Necessity is the mother of invention, and country people in Australia have often been at the forefront of innovation.
In 1933 Ford Australia received a letter from a farmer’s wife in Western Victoria, asking; “Why can’t you make a car that can take my husband and I to church on Sunday, and take the pigs to market on Monday?”
The result was the Ford coupe utility, soon commonly known as the humble ute – thus starting Australia’s love affair with the ute.
BMC was no exception from the ute phenomenon. The Poms have their pick-ups, and the South Africans call them Backies, but the idea certainly started in Australia. It is not surprising that there were utility versions of the Austin A50 and later the 1800 that were unique to the Australian market.
Despite their size, small country car dealerships have often been the leading force behind changes. Similarly, larger dealerships in remote areas have gone their own way to meet local demand. A case in point, that we have mentioned before, is Port Darwin Motors’ development of the first big-wheel Mokes – when they fitted Morris Minor (14”) wheels to front of Mokes owned by some of their buffalo-hunting customers. BMC liked the idea, made a few improvements, and brought out the 13” wheel Moke in 1968.
However, although remote from BMC’s headquarters in Sydney, Port Darwin Motors was one of the bigger dealerships in the country and the largest Moke dealer in Australia for a number of years.
At the other end of the scale was J. Luff & Son in Gundagai. A small family-operated garage in the picturesque town made famous by pioneering Aussie poets, roughly half way between Sydney and Melbourne on the Hume Hwy.
Barry Luff was the “Son” part of the business, and recalls the early days of his dad Joe’s car-selling enterprise. “My father Joe was a Ford Mechanic until 1946, when he had the opportunity to go into partnership with Ken Collien, who had a tyre re-tread shop.”
“Dad applied for every car agency that was not already taken in Gundagai at the time, which included Riley, Studebaker, Hudson, Packard and Austin. He sold a couple of everything, but it was the Austins that really set him going – Austin 10s, 16s and the Austin trucks really sold well.”
“In the late 1940s Adams Motors was the Morris dealer, but in about 1948 Winnet’s Central Service Station got the Morris agency. I started working for dad straight out of school, at 15, in 1950. I remember selling the Austin Lancer against Winnet’s who were selling the Morris Major, which was virtually the same car. In 1961 the powers that be at BMC decided there should only be one BMC dealer in each town, so they took the Morris agency off Winnet’s and gave it to us.” By that time we were trading as Luff’s Motors, and dad bought a couple of ex-army Nissan Huts, joined them together on his own block of land, took me into partnership and we became J. Luff & Son.”
Barry said they found BMC very good to deal with, and they also had a great relationship with their bank manager – how times have changed. “If we had a sale but didn’t have the money in the bank, the bank manager would let us go and pick up the car and write out a cheque, at Larke Hoskins in William St, drive the car home, then get the customer’s cheque up to the bank. It was very old-fashioned and personal, you knew the boss down in Sydney and it just happened.”
Being a small dealership, it was not viable to have many demonstrator cars in stock. In fact, they were few and far between, as Barry recalls. “The first demonstrator we had was when BMC started putting the pressure on us to have demonstrator stock. It was the A95, which was about 1958. That car ended up becoming dad’s personal car because no-one would buy it. It was up against the FC Holden and I think it was dearer than the Holden. It was a wonderful car, but we never sold a second one.”
The hey-day for both BMC and Luff’s was certainly in the 1960s, with sales of Minis, Mokes and others doing very well. “The Mini sold really well, and the 1100, and even the 1800, so we had demonstrators of those. We used to buy a demonstrator, put on the aluminium wheel trims, the mesh sun visor, the little sill protectors, register it, keep it for three months and then sell it for more money than we would have got for it if it was brand new. The extras just made the cars look that bit better.”
These were the days when small dealerships had to make their own arrangements to pick up cars, as Barry continues. “Larke Hoskins was originally the distributor for Austin then BMC in NSW, before BMC took over state distribution in 1961. We always picked the cars up from Sydney, first from Larke Hoskins then from the factory at Zetland. We used to train to Sydney and drive them home. That was with every sale. The customers always expected ‘delivery miles’ and it gave them confidence that the car was run-in and had no problems.”
Luff’s also had a towing service, and would regularly tow cars in from along the Hume Hwy for repair. One call out resulted in the remarkable Mini ute on these pages, as Barry explains. “The Mini actually crashed on the Cootamundra road. It was a carload of young fellas heading for the snow, and the driver went to sleep. They left home early in the morning and it was just coming daylight and he went to sleep and went off a gravel corner, just out of Coolac.”
“We towed it in and it had a small dent on the right-hand front guard, and it was bent down the back corner, broken glass, and the insurance company just wrote it off, so we bought it from them.”
“At the time, we’d had an old ex-Army Willy’s Jeep for our shop run-about from probably about 1948. The Jeep had had its day, and dad said why don’t we put a tray on the Mini, which only left us with a dent on the front guard to worry about. Mechanically it was good, it was an 850, and we paid somebody to touch up the paint, because we were never panel beaters. We were doing a lot of truck tray-body building, and we were selling Minis, so we made this Mini into a little truck.”
“We welded two plates along inside the door sills, ran a string over the top, got out the angle grinder, then cut over the top and along just above the taillights. We welded a back into the cab, down and onto the front of the rear seat pan, then sat an old Wolseley fuel tank on the seat pan.”
If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 26 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>45</plumshop> <plumshop>46</plumshop>