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Australian Motor Vehicle Manufacture

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


Casual talk of full Australian car manufacture was first raised by Prime Minister Bruce in 1927. In 1930, the Scullin government introduced tariffs on imported motor vehicle mechanical parts, such as gears, axles, bearings and motor parts. By 1937 nearly half the factory cost of motor vehicles in Australia was attributable to local content; by 1939, 40 per cent of replacement parts were manufactured locally. In December 1939, the government entered into an agreement with Australian Consolidated Industries (ACI) for the production of vehicles; based on 1938 legislation, the agreement enabled the payment of a bounty on the production of each engine as well as protection from foreign-owned competition. The Motor Vehicles Agreement Act 1940 gave ACI practically exclusive rights to manufacture chassis and engines in Australia. The combined effect of the Motor Vehicles Agreement Act and the Bounty Act was to prohibit companies with less than two-thirds Australian ownership from building engines or chassis. Due to the outbreak of the World War ll, ACI s output never developed to the intended level of full production.

Before the war ended, the government recognised the need to assist industry to move from wartime production to civilian production and established the Secondary Industries Commission within the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. The Commission was instrumental in having the ACI Agreement and the Bounty Act repealed, allowing foreign-owned companies to establish chassis and engine works, and paving t he way for the construction of complete vehicles. The Department of Post-War Reconstruction wrote to every known manufacturer and assembler of motor vehicles and motor vehicle components, seeking to establish the state of their development, their plans for future production and their desires for government assistance. The Department was prepared to offer financial assistance and tariff protection to assist a company to manufacture entire vehicles in Australia.

Five proposals for the manufacture of complete cars were received, from Ford (US), General Motors (US), The Nuffield Group (BMC), Standard-Triumph and Chrysler-Dodge (US). With government support, it was hoped that 45,000 vehicles would be manufactured in Australia each year to supply an estimated market of 75,000. The Cabinet decided to support only the Holden and Ford proposals, though Ford would be offered less assistance than requested. The low requirement for government assistance made Holden's bid attractive; the major drawback of Ford's plan was the requirement for a high level of assistance. The Cabinet made a counter offer to Ford, but Ford rejected the government's offer in 1946 and decided to reduce the pace of its expansion, but still entered into full scale manufacture.

Despite the rejection of Government assistance, the three unsuccessful proposees all went ahead with both vehicle assembly and full manufacture. Nuffield built a factory on land it purchased in the Sydney suburb of Zetland in 1950; a year later, Chrysler acquired the long established South Australian motor body builder TJ Richards who had built bodies on North American Chrysler chassies for many years at a factory at Keswick, Adelaide, and used Richards' factory to build its cars; Standard-Triumph (later to become the Rootes Group) built a new plant at Port Melbourne at the premises of Eclipse Motors - a company that previously had assembled its cars - which it bought into after World War II. Standard-Triumph began building cars at the plant from imported parts in 1952.

The introduction of import licenses for motor cars into Australia in 1953 led other motor car manufacturers to investigate the possibility of local assembly using what was known as the CKD [Completely Knocked Down] system. By this method, the parent company shipped all parts unassembled in crates and the regional plants assembled the cars from a mix of locally sourced third-party components like glass, light fittings, batteries, alternators, spark plugs and leads etc and the supplied parts. Using the CKD assembly system, the assemblers could increase local content (often lowering the duty on imported parts) and the cars could be modified to suit local conditions (cloth seats for our warmer climate, stiffer suspension etc) and public expectations (more powerful engines etc). Unless vehicle manufacturers negotiated local assembly arangements, the prevailing import licensing restrictions stifled the realisation of market potential.

Inside Volkswagen Australia's Clayton assembly plant

Many European companies aiming for a long-term presence in Australia began making assembly arrangements with local firms. Volkswagen built an assembly plant at Clayton, Victoria, Simca joined with Commonwealth Motors and the Borgward Isabella was built by Kenneth Wright Pty. Ltd. in Melbourne. Standard Motor Products Pty. Ltd. had early success assembling Standard Vanguard and Triumph cars at a Port Melbourne plant. Theirs was a spacious well-equipped factory, located close to transport facilities and sub-suppliers at Port Melbourne.

