I had the opportunity to visit the Motorlife Museum at Kembla Grange, near Wollongong in New South Wales. I had heard about it several times and it sounded like a great place to visit.
It was Saturday morning and I walked into a large building that was crammed full of vintage cars, motorcycles and bicycles. There were not many visitors, so I was able to wander around and really concentrate on the displays. The collection is mostly vehicles (including trucks) which are pre World War 2 and one section is the Paul Butler Collection. One of its claims to fame is that it loaned many artefacts to the film crew for the Great Gatsby filmed in Sydney during 2013.
The current museum was officially opened on August 17, 2008 and now covers 4,000sqm. However it started life in 1992 as the Illawarra Motor Museum and steadily grew until it moved to its present site in a purpose built building. The focus of the museum is to curate the start of the motoring industry in Australia and does a great job of doing that. Not only did they have several early cars that were imported for wealthy graziers, it also covered the foundation of the National Roads and Motoring Association in the 1920s to help motorists with breakdowns and also the industry by lobbying the Government.
The display showed several unique “local” cars and I’ll write a separate article about the local coachbuilders as I learned a lot about companies that I never knew about and saw examples of their work. In the 1920s, Sydney had several small coachbuilders adding bodies to rolling chassis. Apparently there were tax issues in importing whole cars, however an incomplete car was not subjected to the same tax regime!
In the mix there are some younger cars – a 1962 Daimler, an MGA and a Brabham Repco that Denis Hulme won many races and championships with. There were many different examples of the Austin Seven in different configurations and two Minervas from Belgium alongside some early Detroit imports like Buicks.
Two Wheel Transport
Also included is a section on Wayne Gardner, the 1987 500cc World Champion, a local lad! There is also a collection of very old bicycles and several Douglas motorcycles from the 1920s. Scooters were well represented with Lambretta and Triumph models on show. With the rise of personal transportation in the cities, the sidecar was becoming popular and the museum covers several different examples including a poster from the Olympia Motor Show in 1930 that explains what is available on the market.
Paul Butler Collection
In 2009, after a long legal battle, the museum became the beneficiary of the Paul Butler Collection containing 16 cars and probably thousands of other items including typewriters, gramophones, signs and car parts (some still boxed). Mr Butler lived in Randwick, eastern Sydney and died suddenly in 1991 leaving his collection across two houses. His plan was to open his own museum at the back of one of the houses, however that plan didn’t materialise due to his sudden passing. After several lawsuits, the Executors of the Estate contracted the museum to sort, catalogue and store all the artefacts collected over many years.
Mr Butler was fascinated by the evolution of life in Sydney in the first half of the 20th century and collected many items that showed how the lifestyles of the residents progressed. Clearly personal transportation was a big factor in the increasing wealth of the city and his collection shows this very well.
I would recommend visiting this museum with younger people who have an interest in cars or mechanical items. There are several displays that explain how a basic engine or differential works. It would show enthusiasts how the car evolved over the first 30-odd years of the industry. If your are a two wheeled enthusiast, this museum is also a treasure trove of old motorcycles and bicycles that are well maintained for their age.