Back in the 1990s Adelaide was a hub for car manufacturing in Australia. It was the home of the Formula One Grand Prix and other motor races. Today, car enthusiasts visiting Adelaide can learn about that history and much more at the National Motor Museum in Birdwood.
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TL;DR? Here's the outline
About the National Motor Museum
The Birdwood motor museum began its life in 1964 as the Birdwood Mill Pioneer, Art and Motor Museum. It was located partly in The Old Birdwood Mill, which today still has a small display.
The museum was bought by the South Australian government in 1976 and now sits under the History SA banner. It is the largest motor museum in Australia.
The museum can now be found right behind the Old Mill and is spread over a handful of galleries. There are over 400 motor vehicles on display, including some that are historically significant.
Some of the vehicles are in pristine condition, some have clearly been well-used, and others are still waiting for their moments of restoration after clearly languishing neglected for many years.
There are a variety of permanent exhibitions, and also some changing exhibitions that bring new displays and ideas into the museum. It’s been about three years between my last two visits and I noticed many differences but also a lot the same.
Getting to the National Motor Museum, Birdwood
The National Motor Museum is located in the small Adelaide Hills town of Birdwood. The best way to get there is by car.
It is around an hour drive from the city, through some lovely hills terrain and past The Big Rockinghorse in Gumeracha.
It is possible to get to Birdwood by bus, but it is a little trickier than a normal motor bus trip as the second leg is on a LinkSA bus which does not use the same ticketing system.
They also only run a couple of times each day so you will have to plan carefully in advance.
From Currie Street in the city, you will need to catch a bus (J1, J1T, J2) to Tee Tree Plaza.
A bonus on this route is that you will travel on Adelaide’s O-Bahn busway, one of only a handful of places with this type of transport in the world. Get more information about the route on the Adelaide Metro website.
Once at Tee Tree Plaza, you will swap to an 800/800C or 802/802C LinkSA bus. You can find the routes, timetables and ticket prices on their website here. Look at the Tee Tree Plaza – Mt Pleasant – Mt Torrens routes.
What to Expect at the National Motor Museum
Let me preface this with telling you all that I am not a car enthusiast. In fact, I barely know a spark plug from a fan belt.
So a motor museum may not be a place I would necessarily choose to visit, but I’ve been to a few big-name car museums around the world – like Ferrari museums in Moderna, Italy and the BMW museum in Munich, Germany – with my husband.
While those other museums are certainly bigger and shinier, what I loved most about the National Motor Museum was the familiarity – these are the cars I grew up with, owned and loved.
In the 1990s/2000s, almost everyone in Adelaide knew someone who worked for Holdens or Mitsubishi. Many people also drove one of those home grown cars – I have owned three Holdens over the years myself.
So it was interesting to see the huge Holden display that currently takes up a big portion of the museum.
Not only are there all the favourites, there are some amazing concept cars that were never made commercially. I was really surprised to see a 1969 Hurricane concept car with a reverse camera and navigation system!
And the 2004 Torana, nothing like the 1980s Toranas I remember. And then there was the nostalgia of seeing the very last Holden to roll off the assembly line in 2017.
There are some really old, rare cars here too. I was interested to see the 1899 Shearer Steam Carriage, which I had learnt about when I had visited Mannum. This was a very early car built right here in South Australia.
There is also the truck driven by Tom Kruse as he delivered mail around the outback and one of the Leyland Brothers Landrovers too.
Another exhibit that I found really interesting was about Alice Anderson’s Motor Service.
That a woman opened up a garage, repaired cars and gave driving lessons in the first decade of the 1900s, against all the societal norms, was inspirational.
Kids (both small and big kids) will love the computer games that can be played. There is a giant Atari controller and screen, a classic Sega Daytona game, and some other fun racing games.
Once you have proven you’re the best on the track with the racing games, take a look at some actual racing cars, including a Chamberlain 8, the only car wholly designed and made in Australia.
It’s not just cars here at the museum, there are plenty of motorbikes too, in fact, whole big room of them. They range from big, Harley-type motorbikes to postie bikes and bikes so light they are more like an electric bicycle.
Once you have finished exploring instead the main building, there is still more to see by taking a look in the adjacent buildings outside. Take a peek inside the 1920s motor garage and see how things used to be.
Next head toward the big chimney towering over the Old Mill . Inside you will find a little history about the mill itself, including two of the huge grindstones that were used here.
The last stop before going back inside is to take look inside the old stables. Here you will see the “Barn Find” area. These are cars waiting for their turn to be restored.
Amongst all of the favourites, you might just spot your first car or the one your parents had when you were a kid. There are also many unique cars here too. Here are just a few more to whet your appetite.
The museum occasionally runs events too. One of the most well known is the annual Bay to Birdwood Which happens in October each year.
Anyone with a car old enough (this year it is cars made before 1993) can enter and join in the fun, creating a huge parade of vintage cars on the 67km route between Glenelg and Birdwood.
The drivers and passengers like to dress in costumes to match the cars and the day has a great festival atmosphere to it.
All the cars park in Birdwood on their arrival, and then there is a “Finish Festival”, including retro music, BBQs, ending with Fashions on the Field and vehicle awards.
National Motor Museum Tickets & Opening Hours
The museum is open every day of the year except for Christmas Day from 10am until 5pm.
While you can book tickets in advance on the website, there is really no need and you can buy them on arrival. Note that the museum is cashless, so you will need to have a credit or debit card to purchase tickets.
Adult tickets are $21.50 (October 2023) and there are concession, kids and family tickets available. The National Motor Museum is now cashless, so payment is by card only.
The museum is located on Shannon Street, Birdwood, but it is such a small town you cannot miss it. Just look for the chimney from the Old Mill. There is plenty of parking available.
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