In 1957 Mercedes Benz was well advanced in a feasibility study for the local assembly of cars. This entailed obtaining Government approval and seeking out a suitable local partner with production facilities. The existing import license entitlements held by distributors, and their willingness to place these at the disposal of the local joint venture played a vital role in Mercedes Benz getting the green light from the authorities. Mercedes Benz began local assembly of its cars at Standard's Port Melbourne plant now run by the newly re-established Australian Motor Industries. Passenger vehicle sales show 729 locally assembled Mercedes-Benz cars were sold between July 1959 and June 1960. By 1960 Mercedes-Benz had increased passenger car sales by 10 fold annually, selling as many cars per year as had been sold in the first fifty years.

At least one Volkswagen Beetle was brought to Australia in late 1945 by the Australian military. It was auctioned as war surplus in 1946, and is known to survive (as little more than a rusty hulk) in the hands of a Sydney VW parts dealer. A 1946 Beetle that is on display in a car museum in Western Australia arrived in 1951 in the possession of a German migrant. The first official importation of Volkswagens were made by the Melbourne firm, Regent Motors, in October 1953. 31 cars were known to have been imported by the end of the year. By June 1954, the same company began to assemble Volkswagens from CKD kits.

1954 production totalled 1385 cars, and an additional 360 Beetles and 300 Transporters were imported. Lanock Motors were appointed distributors for the state of New South Wales in 1954, and by 1957, this company, along with Regent Motors and other Australian shareholders, formed Volkswagen Australia in a 49% - 51% partnership with the Wolfsburg parent. The aim was full local manufacture. The first locally made panels were used in 1960, and full local manufacture at a new plant at Clayton in suburban Melbourne was achieved by 1962.

British cars were the most popular imports in the 1950s, no doubt because the majority of migrants, like those born in Australia, were of British stock and were very familiar with the British marques. At the cheap end of the market were cars like the Ford Prefect, the Austin A40 and Morris Minor; in the mid-range were the Hillman Minx, Standard Vanguard, Vauxhall Velox, Triumph Mayflower and Ford Zephyr, while the top end of the market was shared predominantly between the Jaguar, Rover, Vanden Plas and Humber. After World War II, Ford recommenced assembly of Ford's British models at its plant in Geelong, Victoria, which it had established in 1925 as an outpost of Ford Motor Company of Canada, because Canada was part of the British Empire and trade restrictions with Empire countries were less stringent. In the 1950s, the locally assembled Ford Customlines came from Canada and, along with the UK sourced Pilot was assembled at Geelong.

The smaller cars manufactured by Ford UK were seen as ideal vehicles to see in Australia, not only because migrants from Britain would already be familiar with these cars, but also Australians drove on the same side of the road as Britains, so there was no right hand drive conversion needed. Some models were fully imported, others were assembled at Ford's Geelong factory from parts shipped to Australia. The Ford Anglia E04A was also built in Australia from 1940 to 1945 and was produced in tourer and roadster body styles. The former had a rear seat and the latter was a two-seater convertible.

Australian assembled 1951 Ford Anglia A494A Tourer

The Australian-built Anglia A54A (1946-48) used the chassis and front panels of the British E04A and was offered in 4-door sedan, tourer, coupe utility and panel van body styles. The 8HP 933cc engine was used and all models featured running boards. The Australian built A494A Anglias (1949-53) shared the frontal styling and 90 inch wheelbase chassis of their British E494A counterparts but differed in many other ways, notably in the range of body styles offered.[8] A494As were produced in 4-door saloon, 2-door tourer, 2-door coupe utility and 2-door roadster utility models. All body styles had running boards, and the boot of the Australian saloon was less prominent than that of the British saloon. The 933-cc, 8 HP unit was initially the only engine offered, but the 1172-cc, 10 HP engine was available from 1950. At the time of its introduction, the A494A Tourer was the cheapest new car on the Australian market. In 1953, Ford released the 100E, designed by Lacuesta Automotive. It was a completely new car, its style following the example of the larger Ford Consul introduced two years earlier. Ford Australia assembled this model until its replacement in 1959.

