Morris & Austin by Holden

During the First World War British industry was turned over almost entirely to military purposes, and many exports ceased completely. The German U-boat campaign to prevent shipping between the UK and her allies, and the neutral USA, hampered trade to the point that space for freight to Australia became very limited.

In 1917, the Hughes Federal Government proposed, under the provisions of the War Precautions Act, to prohibit the import of motor cars.

This was met with strong protest by the motor retail traders in all states – despite the war, sales of motor cars were strong, particularly American models as UK cars were not available (the US didn’t enter the war until late 1917).

Department of Trade and Customs figures showed that the motor industry had, apart from a drop in sales early in the War (mostly due to the run-out of British and European brands from the market), not suffered unduly through the conflict. In 1913 around £1.7Million of sales were made nationally. In 1914-15 the figure dropped to £1.3M, but the following year rose to £1.83M due to US imports. By 1918-19 the annual figure was £2.63M.

A compromise was reached, whereby motor distributors could import one complete car for every two chassis, in order to economise on shipping space. For their part, distributors had to invest in plant to provide for the manufacture of bodies for the imported driving chassis.

The Government offered to protect the industry for all time; “provided there was no exploitation, and the traders indicated that they were quite prepared to accept the situation in view of the help extended to them in protecting their businesses at that time.”

Some companies, such as Tarrant’s in Melbourne, were already building car bodies, and were able to take advantage of the new rules to expand their business.

Other body builders sprang up almost overnight, some from the horse-drawn carriage trade, others from motor car distributors eager to keep their profits in-house. A case of the former was Holden’s in Adelaide, while the latter included Winterbottoms in Perth – import agents at the time for Dodge.

In 1919 the Customs Department set import tariff rates on complete vehicles, in order to protect the local industry, with British industry being given preference (BP), being: single-seater £30 BP and £40 General; Double-seater £50 / £60; fixed or moveable canopy four-seater £65 / £75 and sedans at 40% and 50%.

In 1920, similar tariffs were imposed on pressed metal body panels, but there was no prohibition or quota on their import.

Tariffs have continued, at varying levels, reaching a peak of 100% for a short period in the late 1920s, dropping from 45% in the 1980s to 10% a decade ago and now 5% until 2015.

The Early Australian Motor Industry.

Prior to the Second World War, Australia didn’t really have one motor industry, but separate industries for each state. The size of the country, combined with the poor quality of roads and the lack of fuel and services between main population centres, non-standard railways between states, difficulties in moving completed vehicles between major cities, and lingering colonial rivalries, ensured little coherence between states in the early days of the motor car.

Cars were first imported to Australia in small numbers, by a few individuals who set up motor garages, and businesses that felt the motor car complimented their other activities – such as farming equipment suppliers. In most cases there was little specialisation to one brand, with many garages selling up to six or seven brands. In some cases, though few, a number of competing businesses sold the same brand.

As sales increased, some businesses established a network of dealerships themselves, some sold cars to other retail businesses on a wholesale basis while also retailing the same vehicles themselves, and yet others stopped selling retail to concentrate on wholesale.

In Perth, for example, Austin cars were first sold by Dalgety & Co Ltd in 1909. In 1919 the Austin distributorship was taken over by Winterbottom Motor Company. Winterbottom’s had already been selling mostly Dodge since 1915, but owner Jack Winterbottom had his first car business, the Perth Motor House, from 1905 selling Ford, FIAT, Rover, Argyll, and others.

Larke Hoskins was the NSW distributor for Austin cars from 1918, while the NSW Morris distributorship went through four owners by 1930.

Bob Wallace sold Austins in Victoria from 1923, until being bought out by SA Cheney in 1926. Cheney also bought Victorian Morris dealer Frank McGowan and Co, and set up SA Cheney Motors (SA), buying Franklin Motors in Adelaide (Morris).

