Vivian Lewis Limited: A brief (corporate) history 1907 - 1935

Vivian Lewis established his bicycle importing and manufacturing business in Adelaide in 1893. Trading first as the Ormonde Bicycle Depot, and later as the Lewis Cycle Works, the business became well known in Adelaide and country South Australia as branches and agencies were established in major towns. Having built the first motor cycle in South Australia in 1899 and the first motor car in 1900, the motoring side of the business advanced rapidly.

By 1907, trading under the "Lewis Cycle and Motor Works" banner, the business was busy importing and manufacturing bicycles, manufacturing "Lewis" motorcycles and importing and retailing motor cars. In Adelaide, the head office, bicycle showroom and factory were located in the original Ormonde Bicycle Depot building in Gawler Place. Motor car and motor cycle activities centred on the Lewis Motor House on Victoria Square and the adjacent factory in Molton Street. Branches of the Lewis Cycle and Motor Works were operating in Kadina, Port Pirie and Mount Gambier in country South Australia, and in Broken Hill in New South Wales, and agencies were present in many regional centres.

It was against this backdrop that a new limited company, Vivian Lewis Limited, was formed in June 1907.

The primary object of the company was "... to purchase acquire and take over as a going concern the business of manufacturer, repairer, importer and vendor of motors, motor cars, bicycles, and accessories thereto or used in connection therewith, carried on by Vivian Lewis of Adelaide...". All the business assets were included in the sale with the exception of "...any real estate owned by the vendor and used by him in connection with his said business".

The original capital of the company was 25,000, divided into 25,000 shares of 1 each. In exchange for his interests, Vivian Lewis received 14,000 shares and an undertaking (of unstated value) that the new company would "pay, satisfy, discharge and fulfil all the debts liabilities contracts and engagements of the vendor in relation to the said business taken over".

In addition to the explicit financial compensation, the Articles of Association granted Vivian Lewis special status within the new company. He was to be (together with his brother Percival Tyndal Lewis, Business Manager at the Broken Hill branch, and Thomas Patrick O'Grady, Lewis Works Manager in Adelaide) one of the first directors of Vivian Lewis Limited, and moreover he would remain a Director "... so long as he holds not less than 1,000 shares in the Capital of the Company". In addition, Vivian Lewis was explicitly appointed the first Managing Director of Vivian Lewis Limited, at a salary of 416:0:0 per annum.

Without fully understanding the reasons for the formation of Vivian Lewis Limited, it is difficult to judge its success. If the aim were to grow the business by injecting new capital, there might be reason for disappointment: of the 25,000 shares only 18,550 were fully paid up. Vivian's holding of 14,000 shares constituted a greater than 75 percent stake in the company. Given his health issues, which were already well to the fore by 1907, what the new structure did offer Lewis was flexibility, in both his financial and personal commitment to the company. An indication of this flexibility was that by the time that the first company return was lodged in April 1908, Vivian had reduced his holding to 12,200 shares. Notable among the other early shareholders were Vivian's brothers Percy (500 shares) and Archibald (100), Tom O'Grady (500) and accountant Charles Meyer (1,200).

As the business grew through 1908 and 1909, it became clear that the existing premises were not large enough to support future activities. In July 1909, the Standard Shoe and Leather Company factory on Gawler Place South was acquired from Joseph Florey (father of Nobel Prize recipient Howard Florey). The share record suggests that at least some of the consideration paid to Florey was by way of  shares in the company: the number of paid up shared increased by 3,500 at this time and Joseph Florey appeared on the 1910 share register holding 3,050 shares.

As well as the capital investment in the new building, significant cost was incurred in general renovations and " fitting up the same with the necessary modern machinery and appliances". Despite these costs, a dividend of 1/- per share was declared at the ordinary general meeting in July 1910, corresponding to a 10 percent p.a. return to shareholders. With the increased space at Gawler Place South, the company established a new department for the manufacture of motor bodies, an activity made viable by a 30 percent tariff imposed from 1908 on imported bodies. By comparison, motor chasses imported from the UK attracted no duty at all.