Other UK-sourced models in the Ford range were the Prefect/Poplar, Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac. Later compact and mid-size cars assembled at Ford at Geelong in the 1960s included the Anglia, Escort and Cortina from the UK.

A company called Eclipse Motors was established in the 1920s for the purpose of imported automobile distribution in Australia. In the 1930s, with the assistance of Standard-Triumph, Eclipse was able to procure cheap land at Port Melbourne from the Victorian Government for the purpose of motor vehicle manufacture and built a plant on the site at the southern end of Salmon Street, Fishermand Bend, down the road from GM-H. After the war, Standard-Triumph bought into the company, built a new factory and began building cars from imported parts in the new assembly plant in 1952. These included the Standard 8, Vanguard, Spacemaster and the Triumph Mayflower. When Alick Dick, Standard-Triumph's Managing Director, visited the Port Melbourne assembly plant in 1954, it was fully operational. He was very impressed, seeing tremendous opportunities for expansion potential in the plant itself, with the flow-on benefits to increase the company's dominance in this region.

By 1956, the factory employed over 1600 workers. It would appear that the assembly of the 'Australian' Triumph TR3 roadster, introduced in 1957, was at first outsourced by Standards to Floods Bodybuilding Company in Footscray. Floods did a lot of coach-building for Standards prior to this assignment and saw the assembly of the trickle of CKD TR3 roadsters as steady and ongoing work for the company. By the fact that Standards had an extremely efficient operation, local Management saw the Triumph TR3 roadster as spasmodic in comparison and it made good business sense to outsource rather than disrupt or slow down the steady flow of the more popular Standard and Vanguard vehicles rolling off the lines, one of which was a Vanguard utility designed in Australia. By this time, the Standard name had negative connotations, so the Australian operation changed it's name to Australian Motor Industries Limited (AMI) in an attempt to distance itself from anything simply "Standard".

When Leyland, the new owners of Standard, indicated they wished to assume their own production of Triumph cars in Australia, AMI needed to find another car to assemble. The answer came with Mercedes-Benz, then a year later with AMC (American Motors Corporation) with the Rambler Classic. With AMI going from strength to strength, things only got better when Leyland decided not to proceed with their own Australian operation, allowing AMI to begin production of the Triumph Herald. However only a year after it's release, things would take a turn for the worse for AMI, when in 1960 then Treasurer Harold Holt introduced a mini budget in an attempt to put the brakes on inflation. He introduced a huge increase in sales tax, and there was an immediate knock-on effect at dealerships around the country.

The sales tax increase and the arrival of the very competitively priced Morris Mini 850 led to a dramatic Triumph Herald sales slump. In a bid to remain viable, AMI sold its share in Mercedes-Benz (Australia) back to the German parent, and even dropped the price of the Herald from ?950 to ?750 - partly due to the stockpile of unsold Heralds. AMI's salvation came in the form of the Japanese car manufacturer, Toyopet (Toyota), who were about to make their move into the Australian marketplace. By 1962 agreement had been reached, and production of the Toyota Tiara began in April 1963, with the Toyota Crown being fully imported. It was a time when many remembered Japan as Australia's wartime enemy, and worse yet, a time when most Australian's considered anything Japanese to be inferior. Regardless of perceptions, true or otherwise, AMI built their cars well and the public warmed to the new Toyotas. By 1964 nearly 1000 Tiaras and Crowns had been sold.

Production of the Standard Vanguard Six at the AMI plant finally came to a halt some 12 months after production had ended in Britain, however the engine remained in production for fitment to the Triumph 2000, which was also now being assembled at Port Melbourne. In 1966, with the USA acquisition of the British Rootes Group, Chrysler Australia took over the Rootes brands in Australia as well as its interests the AMI Port Melbourne factory. The AMI production of Toyotas expanded in the 1960s to also include the Crown, Corona, and Corolla assembled at AMI's Port Melbourne factory. As a fast growing company, Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan took a controlling interest in AMI in 1968. In 1973, Chrysler Australia sold its interests in the Port Melbourne factory, focusing its Australian production at their Tonsley Park plant in Adelaide. Toyota vehicle production was transferred from the historic Port Melbourne factory to the company s new $420 million facility at Altona, Victoria in 1994. In an intersting turn of operations, the Australian facility now exports CKD kits to assembly plants in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

