Our series on Australian car makers and the unique cars they produced, continues.
The second World War saw the country’s manufacturers - and blacksmiths shops and forges - preoccupied with the war effort, and car production for the civilian market slowed to a crawl.
Then, following the war, Australia’s political and economic allegiances began a slow shift, and American economic interests began to replace British ones. The Chifley Government had no difficulty in looking beyond a shattered British industry and anointing GM Detroit with the undertakings and political approval to develop Australia’s ‘own car’.
But there were others here, some with grand ideas, and some with more eccentric ones, who had their own plans for finding a manufacturing foothold in a rapidly growing, and, even then, diverse, Australian car market.
Here then is the next set of unique Australian cars, from post-war to the sixties, some of which barely made a mark, but others which have stood the test.
While there, he transformed the operation of the company, established close relations with the Australian Federal Government, and, from as early as 1936, worked to convince his Detroit overlords that the Australian Government was determined to establish a vehicle manufacturing industry here, an Australian car.
Following the war, a joint US-Australian team built three ‘Australian Holden’ prototypes. The rest, of course, with the arrival of the 48-215 Holden (known later as the ‘FX’), is now indelibly part of our history.
But Hartnett fell out with GM over funding arrangements for the project, which GM Detroit insisted would be a ‘loan’, not a ‘share’, and, in 1946, he was replaced as MD and resigned.
Undeterred, Hartnett left GM with the intent of establishing his own ‘uniquely Australian’ car: the Hartnett.
It was to be a small, economical front-wheel drive European-style sedan designed by a French designer, a Jean Grégoire. Hartnett was convinced that this was the kind of car Australians recovering from the austerity of war would embrace and secured the manufacturing rights for around £1000pounds.
It featured independent suspension on all four wheels and an air-cooled 600cc flat-twin.
Hartnett planned to make 10,000 a year, but he was dudded by the government-owned Commonwealth Engineering Company that failed to deliver 2000 steel body panels that Hartnett had had on order for over 18 months.
The Hartnett operation became a political hot-potato. In 1952, the Federal Minister for Trade and Customs was asked in the Parliament why General Motors Holden had been granted a £1million pound overdraft by the Commonwealth Bank, but the Hartnett Motor Company had been denied.
Hartnett won a damages suit for the non-delivery of panels, but, though holding orders for more than 300 cars following a favourable public showing, the company was mortally wounded and was wound up by creditors in 1956.
Would the European-style Hartnett have succeeded in the long term in a rapidly urbanising Australia? That’s moot, but he certainly had a nose for what would succeed: in 1960 Laurence Hartnett began importing unusual little Italian-styled Japanese cars called Datsuns.
The Hartnett: a case of what-might-have-been.
The sublimely styled Ascort coupe was essentially a re-skin of a modified Volkswagen chassis; like a Karmann Ghia.
The body, moulded in fibreglass, had a bonded-in steel space-frame and a prestressed double skin.
In the rear was a modified 1.3 litre Volkswagen engine with Okrasa high-compression cylinder-heads and Porsche components to boost power to 40kW (54bhp).
Much lighter than a Volkswagen Beetle, the 660kg Ascort 1300GT could top 160kmh.
Just 19 cars were built before production ceased, so it barely made a mark. However, today the rakish Ascort 1300GT stands the test against the similar Karmann Ghia.
Not all stories about Australian car manufacturing are the stuff of legend.
Some, perhaps, though brave, were not as worthy. Like the Lightburn Zeta. This was perhaps Australia’s Trabant, except, unlike that East German abomination, buyers here had other choices.
The concept for the Zeta was good.
It was a very small, spartan front-wheel-drive micro-car with a 324cc air-cooled Villiers under the bonnet.
The 400kg Sports had a more powerful Sachs 498cc two cylinder two-stroke engine, and was reasonably spry in a weird pedal-car kind of way.
