and for years, Harry's Cafe de Wheels had no wheels at all. The Maritime Services Board and Defence officials who controlled the Dockyard negotiated a permanent spot for Harry's Cafe outside the naval base. 'Besides, in 1945, people did not like to see bureaucrats pushing around wounded veterans who were trying to make an honest quid for themselves' (Jefferson Penberthy, 'Sydney Morning Herald', 11 July 1981).
Despite harrassment by the Council, State and Commonwealth Police, Harry's nocturnal eatery remained, although it was shifted up and down Cowper Wharf Road a number of times. Gus and Dorrie Williams worked at Harry's in the 1950s. Later Jack Keith of Bondi ran the café while Edwards retained ownership. The late Alex Kuronya acquired and ran Harry's from 1975. Harry Edwards died in 1979.
The van remained outside the entrance to Garden Island until 1981, when it was forced to move due to the Navy's redevelopment of the site. A temporary spot was found on Navy land on the foreshore opposite Brougham St. In 1985, after some debate about its future, the Lord Mayor Doug Sutherland secured a new permanent site at the bottom of McElhone Steps in Cowpers Wharf Road. However to satisfy Council's health regulations the old van, propped up by packing cases on its axles, had to be replaced. Alex Kuronya kindly donated the van to the Powerhouse Museum where it was retired and preserved after 40 years of service.
In 1994 the Powerhouse Museum's Department of Conservation fitted the caravan with wheels so that it could be manoeuvred easily. It was the intention at the time of its acquisition to use 'Harry's Cafe de Wheels' as a working cafe within the grounds of the Museum, but from both a conservation and health and safety viewpoint, this proved unfeasible.