The British Motor Corporation's involvement in car manufacture in Australia began during World War II, when Lord Nuffield, who had travelled to Australia several times, realised the potential for expansion into the Australian market. He had local agents find a suitable site to establish a complete manufacturing industry. This site was called Victoria Park. BMC built its first factory for the assembly of its Austin, Morris, Wolseley and MG cars in Australia on a site which was originally the Victoria Park racecourse, 5km from the centre of Sydney at Zetland. The original factory was built in 1952 and expanded in 1958 to include what became the main car assembly building. The plant closed in 1974 when the company withdrew local assemply of its cars following significant sales downturns in the early 1970s.

Chrysler established its manufacturing presence in Australia in 1951, when it acquired the long established South Australian motor body builder TJ Richards. Richards had built a body mounted onto a North American Chrysler chassis for many years in their Adelaide factory at Keswick. This building still stands today, with faded "Chrysler" signage still visible (the building is now a furniture retailing warehouse). During the 1950s and 1960s, Chrysler made a substantial investment in Australian manufacturing facilities, including building a new assembly plant at Tonsley Park in 1966 and an engine foundry in 1967.

During this time, Chrysler established its position as the third of the "Big 3" Australian motor manufacturers (the others being General Motors-Holden and Ford). Initially, Chrysler Australia assembled North American Chrysler passenger cars and trucks. Its most popular cars in the 1950s were the Canadian sourced badge engineered trio: Plymouth Cranbrook, Dodge Royal and DeSoto Diplomat (each based on the 1954 US Plymouth). The Plymouth was a popular choice for taxis, however, the rise in popularity of the Holden at the end of the decade led to the decline of this range of cars.

In 1956, Chrysler Australia consolidated each of the badge engineered marques it was assembling into one car - the Chrysler Royal. Starting life as a side valve 6 cylinder manual with 3 speed manual column gearchange, it was progressively modified, including the addition of US sourced engineering features such as power steering, the push button "Powerflite" automatic gearbox and an OHV V8. The Royal was an automotive curiosity; it was a facelifted version of the 1954 Plymouth, with US "Forward Look" style tailfins grafted on the rear of the car, while the front end gained dual (vertically stacked) headlights.

These changes failed to arrest the slide in sales, particularly after the release of the first Holden in 1958. That car quickly dominated the Australian market, and the Royal was viewed as being outmoded and expensive. Production ceased in 1963. The saving grace for Chrysler at this time was the French-sourced Simca Aronde - a popular 4 cylinder compact car which Chrysler Australia assembled from CKD kits at their Keswick factory. Local engineers developed a unique to Australia Aronde station wagon, with a then novel (for Australia) wind down rear window and tailgate. Chrysler USA had acquired an interest in Simca in 1958, hence providing the basis for sourcing of this car.

In the 1950s the Customline was Ford's local luxury flagship. These vehicles, available in sedan, wagon or utility form (a product unique to Australia), were assembled at Ford's Geelong factory from CKD kits from Canada. In 1959, the Customline gave way to the huge, chrome-trimmed Custom 300 and Fairlane 500, which became popularly known as the Tank  Fairlane and was largely responsible for the coining of the phrase "Yank Tank". Assembly of both cars from CKD kits took place at Ford's new Broadmeadows plant, on Melbourne's northern outskirts, alongside the new Australian model Falcon (from 1960) and the British sourced Zephyr. The plant was built mainly for the assembly of the new Falcon, allowing the plant in Geelong to be converted to engine manufacture. In 1962 the compact  Fairlane, which was a smaller prestige car than the Custom, became the only US model available in Australia.

Pontiacs and Chevrolets were assembled in GM-H plants in all Australian capital cities from CKD chassis and pre-war Chevrolet bodies stamped in Adelaide. Following the war, production re-commenced in 1946 using 239 cubic inch 6-Cylinder engines. The styling of the Chevrolet and Pontiac remained pre-war and without any significant change until 1949 when annual updates were introduced in line with the North American models. In 1955 the 287 cubic inch Canadian V8 engine was introduced as the powerplant for the Pontiac. At ?2,138, it was ?300 dearer than a Chevrolet. Transmission was a 3 speed manual column shift - automatic was not available.

