The Florence Thomson Tour 2022: A Story
29,30 April-1 May
By Catherine Strutt
The Florence Thomson Tour is a brilliant weekend event for women drivers and their heritage aged vehicles and celebrates the pioneering spirit and contribution of women to Australian motoring. In 1905, Florence Thomson was the sole female entrant in the Dunlop Reliability Motor contest from Sydney to Melbourne, successfully completing the five day trial in a six horsepower Wolseley. Her incredible and enjoyable trip was not without its troubles and our recent weekend, if only a fraction of her five days, was also not without its troubles.
A year or so before COVID arrived, fellow FN owners and our best mates, Stan and Maggie Bone with Chris and myself made a promise that if the Florence Thomson Tour was held again we would make a determined effort to enter it since it was a totally unique rally just for women drivers. With the slow emergence of normality in the year or so after the pandemic had flattened most things enjoyable, especially large gatherings of people, the 2022 Florence Thomson Tour was announced and we hastily filled in our application and sent it away. Our application was successful and we flew down from Newcastle NSW where Maggie and Stan picked us up from the airport and took us back to their home. As the tour is a Victorian run event, driving one of our FNs to the event from Newcastle would mean a three week round trip for us so Stan openly and generously offered me his beautiful 1910 FN1560 to drive for the weekend. It was agreed mutual satisfaction! Because of his offer, I was able to enter the tour and Stan was able to see his car included in the event.
On the Thursday before the tour, Stan and I took the FN driving as it had been a few years since I had driven it for any distance and although it’s an FN, like our cars, it’s an earlier model and “same but different” and I needed to be sure I was in control of it before the weekend. The car has a three speed gearbox (I’m used to four) and has slightly different timing with gear changes, heavier steering feel, slightly lesser engine power and longer braking distance but after a couple of hours of motoring the hilly roads around Smiths Gully, plenty of gear changing, steep braking and a consistently mellow instructor that mostly looked out at the passing view and chatted, I was feeling comfortable and confident with the FN1560 again and I was ready and keen to join my fellow sisters in driving!
On Friday morning we loaded the FN into the trailer and then Stan, Maggie, Chris and myself, headed up the road to Bendigo where the tour was to be held. Halfway to Bendigo we stopped for lunch at Heathcote and a delightful little baby blue Morris Minor cruised confidently by us with a determined and just as confident lone lady driver behind its wheel, her undistracted head pointing straight ahead. She was on one mission and one mission only: Bendigo. In a small town further along, a Sunbeam Alpine and some more pastel coloured Morris Minors emerged, all sporting heritage plates, telltale signs they were headed our way and like a slow gathering of a small secret army we all pushed on to Bendigo to find our accommodation and gather for dinner and registration.
We found our accommodation, an ample modern shared apartment at the Quality Hotel Lakeside, unloaded the FN into a carpark undercover, unpacked and relaxed before heading across the nearby Lake Weeroona to the Bendigo Rowing Club for dinner and registration. The weather had closed in and rain poured down outside, but inside the small room was steamy and raucous with tables of mostly women, some already dressed in the era of their cars, catching up and making friends. At registration we were presented with a generous rally bag with wristbands for all of us for the weekend meals and tour visits and a delicious BBQ meal was provided. Our table slowly filled with new friends and fellow drivers and we chatted at length into the night.
The following morning we were relieved and pleased to see that the heavy rain that fell all through the night had totally disappeared and we were presented with a beautiful sunny, cloudless sky. It was dress-up day so we all changed into 1910 and reunited ourselves with the FN, cranked it over and pulled out into the cool clear morning and slowly busying streets of Bendigo. Breakfast was back at the rowing club and there we all gathered again, displaying our impressive machines side by side in neat rows. There were 61 drivers with cars from nearly all eras, the majority from the 1960’s and ‘70’s. There was a healthy gang of Morris Minors with lady drivers and lady passengers dressed in smart 1950’s dresses and functional “garage girl” uniforms. I parked the FN up behind a 1925 Wolseley black beast that looked like a rocket on wheels and behind me a quaint little Citroën 2CV named Dolly pulled in followed by fellow veteran car driver, Jessica Holt, in her 1914 Overland with her four passengers, Cooper, Amy and Jeff. It eventuated that Jessica and I were the only veteran era car drivers on the tour.
