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Australian Motor Vehicle Manufacture

Pre-World War II | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s and beyond

Pre-World War II

Thomson steam car, 1899. This example is in the collection of Museum Victoria. Thomson and his cousin Edward Holmes completed a 794 km trip from Bathurst, New South Wales, to Melbourne in April 1900 in this car. Photo: Museum Victoria

Thomson’s Steam car, believed to be the first Australian made motor car, was built in 1896 by Herbert Thomson at his workshop at 835 high Street, Armadale. The vehicle was powered by steam, with a water tube boiler heated by kerosene. Thomson made steam engines including the vertical tandem compound engine and water tube boiler fitted to this vehicle which was finished in about June 1898. He also supplied vehicles to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Import restrictions played an important role in developing the auto industry. Following Federation in 1901 and the elimination of customs duties between states, a prohibitive import duty was placed in car bodies in 1902. In 1917, the Hughes Federal Government, under the provisions of the War Precautions Act, prohibited importation of complete motorcars. However mechanical components and knock-down chassis were exempt from import duty, which gave the impetus to local manufacture of custom-built car bodies. Also around this time, all -steel bodies began to replace timber-framed sheet-metal clad construction, further contributing to the transition from craftsman-built individual cars to mass production techniques. The import ban was soon lifted, but high tariffs on complete cars remained as a basis of protecting local motor body builders.

James Alexander Holden in Adelaide was just one of many carriage builders that made the transition to motor vehicle manufacture in an organic way, initially repairing and maintaining imported motorcars and then building sidecars for motor cycles under the partnership of Holden and Frost. In 1917, James' sons, Henry and Edward Holden, formed Holden s Motor Body Builders to build car bodies in a shed at the rear of the firm s premises in Grenfell Street Adelaide. In 1919 they established a new workshop at 400 King William Street. Many other carriage works simply transferred their skills to the new mode of transport by constructing bodywork to wrap around the mostly-imported chassis and mechanical components. Another avenue into motorcar manufacture was through the bicycle.

Kellow Falkiner Pty.Ltd is the oldest surviving motor vehicle builders and agents in Melbourne. It was one of a number of businesses that commenced as a bicycle manufacturer and repairer, (in their case in 1889) and went on to manufacture, maintain or sell motorcars.

Melbourne's early carriage builders were concentrated around the north end of the city. A logical place, since the horse and hay markets were located near the junction of Royal Parade and Flemington Road, on the main routes to the goldfields, the Western District squatters and New South Wales. The finishing line for the 1913 overland motor reliability test, from Sydney to Melbourne was at the Haymarket. It was also the venue for earlier bicycle races, when that sport became thefashionable form of transport in the 1890s. Motor industry related showrooms and suppliers continue to occupy this part of Melbourne.

The first of the Melbourne automobile makers to have anything approaching a real factory was Colonel Harry Tarrant, who in 1897 made Australia's first petrol automobile. Although purely experimental, Tarrant was able to put what he learnt into manufacturing cars on a commercial basis in 1901, with the assistance of Melbourne bicycle maker, Howard Lewis. The firm occupied a number of buildings in Melbourne with separate departments for machining, bodybuilding, assembly, painting, repairs and other functions. Tarrant Motors spawned several operating subsidiaries including Smith s coach building business in Queensbridge Street, South Melbourne in 1903, and in 1907 the motor body department took over larger premises in Exhibition Street, with the title the "Melbourne Motor Body Works"

In 1909 larger premises in Lygon Street were acquired to accommodate assembly of Fords and a new factory opened in Lonsdale Street during the First World War. In 1925 Ford built their own plant at Geelong and cancelled the contract with Tarrant, The Melbourne Motor Body Works then concentrated on fitting bodies to a range of British and American chassis although the Depression hit hard and the workforce fell from 400 to just 40.

The first of the Australian single level production line car factories was the Ford Motor Company Works at Norlane Geelong in 1925. Kahn's signature design elements are evident in the large glazed areas and roof forms, as well as the deep wide gutters around the buildings, intended to drain away the snow melt. These elements were introduced with the rest of the off-the-shelf factory design that came out of Michigan or Canada and exported around the world. The Geelong Ford factory was modelled on the company's 1923 assembly plant at Toronto, Canada, designed by Kahn. The original Geelong buildings from 1925 are the work of Melbourne engineers Fyvie and Stewart, in partnership with William Grassick, also an engineer. Presumably they adapted Kahn's plans.