Herbert Austin’s son-in-law Arthur Waite arrived in Melbourne in 1927 to manage Austin Distributors for Cheney. He organised for the assembly of the A7, through Austin Distributors in Melbourne and Holden’s in Adelaide.

Cheney went broke in the Depression and the Morris franchises were sold to Lanes Motors in Melbourne (1930), Motors Ltd in Adelaide (1931) and York Motors in Sydney (1932). Austin Distributors in Melbourne became a separate public company in 1931.

Motors Ltd in Adelaide had been Morris agents from 1913 to 1919, when the agency was taken over by Murray Aunger Motors, which became Franklin Motors.

A brief history of Holden

With the advent of the 1917 import restrictions, Holden’s Motor Body Builders was established from long-standing leather-worker, saddle maker and carriage builder Holden & Frost, in Grenfell St, Adelaide.

Holden & Frost had been doing repairs to motor bodies and upholstery since 1908 and built their first two complete car bodies in 1914, using similar techniques to carriage-building.

In 1917 Henry Holden, son of company founder James Alexander (J.A.) Holden, saw the potential in large-scale production of car bodies. With a prototype designed by his son James, and in association with Dodge distributor SA Cheney, Holden & Frost produced 99 bodies in their Grenfell St premises, in 1917, mainly for Dodge and Buick chassis.

Henry bought Adelaide body-building firm F.T. Hack in King William St. to increase production and Holden’s Motor Body Builders became a registered company. In their first full year, 1918, they produced 587 bodies.

By 1923 the company was building bodies for 15 brands of carmaker, including both Austin and Morris, for supply to the various interstate distributors.

The state distributors then fitted the body to the imported chassis and completed the assembly.

That year Holden’s built 12,771 car bodies, more than half the total National production.

In 1924 they opened a new 22-acre site at Woodville, with an agreement with General Motors, their largest customer, for the Woodville plant to produce GM bodies exclusively.

Production for other brands would continue at their city address in King William St, between Halifax and Gilles Sts.

In 1926 Holden’s produced a peak of 36,171 car bodies, of which over 22,000 were for GM. The bodies were taking an average of five man-hours each, compared with 160 man-hours per body in 1917.

Sales fell slightly over the next couple of years, but in 1929 Holden’s employed 3,400 men on the production line and was the biggest body-builder, as opposed to car manufacturer, in the British Empire. However, in August, GM significantly reduced its orders and the following month Ford Australia suspended all orders from Holden’s.

The Wall Street crash in October took many companies down, and Holden’s closed temporarily that month due to a lack of orders. Some piecework was taken on, making golf club heads, steel filing cabinets and wooden fruit packing cases. Production recommenced at a reduced rate, with only 9,292 car bodies built in 1930. By 1931 the figure was down to just 1,671 – a drop of over 90% from five years earlier.

Later that year General Motors bought Holden’s out, forming General Motors-Holden’s, but it would not be until 1934, under the management of Laurence Hartnett, that production again climbed over 10,000 units: totaling 15,462, with two-thirds of production being for GM.

GM-H continued to produce bodies for other car brands up until the Second World War, when 80% of production went for defence. However, it appears that neither Morris nor Austin bodies were built by Holden’s after about 1934.

Austin bodies by this time were mostly coming from Austin Distributors in Melbourne, and Pressed Metal Corp. in Sydney from the late 1930s, with some production also being done by UK & Dominion Motors in Brisbane and Winterbottom’s in Perth.

Morris bodies were being produced by numerous companies, detailed last issue, with bodies for Motors Ltd in Adelaide coming mainly from Melbourne firm Ruskin Motor Bodies, and three smaller local companies.

The Holden connection for Morris and Austin had lasted from about 1923 to 1934.

During the latter stage of the War, GM-H embarked on designs for its own complete car, being released in November 1948 as the Holden by then Prime Minister Ben Chifley.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, grab a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent (in Australia) or subscribe on-line today.


The BMC Experience Issue 7. Oct-Nov 2013 Magazine

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