In continued poor health, Vivian Lewis wound back his involvement with Vivian Lewis Limited and in 1913 he relinquished his role as managing director. He moved to the country and set up a farm, Runnymede Park, at Karoonda in the Mallee region of South Australia, although he maintained a residence in Commercial Road, Hyde Park, Adelaide. In a nice touch, he named the city residence "Karoonda". Coinciding with these changes, Lewis reduced his holding in the company from a little over 50 percent in 1912 to just over 20 percent in 1913. Many of his shares passed to H.B. Crosby, who succeeded him as Managing Director.

Crosby presided of a period of continued growth for Vivian Lewis Limited. The buildings at Gawler Place South were extended, and with motorcycle production at unprecedented levels - around one in eight motorcycles on the road in South Australia in 1915 was a Lewis - and the motor car business strong the future seemed assured.

With the fall out from the World War and the loss of the founders Tom O'Grady in 1916 and Vivian Lewis in 1919, the view of the future must have been rather different in 1920. In a world economy, with the UK and USA  pushing their exports, local manufacture in Australia, and particularly in the small somewhat isolated market of South Australia, became increasing unviable. As imported cars (now very often imported complete with bodies) and motorcycles began to dominate the market, two of Vivian Lewis Limited's major activities were on shaky ground.

The 1920s was to be the birth of the "car dealer" as we know it today. Business arrangements and agency agreements became more important than factories and manufacturing.

A significant change occurred in the nature of Vivian Lewis Limited in the early 1920s. In March 1923, the list of shareholders was still dotted with familiar names from 1907: the estate of Vivian Lewis, Percy Lewis, Charles Meyer and Tom O'Grady's widow Violet were all still associated with the company. However by the time of the next company report in March 1924, all had sold their interests and F.S. Mann, and his new company Mann's Motors Limited, held a majority of the shares. Within two years, Vivian Lewis Limited was essentially wholly owned by Mann's Motors, who at the time held the South Australian agency for Chevrolet cars.

By April 1924, the new business plan for Vivian Lewis Limited was announced to the public: advertisements in inter-state newspapers offered the entire premises at Gawler Place South for sale - as a going concern if required - since they were no longer required by the company. The bicycle business was sold, and all motorcycle manufacture, body building and motor engineering would cease. The only activities to be continued were the agencies for Oldsmobile cars and Reo commercial vehicles. Vivian Lewis's sons established Lewis Cycle Works Limited to continue the bicycle side of the business, with some limited forays into motorcycle and motor car activities. The new business operated from buildings that once housed Vivian Lewis Limited (111 Gawler Place, Port Adelaide, Broken Hill and Port Pirie). Other country branches disappeared around this time.

In June of 1925, under Mann's control, Vivian Lewis Limited moved out of the buildings they had occupied since 1910 on Gawler Place South and into temporary premises across town at 66-68 Waymouth Street. In all but name, this move can be thought of as the end of the Vivian Lewis era: the people and the manufacturing-oriented business model that had guided the Lewis companies since 1892 were gone. Within a year or so, more on account of convenience than entitlement, part of the Gawler Place South was buildings leased back to the Lewis Cycle Works Limited for use as a parking station. In 1928 a new company Lewis Parking Station Limited (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lewis Cycle Works Limited) was formed to operate the business there, which it did until the premises were taken over by the Defence Department during the war years.

Period advertising suggests that the only interest of Vivian Lewis Limited in their Waymouth St incarnation was the Oldsmobile agency. Meanwhile, Mann's were busily extending their almost-new building on Franklin Street to provide accommodation for Lewis and, more importantly, Oldsmobiles. In November 1926, Vivian Lewis Limited made its final move into the western end of the Mann's building. Although the facade of the new part of the building carried the Vivian Lewis name, the company existed essentially in name only. From this time on, Vivian Lewis Limited were listed as "importers" for Oldsmobile, and later Buick, cars.

In 1931 the company resolved to reduce its share capital from 1 per share to 5/- by paying out 15/- per share to the shareholders. This occurred in 1932. The company was wound up in 1935.

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