After our bacon and egg burger breakfast we wandered around the display of cars and mingled with the Morris Minor gals in front of their impressive turnout of cars. I got talking to one of the drivers about her car and we shared a real mutual enthusiasm and outlook about driving old cars and the trials and triumphs and adventures that driving them brings to us. After a while she introduced herself as Kate and pointed out her car. She was the determined, confident driver of the pale blue Morris Minor that we watched cruise past us on our way to Bendigo and she was the epitome of the spirit of camaraderie which was becoming very evident to me already existed within this strong group of women, many already knowing one another from previous Florence Thomson tours. The open friendliness, enthusiasm, car focused topics of discussion and welcoming behaviour that all four of us received not only from the Morris group of ladies but from ALL the other participants, male and female, was refreshing and inspiring and I felt like I’d found my tribe.
At 9:30am it was time to depart and a gradually a cacophony of engine sounds flattened the subdued hubbub of people mingling and motors began to move out. I worked through the familiar FN start routine of turning on the ignition switch, adjusting the hand throttle and tickling the carburetor and then gave the old lady two cranks and she quietly and easily came to life. We loaded ourselves up into her and followed the younger cars onto the rally route to Maldon. We were off!
Driving the 40kms or so to Maldon was an easy drive. It was relatively flat going on the quieter back roads and eventually we had the road to ourselves as all of the later era cars “beep beeped”, waved, and overtook us speeding ahead. My passengers, Stan and Chris on the lounge seat, chatted about mechanical and restoration work they’d each been up to, laughing and making jokes at my expense and generally enjoying the novelty of sitting in the back getting blown around while my side passenger, Maggie, and I discussed the upcoming antique shops and having a cuppa at Maldon. The day was still sunny but the breeze was ice cold and the FN confidently carried us along in the cool dense morning air. We were all having a great time and were looking forward to arriving in Maldon and having a look around the town before we travelled on to historic Buda House at Castlemaine. But our luck showed signs of running out just outside of Maldon when the FN hiccupped a couple of small misfires while negotiating a rise in the road..
By the time we arrived at Maldon the car was clearly unhappy. Coughing and spluttering more regularly as I drove along the streets, my focus tuned into keeping the car’s engine going while not over loading it which created more misfiring. I spotted an empty park in the very busy village, pulled the car off the road and flicked off the ignition switch. An abundance of sight see-ers were attracted to the vision of the stunning FN in the main street and the four of us in Edwardian clothing. While Maggie and I carried out the inevitable and chatted to the onlookers answering their questions and explaining what we’re doing, Stan lifted the bonnet and checked over the engine. We had only stopped for 10 mins but already we had to leave so as to make it to the next stop, Buda House at Castlemaine, by 11am. It was 10:45. Stan returned the bonnet and cranked the FN turning the crank shaft over and over and over. But the stubborn old girl would not fire. He tickled the carby and again heaved on the crank shaft and again the car sat silent. It got too much for a bloke nearby relaxing with his Saturday morning cappuccino watching the fruitless effort and he offered some help, “Would you like a push mate?” “Nah she’ll go. This is very unusual..” said Stan nonchalantly and turned the crank for a third round of spins and finally the engine came to life. We piled back into the car with urgency as we were running out of time to get to Castlemaine. I carefully balanced the revs with the hand and foot throttle so that we didn’t have a “flame out” while shifting the gear select to reverse and then first, trying to use an almost constantly engaged clutch. Crunch. This was not normal for the FN either and Chris and Stan discussed adjustment of the clutch as I watched for a break in the traffic.
