The first Lewis car made its public debut in November 1900. As the first car built in South Australia, and the first petrol-driven vehicle to run on Adelaide streets since Mlle. Serpolette's tricycle in 1898, it attracted an uncommon amount of media attention both at the time and through later "reminiscences".
The car served two important roles for Lewis: it was invaluable as both promotional tool and as a test bed for experimentation and development. Indeed the notion of "car number one" is a fluid one, as by the time the car was displayed at the 1920 Adelaide Motor Show as a "relic" of the industry it was barely recognisable, with a third-generation motor fitted to an extended chassis with modified transmission.
We first see the car in a famous photograph, surrounded by the staff of the Lewis Cycle and Motor Works, with Vivian Lewis at the wheel and Tom O'Grady in the passenger seat. We can guess that the photograph was taken around November 1900 to coincide with the completion of the car. At this stage the car was powered, or perhaps "underpowered", by the 2 h.p. air-cooled motor that O'Grady had built in late 1898 or early 1899. When this motor powered the Lewis motor triplet in March 1899 it was fuelled by kerosene ignited by hot-tube, but later that year it was modified to run on petrol with electric ignition and it was in this form that it was mounted in the car. We know that the photograph shows the air-cooled version of the car, because it can be seen clearly through the decorative open structure - either wicker or wire - that covers the motor without restricting air flow. No other photograph has been found of the car in air-cooled form.
The car was still air-cooled when it was exhibited on the Lewis stand at the Autumn Show in March 1901, where it attracted much attention. In a 1913 interview O'Grady recalled that "... later on a 6-h.p. engine was made and fitted", and we can guess that this advance was made soon after the show. In July 1901 'Spokesman' of the Advertiser was taken for a test drive in the Lewis car, which by now was "...of about 5 h.p.". With the original motor, the car had a top speed of 14 miles per hour and was restricted to the plains, but with the new motor it was said to be capable of "...nearly 20 miles per hour" and impressed the reporter with an ascent of the three-mile climb of the Belair hill "...in 17 minutes at the rate of 10.59 miles per hour". Since the new motor was water-cooled, the front of the car was extensively rebuilt to fully enclose the motor and house the slightly canted radiator mounted above the chassis. A photograph of the car shows it in this form in November 1901, as does this illustration from the Chronicle, January 1902:
No detail is known of the 5 h.p. motor, but from the small amount of space available between the firewall and the radiator it is fair to assume it was a single cylinder unit. The transmission was unchanged, still with belt drive to a countershaft behind the rear axle, from where spur gears drove the wheels. By the time the car participated in a successful motor demonstration at the Adelaide Oval in October 1902 it appeared little changed from a year earlier.
The outing at the Adelaide Oval was one of the last public appearances of the first Lewis car. Motor car design was progressing, and the two-year-old car was outdated. A newspaper report of the event recorded that "Mr. V. Lewis has almost completed a car to carry four passengers, and fitted with a 8½ h.p. engine", and it is likely that after the completion of this second car, the first was decommissioned.
Surprisingly the car was further developed before it was mothballed. By the time the car was shown as a "relic" of the industry at the Adelaide Motor Show in September 1920 it was much modified from its October 1902 form. Not only was a water-cooled v-twin motor now fitted, but the chassis had been extended considerably to accommodate it, as evidenced by the position of the firewall relative to the front wheels.
It seems that the transmission also received some much-needed modernisation: the control system hints at De Dion heritage, but the fore-and-aft mounting of the motor would be unusual if the drive were other than by chain or belt. So when did these modifications take place? The angular surround for the front-mounted radiator (possibly that of the 1902 car) would be looking a bit "old hat" after 1905, so perhaps development continued after the car came off the road at the end of 1902. There is a glimpse of the rear of the car in one of the photographs from the Lewis album c1904, but unfortunately nothing is visible to indicate whether it had been modified by this stage.
One thing is certain: the modification were done before about 1913. The car is seen in an employee photograph from this period, where it is obviously both decrepit and modified, suggesting that the post-1902 development occurred in the early days. No record has been found of the car being used in its "final" form, but given the effort expended it seems likely that it was used. The search continues.