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Port Melbourne: Australia's forgotten Chrysler plant

by David Kilderry • Originally written for the Charger Club of Victoria

Chrysler operated several manufacturing and assembly plants in Australia, mostly located in the state of South Australia and the city of Adelaide.

There was a Dodge truck assembly plant, an engine plant at Lonsdale, and the main car assembly plant in Tonsley Park, Adelaide, which was known as Chrysler Park. This main assembly plant produced around 50,000 cars per year at its peak. In the 1960s, most of these cars were adaptations of the US Valiant and Dart, but by 1971 they were building unique and larger Australian versions of the A-body, including the Valiant sedan, Regal, Charger, Station Wagon, Ute, Hardtop, and long-wheelbase top-of-the-line Chrysler.

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In Melbourne, Victoria, near the city's docks, are a sprawling group of factories that occupy several blocks between Salmon St, Williamstown Rd, and Plummer St in Port Melbourne. Construction commenced on the first of these buildings during World War II; this facility was used to develop the Australian Mark 1 Cruiser Sentinel tank. Later in the war, it was used for aircraft maintenance and storage, supporting the large aircraft manufacturing plant nearby. Today it is used for warehouses, showrooms, and studios, but in 1946 this facility became the first British car manufacturing plant to operate in Australia.

Britain's Rootes Group expanded rapidly in the UK during the 1930s and explored the possibility of Australian production during that time, but World War 2 curtailed these plans. After the war, the assembly plant produced Hillman, Humber, and Sunbeam cars along with Commer and Karrier trucks. The plant was initially expanded in 1946, and again in 1955 and 1962. By the early 1960s, Rootes enjoyed over 5% Australian market share.

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In 1965, Chrysler Australia took over the local operations of the Rootes Group, incorporating their various lines into their own dealerships; Chrysler assumed control of Rootes in England a year later. Locally, this deal saw Hillmans take the place of the French-origin Simca range of smaller cars (also owned by Chrysler) that had recently disappeared from Chrysler showrooms.

The plant turned out various Rootes Group cars over the years, mostly from Completely Knocked Down (CKD) packs. This was a form of assembly where the main components were manufactured overseas and sent to Australia for final assembly; local parts and materials were added including paint, soft trim, carpets, tyres, and any number of other parts depending on the car.

The CKD cars and trucks included the Humber Hawk, Super Snipe and Vogue, Singers, Commer and Karrier petrol and "knocker" diesel trucks, Commer 1500 delivery vans, and the Hillman Minx, Imp, Hunter and Arrow. The Sunbeam MK I, II, III and Alpine were fully imported.

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Many of the panels that arrived in packs from the Coventry, UK Rootes plant had the words "reject" scrawled across them in chalk. These UK plant "second best" parts provided plenty of challenges for local assembly. Many parts and panels were modified by the skilled workers in order that they would fit the cars. It was these sub-standard parts and panels that lead to a reputation of poor reliability in the Hunter, although many other local cars suffered similar quality problems during this era.

When Chrysler took over the plant in 1966, Highland Park ordered that Chrysler signage be added to the existing large signage along the side of the plant. The local managers refused to carry out the requested new signage changes explaining that they would not reflect well on Chrysler. This caused much frustration for Chrysler executives in Detroit, who could not see a problem with a sign that read "Chrysler - Rootes Australia." To Australians, the term "root" is common terminology for sexual intercourse!

By 1967, the modern Tonsley Park Chrysler assembly plant in Adelaide was enjoying large volumes of production. It was decided that, due to the CKD nature of the Dodge Phoenix, a local version of the Plymouth Fury, it would be a better fit at Port Melbourne along with the other CKD vehicles assembled there. The larger and more prestigious Humber range was killed off due to a perceived clash with Chrysler's own Valiant Regal, despite a good reputation and loyal customers. Sales of other Rootes products had seen a decline from the early 1960s peak, so production capacity was available at Port Melbourne; Hillmans continued to be assembled in diminishing numbers until 1972.

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Despite upgrades throughout the 50s and 60s, the assembly operation at Port Melbourne was ancient compared to the modern Tonsely Park facility in South Australia. Chrysler continued manufacturing the Hillman; the new Hunter and Arrow initially showed promise. A GT version was produced along with a roomy wagon.

The Hillman Hunter Hustler was essentially a mini Valiant Pacer, which in turn owed its origins to the Plymouth Road Runner - a stripped-down performance car with wild paint and cartoon style magazine advertisements and mod decals to match its big brother.

The tiny Imp was the Rootes answer to the Mini, but had many initial problems that the local Rootes engineers soon discovered. It was however innovative and became a solid little car by the late 60s, after many of the faults were remedied by the Australian engineers. The last Imps went down the line in 1970.