The next major car factory in Australia was Holden's Fishermans Bend Plant, created as a consequence of the Australian merger between Holden's Motor Body Builders and General Motors in 1931 to become General Motors-Holden's Limited (GM-H). The new plant was commenced in 1936, under managing director Laurence Hartnett, but the intervention of wartime production saw it used for military production, with car manufacture not commencing until after the war. In planning the GMH plant, personnel made overseas visits to study the latest assembly plant practices and factory layouts. During World War Two the factory produced more than 30,000 vehicle bodies for the Australian and United States forces and manufactured a wide range of equipment, including field guns, aircraft, aero and marine engines. After the war, and partly in response to continuing and increasing import tariffs, Holden commenced manufacture of a fully-Australian product, the 48-215, later FJ. GMH was the first of a number of automotive works in the Fishermans Bend area, attracted to the availability of large manufacturing sites close to rail and sea transport close to the centre of commerce and with a nearby workforce.

Ford's Norlane and GMH's Fisherman's Bend can be seen as the precursors of nearly all subsequent car assembly factories in Victoria. The same form of lightweight steel framed sawtooth roof factory was then applied to subsequent works as the Australian motor industry expanded and diversified under continuing tariff protection. Australian Motor Industries has its genesis in the firm of Eclipse Motors, which secured the Victorian agency for Standard Motor Company s cars in 1929. In 1952 one of its main investors, the Crosby family, in conjunction with Standard Motors in England financed a new plant in Port Melbourne to assemble Standard Motor Cars. It took over the former Felton Grimwade building in Ingles Street Port Melbourne in 1954, changed its name to Australian Motor Industries (AMI), and assembled Fiat, Triumph, AMC and Mercedes Benz cars. In 1963 it secured the Australian franchise for Toyota cars and started assembling the Tiara Model. This was the first Toyota car built outside Japan. Toyota acquired a controlling stake in AMI in the 1960s. Port Melbourne production was eventually shifted to Altona in Victoria in 1994.

The quintessential pre-World War II mass producer in Australia was probably H. V. McKay, who at his Sunshine Harvester Works, created a vast factory of timber-framed, corrugated-iron clad, saw-tooth roofed factory buildings. Among them was the Scott Motor Works, initially created around 1910 by James L. Scott to manufacture small, petrol-driven motors for farm machinery. McKay gained a controlling interest and turned part of the works to bodying imported chassis, and possibly the trial construction of whole cars. It is believed this included the Sunshine Motor Car, but no examples are known. In 1930 the works was recapitalised and renamed Ruskin Motor Bodies Pty. Ltd. Car bodies were made on numerous makes of chassis. A contract was made with Morris Motors Ltd. and another with Hudson for their Terraplane chassis as well as long standing contracts to assemble Austin Sevens. These two makes accounted for much of the firm's workload up to the outbreak of the war when, in common with most of the Australian motor industry, the company became involved in defence requirements, increasing its workforce to 600 in the process.

1940 Austin 10/4 Tourer


The Austin Motor Company eventually took over Ruskin Motor Bodies Pty. Ltd, changing its name to Austin Motor Co. (Australia) Ltd in 1948. The new company used the factory to make ute and tourer bodies for fitting to imported Austin A40 chassis. In 1947 Lord Nuffield purchased the former Victoria Park Racecourse, Zetland, New South Wales as the site for a car assembly plant. Nuffield Australia opened their new, 57-acre (23 ha) assembly and factory building in March 1950. The facility was initially set up to assemble Morris Minor and Morris Oxford models from CKD kits. Previously these cars were imported into Australia as assembled vehicles. In 1954 the Austin Motor Company of Australia and Nuffield Australia merged to form British Motor Corporation (Australia) with the Nuffield facility at Victoria Park becoming the group headquarters of the new company. Numerous Austin and Morris models were assembled at the facility and subsequently it was to be the design and manufacturing centre for BMC Australia.

During a period of significant postwar reconstruction, migrant assimilation and technical innovation, the factory employed a peak of 7000 people from 35 nations. The only plant in Australia to manufacture the complete vehicle, it introduced to Australia the in-line transfer machining of engine blocks, the "rotodip" paint process, automatic conveyor assembly processes and major advances in just-in-time and flexible manufacturing concepts.

