The recent news of the closures of Toyota and Holden factories in South Australia and Victoria have bought into sharp focus the struggles that industry faces in Australia at the present moment.

Sydney too was once a significant car manufacturing city, but like the recent causalities they succumbed to rising cost and cheaper imports.

Many of the earliest Sydney made cars were produced by former coach factories that just adapted their horse drawn coaches to take engines.  Between 1896 and 1906 a former coach builder at Leichhardt produced a light motorised buggies under the name Australis motors.

Another short lived Sydney factory was the Caldwell Vale Motor Company.  Although they specialised in tractors and lorries, they also produced a series of motor cars between 1910 and 1916 at their factory in Auburn.

Our first major car maker was the entrepreneur Frederick Hugh Gordon who produced the Australian Six motor cars.  Gordon was an importer, bringing in ready to wear suits, fire extinguishers and noiseless typewriters from America.  In his travels he had dealt with the co-founder of the Chevrolet motor company in America and decided to establish an Australian Car factory.  He had already been involved in importing cars, selling the first Ford in Sydney and acting as the agent for Wolseley and Mercedes amongst others.

In 1919 Gordon opened his Australian Six factory at Rushcutters Bay, but within a year demand meant he needed a larger factory and the works were relocated to a purpose built facility on the corner of Parramatta Road and Frederick Street at Ashfield.  Gordon’s factory operated here between 1920 and 1925, producing a grand total of about 500 cars.

Australian Six motor cars leaving the Ashfield factory
Australian Six motor cars leaving the Ashfield factory

Although not many, the Australian Six was important for a number of reasons.  First, it showed that cars could be made in Australia, using Australian materials and expertise.  The Australian Six also introduced the six cylinder engine to Australian motorists.  Six body options were available on a standard chassis, including an eight seater cruising model, popular with taxis and tour companies.  Proudly local, the company moto was Made in Australia, by Australia’s, for Australia’s.

Twenty one years after the closure of Australian Six, a new factory was developed in the Sydney suburb of Zetland.  In 1946, the British motoring entrepreneur William Morris, better known as Lord Nuffield, instructed his Australian representative to find a site for a car factory in Sydney.  The site was the former Victoria Park racecourse at Zetland.  Nuffield purchased 110 acres, developing 57 acres for his factory and selling the remainder to associated motoring industries such as tyre companies and spark plug factories.  The area became a hub for the motor industry.

Initially the site was used for the storage and assembly of imported cars from England, but in 1950 the first stage of the new factory opened.  Operating at first as Nuffield (Australia), a merger between three companies soon saw the site renamed as BMC (Australia), the name they traded under until closing in 1975.

The factory was a large enterprise, with upwards of 5000 workers on site at any one time.  Over the period of its operation an estimated 50,000 people worked there.  Many of these were post war migrants where 35 languages were spoken on site at its peak. Being bi-lingual was an advantage for foremen.

Migrant workers photographed on the production line at BMC for the Immigration Dept.
Migrant workers photographed on the production line at BMC for the Immigration Dept.

Among the classics built on site were the Morris Minor, the Mini, the Morris Moke and the MG.  The company’s last major car was the Leyland P76. Famous now as the car that sank the company, it is considered to be a classic Australian car that came along at the wrong time.

Both these factories are long gone and little remains.  Of the Australian Six, a few examples are in museums, most notably the Powerhouse.  As for BMC, minis, mokes and MGs still grace our roads and if you go to the new unit development of Victoria Park notice the street names, they were named after the cars.