MGA in Australia

Prior to World War Two, Australia was the largest export destination for MG cars, though overall numbers were still quite small. For example, 113 TA/TB models came to Australia between 1937 and 1940.

That doesn’t sound like a great deal, but was 24% of all exports from a total production run of 3,382 – and ten times the number of cars exported to the US. 

With the US becoming the dominant export market after the War, Australia still remained an important destination. While 1,820 TCs were shipped to the US, 1,774 came to Australia. By the time of the TD, with mass production getting under way and the US taking just over 20,000 in four years, Australia had dropped to fourth-largest market, retaining a still reasonable number of 904, behind West Germany and Canada.

Development of the MGA was stalled due to the release of the Austin-Healey in 1952 (see Issue 2 for details) and MG was ordered to continue with the T-series. The replacement for the TD was therefore the TF, which was released late in 1953. While the US and European markets didn’t respond well to the facelift, the TF still sold well in Australia, with 813 coming here in two years, being only second again to the US with 3,731 over the same period.

According to Wheels magazine’s new car price guides, in May 1953 an MG TD would set you back £1,025, while in October 1955 a TF was down to £982, indicating the slowing sales as the model was reaching the end of its life.

Everything changes

By mid-1956 the MGA was available for £1,256, if you could find one.

Production had commenced in late 1955, with exports to the US up to 80% in the first year, and Australian supply was substantially down on previous years.

Australian waiting lists for the MGA had stretched to months, and when Modern Motor magazine wanted to get hold of one for a road test in early 1956, BMC Australia was unable to oblige. Instead, the magazine used a privately-owned example.

Bryan Hanrahan declared in the magazine the car was “as good as it looks” and said; “Gearbox, steering and suspension combine to make the run sheer delight.”

Before the War, some MG chassis were imported to Australia, with bodies built locally, including ten of the 113 TA/TB types. One such assembler was Neals Motors in Melbourne.

After the War, MGs were imported Completely Built Up (CBU), but by the 1950s Government incentives for local assembly and restrictions on numbers of imported cars – an import quota – made the import of cars CBU far less attractive than it had been previously.

Many companies began assembling complete cars, either from Completely Knocked Down (CKD) or Semi Knocked Down (SKD). The majority though were saloon cars, with very few sports cars being locally assembled.

The one exception, in any sort of volume, was the Triumph TR3 (£1,630), which was being assembled by Standard in Melbourne and, according to Sports Car World magazine, barely trickled off the line.

Writing in SCW, in August 1957, Pedr Davis bemoaned the difficulty in getting any sports car in Australia – and not only the MGA. “Today it is almost impossible to buy a new sports car ‘off the peg’ anywhere in Australia…For example, a Triumph TR3 takes six weeks for delivery and a Berkeley is quoted at something ‘over 10 weeks’. The other makes have waiting lists ranging nine months for a Bristol 405 to ‘indefinite’ for the M.G. A and Austin-Healey.”

“If Rover, Renault and Peugeot can economically use Australian assembly labour, it seems inconceivable that one sports car manufacturer at least, could not market sufficient vehicles to keep an Australian assembly plant in swing”, Davis argued.

He also took direct aim at BMC. “Look at the giant BMC firm. They assemble a range of vehicles, from the Nuffield tractors to Austin A95 sedans. Could not a quarter of the factory space and a fraction of the import quota be used to build up M.G. A components?”

“The M.G. A is one car we honestly believe is a natural for Australian assembly…could not one manufacturer at least recognise the growing demand…by assembling and marketing a sports car in Australia for less than £1,200?”, Davis concluded.

Farming out production.

BMC was in harmony with Davis’ thoughts, but was actually more than one step ahead. A small batch of eight Completely Knocked Down (CKD) sets was dispatched from Nuffield’s KD department at Cowley on 27 July 1956.

Allowing for two months on the water and delays in getting from the wharf to BMC Australia, they would have been ready for assembly before the end of the year – some eight to ten months before Davis’ article.

These would almost certainly have been to try out the body jigs, to test assemblies and practice the techniques, and make sure everything was going to fit and work the way it should, before full production began.

It is here that we need to make an important point, and that is that the MGA was not assembled at BMC’s main plant at Zetland, but on a contract basis by Pressed Metal Corporation at Enfield.

The CKD packs containing chassis and body parts, would have been sent directly to PMC at Enfield, while engine, gearbox and possibly some suspension parts, were sent to BMC at Zetland as CKD.

This would explain why engines were not delivered with the initial batch of eight cars, and were subsequently supplied later when production got under way. This is also evidenced by the fact the engines in these eight cars are numbered some 6,000 later than would be expected for July 1956 and that the cars were sold with the early production cars in late 1957.

