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Cheney, Sydney Albert (1883–1968)

by L. J. Hartnett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Sydney Albert Cheney (1883-1968), car salesman, was born on 22 March 1883 at Smithfield, South Australia, fifth son of Samuel Cheney, labourer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Goodger. He left the local state school at 12, became a farm-hand and then worked in a fruit-shop in Adelaide. He joined a Baptist young men's Bible class, of which he was secretary for eight years, studied fitting, turning and drawing at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries and took lessons in accountancy and commercial law. When 20 he put an advertisement in a newspaper, offering his services free to an employer for three months. The coachbuilders, Duncan & Fraser, engaged him to sell Oldsmobile cars at £2 a week and commission; he became the State's first car-salesman. He switched to selling Argyll cars and, for publicity, sensationally drove to the top of the Mount Gambier crater; in 1905 he took part in a Melbourne-Sydney reliability trial. Aided by his skill in conjuring, card tricks and recounting yarns, he sold many cars to farmers on Yorke Peninsula. On 4 May 1907 at the Baptist church, Mount Barker, he married Marjorie Olive Fidler.

After selling Fords by the hundred, Cheney resigned from Duncan & Fraser in 1914 and went to the United States of American to seek a Dodge agency. He won it by pertinacity, floated the Cheney Motor Co. Ltd in 1915, had 130 employees next year, and made three more trips to the U.S.A. in the next three years. In 1917 the Federal government imposed a wartime ban on imported completed cars but allowed unrestricted entry of chassis. Alert to the opportunity of developing a new Australian industry, Cheney approached Holden & Frost, saddlers, and enthused H. J. and (Sir) E. W. Holden who agreed to build Dodge bodies and formed a new company. The results, in the long term, were to be momentous. Early profits were so great that Cheney voluntarily abandoned the part of the original agreement whereby his share was 1 per cent of turnover.

In 1920 Cheney decided to take up a Chevrolet agency, left his Adelaide company and founded S. A. Cheney Pty Ltd in Melbourne; he soon climbed Mount Buffalo in thirty-seven minutes in top gear to demonstrate what a Chevrolet could do. In 1922 in South Melbourne he set up the first assembly line in the Australian motor industry. However, when General Motors themselves opened assembly works in 1926, Cheney switched to selling Austin and Morris cars, launched an advertising campaign to 'Buy British and be proud of it!', and persuaded William Morris (Lord Nuffield) to visit Australia to see why his cars were unsuited to local conditions.

Early in the Depression, after successful efforts to place his employees elsewhere, Cheney closed down his business in good order, and had a year's holiday. He then began selling used cars and in 1932 took an agency for Vauxhall cars and Bedford trucks, which he continued until the late 1950s when he finally took a Holden agency. He had also operated Sanderson & Cheney Pty Ltd as a large service station enterprise. During World War II he was active, with governmental support, in promoting gas-producers and charcoal production. In Adelaide in 1965 he published his autobiography From Horse to Horsepower.

Predeceased by his wife, Cheney died on 22 April 1968 at Toorak and was cremated. He was survived by two sons, and a daughter who for many years was Australian golf champion. His estate was sworn for probate at $135,477.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Foster, Industrial Development in Australia 1920-1930 (Canb, 1964)
  • L. J. Hartnett, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (Melb, 1964)
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 Apr 1968.

Citation details

L. J. Hartnett, 'Cheney, Sydney Albert (1883–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cheney-sydney-albert-5574/text9509, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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