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The Big Garage 1923-1988: 65 Years of Motoring History

“No invention of the twentieth century has had such a profound impact on Australian culture and society as the automobile. Motor garages and service stations are evocative symbols of a motorized people …[and] The Big Garage is significant as an early and essentially intact example of a motor garage erected during a period of remarkable growth in terms of car ownership, and a period of change in terms of the architectural form of petrol-filling stations.  The Big Garage is perhaps the most elaborate, certainly the largest, of a small group of early motor garages in Victoria; its arched entrance recalling the coaching establishments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Letter Daniel Caprice to J M Capp, 2 November 1994

As a brand, one of the great motoring brands of East Gippsland even today, The Big Garage remains extant and approaches its 100th anniversary. After Ernest and Nelson Capuano returned from the Great War the family in 1922 established Bairnsdale Motors with their partners the Winson brothers.  Emerging from the failure of that business in 1926, TBG under the Capuanos/Capp family not only survived the business downturns of the Great Depression, World War Two, and other cyclic downturns over the years, but also prospered. In doing so – and outlasting several competitors – it provided a livelihood for hundreds of families over its time, and through that made a major contribution to the local economy and community.

The essential lubricant behind the success of all the moving parts associated with a business and brand with the longevity of The Big Garage, were of course its owners and managers, and sales and service and smart business decisions – of which the GM-H franchise in 1937 was to prove most intuitive.  TBG made a significant economic contribution to the community as well, but the brand did not survive and become synonymous with motoring in Gippsland through money alone but almost certainly more so through the intangibles of the ethical work and management practices of the Capuanos/Capps; their patriotic and local community engagement and the goodwill accordingly extended and reciprocated through and around TBG physical business and brand itself.

Including the Bairnsdale Motors prelude, Nelson and then his son John Capp established and successfully managed what became The Big Garage from 1922 to 1988. It was not the only family run business among car dealerships around Victoria over those years, but in terms of East Gippsland and Bairnsdale it was outstanding among those that were.  Its more than 50-year partnership with General Motors–Holden was also one for the records, along with its many awards from other franchises as well.  The Big Garage survives as a brand today but it has also left an outstanding legacy which will be seen for many years to come in the physical structure of the building itself; remembered by the many thousands of people and their descendants who became part of its social and business fabric, and in the historically invaluable records and images held by the J M Capp Collection –  an integral part of the history of Bairnsdale and Eastern Gippsland history.

The Big Garage 1923-1988: 65 Years of Motoring History, Indie Print 2022. ISBN 9 780646 859743
Submitted for the 2022 Victorian Community History Awards.

Copyright @ Andrew Kilsby