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Eric McIllree

1914 – 1973

Eric McIllree (1914-1973) was the founder, chairman and managing director of the Australian arm of Avis Rent-A-Car, and for twelve years the owner and developer of Dunk Island. McIllree’s business skills were honed as a schoolboy at Shore, where he dealt in budgerigars, but his chief interests were cars and planes. In his early twenties, having worked as a car salesman, he opened a used-car business, the profits from which he used to establish a car rental firm, hitherto unknown in Australia. The Second World War put an end to the venture. While working as a pilot, on 19 December 1948 he was shot down by the Vietminh near Saigon, ‘the only casualty’ a pair of suede shoes he had bought the previous day in Hong Kong; the following year, again on 19 December, he crashed ‘in the shadow of the Taj Mahal’. In the postwar years he purchased 55 Avro Anson bombers, which he flew to England to sell. Other RAAF disposals aircraft he bought, including all the available Supermarine Walruses, were pressed into service with his venture Amphibious Airways, carrying native labour between plantations in New Guinea and New Britain. After several Walrus accidents, Amphibious Airways went into liquidation. In the early 1950s, again bent on establishing airport car rental facilities, he approached the Department of Civil Aviation and gained the required approval of TAA, Ansett and ANA for the establishment of Airport Car Rentals. With an eye to the international traveller, however, and finding that neither Avis nor Hertz had registered their names in Australia, he laid claim to these names himself, only afterwards negotiating a deal with Avis to the ongoing rights to the name in Australia and New Guinea in perpetuity. Avis was not established in the UK until 1960, or Europe, Africa and the Middle East until the 1960s and 1970s; meanwhile, McIllree started Avis Australia in 1955 with FJ Holdens stationed at six Australian airports and by 1971 he had rented out his millionth car. McIllree is credited as the pioneer of the ‘Fly/Drive’ concept and the first ‘International Fly/Drive’ holiday schemes. He continued to lobby government for further approval of concessions until he prevailed; at least until 1967, Avis held the sole rental concession at Australian airports. Meanwhile, in 1964 he bought Dunk Island with four associates, who soon retreated. Although he intended initially to keep the island as a personal retreat, building a vessel for big game fishing, and entertaining friends such as Harold Holt, Sean Connery and Ron and Valerie Taylor there, he oversaw the construction of limited tourist facilities.

Updated 2018