Minor Response

By 1926 Sydney Albert (SA) Cheney was running a very profitable business in Melbourne as the agent for Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Cadillac across Victoria and the Riverina. To cater for the increasing sales volume he had built a large assembly plant in City Rd, Sth Melbourne and was turning out 600 cars per month.

Chevrolet was the largest selling brand in Victoria, but when General Motors bought Cheney’s assembly plant later that year, Cheney was advised that his distributorship would be restricted to the Melbourne metropolitan area, which meant sacrificing a very lucrative country dealer network.

Cheney was furious. He travelled to England and had talks with both William Morris and Herbert Austin. Both were already represented in Victoria – Morris through F. McOwan & Co; Austin through Austin Distributors – but both accepted Cheney’s proposals.

Cheney returned to Melbourne and bought both distributorships, as well as William Brothers in Sydney (Morris dealers). He also set up a new company in South Australia to distribute Morris cars, SA Cheney Motors South Australia.

On 2 November, Cheney ran a double-page advertisement in Melbourne newspapers, stating his company was “Swinging the pendulum from Uncle Sam to John Bull” and explaining his decision.

Two days later, he announced through the press the floatation of S A Cheney Motors Pty Ltd, with a capital of £500,000, which would become a holding company for three subsidiaries: Morris Cars & Trucks Ltd; Austin Distributors Ltd; and a third to handle the selling of Chevrolet cars in the Melbourne area.

On 6 November a news report quoted Cheney’s response to the Australian Prime Minister’s statement at the Olympia Motor Show in London, that British companies “had not a vestige of an idea of what Australia desired”.

“‘We have made a complete change over from American to British cars, transferring our assembling works and shops, covering 232,000 square feet of floor space”, Cheney said. “We have agreed with General Motors to forfeit £30,000 over-riding commission in order to make a clean break. We have ordered 1,000 Morris cars and trucks for shipment in January, and at great cost have acquired two of the largest British distributing businesses in Victoria, thus evidencing our complete confidence in British products.”

Cheney’s newspaper advertising was so successful that 971 cars were sold in the first month alone.

Better Products

But Cheney knew that the cars from Morris weren’t robust enough to stand up to rural Australian conditions in the same way as the American products. The response from Morris engineers to his criticisms was simply that the cars were perfectly suited to English roads and that they should be just as suited to colonial roads. In fact, 248 Empire Oxford chassis, ostensibly designed for the colonial markets but never tested in the actual countries they were intended for, had already arrived in Melbourne, but Cheney refused to accept them, saying they were completely unsuited to Australian conditions.

In comparison, Cheney didn’t seem to have such concerns with the Austin products; even the diminutive Austin 7, which was selling in large numbers.

Cheney invited William Morris to Melbourne in 1928 to open his new head office, christened Morris House, and to see the difficulties with local road conditions for himself.

After the building opening Cheney organised a tour to outer lying areas of Melbourne in three Morris cars, two Empire Oxfords and probably a flat-nose Cowley, for William Morris, two of his engineers from England, including chief body designer Mr H Seaward, and members of Cheney’s staff. The two Empire Oxfords suffered broken axles from the rough roads and Morris vowed to rectify the problem at the factory. The 248 Empire Oxford chassis were sent back to England and were scrapped.

The result was the “World Model” Morris Isis Six, which was far more suited, but also considerably more expensive (see Issue 14) than its predecessor.

The Morris Minor

At the other end of the scale, William Morris was under increased pressure from his management team to combat the Austin 7 which, since its launch in 1922, had dominated the 7-8hp car market and literally caused a shift in the market toward smaller cars.

While Morris’s larger cars were still selling in increasing numbers, they were rapidly losing overall market share – according to former Managing Director of Morris Motors, Sir Miles Thomas, declining from a peak of 41% in 1925 to below 30% in 1928.

Eventually, Morris acted and put the project in the hands of the Wolseley company, which he had acquired for £730,000 of his own money in 1927, after it had slid into receivership. William Morris reportedly felt that the engineers at Morris Motors were not up to the task of creating an all-new small car.

The result, announced in May 1928 and officially released at the Olympia Motor Show in October, was the Morris Minor; “a large car in miniature”. Built on a basic but sturdy channel-section ladder chassis, it featured conventional leaf springs front and rear, as well as dampers on all four wheels. As a result, the Minor drove and handled in a conventional manner, rather than the somewhat “eccentric” cornering that could be experienced in the baby Austin.

To read the rest of this story, grab your copy of the magazine from your local newsagent (in Australia) or subscribe today for either the digital copy or the printed version.

The BMC Experience Issue 18. Jul-Sep 2016 Magazine


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