I made our escape and we rolled off down the street and out of Maldon. The two mechanics on the back seat observed carefully the behaviour of the car over the next twenty kilometers and diagnosed the misfiring problem as most likely a magneto issue. By the time we arrived in Castlemaine the cantankerous 112 year old had become a challenge to drive. Any reducing of revs was a problem as the engine wasn’t getting regular spark for it to keep strong yet reducing of revs was essential to shift gear. And selecting low and reverse was also problematic due to the uncooperative nearly constantly engaged clutch.
We arrived at Buda House where we were escorted by an arm waving member of the tour committee to pull up in the space saved especially for us right outside the front gate of the old house. A small crowd of people including a journalist from the local rag, The Castlemaine Mail, greeted us. They had been waiting for us to arrive. Maggie and I were promptly positioned in front of the FN in various poses while the photographer snapped away and asked of us a few details. A week later we were spread across the front page of the Castlemaine Mail.
Buda House, named after Budapest by its Hungarian owner, is a heritage listed house and garden from the gold rush era. As I wandered through the house crowded with my fellow tour participants inspecting the interesting various historic displays of domestic life and clothing, I couldn’t help but feel like I could’ve been a ghost mingling amongst the other “modern” dressed visitors. Clothed in my black Edwardian outfit of long skirt and high necked blouse, (along with Maggie, Stan and Chris), I was the only person in the house dressed in the exact fashion of clothing in the era of the house.
We enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch in the pavilion beside the house with my fellow drivers and then made our way back out to the FN in an attempt to get to the next stop which was the Morris Garage at Harcourt, in time to have a look around. I cranked over the car as we waited for the younger cars to leave around us but when it came to our move, the clutch stubbornly refused to disengage to allow me to select reverse and the audience waiting for us to leave were treated to the sound of much gnashing of teeth; FN and human. This was totally unusual for the FN as it’s normally a sweet running machine and it was driving beautifully on our pre tour Thursday drive. Stan and Chris, who were diagnosing from the back seat, were now confident that the clutch was not disengaging and needed immediate adjustment. But no adjustments could be made immediately as they were both in their Edwardian clothes and would ruin them with grease so I persevered. I lowered the revs even further and forced the car into gear and finally we were on our way.
It remained a very unhappy FN. Coughing and spluttering I rolled it down the street and into a servo for a fuel top up before we struggled along the streets of Castlemaine towards Harcourt and the Morris Garage. But with the concern of how the old girl was battling along and the extra work of trying to keep her alive and moving along, we missed the turn to Harcourt and the Morris Garage and found ourselves turning onto the busy Calder Freeway and back towards Bendigo. It was the most direct route and with the FN’s condition declining it became a matter of urgency to get us and the car back to the hotel safely.
Struggling along in the shoulder of the highway at our new top speed of about 40kmph, to add stress to pressure, Maggie announced that she had lost her bag out of the car somewhere between Castlemaine and the highway. Phone, cash, credit cards, all gone. We couldn’t turn back because the car was too ill so we spluttered slowly along on the freeway with an all new level of anxiety and concern at the thought of Maggie losing her valuables and all the time hoping the car wouldn’t stop altogether before we made it back to the hotel.
By the time we got to Kangaroo Flat and the outskirts of Bendigo I had become very busy. All of my four limbs had jobs. I was feathering the foot throttle while at the same time constantly adjusting the hand throttle in a competitive balance between the two to keep the engine alive. Too much throttle would make the car misfire and drive irregularly and reduce the speed, too little throttle would make the car flame out. Traffic lights tortured me forcing me to slow and stop. Every need to brake had turned from a simple action to a complicated event needing coordination: foot off throttle, pull on brake lever, increase hand throttle, throw clutch, select neutral, increase hand throttle further, pull on brake lever, apply foot brake. Stop. The car was on a mission to continually shut down. It became a constant combat between it and I to keep it alive and I tuned out of the conversations happening in the car and into the sound of the engine, making subtle adjustments to the revs and just giving it enough fuel so as I could nurse it at some regular speed through the obstacle course of the city and finally back to our hotel.
