Tom Prior has devoted his life to the carrying business and is a household name around the vast station properties of Cape York, Qld.

Story By Darryl Cooper

Tom Prior doesn’t wear boots. With his bare feet seemingly oblivious to the rough ground and burrs, he’s likely to be found poking around the wrecked vehicles in the yard of his Chillagoe transport depot. Tom has an astounding memory and every one of the dozens of rusting relics in his yard has a story to tell. But it’s not until you walk into his sheds and workshops that Tom’s consuming passion for historic vehicles becomes truly evident.
Under a sprawling covering of galvanised iron, Tom has put together a stunning collection of immaculately restored vehicles. A lifetime in the trucking industry, coupled with an absolute dedication to Fords, has made him an undisputed authority on Ford cars and trucks. He receives worldwide recognition and regular visitors from Germany, England, China and the US. “The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit has offered me a free trip to America,” Tom says. “I’d like to go one day, but who’s going to look after this show?”
The Prior family has a long history in north Queensland, with four generations in the transport business. Tom’s grandfather, Walter Prior, hauled timber from Vine Creek (Ravenshoe) during World War I using a steam traction engine, and later moved the engine to Mungana where he hauled copper ore from the OK Mine. In 1939, Tom’s father, also called Tom, bought the first five-tonne V8 truck in north Queensland (a Ford of course) from the Cairns Show.
Tom was born in Chillagoe in 1938 and has remained in the historic mining town on Cape York all his life. His earliest memories are of sitting on his father’s knee steering the big Ford around the bone-shattering tracks of the surrounding rough limestone country. “I went to high school in Mareeba in the early ’50s but that was no good for me,” Tom says. “I said, ‘Bugger this!’ and got an apprenticeship at the tin dredge in Mount Garnet.”
After a five-year apprenticeship, 20-year-old Tom returned a qualified fitter and turner and took a job as driver and mechanic on Wrotham Park Station, “100 mile or so” to the west of Chillagoe. It was there he met Walter Lawrence, who owned a number of stations in the area. “He was my idol,” Tom says. “He was like a father to everyone. If you drove past Wrotham Park and didn’t call in he would ask what was wrong with you. Those were the days when you would always get a cup of tea.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #73

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2010