University of Melbourne Archives

Everybody Loves a Road Trip

The Australian Car That Almost Was

Jason Benjamin

Sir Laurence Hartnett had a long and distinguished career in the automobile industry, much of it associated with the American automobile giant General Motors. Sent to Australia in 1934 to take up the position of managing director of General Motors’ Australian subsidiary, General Motors-Holden, Hartnett soon realised the need for an Australian made car. For the next decade he passionately advocated for an Australian car manufactured in Australia for Australian conditions. In 1948 Hartnett’s efforts resulted in the locally manufactured Australian icon, the Holden.

Regrettably Hartnett was absent from the launch of the first Holden as disagreements between General Motors and Hartnett over the design and manufacture of the car had lead to his resignation in 1947. After his experiences at General Motors, Hartnett believed more than ever that Australia needed a car that was ‘manufactured, controlled and financed by Australians’. Hartnett took his idea for an Australian car to the then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, who gave it his full support. After a year of research Hartnett produced the first prototype of the Hartnett car in 1948. By early 1949 his project for the manufacturing of ‘the car for the Australian people’ was approved by the department of post–war reconstruction.

In October 1949 the Hartnett Motor Company Limited was officially launched, however it was to be a short-lived venture. The first blow to Hartnett’s dream came when the federal election of December 1949 swept Chifley’s Labor government from power. With less direct support from the government coupled with finance difficulties the Hartnett car began to falter. The final blow came when a dispute between a company subcontracted to manufacture components for the car became embroiled in legal action. In 1955 Hartnett conceded defeat and with only a few cars manufactured abandoned his dream for a truly Australian car.

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