I can probably be certain that very few readers will have heard of Harley Tarrant – yet he was at the forefront of the industry and was at the heart of Australian motoring.
Tarrant was born in 1860 in the small town of Clunes, in Victoria, Australia and was the son of a couple who had emigrated from Oxford in England. His father started out as a miner before becoming a newspaper proprietor. After leaving school, Tarrant went to work for a civil engineering company and travelled the country acting as a surveyor on public works. This lead him to start his own consultancy and gave him a view of what the new automobile could do for the country.
In the early 1890’s, Tarrant started to develop his own kerosene engines and managed to patent a version in 1897. He felt that kerosene was safe, cheap and readily available in towns across the country, whereas he considered steam to be too dangerous and electric power hadn’t got the infrastructure necessary to build an industry around. He had been publicising the idea of cars in local media outlets for a while prior to his engine becoming available.
Unfortunately, his engine turned out to be underpowered for a vehicle, however it worked extremely well as a water pump on farms and he sold enough of them to open up larger premises and take on the distributorship for Benz in Australia. With that agreement, he took one of the 6hp Benz petrol engines and with a new partner, built a car around it. This was a lightweight four seater and there is a story that it’s first run was at 11pm one night to avoid scaring the neighbours and horses. Unfortunately the brakes failed on a descent and nearly crashed!
The car did become a success and lead to a second model called the “Royal” in 1903 that was 90% locally built – including the engine, perhaps a clone of the Benz one. It took a while to recover the initial development costs however they managed to become a local manufacturer although reports suggest that only 20 cars were built.
Tarrant Motors built cars for endurance not speed which was necessary to traverse the country and they had success in the Dunlop Reliability Trials of 1905 and 1906, however, Tarrant was being challenged by cheaper imports. To counter that, he also became the State agent for Ford in 1907. As the duties on imports started to rise, the company also built bodies for rolling chassis that were coming through the docks. Tarrant Motors also imported the the first bowser style petrol pumps into the country.
For the war effort Tarrant Motors also built aero engines as well as car bodies and Tarrant also started to sell spares and build a repair shop business. He had also persuaded the local military to use vehicles instead of horses and helped create the Australian Automobile Volunteer Corp. He was given the initial rank of Captain and had risen to the rank of Colonel by the time hostilities started in Europe. It seems that Tarrant Motors were a favoured supplier to the Corp and after the war, a review concluded that they had been far too cosy. Tarrant resigned yet was still given a medal by his cronies!
Tarrant Motors grew with all of the different automotive businesses and were renamed Autocar Industries with the import business ceasing in 1939 and the body assembly business becoming the main focus.
Harley Tarrant wasn’t just an engineer, importer and businessman, he was instrumental in getting the car accepted in the marketplace by spruiking its benefits and served on the board of the Automobile Club of Victoria. Like Louis Chevrolet in the US and others in Europe, Tarrant recognised that motor sport was a key marketing ploy and used a 10hp Argyll imported from Scotland to win races. The track he raced on in 1904, Sandown Park in Melbourne, is still used for motor sports today.
During the 1920s, he took a back seat from the business to recover from some illnesses and reappeared in the public eye in 1932 to revamp an affiliate: Ruskin Motor Bodies. Tarrant died in 1949, four years after his wife and his company was sold to the Austin Motor Company, later part of the British Motor Corporation. He was survived by a single daughter.
On a final note, the Automobile Club of Victoria became the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria in 1916 and I stayed there last year whilst attending the MotorClassica exhibition. Inside the rear entrance from the car park sits an old motor – which I believe is the last surviving Tarrant.