ADELAIDE’S “Golden Mile” was a stretch of South Rd at Darlington where you could buy petrol at the weekend.
That may not seem all that remarkable in these days of 24/7 trading but many Boomers who spent (or misspent) their teenage years in the 1960s and ’70s will recall that city and suburban service stations would close around noon on Saturday and if you missed filling up, it was a long wait until Monday morning.
There was a small number of coin-operated bowsers around the city or you could drive to Cavan, the airport or Eagle on the Hill, but the best option was always Darlington. There were eight service stations in a row, starting with Neptune, Shell, Mobil (with the hot-dog kiosk), Amoco, Caltex, BP, Ampol and finally Esso, which was opposite the police station.
Every weekend, there seemed to be some major promotional event happening at Darlington and in those days, service stations were really service stations. When you stopped to “put a tiger in your tank” or get some fuel from “the final filter”, the bowser boys and girls would also check your oil, pump up the tyres, inspect the battery, wash the windscreen and top up the radiator.
Robert Sheehan’s father Doug was the proprietor of the Neptune service station, which was most famous along the golden mile as the home of King Neptune. The King lived in a specially constructed pond on the banks of the Sturt Creek on a large expanse of lawn. Robert recollects spending much of his weekend as a kid keeping the pond clean and working on the driveway as an attendant and entertaining customers on his one-wheel cycle.
He also recalls how excited his father was when, in the early ’60s, he got final approval to build a pond with a bust of King Neptune. “He was a great ideas man and this was just another one of his initiatives to make the Neptune service station stand out from the others,” Robert says.
King Neptune was the work of Arturo Giobatta Comelli, born in 1900, who emigrated to South Australia in 1926 from the Udine area of northeastern Italy. Working as a sculptor, Arturo’s other pieces included a bust of Sir Donald Bradman, Christ on the Cross at St Francis Catholic Church at Newton and the capitals for columns on the facade of Parliament House.
However, King Neptune was probably his most remembered work.
In a recent post on the Adelaide Remember When Facebook page, relating to the whereabouts of the sculpture today, almost 250 people added their comments and reminisced about those years of travelling along South Rd and looking out for the large white figure. Pamela van der Ploeg wrote: “From Ingle Farm to Morphett Vale was a huge trip for a kid, so Neptune was the diversion that our parents always used to keep us happy! “I still look for him now, even though I know he has been gone for years.”
And Kerry Goldsworthy agreed: “Yep, same here. Ridgehaven to Sellicks Beach. Always looked for Neptune and my parents always pointed him out.”
Gerry Doecke remembered: “As kids, we would play around King Neptune. My brother worked at the Neptune service station as a young man and I can still visualise Old King Neptune where he sat. In fact, I still think of the service stations as the Golden Mile.”
David Paull also remembered: “We always looked for him as we drove past on our way to Christies Beach where we went for Christmas Holidays. I was sorry when he left but I’m glad that he’s still around.”
King Neptune apparently disappeared from the banks of the Sturt Creek some time during the 1980s. Shell had taken over the Neptune brand and though he was left in his pond for a number of years, one day he was gone. Robert Sheehan had moved interstate by then and lost track of the local icon. It might have all ended there but for his chance reading of an article in a national magazine.
“I picked up this magazine one day and there was an article about how the people of Adelaide were upset by King Neptune’s sudden disappearance, so I decided to follow it up and see what I could find out,” he says.
Robert contacted Shell Petroleum and was assured that King Neptune was safely locked up in storage and they had plans to use him again.
Shortly thereafter, and true to their word, King Neptune was installed in a garden at the Shell Distribution Centre at Largs but when the depot was closed down and demolished, he disappeared again. The statue remained hidden away from public view for several more years, languishing, it would seem, in a storage shed. But it was eventually rediscovered, given a fresh coat of paint and put back on display at what is now the Viva Hot Bitumen Plant at Birkenhead.
Though no longer in a grand pond and a long way from his original home near the Sturt Creek at Darlington, King Neptune is at least on show again for people to see and perhaps reminisce over those years when he was the major attraction of the Golden Mile.
Many readers of my Facebook page proposed that he be reinstated at his original location at Darlington.
Dan Taylor wrote: “Bring the King back to Darlington! “It would be a great way to finish off the major roadworks of the Darlington upgrade. “He could overlook the start of the Southern Expressway. Darlington is the gateway to the south, after all.”
I love the idea of King Neptune back in Darlington, not that I can see it happening any time soon.
But if you would like to see him again, take the drive out to Viva Bitumen Depot at the end of Wills St, Birkenhead. You’ll see him tucked away in a small garden, behind a cyclone wire fence.
That’s a little piece of Adelaide’s Boomer history — King Neptune of the Golden Mile.