The chassis was steel, the body fibreglass (with steel doors) and side and rear windows were Perspex.
Though shaped like a tiny wagon, there was no rear access, so getting larger items in and out meant removing the front passenger seat, which was done with a bit of fiddling (and advertised as a virtue).
It also had no reverse. To back it up, the engine had to be switched off and started ‘backwards’, which then provided a four-speed reverse (which may have been frightening to contemplate)
Customers could even order a model with the seat rails repeated in the roof, so that the easily-removed seats could be clicked-in for watching sporting events, like country footy matches, from the roof.
Such startling innovations notwithstanding, the Zeta’s timing was poor.
It unfortunately appeared on the market in 1963 at about the same time as the Mini. At £595, the Zeta was £60 more expensive than Issigonis’s brilliant creation.
Though the Mini killed it, as did durability issues (and production ceased in 1965 with around 400 total sales), Lightburn wasn’t as out-of-step as might be imagined today.
Fiat was selling a lot of tiny twin-cylinder 500s here, as was Goggomobil with the even-tinier Coupe.
The little Lightburn Zeta - our very own ‘Trabby’ - is highly sought after by micro-car collectors, especially the Sports.
Note: some images here and in gallery courtesy of ClassicCarPhotography
The story of the Goggomobil, and, more particularly, the unique-to-Australia Goggomobil Dart, is tied to Buckle Motors Pty Ltd.
Now an Australian dealership group selling Toyota, Subaru and Volkswagen vehicles (among other brands), Buckle Motors was formerly the Australian manufacturer of the tiny Goggomobil and its now famous sibling, the Goggomobil Dart.
In the early 1950s, Buckle Motors produced a fibreglass-bodied coupe and roadster that proved successful in sportscar racing, but Bill Buckle Snr had grander plans.
In 1958, he travelled to Germany and secured agreement with Dingolfing, Bavaria, to manufacture bodies for the Goggomobil here, sitting them on imported chassis, engines and running gear.
Where the German Goggomobil had steel bodies, the Australian versions were fibreglass.
Tiny, but inexpensive, the budget rear-engined twin-cylinder won its way into city-buyers’ affections and became a minor success story for Buckle Motors.
An award-winning Yellow Pages ad campaign, cemented the Goggomobil and the Dart as Australian icons, despite the German roots of the brand.
With a two-stroke twin-cylinder rear engine of just 300cc, producing all of 11kW, and with a top speed of around 90km/h for the tiny Dart roadster, this car belongs to a more innocent age of motoring.
Like the Lightburn Zeta Sports, the Dart seems barely bigger than a pedal car, but can absorb an adult frame behind the wheel.
The Goggomobil was genius in its own way, but particularly the Buckle Motors Dart.
Nota Cars began as a sports and race car manufacturing enterprise set up by aircraft engineer Guy Buckingham in 1952.
Initially with Cooper S mechanicals mounted transversely behind the driver, it was later built with a Lancia engine and gearbox and found a small but solid market of enthusiast buyers.
That was not to be the end of the story. In early 1971, Guy’s son Chris penned the Nota Fang, a modern iteration of the mid-engined Clubman.
Superb on road and a warrior on track, it is still being built to order today with a choice of either Toyota or Honda transverse drivetrains. (www.notasportscars.com)
With an alloy tub, a multi-tubular space-frame chassis, adjustable wishbones front and rear and with outputs of 161kW (Honda) or 141kW (Toyota), the Fang is a serious bespoke sports car.
Nota also now also builds a V6 mid-engined racecar, the Nota LeMans, and has a new prototype under development, the Nota Chimera.
That Nota has endured for 50 years, and manufactured hundreds of cars, places it firmly in the ‘high achiever’ box among Australian vehicle manufacturers.
Coming next: High Achievers, Orphans And Lost Souls: Part 3. Elfin, Bolwell, Volkswagen Country Buggy, Austin Kimberley and Tasman