Many people would be forgiven for assuming the MGA was assembled at Zetland, for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that the identifying plates for the cars were supplied from BMC and bore the company’s name and Zetland address, without any reference to Pressed Metal Corporation.

But a more subliminal suggestion that the cars were built at Zetland comes in no small part from the film From Horses To Horsepower, made by BMC to promote the major expansion of the factory in 1958, from CKD-only to a complete production facility.

The opening shot of the film is of a blue MGA. Then, after showing the entire production process in the factory, with not an MG to be seen, the MGA is shown leading a procession of the company’s products out the gate of the factory. The closing shot shows the MGA at the head of a great line-up of all the cars available from BMC at the time, including some models that were CBU imports.

However, despite this first expansion of the factory, which was not completed until the end of 1957, production space was limited and the MGA’s assembly had to be out-sourced.

Pressed Metal Corporation had been established in the late 1930s as a joint venture between Larke Hoskins, Austin agents for NSW since 1918, and affiliated company Larke, Neave & Carter, the state’s Chrysler distributor since the 1920s.

PMC had been assembling various models of Austin cars and commercial vehicles since that time, particularly building the A40 Devon from just after the War and developing their own, unique, utility version of the A40 Devon and A50/55 Cambridge in later days.

Many people consider the Pressed Metal Corporation as little more than a footnote in Australia’s car history and underestimate the scale of the Larke Hoskins enterprise. In 1950 alone, Larke Hoskins Industries, between the PMC and Larke’s other assembly facility, the former Sydney Sports Arena indoor velodrome in Riley St, Surrey Hills, delivered 13,522 Austin cars – making it the largest Austin assembler outside of Longbridge.

However, the following year the Australian Government introduced an anti-inflation budget with severe credit restrictions and increases to sales tax. The net result was that orders of new cars dropped by about 80%.

By 1954-5 sales had recovered to 7,906, but the following year again dropped sharply. The after-tax profit for the Group for 1956 was £230,140 – down by £60,792 from the previous year.

A large part of this was attributed to the formation of BMC Australia in 1954, with that company taking over much of the assembly of Austin vehicles from PMC, by Austin Distributors in Melbourne.

In its financial report for the end of October 1956, the Argus newspaper in Melbourne quoted Larke Hoskins directors as saying that they would; “consolidate resources rather than expand in a period of restricted markets.”

It is with this background that Larke Hoskins’ subsidiary, PMC, was happy to take on the contract for the assembly of the MGA, and was a substantial enough operation to do so to a high standard.

At the time, the PMC factory at Cosgrove Rd, Enfield, was producing Land Rovers, Morris J2 commercial vans and Austin A40, A50 and A55 utilities – designed in-house at PMC – as well as Leyland bus chassis, with the bus bodies and final assembly taking place at PMC’s plant in Marigold St, Milperra.

The Naturalized Aussie

Only six months after airing his concerns on the sports car industry in Australia, Pedr Davis was congratulating BMC for taking the initiative; “…we could hardly have guessed that the mighty British Motor Corporation was already on the track, swinging into action with plans to assemble...the M.G. A in Sydney.”

The first production cars had rolled off the PMC line in October 1957 and, according to Davis, were coming off at a rate of three per day.

Former production engineer at PMC, Brian Gymer, wrote in 2012 that later production peaked at about six or eight per day – although, over the five-year run, production averaged only about ten per week.

Importantly, it was only the push-rod roadsters that were assembled locally, in 1500, 1600 and 1600 MkII forms. Twin-cam MGAs and all MGA coupes, regardless of engine type, were imported CBU.

CKD cars were shipped in crates containing four sets of components, but not all the components for any one car were to be found in one crate.

Components were packed together to ensure best-fit to reduce the amount of wasted space. As such, one crate might contain four chassis and four sets of other parts packed around the chassis. The next crate might contain four sets of the same body panels; the next, suspension parts; and so-on.

Shipments therefore were based on multiples of four vehicle sets, with eight being common but batches of up to 16 or 24 at a time are recorded.

From the beginning, though, not all components came in the packs, with some supplied locally. Initially, this included tyres, batteries and some items of trim, according to Pedr Davis, but later included all trim.

Some sources also suggest the rear leaf springs were sourced locally. Peter Davis – former Product Engineering Manager and not to be confused with Pedr Davis – says he is not sure about the springs, but they were allocated a local part number. However, this may only have been for use by the Parts & Accessories department.

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

The BMC Experience Issue 8. Jan-Mar 2014 Magazine


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