One of the greatest Australian rivalries will come to a head this year at Bathurst. When Ford lines up with Holden, it will be heading for a very different finish line. On 7 October Ford manufacturing in Australia will come to an end and with the Bathurst 1000 having contributed so much to the iconic Ford image, shutting down the line on the eve of the Big Race will be a fittingƒ finale.

While many think of Victoria’s Geelong and Broadmeadows as the hub of local Ford manufacturing, the company also had a vital arm based in Western Australia from the early 1900s that saw
an estimated 18,000 Model T cars, some of them with bespoke Australian design features, take over the roads.

To understand just how unique these imported, then Australianised cars were, one must delve into the very early history of the Model T Ford in Australia, and how cars were built before the
Ford Motor Company ‘arrived’ in 1925 to standardise production.

The early days in WA

The first Fords appeared in Australia around 1904, with the Model T arriving about two years after its inception in the USA in 1907. The Model T has been credited with starting the assembly line
era; Henry Ford’s affordable vehicle solution was not just in the concept of the Model T but also in its creation at the plant. He instigated a moving line of cars with people responsible for a particular part or fitout, rather than people assigned per vehicle for the entire process. In doing so, he revolutionised the way cars are made.

The assembly line concept in Australia was different again. The early Model Ts were originally brought in as left-hand drive and this didn’t sit well with Aussies and other right-hand-drive nations. As the Model T was intended as a global car, right-hand drive (RHD) assembly plants were established in Canada, which was in close proximity to Ford’s home in Detroit. And with Canada part of the British Empire, Australia avoided the import taxes that non-Commonwealth countries attracted. This made Australia a lucrative market for Ford; despite our comparatively smaller population, Australia boasted the third highest per capita Ford ownership behind the USA and Canada. When Ford Australia was established in 1925, it was part of Ford Canada, not Ford America.

Local motor body builders

Those years of imported Fords between 1909 and 1925, while not well documented, are arguably some of the most fascinating in the car company’s local history, as the cars arrived disassembled and relied on local builders to put the pieces together.

A. John Parker, who has been researching the history of motor vehicles and in particular early Fords in WA and Australia since 1971, estimates there were about 150 motor body builders in
Perth alone before Ford Australia was established in 1925, birthing a booming local market with a uniquely Australian influence.

“We had all of these bodiless chassis coming in from Canada, which had to be assembled here by somebody,” he explains.

“It wasn’t viable to import assembled vehicles in any numbers. A shortage of shipping space meant the Australian Government would not allow people to bring in complete cars, so the chassis and parts would arrive to be assembled here. The population couldn’t justify a plant or an assembly line, so motor body builders sprung up everywhere to assemble the imports.”

WA dealerships

This also saw the birth of major dealerships in WA, where the Model T and other unassembled imports could be built more efficiently. Perth Motor House, Winterbottom Motor Company, Mortlock Bros, West Australian Motors; they all branched into car import builds, and some went on to create the first dealership franchises and networks in WA.

“One of the early Ford distributors in WA, Grave & Dwyer, had strong connections to the Ford assembly plant and even the Ford dealership in Osborne Park, Lynford Motors,” explains
the RAC’s Alex Forrest. “As noted by Mr Parker, Grave & Dwyer would later go on to become Lynas Motors, which was named after one of the salesmen at Grave & Dwyer, Vern Lynas. Mr Lynas’s name continues to be referenced in the name of the Ford dealership in Osborne Park, Lynford Motors.”

Motorsport’s Ossie Cranston

The most famed name associated with Grave & Dwyer and Lynas Motors was Ossie Cranston, who made a name for himself and his Fords through motorsport. From 1914 through to the
early ’40s, the 3.2km Lake Perkolilli clay speedway 35km north-east of Kalgoorlie was the platform for Mr Cranston to show off his Fords; his Ford V8 set a state speed record in 1935 and the next
year his V8 Special won the big speed weekend race with an average speed of nearly 100mph.

Mr Cranston also performed a ‘stability demonstration’ in his V8 coupe at this event by blowing out a tyre at 65mph without swerving off course; the blowout was caused by a shot from a gun
attached beneath the running board. This probably sold more Fords at his dealership than the records and wins combined.

Setting up shop in WA

But while the Cranstons of the world were bringing Ford to the fore, other Australian builders and dealers were not meeting Ford’s quality standards.

Hubert French, an American working in sales for Ford Canada, was sent to Australia in the early 1920s to investigate the dealership and distribution network here. Finding the dealership situation
was not up to scratch, and spurred on by increasing competition from General Motors, he pushed for a manufacturer presence in every state. The Ford Motor Company of Australia was established
in Victoria on 31 March 1925, and before long, every state (except Tasmania) had a manufacturing presence.

Ford had a cutting-edge factory built in North Fremantle in 1929, and Perth’s own assembly line was born. The first car off the block was a Model A, the T’s successor. The plant built cars and tractors in the ’30s and then turned out landing craft and Bren Gun carriers during WWII. It went on to manufacture Mercury and Ford cars, tractors, utes and even heavy Canadian trucks, before being decommissioned as a car assembly line in the mid ’60s after which it was used essentially as a warehouse. The plant remained in Ford’s hands until 1987 and a year later was transformed
into the Matilda Bay Brewing Company headquarters.

Flying high with the Falcon

Falcon production began in 1960, with the Australian designed and built car being manufactured at Ford’s two sites in Victoria. It was a halcyon time for Ford throughout Australia. During this period, the Falcon boomed, Ford fought Holden for sedan supremacy and the company evolved through muscle-car models and motorsport into a maker of pin-up poster cars for the garage wall.

“For many consumers, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a huge sense of pride derived from driving Australian cars,” says Mr Forrest. “Having an aspirational family car, which was not
only Australian, but also assembled in your home state, was a sign of economic confidence and an indication that even then, Perth was beginning to shed its small town label.”

Going the distance

By then, Fords had a long history of showing their hardiness in the harshest of climes, such as the 15,000km Redex Round Australia Reliability Trials that circled through the outback of WA.
Most famed of these drivers was John ‘Gelignite Jack’ Murray, who paired with 1947 Australian Grand Prix winner (and no relation) Bill Murray to take out the 1954 event without losing a single penalty point. The unmodified 1948 Canadian imported Ford V8, an ex-taxi painted in grey primer and nicknamed the ‘Grey Ghost’, made a clear statement on Ford’s reliability and hardiness. Though its driver’s use of explosives to clear paths through the desert – and sometimes in the vicinity of fellow competitors – may have made the route somewhat easier for the big old car.

In 1967, what was then the Gallaher 500 brought the V8 Falcon GT into the spotlight at Mt Panorama, and the rivalries between manufacturers in motorsport began in earnest. The expression ‘win
on Sunday, sell on Monday’ evolved from success in the 500, later to become the Bathurst 1000, as the manufacturers and in particular Ford and Holden vied for sales through racing success.

And soon, the Blue Oval will come full circle. Every state has seen the birth, success and eventual fading out of the Aussie Ford, and while Ford will continue as an importer – back to its roots, per se – the history books will look back on this unique story and eight generations of the Falcon with reverence.

“There’s no denying the low viability of manufacturing large vehicles in Australia,” admits Mr Forrest, “but you also can’t deny this will be the end of a car-making legacy stretching back 90 years, during which there were numerous high points of which we should be extremely proud.”




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