Grease monkeys : A history of Australia's motor mechanic trade, 1900-1970

PhD Thesis

Pearson, Michael Patrick Robert. (2021). Grease monkeys : A history of Australia's motor mechanic trade, 1900-1970 [PhD Thesis]. Australian Catholic University School of Arts
AuthorsPearson, Michael Patrick Robert
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy

Motor mechanics are iconic members of Australia’s working class. The timeless imagery associated with them, of men in grease-stained overalls – colloquially called ‘grease monkeys’ from the 1930s – hides a complex history.

This thesis explores how class structures affected the organisation of the motor mechanic trade. The first motor mechanics emerged from across the social divisions of class, race and gender. A demand for mechanics’ engineering skills created avenues of social mobility. The diversity of motor mechanics in the early years of automotive repair work also inhibited solidarity and their ability to organise. As a result, the organisational structures that governed the trade were imposed by multiple outside groups. Motorist organisations, employer associations, technical colleges and multiple trade unions all vied to advance their interests and gain control over automotive work. This affected both mechanics’ class positioning and social status.

Issues of skill are crucial here. Mechanics initially relied upon an unstructured, ad hoc education, based around practical learning. This changed in the interwar years, as technical colleges began offering courses in automobile repair. The formalisation of motor mechanics’ education that took place from this period affected more than their skills. Accreditations defined who could qualify as a mechanic. These were responsible for the initial gendering of the trade, as women were excluded from trade colleges. Changing gender norms following the Second World War acted in combination with the introduction of accreditations to set boundaries, both in terms of who could become a mechanic and the skills deemed relevant to the trade. This culminated in a broad deskilling program, enforced at the at the behest of employers which diminished mechanics’ expertise and affected their financial remuneration. This thesis explores the connections between these different aspects of the motor mechanic trade to extend our understanding of Australian class structures.

Engaging with a broad range of sources, this thesis incorporates archival records, interviews, newspapers, and trade journals. It integrates aspects of labour, economic, educational and gender history to provide historical context to our current understanding of mechanics. In turn, it contributes to debates regarding the right to repair, a grassroots movement of American origins that seeks to protect independent repairers, and the future of maintenance work.

Keywordsmotor mechanics; auto mechanics; labour; education; mobilities; gender; masculinities; skill; engineering
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Page range1-261
Final version
File Access Level
Supplementary Files (Layperson Summary)
File Access Level
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online08 Apr 2022
Publication process dates
Deposited08 Apr 2022
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