By Jeremy Rochow
Last updated on: November 6, 2019 at 12:47 pm
When a group of South Australians came together in 1903 to form a social motoring club, they probably didn’t realise how much of an impact their decision would have on the state over the next 116 years.
RAA has gone through highs, lows and numerous challenges, all of which have shaped the organisation to make it what it is today. Here are just a few highlights from our history.
On 30 September 1903, 15 South Australians gathered at the League of South Australian Wheelmen – a cycling club – and decided to form a separate organisation which would focus on motoring.
The club was named the Automobile and Motor Cycling Club of South Australia.
RAA was born, but it wouldn’t take on this moniker for some years.
It began with clubroom meetings and weekend drives, but as the government started introducing restrictive road regulations, RAA began advocating on behalf of its members.
In 1904 the group dropped motor cycling from its name, becoming the Automobile Club of South Australia.
The club held weekly drives, various races and hill-climb contests.
RAA also realised members were beginning to travel further in their vehicles – some were even driving from Adelaide to Melbourne.
The vast distances between towns created the challenge of refuelling.
RAA recognised this issue. In its first yearbook, published in 1904, it provided a list of country hotels and locations where petrol could be bought.
5 years later, RAA published its first map, which was produced in sections for ease of use on the road.
For the first time, SA motorists had the freedom to drive confidently in rural areas.
Motor gymkhana at Morphettville
RAA held the state’s first motoring contest on 12 November 1904 at Morphettville Racecourse, which included two-lap motorcycle handicap races and a 220-yard reverse race.
The speed limit on some Adelaide streets in the early 1900s
Advocacy and speed limits
By 1910 there were about 2000 cars – and about the same number of motorcycles – on South Australian roads.
The popularity of the new technology led to the state government introducing speed limits and driver’s licences.
The speed limit in the CBD was set at 12mph (or about 20km/h) and 6mph around corners.
This became a contentious issue for RAA. By 1922 it reached a climax, with speed limits as low as 4mph (about 6km/h) in some places around Adelaide.
The organisation waged war on what were seen as revenue-raising tactics of police speed traps.
The club sent out RAA Guides to alert members about where the cops were set up – one guide was even arrested for antagonism in 1922.
RAA’s advocacy surrounding speed limits led to a 1379% increase in memberships and the introduction of free legal defence for members.
The organisation was also turning its attention to road safety and infrastructure.
One of the first safety initiatives undertaken by RAA was to use the little money it had to erect warning signs at dangerous corners and schools across the state.
The first RAA Guides were employed in 1920 as watchdogs for Adelaide city parking. Their duties soon expanded, primarily to warn members of speed traps.
While carrying out their duties, they found themselves helping motorists with mechanical problems.
The premise for RAA’s Road Service was set, however it wouldn’t officially begin until 1924.
The royal stamp of approval
By 1928 RAA had grown – with a membership of about 18,000 – and established Road Service, Technical Advisory and Touring and Legal services.
The last 2 years of the 1920s were busy for RAA. In 1928 King George V granted the club the royal prefix and it officially became the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia Incorporated.
The following year RAA moved into its own premises in Hindmarsh Square, where its head office would remain until 1996.
While the 1920s were a time for growth, the next 15 years would be far more challenging.
The first Regional Guide was permanently stationed outside Adelaide, at the Broken Hill office, in February 1927.
A similar appointment followed shortly in Mount Gambier. This was just the beginning of RAA offering emergency road service in regional South Australia.
4 years later, RAA established a country service depot scheme, with local garages contracted to provide road service.
When the service was launched, 11 garages across regional South Australia took part. A couple of years later the number had tripled to 36.
Today, there are more than 70 depots in country South Australia offering RAA Road Service.
The years leading up to WWII were challenging, with some of the organisation’s efforts to grow hampered by the Great Depression.
RAA still managed to implement a number of new member services, including strip maps in 1936, followed by free towing for cars which couldn’t be repaired on the roadside.
When war broke out in 1939, RAA played its part, offering its facilities to authorities and establishing a volunteer transport auxiliary corps as an arm of the Civil Defence Department.
As the war progressed, member services adapted, and there was even a period when Guides returned to using pushbikes to conserve fuel.
Fuel rationing during and following the war impacted motoring for some years, however by 1950 RAA membership had reached 50,000.
The South Australian Motor, which would later become samotor, was first published in 1913. At the time it was an independent commercial magazine, but included news from RAA.
RAA took over publishing the magazine in the 1930s. The change meant the organisation was no longer dependent on an outside company to convey messages to its members.
The magazine is now published quarterly and sent to almost 400,000 South Australians.
Touring and mapping were one of RAA’s first member services to help motorists as they travelled across the country.
This led to the production of strip maps, RAA’s star-rating accommodation classification scheme and the publishing of touring guides.
As air tourism became more popular and affordable, RAA decided to establish a travel bureau in 1958.
Before too long the bureau became its own department and was named RAA Travel.
Over the past 60 years it’s expanded from 1 shop to 18, offering a booking service for rail journeys, domestic and international flights, river and ocean cruises, and group tours.
As a motoring club, RAA wanted to help its members on the road, including insuring their vehicles.
While there had been debate about RAA getting involved with the commercial side of insurance, an RAA recommended policy through Lloyds of London.
In 1972, insurance policies for RAA members were expanded to include personal accident.
This set the precedent for RAA to venture into other areas of insurance, with the organisation adding a policy for security in 1980.
Now, RAA provides members with cover in all facets of their lives, from motoring and travel to landlord and home insurance.
From a small club of 15 members to an organisation with a membership of more than 740,000, it’s safe to say we’ve grown up a bit.
While RAA still has a focus on motoring. It now also helps its members in other areas of their lives, whether they’re looking for insurance for their home or a place to go on holiday.
A growing base
RAA members at the end of 2018/19:
We’ve gone from having a head office in the city, tech advice and inspections in North Adelaide and our workshop in Brompton to 1 mega office at Mile End.
More recently, we’ve undergone a visible transformation. RAA’s bold new logo reflects the direction – in motor, home and travel – the organisation will take over the coming years.
Our website’s been given a facelift too. What hasn’t changed is the fact that RAA members are still at the heart of every decision we make.