Safely back in the undercover carpark, we jumped out of the FN and straight into the Nissan and floored it back through the Bendigo CBD and up the Calder Freeway to where we turned onto the freeway in the FN. Then carefully we retraced our route back to Castlemaine, heads like mice, looking for Maggie’s black velvet bag. We didn’t travel far along the road when incredibly, there it was, slumped on the side of the road looking just like a discarded black oily rag! I jumped out and retrieved it and to our amazement everything was still perfectly intact. Maggie’s returned cash was already burning a hole in her pocket so we stopped at the nearest servo where she shouted us all an icecream in celebration and we debriefed about how lucky she was. Then, after our very stressful and challenging afternoon, we drove back to our hotel room to relax with a much needed cuppa and glass of red before the night’s awards dinner.
At the dinner, which was held downstairs in the function room of our hotel, the room was alive with the conversations of drivers and their passengers reflecting on their day, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. I wondered if any of them had had a day like ours! We made our way to our table and watched the repeating slide show of photos from the day. We saw ourselves slide past a few times, Stan with his head under the bonnet of the FN inspecting the engine in the main street of Maldon. It was a great photo of not a great moment. Beside us was sitting a lady who was driving on the tour in her Australian made 1972 Bolwell Nagari and she was confidently telling us all about the specs of the car, engine capacity, history etc. It was refreshing and great. A beautiful meal was served and the night got underway. There were some speeches and thanks given before the “fashion appreciators” (two committee members who were judging our outfits through the day) came forward to present the awards for Best Dressed according to the era the participants were driving in. I was stunned and stoked to hear my name being read out, first cab off the rank, for Best Dressed Pre 1945. Further awards were presented to women drivers of other eras, as well as effort awards. As I accepted my award and an incredible prize bag of goodies, I was aware that there was a huge amount of support and genuine well wishes in that room of mostly women and it was shown in spades, equally, to everyone, despite where you were from, what you drove or who you were.
We were rewarded again on Sunday morning with another day of perfect motoring weather. We made our way down to the FN to see how she was feeling after her testing day the previous day. With more encouragement than normal, I cranked her over and she started. The engine sounded positive and we climbed in. I sat waiting with the clutch thrown and gear select pushed ready to select reverse but she was still as stubborn and cantankerous as the day before and would NOT let me select the gear. Stan cursed his beautiful apple green machine but with a few more attempts I had success and I rolled her out onto the street and into the cool air.
We only had a few kilometres to go down the road to Bendigo Pottery where a show and shine display of all the cars on the tour was to happen. As with all veteran cars, some days they can run badly all day and the next day they’ll be right as rain as if nothing had happened. But there was no such magical improvement in the FN. It was just as grumpy as the day before and again I limped her along the road, coughing and misfiring and weak and again she kept me busy with controlling the throttle and stopping at lights. Team FN were determined that she wasn’t going to be a “no show” to the last part of the tour!
We thankfully arrived at the pottery and were marshalled to our parking position right alongside the three vintage cars on the tour. Our fellow veteran car on the tour, Jessica’s Overland, unfortunately didn’t make it to the show and shine so the FN sat between a sporty green 1930’s MG and the 1925 Wolseley rocket.
Stan and Maggie and I had a look around the incredible antique shop on site at the pottery while Chris went for his spin in the V8 Bolwell that he’d arranged the night before at dinner. I bought the obligatory piece of Bendigo Pottery to take home with me and while poking around the antique shop, Stan and I found a beautiful and complete antique travel set of Mahjong which I couldn’t walk away from. It was the perfect souvenir of Bendigo with its history of Chinese gold miners and it was the genuine thing with pieces made of ivory, bamboo and bone.
Back in the carpark the public admiring the cars had dwindled away and we all stood talking with Kate, the pale blue Morris Minor driver who we had made friends with at the beginning of the tour. She was dressed in a white vintage garage overall with racing badges and hair tied up in a red bandana. A couple of other drivers on the tour joined us and our conversation went from talking about where we each get our vintage fashions from to what other old cars we drive to what treasures we’d found in the antique shop. It was great, and so different and Chris, Stan, Maggie and myself, found it very refreshing.