The Australian Six (Chassis No. 480)


In the Sydney suburb of Ashfield, on Parramatta Road near Frederick Street, was the Australian Six motor car factory which opened in 1920. The site later became an AWA factory producing radio valves and other components. The site has since been turned into a commercial and residential development. Manufactured from 1919 to 1925, it was a grandiose attempt to compete against imported cars from the United States, and was produced from a mixture of local and imported parts. Vehicles featured a conventional chassis layout and a choice of five bodies, locally made under the motto 'Made in Australia, by Australians, for Australia'. Most models were fitted with Rutenber Straight-6 engines and Grand Lees or Muncie gearboxes; some, however, had imported OHV Ansted engines instead. Before 1919 the factory was at the Sydney Harbour side suburb of Rushcutters Bay, it then moved to Ashfield until 1924. The company was forced to shut down production after some 500 cars were built; this was due mainly to high local construction costs. The final few cars were made by the Harkness and Hillier hire car company in Sydney. It is believed only sixteen Australian Sixes survive, one is in the Powerhouse Museum automobile collection in Sydney, another is in the York Motor Museum, York, Western Australia. In 1984 the car was honoured on a postage stamp, part of a series of five depicting early Australian automobiles, issued by Australia Post.
  • The Australian Six Story

  • 1938 Dodge


    In 1852, James Alexander Holden emigrated to South Australia from Walsall, England, and in 1856 established J.A. Holden & Co., a saddlery business in Adelaide.[8] In 1879 J A Holden s eldest son Henry James (HJ) Holden, became a partner and effectively managed the company. In 1885, German-born H. A. Frost joined the business as a junior partner and J.A. Holden & Co became Holden & Frost Ltd. Edward Holden, James' grandson, joined the firm in 1905 with an interest in automobiles. From there, the firm evolved through various partnerships, and in 1908, Holden & Frost moved into the business of minor repairs to car upholstery. The company began to re-body older chassis using motor bodies produced by F T Hack and Co from 1914. Holden & Frost mounted the body, and painted and trimmed it. The company began to produce complete motorcycle sidecar bodies after 1913. After 1917, wartime trade restrictions led the company to start full-scale production of vehicle body shells. H.J. Holden founded a new company in late 1917, and registered Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd (HMBB) on 25 February 1919, specialising in car bodies and using the former F T Hack & Co facility at 400 King William Street in Adelaide before erecting a large four-story factory on the site.

    By 1923, HMBB were producing 12,000 units per year. During this time, HMBB assembled bodies for Ford Motor Company of Australia until its Geelong plant was completed.[18] From 1924, HMBB became the exclusive supplier of car bodies for GM in Australia, with manufacturing taking place at the new Woodville plant. These bodies were made to suit a number of chassis imported from manufacturers including Austin, Buick, Chevrolet, Cleveland, Dodge, Essex, Fiat, Hudson, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Overland, Reo, Studebaker, and Willys-Knight.

    In 1926, General Motors (Australia) Limited was established with assembly plants at Newstead, Queensland; Marrickville, New South Wales; City Road, Melbourne, Victoria; Birkenhead, South Australia; and Cottesloe, Western Australia using bodies produced by HMBB and imported complete knock down chassis. In 1930 alone, the still independent Woodville plant built bodies for Austin, Chrysler, DeSoto, Morris, Hillman, Humber, Hupmobile, and Willys-Overland, as well GM cars. The last of this line of business was the assembly of Hillman Minx sedans in 1948.[24] The Great Depression led to a substantial downturn in production by Holden, from 34,000 units annually in 1930 to just 1,651 units one year later. In 1931, GM purchased HMBB and merged it with General Motors (Australia) Pty Ltd to form General Motors-Holden's Ltd (GM-H). Throughout the 1920s, Holden also supplied tramcars to the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, of which several examples have been preserved in both Australia and New Zealand.

    Holden's second full-scale car factory, located in Fishermans Bend (Port Melbourne), was opened on 5 November 1936 by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, with construction beginning in 1939 on a new plant in Pagewood, New South Wales. However, World War II delayed car production with efforts shifted to the construction of vehicle bodies, field guns, aircraft, and engines.

    Ford Closed Cab Pickup Truck


    The Ford Motor Company of Australia Limited, known by its trading name Ford Australia, was founded in Geelong, Victoria, in 1925 as an outpost of Ford Motor Company of Canada, Limited. At that time, Ford Canada was a separate company from Ford USA. Henry Ford having granted the manufacturing rights of Ford motor vehicles in the British Empire (later the Commonwealth), except the United Kingdom, to Canadian investors. Ford Australia's first products were Model Ts assembled from complete knock-down (CKD) kits provided by Ford of Canada.

