Remember when we used to build things? Not “we” like you and me, but we like Australia. We’re a country that built stuff like Wi-Fi, the Hills Hoist, the ultrasound and the goonbag. We were also a country that built great cars. Now we don’t do any of those things. These are the cars Australia built.
Ford. Holden. Toyota. These three companies have dominated discussion around the Australian car industry over the last few months. Both sides of the political dogfight have accused the other of not doing enough to help the local industry, but as they talk, men and women were being told on factory floors around the country that their jobs soon wouldn’t exist, and nor would everything they had worked to build.
At the peak of the Australian manufacturing boom in the mid-2000s, 388,000 cars were rolling off local production lines. That’s more than six times the amount of cars being made in Australia when we first started building cars in the 1950s. But our heritage of building cars goes back further than that.
At the turn of the century, steam powered cars were being driven from Bathurst to Melbourne at less than 14km/h. Just a year later, a petrol-powered model was developed in Melbourne, with a tiny 6-horsepower engine at its core.
Compare those numbers with figures out last year, and you find that Australia only built 209,000 vehicles locally. Those numbers will fall dramatically in the next few years as manufacturers shutter their factories around the country. We may soon get to a point where all the cars driven by Australians were made overseas.
Back then, it made sense for us to make our own vehicles: we were a tiny island on the bottom of the world with a toolkit and a ballooning sense of national pride. We could make cars better than the Americans who were importing them, so we started to build.
We formed clubs around the cars we built, with the nation’s oldest surviving advocacy group — The Australian Motoring Association — dating back to 1903. The Australian Automobile Association grew out of it in the 1920’s, and we still have it around today.
The three headline-grabbing car companies aren’t the only ones who have tried and failed at building cars in Australia due to one reason or another. There have been many more before them over the last few decades.
These are a few of those cars.
Australian Motor Industries
Rambler AMX. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Australian Motor Industries was a curious bunch. Founded in 1926 in Melbourne, AMI benefited from post-war demand for new vehicles, and government tariffs on the import of new vehicle bodies.
The company reorganised several times, and in the process picked up contracts for the assembly of a few different vehicles across various manufacturers.
AMI collected a series of different contracts to assemble cars in Australia, notably from American Motors or AMC. From 1969 to 1978, AMI built 24 different varieties of AMC vehicles in Port Melbourne.
AMI also assembled tractors under a deal with Fiat, Mercedes Benz vehicles under a deal with Daimler-Benz, Triumph cars, and eventually, Toyota cars.
Toyota acquired a controlling stake and interest in AMI in the 1960’s after the Aussie builders spent years assembling everything from the Toyota Crown, Corona and Corolla. AMI held the honour of being the first company to assemble a Toyota outside of Japan.
AMI worked out of a factory in Port Melbourne for much of its life. That Port Melbourne production was eventually shifted to Altona in Victoria in 1994, and yesterday Toyota announced that it would close it by 2017.
Morris Mini K. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Not many people assume that British Leyland, a company that famously spent more time on strike than building cars, would come all the way to Australia, but what’s in a name, anyway?
After a series of mergers between Nuffield Australia and the Australian arm of the Austin Motor Company, paired with the merger of the parent British Motoring Corporation in the UK merging with Leyland, Australia got the Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia by the 1960’s. During this time of business dealings happening left and right, the two companies produced a bunch of cars for the Australian market in the post-war period.
Working out of a factory in Zetland, Sydney between 1950 and 1975, the company produced cars including Austin Lancer, Morris Major, Austin Freeway, Wolseley 24/80 and the Morris 1100.
It was also Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia who brought the Mini to Australia in 1961, badged as the Morris 850. It would soon become Australia-specific in 1965 with the Morris Mini Deluxe. Another Australia specific Mini of note came in 1969 with the Deluxe MKII. Instead of the abbreviation standing for “Mark Two”, it stood for Morris Kangaroo thanks to its Australia-specific design and build. It even came with Kangaroo decals. The Mini became so popular in Australia that the police were using them as pursuit vehicles in the 1960’s.
Leyland pulled out of Australia in 1974, closing the Zetland factory the year after. So ended 25 years of glorious Australian manufacturing excellence.
Chrysler Valiant. Image: Wikimedia Commons
While Chrysler Australia operated mostly as an importer for foreign made vehicles under the Jeep, Dodge, Fiat and Alfa Romeo brands, a small subsidiary existed in the local marketplace existed for actually building cars here.
Back in the 1950’s, Chrysler Australia was founded, and over the next two decades, invested in a Clovelly Park manufacturing plant, as well as an additional engine plant.
The most notable output of the Chrysler operation in Australia was the Valiant, marketed in the US as a Plymouth Valiant.
Chrysler Australia worked on a local version, finally releasing it as the distinctly styled AP5 Valiant in the early-1960’s. It developed the Valiant locally in Australia through to the mid-1970’s.
Mitsubishi eventually acquired a sizeable interest in Chrysler Australia after their close collaboration, and eventually in 1980, the company changed its name to Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.
Chrysler has since returned to Australia as a distributor only.
Of course, there are many more manufacturers who have called Australia home.
Smaller manufactures and tuning houses have also set up shop in Australia, including Volkswagen, Toyota, Ford, Holden and Nissan.
We don’t even make many components for cars anymore: Australia’s last tyre manufacturer closed in 2010.
Australia’s manufacturing sector isn’t dead yet, but it’s close. How’s that Knowledge Economy coming along, I wonder? Oh that's right. It's barely on its feet yet.
Godspeed, Australian manufacturing.
Cover image: Flickr