While the first two are obvious examples of successful local adaptations of American designs, the 1958 Austin Lancer is equally worthy only if ‘Australian-made’ was the selection criteria.

While this car came from a British manufacturer and was almost identical in appearance to the British Wolseley 1500, the Australian-made Lancer was 96% Australian in its manufacturing content. The fourth choice of a car ‘significant for Australians’ was the American-designed Chrysler Valiant R of 1962.

Assembled in Adelaide from imported components (as were many Peugeots, MGs, VWs, Renaults, Mercedes and literally dozens of other cars), the Valiant was intended to compete against the locally designed and manufactured Holdens, and soon after the new and essentially American Ford Falcon. These stamps feature interesting choices, but not one of these cars was totally designed in this country.

Australia’s ‘pioneering’ car industry.

Most general histories of Australia have referred to WWII as a watershed for Australia’s industrialisation and Americanisation, and have seen these themes encapsulated within the 48-215 Holden, commonly known as the FX.

Despite this, many examples of industrialisation and Americanisation were evident in Australia’s automotive industry several decades earlier, and in a whole range of other areas of Australian manufacturing besides. 

1896 is generally recognised as the date of the first internal combustion-engine automobile, a German Daimler-Benz. All countries with some industrial capability across Europe, North America and even ‘peripheral’ countries such as Australia were also experimenting with ideas for the new mode of transportation.

Only one year after the German car, Australia’s first car, the (kerosene fuelled) Pioneer appeared. While ‘Australia’s First Horseless Carriage’ received a favourable review in the periodical Scientific Australian (20 March 1897) the syndicate that financed its manufacturers, Melbourne-based inventor Henry Austin and Grayson Engineering, allegedly became bankrupt.

There were many Australian attempts to design and manufacture a local car before ‘Australia’s own’ Holden emerged in 1948. The least successful of these were of total Australian design and manufacture. More successful were those local cars that incorporated imported design knowledge or mechanical parts (especially complex items such as engines and gearboxes).

Most successful, however, were those slight local adaptations of international designs that conspicuously suited Australian conditions. Adaptations typically included larger radiators for the hot Australian weather and special suspension for Australia’s generally rougher country roads.

Some early Australian cars featured designs that responded directly to Australian conditions. In his book, Aussie Cars, historian Tony Davis cited a remarkable early example of Australian technology not exploited by any international automotive company until WWII.

He claimed ‘The innovative 1913 Caldwell-Vale was the world’s first touring car with four-wheel drive.’ Although this model characterises a series of Japanese, European and American cars today, it was merely one of dozens of Australian designs that never saw mass production.

Consistent with the spirit of nationalism which left its mark on other areas of art and design in the early years after Federation, most early Australian cars had names which were intended to evoke a sense of national pride.

Some car names drew on ‘rural’ themes: Shearer, Roo and Bullock, while other names were overtly patriotic: Australis, Austral, Australia, Australian Six, Australian Four, Auscar, and Southern Cross were all cars built in Australia (albeit in small numbers) prior to ‘Australia’s own’ Holden.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, the greatest Australian aviator of his day, designed the Southern Cross car with the assistance of fellow aviator Jim Marks in the early 1930s. The prototype’s ‘streamlined’ appearance put it a few years ahead of the Chrysler Airflow of 1934, reputedly the earliest attempt to engage with the science.

The importance of other countries in Australia’s early motoring history was significant and was sometimes reflected in car names. There were cars of German ‘influence’ that were either designed by German immigrants living in Australia or were manufactured from imported German mechanical parts.

These included the Ziegler and the Tarrant. There were cars of French influence. The Lean, Trackson, Phizackerley, Knowles, Trescowthick Quad, Humble, Mayman and Australis all used French De Dion engines. Other early Australian cars favoured  British technology – the Puckridge, Marriott, Ohlmeyer Jigger, Taylor, Cotton, Australian Four, Southern Six and Chic.

The British-built Automotor engine was a popular choice around which many of these Anglo-Australian cars were based. The strongest influence on local attempts was, however, American.

The Pender-Hertel, Earnshaw, Husband, Ekins, Palm, Spark, Australian Six, Lincoln, Summit, Albani Six, Eco, Sulman-Simplex and Besst Super Four all incorporated American designs or manufactured components, according to Davis.

American domination of the market 

Despite all this Australian experimentation and interaction with the rest of the world, most cars on Australian roads prior to the first substantially mass-produced Australian car (the 1948 Holden) were either fully-imported (largely from Britain) or, in larger numbers, Australian-built versions of what were basically a set of American-designed ‘world cars’.

The Model T Ford, manufactured locally under license from the mid-1920s, and the subsequent Model A Ford were the most prominent early examples of this phenomenon.

While many of the early Australian attempts at car-building resulted in small volumes or in prototype form only with no possibility of mass-production, these locally-built versions of ‘world cars’ were manufactured in great numbers.

According to Davis, 250,000 Model Ts had been manufactured in Geelong, Victoria, by 1928, using many locally made parts. Despite this productivity, little or no local industrial design work was undertaken in these early ‘world cars’.

The other top sellers were those cars with locally-made bodies built around imported chassis. In 1917, an import restriction and tax on fully-imported cars was imposed but imported chassis were exempt.

This inspired a lively body-making industry. Historian Norm Darwin noted the 1914 Lancia as the first imported chassis for which local carriage makers Holden built a body. So the first Holden was a hybrid Italian!

A rural or urban identity?

This domination of the market by American companies still allowed some Australian industrial design creativity. Two examples of the ‘peripheral’ culture developing on the designs of the ‘centre’ culture are the 1934 Ford Coupe Utility and the 1935 Holden Sloper.

Both were local adaptations of imported designs to better suit Australian needs. While the Ford Coupe Utility was not the world’s first pick-up truck, it was the first saloon with an integrated utility rear section thereby providing the comfort and performance of a saloon car with the versatility of a truck.

Designed by Ford in Geelong and credited to Ford’s then chief Australian designer Lewis Bandt, the idea had prosaic beginnings. A pig farmer’s wife apparently wrote to Ford in Geelong pleading that her family needed a truck for farm activities and a car for going to church on Sundays.

The resulting ‘ute’ it is often recognised as Australia’s sole contribution to international automotive design. In fact there was another that was arguably more influential.

Certain qualities are celebrated about Australian cars (and also industrial design in general and, interestingly, the Australian national identity).

While the 1934 Ford ute and subsequent utes from Holden get all the credit by an Australian public eager to propagate the ‘rural’ Australian myth, it is really the urban and chic 1935 GM-H Sloper which was the greater contribution to world automotive design trends.

GMH designed and manufactured Sloper bodies and grafted them onto imported American Buick and Pontiac chassis. This model was launched on the local market in 1935 seemingly to meet the needs of travelling salesmen, many of whom required both utility and style.

Advertisements of the period stressed the fact the rear seats were collapsible to allow great carrying space for salesmen’s products. There is no doubt the Sloper was an appealing two-door coupe which pre-dated similar cars in the ‘centre’ culture, America, by many years.

The Sloper was clearly an ancestor of the current international trend for hatchback body styles. Australians’ identification with the land, however, has meant this ‘urban’ design is not as well known or celebrated as it should be.

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