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By: Stephen Bresnehan

Australia is not somewhere that immediately springs to mind as Chevrolet country. To be honest, it isn't. Every now and then, though, a Chevrolet is spotted on Australian roads. A 'vette here, a Bel Air there, mostly private imports. Prior to WW2, the story was a little different.
Chevrolet was one of GM’s mainstays in Australia through the thirties and forties. The full line-up included the UK Vauxhalls, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and a tiny number of La Salles and Cadillacs. US GM cars sold in Australia were assembled from imported Canadian mechanicals and front panels, and fitted with locally built look-alike bodies. Why Canadian mechanicals? Canada and Australia, being both British Commonwealth nations, had fewer trade barriers between them than the US and Australia. This made for lower export costs for getting the bits to the GM assembly plants in Australia.
The mechanicals were assembled and bodies built by Australian subsidiary General Motors-Holden, who went on to launch a car under their own name in '48. It looked like a three quarter scale '48 Chevy with a ’48 Buick style grille, and it owed most of its development to the late thirties Chev 195-Y-15 prototype which itself was essentially a cut-and-shut '39 Chevy. This first Holden, named the ‘48/215’ but often referred to as the ‘FX’, became the top selling car in Australia, displacing the Austin A40 Devon of all things! The 48/215 was replaced by the face lifted FJ series and carried on to the mid-late fifties. It is something of a cultural icon now. Oddly enough, for a car that Australia called 'its own', the bulk of the design work and prototype development were done in Detroit...
Anyway, back to 1939. The Chevrolet came in two varieties- the cheaper Standard and slightly more up market Master. Mechanically they were identical except Standards had a beam-axle front suspension and floor-mounted gear shift while Masters came with a double-wishbone independent front end and vacuum-assisted gear shift mounted on the steering column. As the bodies were locally built, not all the body styles sold in the US were replicated here. Sedans came only in four-door configuration; there was no ‘flatback’ coach sedan, no US style coupe and possibly no Woody wagons, although this is still a bit unclear.
There were also a few unusual body variants developed for the local market. The two prime examples of these are the Coupe Utility and the All-Enclosed Coupe. The Coupe Utility, or 'ute' is basically a sedan-based pickup with a roof line very similar to the US coupe without the rear quarter-windows. Think of a thirties style El Camino and you're onto the general idea. Considered to be 'elegant enough for town, strong enough for the country', or so the advertisements claimed, the Coupe Utility proved to be an immensely practical design. Coupe Utility bodies were discontinued on the Chevs in 1952 but continued on the Holden cars, and to this day there are utes still being made at Holden.
None, or at least very few indeed of the US style Coupes were imported, but the local version of the coupe is rather special. From about '35, Holden built All-Enclosed Coupe bodies for all the GM line. They were two-door fastback style bodies very much like the later forties Chevy Fleetline Aero. Examples of the '35 or '36 Chevy All-Enclosed Coupe body were sent to the US GM styling department for review and it is not unreasonable to assume there was a connection between these and the '40s Aero Fleetline Chevrolet sedan. Because of the long, unbroken curve from the roof to the rear bumper, the cars were given the nickname of 'sloper'. The slopers were traveling salesman's cars for the most part, and they all featured folding rear seats to extend the load carrying area- a little like the modern hatchback. Holden stopped fitting Sloper bodies to GM cars around 1940 and the style was never revived on the Australian market after World War 2.
The '39 Roadster was a little different as well. An extra cross member on the chassis meant the battery was relocated from its traditional spot under the driver's feet to a bracket on the firewall. The windscreen was lower and smaller than other '39s, and there were fabric button-down side curtains instead of roll-down windows in the doors. The roadster came in two variants- one with rumble seat, and one with a conventional trunk lid. There was no four-door open tourer or 'phaeton' version - this body type was phased out by Holden in 1937.
According to 'The History of Holden Since 1917' (Norm Darwin, E.L. Ford Publications, 1983), 9710 Chevrolets were produced by General Motors-Holden in 1939. Of these, 4640 were Standard sedans, 2129 were Master sedans, 88 were Standard roadsters, 724 were All-Enclosed Coupes, or Slopers (53 Master, 83 Standard Business and 588 Standard Sports), and 2129 were Standard Coupe Utilities.
It cost 399 (Australian pounds, not sterling. The currency converted to Australian dollars in 1966) to buy yourself the new '39 Chev Master sedan, compared to 357 for the Standard sedan. These are probably the prices before sales tax (anybody's guess how much that was). The Australian Monthly Motor Manual magazine (June 1949) lists the used-car price of '39 Chevies as 475 (Master) and 450 (Standard). At this time, cars were still fairly scarce and the Holden 48-215 (FX) had only been on sale for just over six months. Controls on the sale of new cars were still in place and used car prices were very much inflated. Motor Manual (June 1949 again) lists brand new Chevrolets at 854 including tax, while 1946 and later used Chevs were commanding between 900 and 1050.

Basic visible body differences - Australian vs US 1939 Chevrolet four-door:

The Australian body has its door handles aligned to the body moulding stripe rather than below it; Two piece rear window; Rear light pods are mounted lower; Rear door has concealed hinges; Front doors has concealed top hinge; Bonnet mascot is thinner and smaller; C-pillar (rear of rear doors) is more angled; Front door quarter-vents are smaller; Rear body and roof line looks to be less upright; All are right-hand drive; and its a good bet all the paint colors and trims are different.

The old Holden-bodied Master DeLuxe four door sedan [see picture] is a bit of a mess to look at, but the restoration is underway. Originally a grey car (The lighter shade of grey is the original paint; the rest is primer), the Chevrolet carries the Preston Motors (Melbourne, Victoria) decal on the dashboard, body no. 313 and an original early '39 production engine number. At some stage, it made its way to the island state of Tasmania and was found for sale by its current owner (your author) in 1990. The first two pictures [refer 1939 Photo Gallery]of the car are 'as found', although bumpers and turning indicators have been fitted prior to the taking of the second picture. The third picture shows the same car after painting. The plan is to get it refettled to a good usable condition and registered, then who knows- historic road rallying? Hmm. Drum brakes, steel dashboard, non-collapsing steering column. I'd best not tell the wife.

Incidentally, the old truck behind the Chev in the picture is a '54 Chevy 1100 with Holden-built cab. It has done years of fine service on the family farm and there are plans afoot for it as well.

"THE ’39 CHEVROLET IN AUSTRALIA." is a reproduction of an article written by Stephen Bresnehan that was first hosted by www.1939chevy.com. Consent to reproduce this article on www.ozgm.com has been kindly granted by both Stephen Bresnehan, and Jim Diaz, the webmaster 1939chevy.com. Please note that any further reproduction of this article without specific written permission is an infringement of the copyright.
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Reference Sources and Acknowledgments
Author: Stephen Bresnehan; References: 'The History of Holden Since 1917' (Norm Darwin, E.L. Ford Publications, 1983); Initial hosting domain: www.1939chevy.com