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Australian Car Manufacturing - High Achievers, Orphans & Lost Souls. Part 1: 1900 - 1940 Photo:
 
 
Tim O'Brien | Jan, 05 2015 | 5 Comments

Australia’s car manufacturing industry has a longer and more diverse history than the conversation about Ford, Holden and Toyota might suggest.

And when those three, in a year or two hence, shut down their manufacturing operations, they will exit via a well-trodden path.

Australian car manufacturing is littered with the shattered dreams of vehicle engineers and entrepreneurs, many of whom have been beaten, like our current manufacturers, as much by circumstance as by any short-comings in their products.

In fact for some, the brilliance in the cars they conceived and engineered still shines. You have to wonder what might-have-been had things been different.

Over the next five days we’ll feature Australia’s lost models, cars unique to this country, and the lost manufacturers behind them. We’ll also feature those rare souls who have survived.

Each of them unique, each Australian-manufactured, and now, all but a few, mostly gone.

MORE: Part 2, 1946-1960
MORE: Part 3, 1960-1972

 

The Tarrant

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Click for full details.
The Tarrant, named after its designer and engineer, Colonel Harley Tarrant, began production in 1901. It was Australia’s first petrol-engine production car.

Operating from a small Melbourne workshop, Tarrant and bicycle-maker business partner Howard Lewis established the Tarrant Motor Company.

Their first model was powered by a rear-mounted 6.0hp Benz engine, but later models featured locally-produced components including engines, gearboxes and rear axles.

The Tarrant Motor Company built some dozens of cars, from 1901 to 1908, when the industry world-wide was in its infancy. Among their inspired designs was the first fully-enclosed car body made in Australia.

The last surviving Tarrant, at the RACV Club.
The last surviving Tarrant, at the RACV Club.

By 1908, the Tarrant Motor Company was feeling the pressure of cheaper imports being shipped here in parts then assembled; Harley Tarrant himself then turned his attention to distributing T-model Fords and production of the Tarrant ceased.

The model shown - the last surviving Tarrant - is a 3.5 litre 14hp four-cylinder two-seat roadster. It resides at the RACV City Club in Melbourne.

 

The Australian Six

Only sixteen of the up-market and handsome ‘Australian Six’ survive (one in the Powerhouse Museum), though more than 900 were manufactured from 1919 to 1930.

The brainchild of a Frederick Hugh Gordon, production of the Australian Six began at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, before then moving to a larger facility in Ashfield.

With a straight-six Rutenber engine (at a time when even most American cars were four-cylinder), a Grant Lees three-speed transmission and solid wheel discs rather than the commonly used wooden spokes, the Australian Six was a striking and advanced premium automobile.

There was a choice of five bodies sitting on a conventional chassis, each equally handsome.

However, although riding on the motto: 'Made in Australia, by Australians, for Australia', Australian buyers turned to cheaper imports, particular the much cheaper T-Model, and the company crashed with Gordon in bankruptcy in 1924.

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Production was taken over by engineering company Harkness and Hillier.

The new owners created a competition department and set a Melbourne to Sydney speed record, followed by a Sydney to Darwin speed record (in under eight days).

With a more powerful Ansted engine, the Australian six could top 80mph (128km/h).

Production finally ceased in 1930 with the onset of the Great Depression, and with no tariff protection from an import flood.

Thus was one, a high achiever, lost.

 

Lincoln Pioneer Six

Entrepreneurial Scotsman Charles Innes established the Australian Motor Company to build cars for the local market and for export to South East Asia.

He had agents appointed in Java and Japan, who secured forward orders for delivery, and began producing the Lincoln Pioneer Six in 1918.

Under its long bonnet was a Continental-Six Red-Seal engine and three-speed transmission from the Detroit Gear and Machine Company.

Though his Lincoln Motor Car Company factory was destroyed by fire in June 1918, and he was uninsured, he re-opened again and continued production.

The car was very favourably received by the public at motor shows in Melbourne and Sydney, and was described as “beautiful in appearance”.

Ford in the US however took Innes to task over rights to use the ‘Lincoln’ badge, and, though Innes won the first judgment (he was represented by a young lawyer, Robert Menzies), Ford appealed and a subsequent ruling allowed both companies to use the name here.

This swift and, reportedly, very reliable car, remained in production until 1926, with more than 300 being produced, before succumbing to pressure from imports and a high fixed valuation to the Australian pound, pegged to the pound sterling.

 

The Southern Cross

When Australian hero Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and co-pilot ‘Tommy’ Pethybridge disappeared on 8 November 1935 off the coast of Burma, more than the great aviator went down with his aeroplane, the Lady Southern Cross.

The pair had been attempting to beat the England-Australia flight speed record.

But back in Australia, a project of a different type, also went down with the craft.

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Sir Charles was Chairman of a new car company established by a friend Jim Marks (with his family business Marks Motor Construction Company) to produce Southern Cross cars.

Less than ten cars - of both open tourer and four-door ‘Airline’ sedans - were ever produced. ‘Smithy’ had been in the UK to raise money for the project, disappearing on the return journey.

The Southern Cross, though, was unique in many ways. It had a Sydney-made horizontally-opposed flat-four motor of 2340cc (designed by a William Foulis), which was developed to produce 45kW at 3200 rpm.

And, like some aeroplanes of the time, the body of the Southern Cross was made of laminated plywood moulded into shape by the Beale Piano works. The light body gave the Southern Cross lively performance.

It also had an early form of automatic transmission (a frictionless system using planetary gears) developed in Australia. Sir Charles made a promotional run in one of the early production models from Sydney to Melbourne, without missing a beat.

At the time of Kingsford Smith’s death, the company had been seeking Federal Government approval to lease machinery and buildings at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory for large-scale production of mechanical components.

Smithy’s loss left the project starved of a high-profile backer, and ultimately starved of funds.

Unfortunately, no Southern Cross cars survive today, the last thought to have been destroyed by fire in the 1970s.

Coming next: High Achievers, Orphans And Lost Souls: Part 2. The Hartnett, Ascort GT, Lightburn Zeta, Goggomobile Dart, Nota.

MORE: Part 2, 1946-1960
MORE: Part 3, 1960-1972

 
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