The Lewis Cycle and Motor Works: 1900 - 1907

From the first appearance of the Lewis motor car in November 1900, the business traded under the name Lewis Cycle and Motor Works. With the lustre gone from the bicycle boom of the 1890s, the diversion of effort into motor vehicles was a gamble, but a necessary step to grow the business.

Lewis Cycle and Motor Works, December 1900

In late 1900, Lewis were cycle manufacturers and importers in possession of one small, underpowered motor car that they had built, largely, on their own premises. At this stage there were no motorcycles on offer: the only two wheel machine built so far had used the motor now fitted to the car, and its carcass hung high in the rafters of the McHenry Street works.

Despite advertising that would have them "makers of motor cars", Lewis must have recognised that the effort expended through 1900 on building the car could not be repeated as a money-making exercise. No doubt the experience gained was invaluable, but where to from here? The brains trust at Lewis (certainly Vivian Lewis and Tom O'Grady, and perhaps Bill Courtney and Murray Aunger) would have pondered this question long and hard.

The strategy adopted was a good one. The car was to be used as a means of generating publicity, perhaps not so much for Lewis Cycle and Motor Works as for motoring in general. The car headed out and about around Adelaide on occasion, and because of the novelty the local press would gladly run a paragraph or two describing even the most modest excursion. And the excursions had to be modest: because O'Grady's air-cooled motor was rated at only 2 h.p. the car had insufficient power to venture off the Adelaide plain.

While publicity was good, experimentation and development were needed if motoring was to become practical and, perhaps more importantly, profitable. The Lewis approach was focussed improving the practicality of the car, and producing a line of motorcycles that could quickly provide profit to the firm.

The Lewis display at the Autumn Show of the Royal Agricultural Society in March 1901 caused quite a stir with the usual bicycles augmented by not one but two motor vehicles. The Register reported that "... this year the specialty is a motor carriage and a motor bicycle, the whole of the designing, construction, and finishing of these machines being executed at the works". While this first motorcycle was most likely a Kelecom-engined machine, other machines built in 1901 were fitted with Minerva clip-on motors. By the Spring Show in September, the Lewis car sported a more practical water-cooled 5 h.p. motor which was said to have been built at the Lewis works.

Experimentation and publicity continued in through 1902. With its larger motor the car was able to travel further afield and visited country shows and holiday destinations. A blaze of publicity resulted when the Lewis car was used to convey progress reports of a coronial investigation into an unsavoury murder at Towitta, some 21 miles beyond the civilisation of the telegraph station at Angaston. The sensationalism of the evidence reported was enhanced by the modernity of the method employed to get the news to town first. People along the road "witnessed some of the keenest and most exciting cycle, horse and motor car racing seen in one day".

Various motorcycle designs were investigated and manufactured until the Lewis design settled in Spring 1903 on the Minerva motor clipped beneath a diamond frame design and set about manufacturing in quantity.

Lewis: Advertiser 14 Nov. 1903

Although Lewis did build a few motor cars, the way ahead was seen to favour importing over manufacturing. The first car imported by Lewis was for Mr. Gordon Ayres, which, according to later reminiscences by Murray Aunger, was assembled in the McHenry Street factory. A four-cylinder Gladiator for Mr. Bertie Barr Smith, "the first four cylindered car imported into Australia", followed before Lewis settled into importing quality brands like De Dion, Talbot, Napier and Star in increasing numbers. As the "motor" aspects of the business grew rapidly, the Lewis Motor House was built on Victoria Square in 1904 and a new factory behind it on Molton Street.

The formation of the Automobile and Motor Cycle Club of South Australia in late 1903 provided a boost for motoring in the state, and a framework within which motor competitions could be conducted. Hill climbs and reliability trials were favoured over racing, and were strongly supported by the Lewis Works. Vivian Lewis, Tom O'Grady, Bill Courtney and Murray Aunger were regular competitors from among the staff, while Norman Jackson and Walter Torode were keen early competitors on Lewis motorcycles, which continued to evolve particularly after the advent of water cooling in 1905.

Another arm of the business, probably geared more towards promotion than profit, was hire cars. It cannot have hurt the image of the motor car, nor that of the Lewis Cycle and Motor Works, when the local press reported in July 1905 on a motor trip involving the highest levels of government. "Following the practice that has been adopted in some Government departments, (the Premier) engaged a 12 h.p. De Dion Bouton motor car from Mr V. Lewis' establishment" to visit the ailing former Attorney-General in Mt Barker 22 miles away. Much was made of the efficient use of the Premier's time, and the impossibility of matching the journey time by rail.

Others used Lewis hire cars for sight-seeing tours of the hills, or to attend country shows and race meetings that would otherwise be inaccessible on a day trip. No doubt many were introduced to the joys of motoring through the hire car experience, and when the time came to purchase it was the Lewis Motor House who would be ready to assist.

Lewis: Advertiser, 2 January 1906

By 1906, the business was almost unrecognisable from only a few years before. The photographs from the Lewis album, taken for publicity purposes around this time, show a motor business almost bursting with the excitement of early motoring. Against this backdrop, Vivian Lewis headed to England and Europe, no doubt assessing prospects for the future of the industry. With quantities of bicycle, motor cycles and motor cars to sell and service, Lewis had agencies across the state, and existing branches at Broken Hill (1897) and Kadina (1905). New branches were established in Port Pirie and Mt Gambier in 1907, with the business now said to be one of the most advanced in the country. The time seemed right to try again to form a limited company to enable continued growth, and in May 1907  Vivian Lewis Limited was formed.

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