It was time to go. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and I cranked the FN for the last time on the tour. She started straight away. We climbed in and I threw the clutch and selected first gear with minimal amount of grinding. It was like the old girl knew she was finally going home. I putted out down the driveway of the pottery but as soon as we were back on the road and needing a little bit of speed, I was back to nursing her along and concentrating on just keeping her engine going while she coughed and spluttered her way down the side of the road. My two hugely supportive mechanic passengers on the back seat had had a complete gutful of the behaviour of the car by now and grinned and commented between themselves admitting that they were glad I was driving because had it been either of them driving the FN in the condition it was for the last two days they would’ve been enraged with frustration and anger and taken it out on the car, ruining the weekend. It WAS a challenge to drive the car in the condition it was in, but I needed to drive with consideration to the car and its owners who had trusted me with their pride and joy. It certainly wasn’t frustrating or enraging. In fact it was great, and in a way I enjoyed it because I learnt a great deal about the car and its idiosyncrasies. I was confident that my back seat passengers would be able to sort it out and the next day, that’s exactly what they did.
Meanwhile, we travelled slowly along in the shoulder all the way back to the motel without many stops at lights until we were back into the carpark where I lined the poor old battler up to her trailer and flicked off the ignition switch ready for the trip home. We tied her in, packed the Nissan and headed back down the freeway to home.
The following morning, Stan and Chris and I adjusted the clutch brake correctly, finally making the gearbox input shaft slow down enough to engage the gears silently. Success! Back to normal FN quality. Then while Chris hooked up a new bike speedometer on the FN for Stan (for later use on the Brisbane to Broome trip) Stan removed the magneto to inspect the points. It was magneto points lesson time for me and as Stan performed open heart surgery on the FN’s magneto, we discovered that the points were not only dirty but completely worn. No wonder the poor old girl was misfiring. He removed the points and then disappeared for a while to rummage in his treasure trove of parts up in his shed. He returned clutching another set of points robbed from another magneto. Stan then cleaned the new set of points, fitted them to the magneto and carefully and slowly adjusted the points gap, tested the spark and returned the magneto to the engine. With all of the adjustments made we were keen to take the FN for a test drive. I cranked the engine and the car started straight up. Maggie and I climbed into the front seat and Chris and Stan sat in the back I silently selected reverse and then a silent first, and rolled off down the steep Bones’ driveway and out onto the road. The car immediately motored perfectly along the undulating roads of Panton Hill, no misfiring, no need to use the hand throttle, no gear grinding. It ran like a dream and so easy to drive after the weekend. “Ahhh when we get to the straight bit Catherine, put your foot down. I wanna see how she goes!” yelled Stan from the back. Chris had hooked up the new bike speedo to the steering column and it was the first time Stan and Maggie knew the true speed they were travelling at in the FN. The straight bit of road through Panton Hill arrived and I lowered my foot. The old dear wound herself up to 62 kmph with no problems at all and still room to move. She was happy again! What a change to her top speed of only about 40kmph when crawling along the Calder Freeway on Saturday.
The Florence Thomson Tour was unlike any other car rally I’d been on. The friendship that the four of us experienced from other tour participants and the camaraderie, inclusiveness, humour and support amongst the women motorists of all ages (and male/female passengers) was refreshing and inspiring.
If you have the opportunity to attend a future FTT either as a passenger or a driver, I would strongly encourage you to grab it with both hands and enjoy the positive experience.
My grateful thanks to my wonderful passengers who joined me; Stan and Maggie Bone for generously entrusting their beautiful FN to me for the weekend and my husband Chris for being a solid support to me and a constant champion of women driving veteran cars. Acknowledgement to the AOMC Inc and the RACV, and congratulations and thanks to the Florence Thomson Tour 2022 committee for presenting an excellent and fantastic weekend.