Car enthusiasts the world over know about, or at least have heard of internationally famous coach-building names such as Hooper, Barker, H. J. Mulliner, Park Ward, Thrupp and Maberley, James Young, Gurney Nutting, Le Baron, Pininfarina: each a one-time leader in the hand crafting of motor car bodies. Unfortunately few remember the Australian builder James Flood.
The First Bodies
Tarrant Motors were the the first major Australian automobile
operation, being distributors for the De Dion, Argyle, Mercedes, and later Ford. The first bodies to be manufactured in Australia were by Mr. Smith, but as the demand increased his business was absorbed by the Melbourne Motor Body Works, which, by 1918, was building as many as 500 bodies a month. Soon afterward this organisation became Ruskin Motor Bodies Pty. Ltd., which by 1939 was one of the largest motor body building organisations in Australia.
In addition to Mr. Smith many other coachbuilders went into operation, including James Flood, an old employee of the Tarrant Motor Company. Flood gained his early experience in the coachbuilding industry in England. Another body building operation of note was that of C. B. Kellow, who were one of the pioneers of the automobile
industry in Melbourne. These companies were helped along by the War Precautions Act.
War Precautions Act
The motor body building industry in Australia received its first great impetus in 1917, when the Federal Government saw the need of preserving shipping space. Under the War Precautions Act the Government at first proposed to prohibit the Importation of automobiles into Australia. Fearing that such a drastic step would ruin their businesses, the motor distributors protested, and as a compromise the Government agreed to allow one complete car to be imported to every two chassis.
By this time it was evident that more motor bodies would have to be built in Australia, and manufacturers grasped the opportunity at once. Since then there has been an almost continuous decline in the number of complete motor-cars imported by Australia. But by 1938 the number of bodies imported was negligible.
James William Flood
Founded in 1907, Flood's grew to become the largest body-building firm in Australia. They weathered the depression and subsequent change to mass produced steel bodies and emerged, with the son of the founder at the helm, as one of the leaders in Victoria's steel pressings industry.
Born in 1880, James William Flood served his apprenticeship with a carriage builder in Essex, England. He later migrated to Australia and tried his hand on the West Australian goldfields but his hands were destined for metal, not dirt, and he headed east to Melbourne and a position with the Tarrant Motor company - one of the original true Aussie cars.
The Ultimate In Automobile Sophistication
During this spell with the most famous of Australian motoring pioneers James designed the first fully-enclosed Australian-built body. It was fitted by Tarrants to a De Dion chassis. In 1907 Flood, togther with his son, James Jr., set up the first Flood body shop in the old West Melbourne Brewery. The business flourished and soon outgrew its boozy surroundings. 1911 saw the move to St. Kilda Rd, and an increase in clientele.
The cars passing through the hands of Flood workmen were the ultimate in automobile
sophistication: O.M., Minerva, Hispano-Suiza (a particular favourite of both Flood senior and junior), Delage
; in fact a dazzling selection of the best and most desirable motors available.
FIRE AT ST. KILDA - A MOTOR FACTORY GUTTED
Extract from The Argus, Melbourne, Saturday April 10, 1915
Damage to the extent of nearly £15,000 was caused by a fire which broke out tonight at the premises of Messrs. James Flood & Co., motor body builders and charabanc-makers. St. Kilda-Road, adjoining Hoadley's chocolate factory. The spacious building was completely gutted, only damaged walls being left standing. Motor cars and buses in the course of construction and the firm's machinery were reduced to ashes, and the valuable stock was destroyed.
It is estimated that 30 motor cars and buses were destroyed. These included a Red Cross motor field-ambulance presented to the Defence Department. Hoadley's chocolate factory was slightly damaged, and a portion of their stock was affected by heat and water. Whitehall, a large boarding-house, which adjoins the Flood factory to the south side, also suffered slight damage.
Although the fire was a setback, recovery was swift and the business consolidated as the motor car became more desirable. In 1919 Flood's became the sole agents for Itala cars which, in the hands of A. V. Turner and others, were to have a successful career in Victorian trials, thus ensuring continuing sales.
Jim Flood must have had some inkling of the mass-production techniques which would eventually force the specialist coachbuilder to cost-cutting and cheapness. He was fabricating pressed panels even prior to the introduction of the T model Ford and mass produced (in a small Georgian way) bodies for Standard, Fiat and other light chassis.
Surviving the Depression
Though the depression hit hard, the early practice of mass-production techniques gave Flood's a decided advantage over other Australian coachbuilders and the company was well prepared for the onrushing swing to all-steel bodies. During and after the Second World War Flood's became more and more committed to cheaper production and they established a policy of 'jobbing shop' for other manufacturers. Another fire in 1952
hastened the move to new premises in West Footscray.
James Flood senior died in 1958
and was succeeded by his son, Jim junior. He had apparently been a little less than the apple of his father's eye and remained remote from the business until the founder's death. Jim worked with Beaufort aircraft during World War 2, in their design and drafting department, later moving on to Major Furnaces.
The lure of veteran and vintage cars extended into the new regime and Flood's restorations (by the men who first built the body) were a noted feature of the old-car movement in Victoria. Under a considerate boss who was not oblivious to tradition, and a pacy, promotion conscious General Manager the company remained commercially successful through the 1960s.
Harold Paynting, Fred Presswell, Bill Pretty and Bert Brown
When Melbourne's Argus newspaper ran a feature on the company, they found staff turnover to be amazingly low - even in an era when people usually stayed in their respective job and trade for life. At the time one Harold Paynting was the General Manager, and it seemed his objective was to get quality people into the business - and then hold on to them. Such a shame that, these days, organisations instead look at oursourcing as the holy grail. As an example of staff retention, one emplooyee of Flood's, Fred Presswell, joined the company in 1912 and helped build the Flood stand at Melbourne's first Motor Show.
Bill Pretty, designer and engineer, came to Floods in 1914 and Bert Brown, foreman of the panel shop, arrived in 1919. These men were still with the company in 1967
. Harold, Fred, Bill and Bert were not alone, although they were the longest serving members of a group of long-service employees who seemed to have thumbed their noses at retirement and destroyed the myth of age breeding uselessness. That, into the late 1960s, these gentlemen were still active in the works, and contributing to Floods prosperity.
As the demand for specialist bodies dwindled, Flood's turned to the restoration of vintage cars. The proper resto of these required careful supervision by older men and the general air of painstaking devotion to engineering detail were reflections of the old-time quality which had, in some measure, been lost with the passage of time and a decline in values. We are not sure when the operation finally came to an end - but we suspect that it was after the motoring craftsment finally made thier move onto the 'Great Body Shop in the Sky'.