As has often been written, following the Second World War British industry was forced to export the majority of its production to earn foreign currency and repay the country’s massive war debts.
The motor industry was at the forefront of this “export or perish” movement and both Austin and Nuffield, and later combined as the BMC, were major players.
Since 1932 British Commonwealth countries, particularly Great Britain herself, enjoyed preferential trade treatment between each other, thanks to the Commonwealth Preference Scheme.
Following the war, the CPS ensured that countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada would become major destinations for British exports, even though the British car makers saw the USA as the most important market to crack.
For example, Austin tried to enter the North American market in a major way with the Austin A40/A70/A90 Atlantic, and succeeded to some extent initially in Canada, but failed to have any impact in the US. Conversely, Australia took to the A40 like a duck to water, becoming the largest export market for the car. In 1950, the A40 was Australia’s biggest-selling car, with 13,522 finding buyers that year.
But these countries all desired to enlarge their own industrial base and were committed to growing their own motor industries. This was achieved in most cases by introducing or increasing import duties on imported cars or setting import quotas, and encouraging the assembly from imported components or the complete manufacture of cars locally.
Almost all A40s sold in Australia were locally assembled, most by Larke Hoskins in Sydney, but others were assembled in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
In 1947, William Morris bought the former Victoria Park pony racing course at Zetland, Sydney, with the intention of establishing an assembly plant that could eventually expand to become a full manufacturer.
In 1948 work began on the assembly plant for Completely Knocked Down (CKD) packs coming from the UK, with the grand opening on 1 March 1950. The first cars assembled at Zetland were Morris Minor sedan and convertible; soon joined by the Morris Oxford sedan, van and utility, and the Wolseley 4/50 sedan.
These cars assembled from CKD were still very much assisting with Britain’s export push, even though an increasing number of components were being sourced locally.
Following the merger of Austin and Nuffield in 1952 in the UK, the Australian arms of these companies came together in August 1954 to form BMC (Australia) Ltd.
In order to accommodate Austin assembly at Zetland, and with a goal of full manufacturing with the long-term aim of building an Australian-designed car, a £12 million expansion of the factory was announced in the first issue of the new company in-house newspaper, BMC Reporter, in July 1957.
The paper quoted the Works Director, John Buckley, saying; “A basic essential of the Australian car formula is that it should be made from Australian materials with Australian labor. Indeed the theme might be ‘Made for Australians, by Australians’. ”
However, as an indication of the relaxing of the BMC parent company's policy of sole responsibility for exports, John Buckley said that nothing would be done to discourage overseas buyers (of Australian-produced BMC vehicles);
“Indeed, the company will do everything possible to support Commonwealth Government policy which is to encourage the export of manufactured goods of all kinds”, he explained.
“It follows of course that we will have to supply vehicles acceptable in design and style and sell them at the right price if we are to capture our share of overseas markets.”
“In other words, the efficiency of our production methods must be such as to compete with other manufacturers not only for the Australian market but for the growing market of our neighbours.”
The new Press Shop and Car Assembly Building were completed in late 1957, with the first car, a Morris Major, rolling off the end of the line in December.
Earlier that year a new Product Engineering department was formed under Bill Abbott, who had been head-hunted from Holdens. Abbott brought with him a team of engineers from Holdens – Bill Serjeantson, Reg Fulford, Graham Hardy and Ian Lovegrove – and employed Les Carey and Glen Lindsay from Chrysler.
According to Reg Fulford, John Buckley; “told us of his plans for Product Engineering. He’d come to the conclusion that the UK had no interest in designing models that could sell in large enough volume for the plant to be profitable…He believed that the only solution was to design our own car, and he wanted an engineering department that could be developed to eventually have that capability.”
The first production work for the fledgling department was the “Australianising” of DO1115, the Series II Morris Major/Austin Lancer, which achieved 96% local content.
In 1961 Product Engineering set about its first full designs, with the Morris Major Elite. Though based on the Series II Major, it incorporated a 1622cc version of the B-series engine (although UK engineers said such a size couldn’t be achieved) and improvements to the axle shafts, suspension, steering, trim and many other minor areas. There were also safety-belt anchorages (the first Australian car to be so fitted), a heater and windscreen washers as standard.
The Morris Major Elite was released on 21 May 1962. Meanwhile, the Australian version of the Mini, the Morris 850, with numerous changes for local conditions had been released in March 1961.
In September 1960 the BMC Review ran a small article on two new distributors for New Guinea. Austin was to be handled by Pacific Taxi Services (Yellow Top) Ltd under Mr KS Bourke, while Nuffield was handled by Eakin’s Garage under Mr RS Eakin. Of particular interest was the statement that; “Mr Bourke will replace his present taxi fleet…with A60’s and his ‘drive-yourself’ cars with Austin Lancers and A40’s.”
This is the first reference I can find for Australian-built BMC cars being exported, but sadly there are no numbers mentioned.
In the early days, small orders were the norm, with an order for six or eight vehicles not being unusual.
Occasionally though, even a small order warranted a mention in the company papers; The BMC Review and BMC Reporter, both of which were replaced in 1963 by The BMC Rosette.
The BMC Experience Issue 22. Jul-Sep 2017 Magazine
All back issues of The BMC Experience are now available in digital format from www.pocketmags.com.