Like other local Chryslers, both the Imps and Hunters had the Chrysler Pentastar mounted just behind the front wheel arch. To fill gaps in the showroom line-up, due to the Hillman's sagging fortunes, the Mitsubishi Galant (badged as a Chrysler Valiant Galant) was added to Port Melbourne assembly in 1971. These cars were solid and reliable, with an excellent reputation. It showed that when the Port Melbourne plant was given a well engineered vehicle to start with, they could turn out a quality product.

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The major change at Port Melbourne after the Chrysler take-over however, was the introduction of the Dodge Phoenix to the plant. This large US-based car was marketed as the prestige model of Chrysler Australia and sold against the local Ford Galaxie LTD, AMC Rambler Matador, and GMs Pontiac Parisienne and Chevrolet Impala, all of which were assembled in Australia. The Phoenix enjoyed strong sales in this large car prestige segment.

The Dodge Phoenix used bits and pieces borrowed from the Dodge Polara (essentially the dashboard and instrument panel). It sold in two models, a four door sedan with the 318 V8 and a 4 door pillarless hardtop with the 383 big block V8. These cars sold to well-to-do businessmen, politicians, government departments, and even the military.

The cars were updated each year, reflecting the new US model Fury. Parts packs came from Chrysler Canada and, most likely, other components from the Chrysler export plant in Dearborn. Local content included carpets, seats and other soft trim, paint, tyres and various other parts and modifications required for right hand drive and to comply with local regulations and conditions.

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The assembly line at Port Melbourne was made to build small 1940s sized Hillman cars, not the huge C-bodies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The line was so tight that two Phoenixes could not be built one after the other, a Hunter or Imp would be required to follow a Dodge down the line so the bodies had enough space between them. This caused great challenges in production scheduling.

In 1969 it was announced that 400 numbered, limited edition Phoenixes would be produced each year. Each car would contain a plate on the dashboard signifying the number the car e.g. 122 out of 400. This limited edition concept continued until 1972. Whilst full production records from the Port Melbourne plant don't seem to exist, it is clear that many more than 400 examples of these limited editions were produced in 1968 and 1969, and far fewer than 400 in 1971 and 1972.

Shortly after Dodge Phoenix production began at Port Melbourne in 1967, a memorable incident occurred. At the end of the assembly line the cars were moved onto a test roller. Here the cars were accelerated through various speeds and the car and driveline were tested for vibration and rattles. The rollers had been designed for 4 cyl Hillman Minxes, rather than the V8 power of the Dodges.

On one particular day, a Phoenix broke loose at 50 mph and accelerated like a rocket across the plant and crashed into a group of production offices that were alongside the assembly line. No injuries were reported, as it was break time and the offices were empty, but there was extensive damage to the offices and the car. Some explaining was required as to how all this damage had occurred.

The 15 acre Port Melbourne complex consisted of the main assembly plant along with a number of separate buildings that included paint shop, body shop, tool shop, trim line, parts, and service. Later, Commer and Karrier truck assembly was incorporated into a more modern plant in the main facility, as it had originally existed in another factory further along Salmon St known as "the old shed."

On the main assembly line, up to eight people would be working around each vehicle at each station. At the peak in the early 1960s, a hundred cars were produced each day. The plant employees were made up of many different nationalities, including Italians, Germans, Maltese, and Greeks. More than a few Port Melbourne VFA footballers were employed at the plant and even some fathers and sons worked alongside each other.

At the peak around 1,500 employees worked at the plant. It had its own medical facilities and large cafeteria, and generous annual Christmas parties were held. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Chrysler considered completely modernising the Port Melbourne plant or building a new assembly plant in Sydney; the lower-than-expected sales of the new VH Valiant range (aside from the Charger) in 1971 ended thoughts of any new plants.

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By 1972, Chrysler had decided to cease production at Port Melbourne and sell the facility. Galant production moved to Tonsley Park. Later Mitsubishis, like the Lancer, also proved popular and ultimately led to full Australian construction of the Sigma. This Australian version of the Mitsubishi Galant returned Chrysler Australia to the top of the sales charts - and profitability - in 1977.

Despite the closure of Port Melbourne, stocks of Hillmans and Dodge Phoenixes remained at dealerships well into 1973. Today, most of the Port Melbourne factory buildings remain; they were due for demolition, along with most of the other factories in the Fishermans Bend region of Port Melbourne, for new high rise housing. The main assembly plant and administration building has, however, been recommended for preservation due not only to its Chrysler and Rootes automotive past, but also to its interesting military history.


Also see Hey Charger! (the definitive Australian Valiant book) review

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