Overlooked No More: Alice Anderson, Who Ran Australia’s First All-Woman Garage

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.

Anderson working at the lathe in her workshop in the early 1920s. She trained 29 women she called her “garage girls.”Credit…University of Melbourne Archives

Anderson trained 29 women she called her “garage girls,” gave driving and car maintenance lessons to area women and offered Melbourne’s first same-day comprehensive service, which she called the “once-over.” The cars were given girls’ names, like Natalie and Phyllis, and the workers went by their surnames. The once-over was done using the “get down and get under,” a wheeled trolley of Anderson’s invention, an apparent precursor to today’s popular creeper. Photographs show Anderson and her staff in smart, boyish uniforms crouched over engines while wielding tools or using the lathe.

Alice Elizabeth Foley Anderson was born on June 8, 1897, in Melbourne, to Irish parents. Her father, James Thomas Anderson, who was known as J.T., was an engineer; her mother, Ellen Mary Anderson, was a homemaker. Five months after Alice was born, the very first automobile arrived in Melbourne from Chicago.

Her family had the makings of a middle-class immigrant success story. J.T.’s company landed the Australian patent on a concreting technique that would revolutionize roads and bridges, “literally laying the path for his daughter Alice’s future success,” Loretta Smith wrote in “A Spanner in the Works.”

However, a dearth of luck and business sense soon put J.T. out of work. He moved the family to Ireland, but all he could find there was a part-time teaching job. So they returned to Australia to live in their remaining asset, a remote bush property with few middle-class comforts.

There, Ellen Mary sewed Alice and her sisters bloomers to accommodate life in the bush. She also secured them an education.

Alice rode a bicycle, which ignited her passion for speed and steel, and took to shooting and riding horses. She grieved that she could not enlist in the military, and she grieved harder when her only brother drowned at age 21 while fishing.

Despite challenge and tragedy, Anderson remained brave and headstrong as she built her career.

Her mother disapproved of her choices and worried about marriage prospects, though Anderson, who eventually lived in her garage, declared in a letter that she wasn’t interested “until I get a man a durn sight better than me. Which is going to be hard to find.”

In 1926 Anderson and a companion, Jessie Webb, one of the first female lecturers of history at the University of Melbourne, became the first women to drive from Melbourne to the desert settlement of Alice Springs, traversing more than 1,500 miles of outback terrain that still rattle today’s motorists with bone-jangling corrugations. Most travelers opted for the more practical option: a camel. But Anderson and Webb completed the journey in a Baby Austin, the smallest car in the world at the time. Anderson removed the doors to strap on supplies. She boiled acrid water for tea, and when they ran out of food, she hunted their dinner.

Anderson had planned to study for her pilot’s license upon their return. She also wanted to organize a networking trip to an all-woman garage in Kensington, England, that was owned by Marion Carstairs, a tattooed lesbian oil heiress who called herself Joe. And she had advertised a road tour of the United States that was nearly sold out. But she never got to do those things.

On Sept. 17, 1926, Anderson was believed to be cleaning her guns when one of them went off, killing her. She was 29. Rumors of suicide or a violent lover’s quarrel circulated, but the courts ruled it an accident. At her funeral, 14 garage girls in a two-line formation set her in the ground.

Anderson’s last column for Woman’s World, published posthumously in the October edition, was a guide to the features a woman should look for in an automobile. Power was desirable, of course, but driving and mechanical skill could overcome a deficit.

Anderson’s story was distorted and forgotten for decades, but Smith’s biography puts it in order. An L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group has taken the name Alice’s Garage, and Anderson’s tie pin, engraved with the same Joan of Arc-inspired motto that was stamped on her business cards — “Qui ne risque, rien n’a rien,” or “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” — is on permanent display at the National Motor Museum in Birdwood, South Australia.

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