Alice Anderson : Australia’s First All-Woman Garage


Her car repair business was described as having a staff “capable of doing the jobs any male member of the automobile industry would undertake.”

Briohny Doyle is a lecturer at the University of Sydney and the author of “Echolalia,” “Adult Fantasy” and “The Island Will Sink.” At 18, she drove around Australia in a battered blue van.

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In August 1918, a photograph in Australian Motorist magazine showed the mechanic Alice Anderson in the driver’s seat of a Dodge Tourer — elbow out, eyebrows raised, chin tilted defiantly, bobbed hair tucked into a chauffeur’s cap. Her leather-gloved hand rested lightly on the steering wheel.

In an accompanying article, Anderson was described as “the proprietress, manageress and forewoman” of a new automotive repair business that also offered chauffeur services. It had a staff of all women, including mechanical engineers and professional drivers, “capable of doing the jobs any male member of the automobile industry would undertake.”

“No man will have a chance on her payroll,” the article continued, “but clients of both sexes will be taken care of.” Anderson’s all-woman garage was the first of its kind in Australia, and one of the first in the world, according to the book “A Spanner in the Works: The Extraordinary Story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s First All-Girl Garage” (2019), by Loretta Smith.

About four years earlier, Anderson’s father had given her a new car for her 18th birthday — an enormous Hupmobile emblazoned with the family crest and the words “We Stoop Not.”

Anderson couldn’t yet drive, but she was driven. She handled administrative work at her father’s transportation co-op, hounding the mechanics to teach her all they could. Soon she was driving not only the Hupmobile but also charabancs. Those early outsized buses would have been a feat to maneuver on the dirt roads that cut jaggedly through the forests of soaring mountain ash and dense ferns in the Yarra Ranges, 50 miles northwest of Melbourne.

To develop her skills, Anderson began working a postal route along the region’s Black Spur Drive, notorious for its treacherous blind curves and sudden drops. If the headlights failed, she held a flashlight to light the road. If she got bogged, she levered herself out of the mud with branches.

“I got the opportunity to vacate the office stool for the wheel and I took it,” she told Woman’s World magazine in 1922. (By 1926, she was writing a regular motoring column for that publication.)

As a tour operator and driver, Anderson took small groups out for scenic jaunts and chaperoned country girls on shopping and theater outings in the city. Occasionally she was called on to play the boyfriend for a picture or a ball dance. This was not so unusual — women danced together when men were away at war. They didn’t tend to dress like men, though. They didn’t look like Anderson, who was known to wear slacks, a pressed shirt and a neatly pinned tie.

After completing a mechanic’s apprenticeship, Anderson opened and then expanded her Kew Garage in a suburb of Melbourne, moving it from a rental property to land she had secured with a loan. The one-story building — including a workshop, a storeroom and a small bedroom for herself — was a humble utopia, replete with residential space for any worker who needed it.

At the opening party for the garage, woman drivers and mechanics in breeches and ties served sandwiches and tea to guests who included the famous opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, the future Australian prime minister Robert Menzies and what was known as the university crowd, a group of women, many of them out lesbians, who worked at the University of Melbourne and regularly patronized Anderson’s businesses.

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