In 1958 the Pontiac Strato Chief had a new larger body and was matched with a 235 cubic inch 6-cylinder - the V8 was not available. The Pontiac Laurentian replaced the Strato Chief in 1959 and the 6-cylinder was now 261 cubic inches. From 1949, the Australian built Chevrolets kept up with the US styling, however mechanical developments were slower coming. The automatic transmission was available in US Chevrolets from 1950 but not until 1959 in Australia. Chevrolets first had the V8 option available in the US in 1955 but not until 1960 in Australia.

The Holden 48-215 production line in 1949

Australia's Own Car

Though owned by the American automotive giant General Motors, Holden can rightly claim to be Australia's own car, not just because it was built here, but also because most components were sourced locally and Australians have had a major hand in the cars' designs ever since the first Holden rolled off the assembly line in 1948. Holden's story began many years earlier, however, when James Alexander Holden established a saddlery business in Adelaide. As Holden Motor Body Builders, the company began assembling automobiles in 1910. In 1931, the Great Depression hit the company hard and to survive, Holden had to sell out to General Motors, its largest customer, for ?1,111,600. During World War II, General Motors Holden's manufactured aeroplane frames, bomb cases, machine guns, armoured cars, troop carriers and boats.

In 1944, Holden's Managing Director Lawrence Hartnett (later Sir) initiated a study to determine what would be the ideal Australian car, which he planned to build after the war was over. He knew that many of the overseas products being sold in Australia had not been designed for the unique Australian conditions, which included hot summers and some fairly crude roads. Holden was given land at Fisherman's Bend in inner Melbourne on which it planned to develop and build Harnett's dream car for Australian conditions. That car was the Holden; production of the first model, the 48-215, later known as the FX (above right), commenced in 1948. August 1946 saw the first fully functional model of the car in the US; it was tested before shipping to Australia for evaluation. The car would become the FX.

While the 48-215 was being developed in the US, Hartnett had been working on his own design, however, called 'Project 2000'. Aware of the growing popularity of British cars in Australia, Hartnett based his Project 2000 on them - it vaguely resembled a Humber/Hillman/Singer. The GM bosses rejected Hartnett's suggestions and he was forced to accept the American design. Late in 1946, Hartnett was ordered to a position in head office in New York, much to the shock of many who were astonished that such a thing like this could happen so close to the launch of the new car. The reason, although never confirmed, appears to have been the closeness of Hartnett with what was seen as a socialist government. Such a union was not seen as healthy by the bigwigs of capitalist giant, GM. Harold Bettle took over the reins at GM-H, by which time the crucial work in getting the project off the ground was over, and tooling work for the manufacturing process was underway.

The car was being built to a reject 1949-model Chevrolet styling design with 1946 model Chevrolet-based mechanicals. It had been designed and marketed to sit between the large American cars and the smaller British cars that dominated the market at that time; a four-door sedan with seating for five or six adults. It was powered by a 132.5 cubic inch American Chevrolet?-based six cylinder OHV engine, with a column shifted three-speed manual gearbox. The 48-215 was launched on 29th November 1948 by the Australian Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Although not mechanically or stylistically sophisticated, the car was simple, rugged, more powerful than most of its competitors, and offered reasonable performance and fuel economy in an affordable package. Better suited to Australian conditions than its competitors and assisted by tariff barriers, it rapidly became Australia's best-selling car. Full History of the FX

GMH expanded production in the 1950s as the FJ and subsequent models became large sellers. The Fisherman's Bend Plant was constrained, however, and so a new works in Dandenong was built in 1956 at a cost of £9 million. As well as making Holdens, the factory also assembled Bedford trucks, which came to Australia in CKD (Completely Knocked Down) form.

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

Routes Group factory, Fishermans Bend, Melbourne

Building Hillmans, 1946

Building Triumphs cars, 1946

Prime Minister Ben Chifley unveiled the first 48-215 off the production line on 29th November 1948

1946 Oldsmobiles coming off the production line

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