Like today, back in the 1930s the NRMA was very selective in its recruitment for the prestigious position of guide.
As you would expect, guides had to have 10 years experience in the industry, providing them with a broad knowledge of mechanics. However, there were a few key differences between then and now. Guides also had to be married and own a home in the area which they were allocated to work. This strict criterion stayed in the recruitment process up until the 1980s!
In 1932, the small Douglas motorcycles were upgraded to the bigger Harley Davidsons complete with sidecar. This new road service vehicle meant patrols could carry a larger number of tools. NRMA road service patrols needed to have a high degree of ingenuity.
Improvised tools were sometimes as useful as traditional tools: ladies’ silk stockings were used for filtering petrol or making a rudimentary fan belt, soap – not susceptible to dissolving in petrol – could plug a hole in the tank, while apple or potato slices were used as a makeshift fix for broken wipers, to prevent a build-up of water in the rain.
The opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932 was a high point for the NRMA in its second decade of operation. As the city buzzed with excitement, NRMA road service patrols, on their Harleys, lead a convoy of historical vehicles, portraying the seemingly ancient vehicles of the day.
“The laughs resounded in Sydney’s streets on the day of the Harbor Bridge opening mere not merely from the throats of people who were amused by the humorous pageantry. Behind this enjoyment was the enormous strides made in so few years by transport in New South Wales….The NRMA went to a good deal of trouble to make the transport section of the bridge pageant realistic.” The Open Road, 31 March 1932
With road transport playing an ever greater role in the lives of Australians, NRMA road service became a 24 hour operation in 1933. This increased work load meant extra time on the road for the patrols. Often, as well as their tools, the Harley’s side car carried a sleeping bag and swag for emergency ‘all-nighters’.
Upholding the safety of motorists and pedestrians solidified as a core purpose for the NRMA in the 1930s. Along with safety advertisements, the NRMA wrote many articles about safe driving and being observant on the road. With the high road toll, select patrols were appointed Road Safety Patrols. These marked vehicles would ensure the safe crossing of school children at the start and finish of each school day.
Happily in the 1930s, there was no need for the NRMA to advocate for ‘no texting while driving’. However, communication while out on the road was quite difficult. Until the advent of radios, the patrols had to know the location of public phones. These phones were essential to call into head office to retrieve jobs; often stay at home wives would become a patrol’s informal receptionist.
“Ms Natalie Taylor, Caringbah branch’s assessing co-ordinator, in talking about her grandfather Mr Keith Saunders. Mr Saunders was an NRMA guide (patrolman) from 1932-1940, based at Katoomba and servicing an area between Mt Victoria and Springwood on a motor cycle with sidecar. Ms Taylor said job calls were noted by his wife; on completion of each job Mr Saunders phoned his wife for details on the next one. In appreciation of her part in the operation Mrs Saunders received a gift of five pounds from the Association each Christmas.” Excerpt of account: The NRMA Story 1964-65 to 1986-87 Volume 2
The most expensive road service job ever
Another example of ingenuity was in 1931 at Kurrajong, in the Blue Mountains, where a Member called for road service when his 1926 Overland developed a big end bearing trouble.
The depot patrolmen bent two new pennies, clipped a small segment off each and fashioned them into a bearing which was installed into the engine. It worked, and the car was then driven into Sydney for repair.
It was suggested that one of the pennies was a 1930 penny and if the story is true this must have been the most expensive road service job ever undertaken. Only 1500 pennies were dated 1930 were minted and they are valued now by some coin dealers at $250,000.