On New Year's Day in 1908, excited crowds gathered at the Lyttelton wharf to bid farewell and Godspeed to the Irishman Henry Ernest Shackleton of County Kildare and his valiant crew aboard their venerable 41 year old, 334 gross ton, wooden hulled schooner, Nimrod. Setting sail for the wilds of Antarctica, some 5 years after he had returned exhausted from Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition, Shackleton was determined to be the first person to set foot on the South Pole.
To make this privately funded dream happen, he had sailed from London, assembled a largely inexperienced crew that included scientists and engineers, and acquired ten Manchurian ponies and nine dogs that had been trained in Whakaraupō on Ōtamahua Quail Island – as depicted on our commemorative card along with the man himself and his sailing ship. You might also notice a curious addition being the automobile, and yes, Shackleton was also the first to introduce mechanised transport to Antarctic exploration, in the first decade of the twentieth century no less.
This vehicle had been specially modified for the Antarctic expedition by engineers from the Arrol-Johnston Car Company Ltd. working in their Underwood Road factory in Paisley, Scotland. The Scottish company had manufactured Britain’s first automobile in 1895, and the world’s first ‘off-road’ vehicle for the Egyptian Government. Their Antarctic car was an alcohol-fuelled air-cooled version of their 1905 model, with a 3023 cc 4 stroke engine in a 2 cylinder opposed piston configuration (thus with no cylinder head or valvetrain), on a strengthened chassis and capable of producing 12 bhp at 800 rpm and 15 bhp at 1100 rpm. Modifications had been made to the exhaust system that was used to heat the carburettor as well as the driver, while the front wheels were fitted with removable skis for the snowy conditions, as well as light or heavy duty tyres.
The vehicle was donated by the majority shareholder of Arrol-Johnston, the Scottish industrialist William Beardmore, later Lord Invernairn, who was also a major sponsor of Shackleton’s expedition. Much was expected of this largely untested vehicle, although perhaps its greatest achievement was in the marketing exposure for both the company and Shackleton’s fundraising efforts, with the pre-expedition hype in Autocar magazine making the dubious but very popular claim that:
"Under favourable circumstances Lieutenant Shackleton computes that the machine can travel 150 miles in twenty four hours and ... he thinks there would be a fair chance of sprinting to the pole."
For the ocean journey south, the vehicle was housed in a crate on the Nimrod's deck owing to a lack of space on the rather small vessel, with a sceptical Shackleton preferring to bring as many ponies and dogs as possible. On board and tasked with overseeing the maintenance of the car was a young Arrol-Johnston engineer by the name of Bernard C. Day, who would go down in the history books as the world’s first Antarctic mechanical engineer and driver. On arrival, the car was set down on the sea ice in loose snow to help set up the first camp at Hut Point. While the engine started up fine enough, it became obvious that the heavy wheels were largely useless in the soft snow and the skis made steering rather difficult if not impossible.
Nonetheless, and in spite of this inauspicious start, once Day gained experience driving on various surfaces, the Arrol-Johnston proved somewhat handy in transporting men, stores and equipment, making numerous small journeys of up to 25 km pulling 500 kg sleds in temperatures as low as -10 degrees centigrade. This work included setting stores for David, Mackay and Mawson’s successful bid for the magnetic South Pole. As Day himself recounts:
"My first Journey was in August, when I took some of the southern journey grub, about 1500 lb weight (680 kg), on two sledges and three people up, sitting on the back member. For the first eight miles the ice was very good, but after that it was covered with drifted snow. I did about four miles an hour on this surface and about eight on the ice, over cracks and everything, some of them being about 1 ft 6 in (0.5 m) across. I firmly believe the old car would go anywhere, she could stand anything.”
Bernard Day, Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, Sat 31 Jul 1909
While Day claimed to have driven about 500 miles (800 km) in total, the car proved less useful for Shackleton’s bid for the South Pole which relied instead solely on the ponies and dogs. Famously, caught in terrible blizzards some 97 nautical miles (179 km) from their goal, his party turned back. Shackleton returned home defeated but was feted for his courage and scientific exploits, with his efforts setting the modern standard in Antarctic exploration for years to come. Bernard Day would go on to repeat his engineering feat on Scott’s ill fated Terra Nova expedition two years later, while the Arrol-Johnston car was last seen by curious onlookers outside Messrs Hawkes and Son’s garage in Lyttelton on its return from the southern continent in April 1909. Then, after being towed through Christchurch city in a parade, it was allegedly shipped to the “English Museum” in Britain a couple of months later, and never seen again.
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