    On 31 March 1925, Ford announced that Geelong, was to be the Australian headquarters. The first Australian-built Ford was a Model T that came off an improvised production line in a disused Geelong wool storage warehouse in June 1925, while work started on a factory in the nearby suburb of Norlane. In 1928 the factory switched to the Model A and was followed by the Ford V8 in 1932. In 1934, the company released a coupe utility based upon the Model A American Ford "Closed Cab Pickup Truck" that had been produced for 6 years from 1928. The local designer was Ford engineer Louis (Lewis) Bandt. During the Great Depression, banks would not extend credit to farmers to purchase passenger cars- in the belief they were unnecessary luxuries. However, they would lend money for the purchase of "working" vehicles. The coupe utility fulfilled the need of farmers to have a workhorse which could also be used "to take the wife to church on Sunday and the pigs to the market on Monday".

    In 1956, the company bought a large tract of land in the northern Melbourne suburb of Campbellfield, and in July 1961 announced that the new Melbourne factory would become the company headquarters. Though longer manufacturing vehicles in Australia, Ford Australia is one of Ford's five product development centres globally, and will continue to design and develop cars and trucks for the Asia/Pacific region after the closure of the manufacturing arm. It was expected to retain about 1300 workers in Australia.

    1934 Hudson Terraplane


    Hudson vehicles were imported into Australia in 1913 by Brisbane company McGhie Motor Company. In 1915 the Sydney branch of Dalgety & Co. Ltd became the distributor of Hudson and Essex vehicles for New South Wales. The company was also the agent for Wolseley, Daimler, and Buick passenger vehicles as well as Lacre and Halley commercial vehicles.[44] Motor bodies were produced by Messrs Henderson, Boulton, and Kirkham in Regent Street, Sydney. The company also did trimming, fitting, painting, mechanical work, and repairs.

    Established in 1922, Sydney company Smith & Waddington set up motor vehicle body building operations for NSW and Queensland at premises on Parramatta Road, Camperdown. The company built "custom" car bodies which, by the terminology of the day, meant "built to an individual order and to a special design." In addition to Hudson and Essex for Dalgety, the company built vehicle bodies for Rolls-Royce, Wolseley, Dort, Benz, Fiat, and Tercat Mery. After a slump which caused operations to cease in November 1927, Smith & Waddington resumed production in June 1928, again building for Hudson and Essex for NSW and Queensland, and further adding Dodge, Chrysler, Erskine, and Studebaker for the whole of Australia. Additionally, Sydney coach builder G.H Olding & Sons are known to have built 6 Terraplane phaetons for Dalgety & Co. in 1934.

    In 1926 a new company, Leader Motors Limited was formed to be the exclusive distributor of Hudson and Essex motor vehicles in Queensland. The bodies were made by South Australian company Holden's Motor Body Builders in Brisbane. (In its home town of Adelaide, Holden's made motor bodies for Austin, Buick, Chevrolet, Cleveland, Dodge, Fiat, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Overland, Reo, Studebaker, and Willys Knight.) Hudson and Essex assembly began in Victoria by Neal's Motors of Port Melbourne in 1927. The contract to build the bodies was initially given to TJ Richards & Sons of Keswick, Adelaide to supply for Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania as well as acting as a second source of supply for New South Wales and Queensland. Holden's Motor Body Builders also built bodies. Holden's records show that for 1927 the Adelaide plant built a total 1641 Essex vehicles and 8 Hudsons, and for 1928 the plant built 1931 Essex vehicles and 59 Hudsons. 1928 would be Holden's final year for Hudson and Essex production, and in 1931 the company was bought out by General Motors.

    In February 1934 Ruskins Body Works of West Melbourne secured the contract to build Hudson and Terraplane bodies for the whole of Australia. In June 1937 Neal's Motors celebrated assembling its 30,000th automobile: a 1937 Hudson Terraplane. In 1939 Dalgety & Co. sold their automotive business to Sydney company and agent for Packard motor vehicles,[57] Ira L. & A.C Berk Pty Ltd which thereafter became the distributors for Hudson in NSW and QLD. The company opened a manufacturing plant in Belmore, Sydney in February, 1949.

    After the end of World War II, Australia legislated to restrict the use of U.S. dollars which were in desperately short supply. The use of U.S. dollars to import cars thereafter required a government permit restricting the purchase of American cars only to those with access to U.S. funds held overseas such as consular staff and visiting entertainers. Despite this, Australian distributors of Hudson, Nash, Packard and Studebaker were able to bring in limited numbers of US-built, factory right-hand-drive vehicles from 1946. Dunlop Rubber Company released a report in 1949 about Australian car sales for the period of 1932 to 1949 in which it reported that Hudson vehicles (including Essex and Terraplane) numbered 10,424 units for the 17-year period, coming in at 13th place overall. It was noted in the report generally that all marques in Australia experienced the greatest number of sales prior to World War II.

    Australian Motor Vehicle Manufacture: Pre-World War II | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s and beyond

Australian Six commemorative postage stamp

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