An Insight into Morris in Australia

A couple of weeks ago, I answered an advertisement in the Trading Post for a lathe. The vendor, Alan, and I started talking about why I was looking for a lathe, and our discussion inevitably turned to old cars, and old Morrises in particular.

I didn’t buy Alan’s lathe, because it was not what I wanted, but before I left, Alan insisted I borrow from him an old book written by S A Cheney and published in 1965, called “From Horse to Horsepower”, because he thought I’d be interested in the history of Morris in Australia.

Mr Cheney, whose name will be well known to most of us, was born in 1883 and grew up with the Australian motor industry – the early chapters of his book provide an interesting insight into motoring conditions at the beginning of this century. Mr Cheney virtually launched the motor industry in South Australia, as that State’s first car salesman, joining a firm called Fraser and Duncan in 1903 to sell Oldsmobiles from a illustrated catalogue, for £2 per week.

After the Oldsmobiles, Mr Cheney sold Fords, Argylls, Dodges, Chevrolets, Morrises, Austins, Vauxhalls and Bedfords. The whole book is fascinating but the section of most interest to me, and hopefully to you, is the chapter about Morrises.

In 1926, General Motors decided to start operations in Australia, a decision that had a major impact on Mr Cheney’s business as he was the agent/distributor of Chevrolet cars in Australia. More importantly, he had been responsible for the setting up in Australia of Holden’s motor body building business some years previously, and GM’s entry into the Australian market meant that Holden’s body building and assembly operation was at risk. Mr Cheney cast around for an alternative agency and being fiercely pro-British, thought that he should help the British motor industry by promoting and distributing British cars in Australia. At that time, only 4% of British cars were imported into Australia, and Britain itself was still in financial trouble as the country sought to recover from the First World War.

Cheney became the agent for Morris and Austin cars and trucks, buying out the Morris agents at that time – McOwan’s in Victoria, Franklin Motor Company (SA) and Williams Brothers (NSW). On the same day as GM announced the commencement of their operation in Australia, Cheney placed equally prominent advertisements in the newspapers announcing that his company was Swinging the pendulum from Uncle Sam to John Bull. His first order was for 10,000 Austins and Morrises.

It is obvious from his writing that Mr Cheney had a strong and genuine belief in the need to support Britain in their time of need. He also believed that British products were quality products, a belief that was soon shaken quite severely. He wrote:

“There was never any serious trouble with the Austin products , which were always satisfactory, but the same, unfortunately, could not be said of the Morris vehicles of that period, particularly the trucks. In contrast with the reliable and highly popular Morris cars of today, those sent out to me in the late 1920s were not a credit to their makers. This was unfortunate for the business in Morris products was most promising. Sales of Morris cars in my territory had jumped in four weeks from 140 a month to nearly 1,000 and they continued at that rate for a long time.

“Then disquietening reports began to come to me. A Morris truck frame had broken, then a front axle; it became a daily matter dealing with broken frames and broken front axles of trucks. Then other troubles, plenty of them. Truck frames were broken in two places, three places and sometimes even more. Inside the first three months nearly every Morris truck in Victoria had a broken frame , and in the same period we had no fewer than 150 broken stub axles on Morris trucks in Victoria alone. My service department dealt with these matters as best they could. We patched up frames here, patched them up there; we fitted new axles, special ones we had forged locally, but it was obvious that we could not continue selling Morris trucks or offering them for sale.

“At this time, Morris Motors changed their car design from the old bull-nosed, or rounded radiator to a square one, and called it “The World Model.” They also experimented with a special alloy piston, and we immediately found Morris engines seizing up all over the place, holding up the users and causing serious damage. We were nearly frantic. Out of the first 2,000 Morris cars we delivered we had to fit new pistons to more than 250 in Victoria alone – and at our own expense.”

The book also describes problems with the passenger model’s rear axle. “The Morris cars were fitted with shackles to both ends of the rear springs, so that in crossing a spoon drain or gutter obliquely, the rear axle, which was firmly fixed to the gearbox by the propeller shaft housing, could be twisted out of line and if heavily loaded, frequently bent the rear axle housing. Of course, it took time to find this out, but when we discovered it, we had special brackets made to anchor the front end of the rear springs to the frame, which was done on the assembly line from then on. I remember we sold twenty-seven Morris Cowleys to the Police Department in Sydney and with four big policemen on board, their rear axle housing was always getting bent.” (Forty years on, quite a few police were too!)

Mr Cheney records that these and other faults, including electrical, made him realise that drastic action was required if his business were to survive. The problems could not be dealt with by correspondence so in 1928 he went to England to deal with the situation. William Morris listened to Cheney’s account of the problems but had trouble in understanding the seriousness of them – after all, his cars and trucks were selling well elsewhere, and giving good service, so why not in Australia? Besides, there had been no problems with cars exported to Australia before Cheney had taken over the agency.

Cheney was treated politely enough but found that nobody in the plant was really interested in sorting out the problems – eventually he forced the issue with Morris and his executives and was astonished to learn that nobody had been to Australia, and therefore had no idea of the atrocious roads here at that time. He insisted that William Morris come to Australia to see for himself, and only persuaded him to do so by threatening to relinquish the agency there and then – Morris relented, and with some of his senior executives arrived in Sydney on 14th February 1928.

Even then, the Morris party seemed to be more intent on publicity than on the real reason for the trip – on the third day, William Morris even held a press conference whilst having his bath, at 6:30 am! Eventually the party set off on a tour of NSW and Victoria in three cars – a special 16 hp car which apparently never went into production, a Morris Oxford and a Cowley. The Cowley actually failed to complete the tour, suffering a twisted rear axle housing and a broken axle on one of the better roads over which the group travelled.

After the tour, Morris agreed that something needed to be done. He remained determined to capture the Australian market, and promised Cheney that he would “make it his business to see that you get back every bob that you have lost. He then took a shilling from his pocket, and handed it to me ‘Here is a pledge of my word on that,’ Morris said.”

Cheney says that that promise was impulsively made and forgotten: It was never mentioned again. But Morris obviously was genuine about solving the problems – soon after his return to England , the company designed new truck frames, new pump and fan assemblies and other improvements and sent enough parts, free of charge, to fix up all the trucks exported to Australia.

Mr Cheney’s book provides many other interesting insights into the personality of William Morris, and the development of the Australian motor industry – although I had previously known a little about Cheney and his businesses, I did not realise the extent of his influence on the motor industry in Australia.

A great read, which I can heartily recommend if readers ever come across a copy at a swap meet.

Neil Wakeman