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The following article appeared in Restored Cars issue number 89, November/December 1991.


By: Peter Kelly

By 1959, GMH had been assembling CKD Chevrolet and Pontiac sedans for almost 10 years and its perhaps worthwhile taking a look at some of their operational procedures involved in getting these cars into the marketplace.
By the late 50's, these two makes were the upper end of the GMH product range. Remember that the Buick and Oldsmobile had been dropped from the CKD production schedules ten years earlier. Vauxhall Cresta and Victor models were also CKD assembled in considerable numbers, and would be into the mid 60's. Thus, was GMH able to offer quite a diverse range of passenger vehicles, covering all aspects of a then relatively lucrative market.
The top brass at GMH would have much preferred to concentrate all their manufacturing and production capacity into making and selling Hoidens. In the absence of any serious competition, Holdens were selling really well and the ring of the cash register was beautiful music indeed. In fact, the corporate bean counters would have been quite happy to dispense with CKD assembly altogether.
General Motors, Detroit, had other ideas though, and through its Overseas Operations Branch, began preparations for the next model to be Australianised, in this case the 1959 model.
General Motors Overseas Operations, Detroit were responsible for all decisions regarding the models to be made available in Australia although because of preferred tariff agreements with Canada, (Australia and Canada were both still part of the British Commonwealth) all CKD vehicles destined for Australia were sourced from Canada.
General Motors Holden, had, by October, 1957 received advanced product information regarding the specifications and general layout of the model for 1959, to be known as Bel-Air, from the Overseas Operations Dept.
The model to be imported was: Canadian Chevrolet Series 1519 sedan (4 door, 6 window, thin pillar).
This model was to be the first locally assembled Chevrolet with an automatic transmission, the Powerglide, and the last with the 6 cylinder Hi-Thrift 235 cid engine.
GMOO clearly specified that air suspension and power steering were not to be made available for Australian Chevrolet vehicles, but it was available on the 1959 Pontiac.
GMH got the ball rolling by importing a fully assembled 1959 Bel-Air from Canada. A 1959 Pontiac kept it company on the boat. These cars allowed GMH engineers and technicians time to familiarise themselves with their new toys, before the CKD packages started arriving. Even though the GMH engineers had plans and drawings in their possession and were by now familiar with the general appearance and layout of the Bel-Air, when the car sat in the styling room, they were apparently somewhat taken aback by its bizarre, sculpted rear end, and the way the "cat's eyes" seemed to glare back at them in a darkened room. Some had a doubt or two about the saleability of such a beast to a public that associated Chevrolet with a more conservative styling, much like the 58 Chevrolet Biscayne that was then half way through its production run.
Many Chev owners would only buy another Chev and the 59 Bel-Air sold well enough. As but a lad, I distinctly remember a friend of father buying a brand spanking new black 59 Bel-Air, then and there deciding that I too, would one day, own one of these "things from another world".
The boys at GMH put the "pattern car" to work straight away. The car was retrimmed, the leather upholstery being the most significant change inside, and, externally, was fitted with the dinky little rear trafficators that were to become such a distinct feature. These indicators were added to comply with forthcoming regulations that would require amber rear trafficator lenses on all future vehicles manufactured or assembled in Australia. The units were USA Guide brand and were originally used as a reverse lamp on 1949-52 Chevrolets with a clear lense.
CKD assembled vehicles were trimmed in locally manufactured materials. Roof lining and door trim was Holden stock, and as mentioned, acres of burgundy or tan leather, depending on the color scheme. Other local content items were to include wheels and tyres, window glass (except windscreen which was imported), springs, shock absorbers, radiator battery and electrical components, plus a few other bits and pieces.
The Bel-Air "pattern car" was registered in Victoria on Feb. 25 1959 for road use, handling trials and publicity. This date was some four months before the local model was due in the showrooms. Any modifications required were trialled on this car before being incorporated into the assembly line.
As far as I am aware, this car was later sold. Unfortunately, little is known about the original 1959 Pontiac. Photographs indicate that this car retained its Canadian vinyl upholstery. Presumably, it too was sold when no longer needed.
All Australian assembled Chevs and Pontiacs were given local color schemes, the same as Holdens of the day. These color schemes were unique to Australia.
The exact number of Chevrolets and Pontiacs assembled in Australia for 1959 is not known. Sales figures have appeared in several publications and all differ. As body numbers were sequential, and the highest known Chevrolet body number is 1911, this figure must be reasonably close ... about 250 Pontiacs were assembled for that year. (One must remember the Pontiacs sold in Australia in 1959 were from Canada and were virtually Pontiac bodies on Chevrolet chassis. Even the bodies shared the same dashboards and other features. USA Pontiacs had very little interchangeability with Chevrolet).
All bodies were assembled at the Woodville plant, and each vehicle was painted, trimmed and numbered. At this stage, the bodies were yet to be mated to the chassis, and from this point, bodies were distributed among all five assembly plants for final assembly. These plants were in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. A vehicle due for final assembly in a plant, other than Adelaide, was shipped to that plant by rail. Final assembly involved mating the body to the chassis, fitting all the mechanicals, engine and so on, and fitting the front panels. All these components were shipped to the assembly plant in crates. Any vehicle that underwent final assembly in Melbourne was given a Melbourne chassis number, indicated by the letter M. Each assembly plant used the capital city as a suffix, i.e. A, S, P or B.
It is known that each assembly plant started their chassis numbers at 001, the plant suffix being the only way of determining where a vehicle was built. Chassis numbers and body numbers don't always match up, the reason being that bodies that were shipped by rail were stored in open air "body parks" until required on the assembly line. Chassis were delivered separately, and were numbered when the crates were opened, and which body was mated to which chassis was purely a matter of chance, although there's a few examples of body/chassis combinations with both numbers in sequence. I believe that American built Chevrolet bodies were numbered at random, just like ours.
A study of chassis numbers has shown that over one third of the 1959 Bel-Air final assembly took place in Melbourne, with the remaining two thirds being shared between the other four plants.
Pontiacs were numbered separately and were slotted in among the Chevrolets on the assembly line.
"1959 CHEVROLET & PONTIAC IN AUSTRALIA" is a reproduction of an article written by Mr. Peter Kelly that appeared in Restored Cars (issue no. 89, November/December 1991. Consent to reproduce this article on www.ozgm.com has been kindly granted by both Mr. Eddie Ford, Editor and Publisher of Restored Cars, and Mr. Peter Kelly. 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: Peter Kelly; Magazine: Restored Cars; Copy of Magazine: OzGM Collection; Scans of original photos: Peter Kelly.