My brainwave for the opening of the Holden Pavilion of Australian Motoring was fine – as long as nothing went wrong.
I had been Director of the National Motor Museum for just eighteen months and was about to benefit from a decade of lobbying by my predecessor, John Cashen, for funding of a new pavilion. On 5 December 1998 I was to preside over the opening of the new building by Premier John Olsen.
Rather than merely have the Premier cut a ribbon I decided that the museum should be opened by a car bursting through a tape. And not just any car. I was going to use a unique pioneer vehicle, the Ohlmeyer Jigger. Built in 1904 by Tanunda jeweller Albert Ohlmeyer the Jigger had a single cylinder engine, a timber chassis and a red gum clutch. My favourite feature however was the moveable steering column with attached hand throttle. If the going was rough, Albert could alight from the vehicle, swing the steering wheel out and drive the Jigger whilst walking alongside.
Moreover to break the monotony of a series of acknowledgment speeches I would involve Albert’s son, Ernst. Ernst was 98 and with elder brother Julian, featured in a charming photograph taken of the Jigger in 1906. Another photograph taken a decade later, showed the boys, now strapping young men, about to go rabbit shooting in the Jigger. I had come to know Ernst and his fascinating tales of the early days of motoring in my years as Curator at the Museum . I knew of no other living person who could lucidly recall Australia’s first decade of motoring.
Thus the cunning plan was set in motion. During the hectic days of display preparation before the opening of the new pavillion, I practised driving the Jigger from alongside and mastering the hand throttle so that I could gently drive it through the doorway at the front of the Museum. The day’s formal proceedings were clear in my mind, I would MC the ceremony, introduce Murray Hill, Chairman of the History Trust (now History SA) who would speak for five minutes, then I would fetch the Jigger with Ernst aboard from the side of the museum for a 3 minute interview about the early days of Australian motoring. Then Premier Olsen would speak for 3 minutes, climb aboard the Jigger next to Ernst and I would walk alongside and drive it through the ribbon. In my mind I could already picture the TV news images.
December 5 1998 was a fine day, albeit a trifle warmer than we might have wished. The 500 invited guests were seated around the new forecourt, I managed not to stumble too much with my welcoming acknowledgements and Murray Hill, who had been a major influence in securing the building funds, began his speech. Three minutes in I was relieved to hear the chug of the Jigger’s engine from alongside the building – it had to be push started and could be difficult to get going. Five minutes later, as Murray continued speaking, I grew a little concerned. Ten minutes later, the inevitable happened, the engine stopped. A staff member quietly tapped me on the shoulder as I sat listening intently to Murray Hill and said ‘the engine’s seized’ – we knew that it couldn’t be left going if the vehicle was stationary on a hot day. ‘Then push it’ I whispered. A few minutes later as Murray finished (he had rewritten his speech overnight to include omissions!) I felt another tap from the Premier’s adviser who said in a more strident whisper that on no account was the Premier to be pushed into the Museum in a broken down car.
Moments later Ernst and the Jigger were pushed around the corner and I began to chat with Ernst about the days when his family had petrol sent from Adelaide to Tanuda by train in jars and how the smell had frightened both horses and sheep.
The Premier then spoke for three minutes whilst I tried to listen attentively and work out what to do – the whole programme had been planned around the Jigger puttering through the entrance ribbon. There was no contingency plan, not even a pair of scissors to cut the ribbon. As a public servant I was loathe to ignore the ‘advice’ of an official of the Premier’s Office.
John Olsen finished and turned towards me. I ushered him aboard the Jigger. Two museum staff looked at me and then Premier’s adviser, but when I nodded, started pushing the Jigger. I steered it through the ribbon, the crowd applauded and the new pavilion was open.
My thoughts of finding a new career and of the Museum losing political favour were swiftly swept aside. The Premier’s advisor congratulated me soon after, kindly adding that it had worked. I didn’t have the grace to admit that it was only because I didn’t know where to find some scissors.