MAG&M Collection Stories:

Surf-o-Planes from the 1930s and 50s

The Surf-o-Plane was an ingenious Sydney invention, patented by Dr Earnest Smithers of Bronte in 1933.

The inflatable rubber mats soon became mass-produced, and were hugely popular on Sydney beaches such as Manly and Bondi where they were hired out by the half-hour. Over the summer of 1938-39 Manly Surf Life Saving Club reported 261 rescues, half of these rescues were of surfers ‘carried out on or swept off rubber floats’.

By the 1950s, the Surf-o-Planes and various adaptions were ubiquitous on Sydney beaches, and remained popular well into the 1970s. Without any kind of fin, the Surf-O-Plane lacked manoeuvrability, but they became the forerunner of the surf mat and bodyboards of various types. With the advent of rubber flippers, Surf-O-Planes could take on bigger waves and greater thrills. For many Sydneysiders, the Surf-o-Planes and their descendent craft were, and still are, the first experience of the excitement of wave riding.

Stephen Lees’ whimsical gouache painting ‘The Bodysurfers’ is one in a series of six paintings he created exploring his vivid childhood memories of visiting family at Manly during summer. His images depict the artist’s early ventures around Manly surfing, playing on the boardwalk and harbourside pool, and enjoying the rides at Manly Fun Pier.



  1. Stephen Lees (b.1954), Manly Series, #2 The Bodysurfers, 2007, gouache and watercolour on wood panel,  40 x 50cm. Purchased 2008 (A1071)
  2. Surf-o-plane, c.1960, rubber. Gift of Patricia Cook 1996 (M1053)
  3. Flippers, c1960s, rubber (MO995)
  4. Wetsuit, c.1960s, Super Calypso (MO187)
  5. Stephen Lees (b.1954), Manly Series, #7 Sea level, 2007, gouache and watercolour on wood panel, 40 x 50cm. Purchased 2008 (A1070)