‘… and this car was actually driven across Australia by the Leyland Brothers.’
My colleague paused for effect after dropping that bombshell during my first walk through the museum as a curator. My reaction was obviously completely unsatisfactory – a polite nod that I was hoping would mask the fact I’d never heard of these Leyland Brother characters before.
Now that I’m more clued up I can understand my colleague’s shock when I eventually had to confess. In the 1970s and 80s in particular, and all the way through to about 2000, Mal and Mike Leyland were about as big as TV stars get in Australia. Their show Ask the Leyland Brothers, which aired from 1976 to 1984, consistently had an audience share of 40% - a figure that nowadays most programs that aren’t the AFL Grand Final can only dream of. Ask the Leyland Brothers encouraged viewers to ask questions about places in Australia; ‘as long as the answer is interesting’ the place would appear on their weekly show. Mike and Mal would drive to some of Australia’s remotest and least visited locations and let you know if it was true that there was a beach in far Northern Queensland with strange stones that bounced off each other like rubber bouncy balls, or if the Tasmanian tiger really was extinct. Courtesy of some deliberately amateurish-but-endearing production, a jingle by the Provost Brothers that got stuck in your head for weeks, and of course some fascinating footage from all over the country, Australian viewers fell in love with the show. The Leylands were probably the first to ‘show Australia to Australians’. With over 150 episodes shot in every corner of the country, Ask the Leyland Brothers was an introduction for many Australians to their own land.
The success of Ask the Leyland Brothers was no fluke. The brothers weren’t just lovable adventurers, but had a real talent for filmmaking, and they had already shot several popular documentaries by the 1970s. In 1966 they drove from Steep Point in Western Australia to Cape Byron in New South Wales (Australia’s western and eastern extremities): it was the first time Australia had been crossed from West to East by car. The journey is nearly 5000 kilometres long, across both the Gibson and the Simpson deserts. Wheels across a wilderness, the film they made about the crossing, made the Leyland brothers household names. From the first few minutes of the film, seeing the cars slowly wobble along the cliffs at Steep Point, you get a real sense of how difficult the journey must have been.
The car that my colleague pointed out to me in the National Motor Museum, a 1956 Land Rover Series 1, is one of the two original cars from the West-East crossing. It is currently exhibited in Pole Position, the museum’s latest display, which every two months focuses on a different vehicle from the collection. The display features some great footage from Wheels across a wilderness (including spectacular shots of rain falling on Uluru). If you have the chance, head to the museum before April 24 to see the car in Pole Position, or at the very least jump on YouTube and listen to the theme tune for Ask the Leyland Brothers!