Abstract The structure and composition of tars from the flash pyrolysis of one brown and two bituminous Australian coals were investigated by 1H n.m.r. spectroscopy. Reaction times in a fluidized bed were about 1 s. For each tar the aromatic hydrogen content increases slightly with pyrolysis temperature up to ≈650 °C and then rapidly up to 900 °C. The aromatic carbon content increases rectilinearly with temperature. The yield of aromatic carbon reaches a maximum at 600–700 °C, and then decreases; the yield of aromatic hydrogen is independent of temperature. The proportion of aromatic material with condensed ring structures increases with temperature. Three temperature zones of reactivity can be recognized. Polymethylene chains and aromatic groups are stable up to 600 °C. Between 600 and 700 °C aliphatic substituents, other than α groups, decompose; between 700 and 900 °C α-aliphatic and aromatic groups also decompose, resulting in lower yields of tar.