With all the recent news about local car manufacturing, you could be forgiven for thinking Australia has only ever built Fords, Holdens and Toyotas. But in fact, we’ve got a long, varied – and often quite weird - car building history.
From a bugeyed oddity spawned by a company who honed their skills on washing machines and cement mixers, to a car co-designed by a motoring journalist, there are a host of strange vehicles lurking in our past. Here are some of the best…
Adayer Sportif - Based on the VH Commodore, Melbourne firm Classic Car Craft created the two-door Sportif by using off-the-shelf panels from the German Opel Rekord on which the early Commodores were based. Painted black with era-correct gold trim, the Sportif also boasted a plush interior and ZK Fairlane headlights as a unique design touch. CCC described the Sportif as “the car GMH should have built” but probably realised why they didn’t after building just 12 examples.
Bolwell - The Bolwell brand is best known for the production of low-volume sports cars between 1962-79. Nine different models were built during this time, and wore the names MkI-VIII, with the most successful being the MkVIII Nagari with 118 units built. Mechanicals were borrowed from several manufacturers, including engines from Ford, Holden and Volkswagen. An all-new Mark X Nagari was revealed in 2008, but with a starting price north of $200k, most buyers seem to be choosing Porsche 911s instead.
Bufori - Bufori started building the VW-engined Madison in the garage of three Sydney brothers in 1986, and expanded to the Commodore V6-engined V6i and MkII, before shifting production to Malaysia in 1998 where the curiously styled LaJoya and Geneva models are built today. An acronym for Beautiful, Unique, Fantastic, Original, Romantic and Irresistible, we’d politely choose unique as the most applicable term for the current models.
Bullet - Bullet made its name building rotary-powered re-chassised MX-5s in the mid-90s, and graduated to extreme versions with supercharged Lexus V8s in the 2000s. The company now specialises in supercharger kits for numerous models, but has a new supercar in the works – without the timid MX-5 styling this time around.
Giocattolo - Perhaps the most ambitious of our low-volume products, Giocattolo Motori produced the mid-engined Giocattolo (Italian for toy) as a genuine challenge to the expensive and notoriously difficult to drive Italian exotics of the 1980’s. Just 15 were produced between 1986-88, and were designed to suit the same Group B rally regulations that brought us the Ferrari 288GTO, which were outlawed just as production started.
The work of entrepreneur Paul Halstead and former F1 designer Barry Lock, the Giocattolo married an Alfa Romeo Sprint glasshouse and cabin with kevlar body panels and a bespoke mid-engined chassis with a HSV VL Group A SS-related twin-throttle 5.0-litre Holden V8. Among the several other local components were Simmons alloy wheels and a mini bar-sized bottle of Bundaberg rum and a pair of shot glasses in the tool kit.
Saloon, Coupe, Coupe-convertible and Light van variants were produced with 300cc and 400cc twin-cylinder engines, and the brand reached fame in the 90s thanks to the memorable Yellow Pages TV ad. The “not the Dart” Dart roadster has gone on to be the four-wheeled face of Shannons Insurance.
Hartnett - The Hartnett Motor Company was formed by former Holden boss Lawrence Hartnett in 1949, after encouragement from PM Ben Chifley to challenge Holden’s market dominance (how times have changed).
The Hartnett that resulted was based on a French design by Jean Grégoire, which was produced from 1951 to 1955 in Tasman sedan and Pacific convertible form, but some station wagons were also produced. Chifley was famed for declaring the first Holden as “she’s a beauty” and helping it to best-selling status with that accolade. But his pet project Hartnett wasn’t so beaut. Supply issues plagued production and the company pulled the pin in 1955 after building just 120 cars.
Lightburn Zeta - The Zeta was built in Sedan, Utility and Sports body styles between 1963-65 by South Australian washing machine and cement mixer manufacturer Lightburn and Co. Aside from the roadster-bodied Sports, all were fitted with a 324cc twin-cylinder engine, while the Sports scored a big-block 498cc unit.
The Sedan version lacked any rear storage opening – early Corvette style – and only the Sports featured a reverse gear. All other models needed to be switched off and started in reverse to travel backwards, effectively making its meagre top speed achievable in reverse. Fewer than 400 Zetas were produced.
Mazda Roadpacer - The Holden HJ and HX Premier-based Mazda Roadpacer that was sold in Japan between 1975-77, with the big Aussie six or V8 replaced by a 13B rotary engine. Power was on par with the 202 (3.3-litre) six of the day, but the rotary’s sizeable torque deficit meant it was as slow as a wet week, and won few friends among the luxury buyers it was aimed at. Just 800 were produced, and hold the distinction of being the only rotary-engined GM product to date.
Mitsubishi Sigma Peter Wherrett Special - Mitsubishi built 1000 examples in 1981 that bore the signature of the late Australian motoring identity Peter Wherrett. Legend has it that Wherrett was challenged to create a better car after complaining of the basic Sigma’s handling to a Mitsubishi engineer, and the Peter Wherrett Special was the fruit borne from this. Can you imagine a Paul Gover Cruze or Joshua Dowling Aurion today?
According to Wherrett, he converted the Sigma into “one of the great family cars of the decade”, with extractors fitted to the standard 2.6L four to lift power from 72.9-76kW, a five speed manual, revised shock tuning, discs all round, 15 inch alloy wheels with Pirelli tyres and all were painted red with specific striped decals along their flanks. The transformation was completed by Recaro front seats and an autographed Momo steering wheel.
Overlander 4WD - Long before the Holden Adventra, Launceston-based Vehicle Engineering and Modifications built the Holden HJ-HZ-based Overlander 4WD models. Between 1976-89, 120 examples were built, using Holden mechanicals and a Dana transfer case and front and rear off- road axles, wheels and tyres and suspension. The conversion was created in conjunction with Holden, and could be had in either wagon, ute, or one-tonne ute body styles. Like the Adventra, it seemed a great idea at the time, and also like Adventra, most people bought LandCruisers instead.
Recaro Mystere/Arcadipane Taipan - The Mystere started out as a Sydney motor show concept in 1977, built as a joint venture between Recaro and former Ford designer and Mad Max Interceptor collaborator Peter Arcadipane.
The Mystere was based on an LX Torana hatch with a chopped tail, shovel nose and wheelarch flares designed by Arcadipane, with a lavishly trimmed leather Recaro interior. A plan for low volume production didn’t add up, and the body bits were then sold as the Taipan kit through Arcadipane’s coachbuilding business, even without Mel Gibson’s assistance.
This reporter is on Twitter: @Mal_Flynn