Historic Car Brands
What could have been a truly Australian-owned car manufacturing business after Word War II ended in abject failure. There were several commercial reasons why the Hartnett venture failed and there’s the faint smell of political interference, as well.
Laurence Hartnett, former Managing Director of General Motors-Holden (GMH), was approached in 1948 by Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley, regarding the establishment of a domestic motor manufacturing company to challenge the dominance of GMH in the Australian market. Both Chifley and Hartnett knew that with GM, it would always been corporation coming first and Australia coming second.
Ben Chifley told Hartnett that the Commonwealth Government favoured the project and would “give financial assistance to place the industry on a firm basis.”
Laurence Hartnett’s plan was to build a small front wheel drive car, based on a prototype two door sedan developed by French designer Jean Grégoire and which had received a great deal of input from Amilcar (the poor man’s Bugatti).
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A version of this design was adopted in England, in 1946, by Grantham Productions Limited, but was abandoned by Grantham due to financial difficulties. As a result, the tooling, gauges, jigs, fixtures, patterns and dies were on the market for around one-sixth of their original value.
Hartnett concluded that the availability of these assets would “obviate a delay of up to three years and make production possible within one year of the commencement of a Public Company”.
The Hartnett, as it was to be called, utilised bolted-together aluminium chassis castings rather than the typical steel pressings, both to save weight and to reduce tooling costs. It was fitted with independent suspension on all four wheels and a 594cc air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, two-cylinder engine. This was a Avery advanced specification for the time.
In 1951 it was announced that the ‘Tasman’ sedan model would be supplemented by the ‘Pacific’, a soft-top sports tourer.
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Hartnett announced the intention to establish Hartnett Motor Company on 7 February 1949 in Chifley’s presence. The original plan was to sell 5000 cars in the first year of production and 10,000 in each subsequent year.
In May 1950 the company announced that it had signed an A£500,000 pound contract with F M Aspin and Co of Bury, Lancashire, to manufacture and supply engines and gearboxes.
Between the launch of the company and the commencement of production there were almost monthly public assurances that the company was successfully overcoming production issues and that full production was only weeks away.
The Government-owned Commonwealth Engineering Company had contracted to deliver 2000 sets of steel body panels, as agreed in May 1950, with delivery commencing by May 1951. By June 1952 the Hartnett Company had not received a single set.
The original price of the car had been promoted at “less than 300 pounds”, but by March 1951 no cars had been delivered and the company revealed that the expected pricing was now “549 pounds plus sales tax”.
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In March 1952 the first Hartnett was dispatched from the production facility in Frankston, Victoria, with a semi-production aluminium body and cost 695 pounds including sales tax.
Around 100 mostly open-tourers were eventually produced before September 1952.
The first public indication that the company had been facing significant issues was when questions were raised in Federal Parliament.
It’s important to note the Menzies-led Coalition had won a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives in 1949, but Labor still had a four-seat majority in the Senate. Chifley thus made it his business to obstruct Menzies’s agenda at every opportunity and there was no love lost between Menzies and Chifley. Also it’s important to remember that Menzies was pro-GMH and Chifley was pro-Hartnett.
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Menzies sought to call a double dissolution in the hope of gaining control of both houses and finally had his opportunity in 1951. While the Coalition subsequently lost five House seats to Labor, it still had a solid mandate. More importantly, it picked up six Senate seats, giving it control over both chambers.
On August 28, 1952, a member of the Labor opposition told the House of Representatives that he had failed to be given answers to two questions by the Government. Firstly he asked why General Motors Holden had been granted a £1,000,000 overdraft from the Government-owned Commonwealth Bank, while the same facility had been refused to the Hartnett Motor Company. Secondly he asked whether the Government-owned Commonwealth Engineering Company had obstructed the manufacturing of the Hartnett car by failing to deliver steel body panels that had been on order for over 18 months.
A cynical Canberra-watcher could be forgiven for thinking that the Coalition Government had tipped the business scales towards GM and away from Hartnett.
In September, 1952, Hartnett called a creditors’ meeting and stated that it was in debt to the tune of £63,779 pounds; its business was at a standstill and production had ceased. The company began legal proceedings against the Commonwealth Engineering Company and, four years later, in December 1955, received £37,228 in damages for the non-delivery of the contracted body panels. The company had been seeking £170,000.
The whole sorry saga ended when the Hartnett Motor Company was dissolved at a creditors’ meeting in 1956. Laurence Hartnett soldiered on with further automotive ventures, including Datsun imports and Lloyd-Hartnett small car production, but his all-Australian dream had ended.
Menzies’ dream also ended, in February 2020, when GM announced the death of the ‘Holden’ brand.