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Laurence John Hartnett

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Sir Laurence John Hartnett (1898-1986) was an engineer who made several important contributions to the Australian automotive industry, and is often called 'The Father of the Holden'.

1898 May 26th. Born in Woking, the son of John Joseph Hartnett, a doctor and inventor of patent medicines from Clonakilty, County Cork, who had an M.D. from Dublin and in 1892 had published a pamphlet on the treatment of tuberculosis. His mother, Katherine Jane Taplin, was the daughter of Wiltshire farmer George Taplin and his wife Kate. His father died nine months after his birth. Afterwards, mother and son went to live with Katherine's childless sister and brother-in-law for whom Katherine acted as housekeeper, initially in Southsea and then in Kingston-upon-Thames

1903 Commenced schooling in the home of a pair of middle-aged spinsters who taught him and some eight or nine other children in their dining room.

1905 Went to Kingston Grammar School

1909 Attended Epsom College, which specialised in educating the sons of doctors who were, themselves, generally destined to enter that profession. Larry had obtained a foundation scholarship, offered to those doctors’ sons whose families could not afford the fees.

1915 Became a management apprentice with Vickers. In the day-time his training focussed on industrial management at the company’s Crayford plant while in the evenings he studied theoretical subjects such as metallurgy and mathematics at a nearby technical school.

1918 Entered the Royal Naval College at Greenwich as a Probationary Flying Officer and received practical training at Chingford and Northolt airports before being appointed to Number 304 Bomber Squadron in Shropshire. The Armistice was signed before he had been able to fly a mission.

1919 Purchased a South London business which he renamed the Wallington Motor Co. In addition to making parts for gas stoves, it bought, sold, hired and repaired bicycles as well as the occasional automobile. Demand for motor cars in England in the immediate aftermath of the war was far greater than the supply and Hartnett increased the automotive side of his new venture by instructing his employees to make inquiries in nearby villages with a view to locating war widows who couldn’t drive but whose husbands prior to enlisting had left their cars up on blocks to await their owners’ return. He would offer to buy these vehicles, which often needed work done to make them roadworthy, with a view to repairing and reselling them at Wallington Motors. Initially, successful but the economy slowed and motor cars became harder to sell.

In September 1920, the Wallington Motor Company was forced to take out a £200 bank loan to remain afloat. Three months later, a further £600 was borrowed. Even so, the venture was unable to meet its liabilities, closing its doors for the last time in December 1921.

1922 Hartnett set up as an automobile engineer, renting part of a Wallington boot repair shop and dealing in bicycles, motor bikes and cars, but when this failed he turned to earning a precarious living as a free lance automotive consultant. He obtained commissions with firms such as the Nyasa Consolidated Company which wanted him to inspect vehicles it was considering buying for its commercial operations in central and east Africa.

In 1923 he sold a patent for improving insulators on radio aerials to a ceramics firm.

1923 March. Accepted a job as Automobile Engineer with trading firm Guthrie and Company which administered rubber plantations in southeast Asia as well as importing goods such as tea, alcoholic beverages and motor cars into the region. On his arrival in Singapore two months later he was put in charge of Guthrie and Co’s automobile distribution and sales operation in Grange Road. There, he handled mainly Buick cars for which the company had obtained the local franchise from American manufacturer General Motors in the previous February. Hartnett’s job was to unload and assemble these vehicles when they arrived by ship and to distribute them to a network of dealers he had appointed and whose activities he supervised throughout the region. He conducted the Singapore dealership himself.

1924 Following a change in Guthrie and Co’s London management, Hartnett felt that the firm was losing interest in the automotive side of its southeast Asian business and in September 1925 he wrote to General Motors Export Company seeking employment. Global automobile sales were rapidly expanding at this time due in large part to a general reduction in prices resulting from the adoption of mass production techniques. This in turn had generated a spiralling demand for senior staff to work for automotive exporting companies in markets proliferating throughout the world.

1925 February 26th. Married in Singapore to Gladys Tyler, whom he had met when, as an employee of Vickers he had lived with his mother next door to the Tyler family in Bexley Heath.

|General Motors, which had just sold its five millionth car and had been impressed with Hartnett’s success in distributing and selling its Buicks in southeast Asia, now offered him a job as a field representative in southern India. His main function would be to appoint and supervise the work of GM distributors in the Madras district. He accepted the position, resigning from Guthrie and Co on 31 March 1926, and embarked for Calcutta on 10 June accompanied by his wife.

He found GM’s business in Madras was being conducted in a haphazard manner and he appears to have been successful in improving the situation - so much so that he became one of only four salesmen world wide to win an award in General Motors’ 1926 ‘Prize Contest’ - which earned him a large bonus.

It was GM’s policy that all senior employees working overseas should spend some time in America studying the relationship between the Corporation’s business there and its international operations. So in April 1927, following a bout of malaria and dysentery, Hartnett headed for the US where, during the next five months he focused in particular on gaining a sound working knowledge of automobile manufacturing in Detroit and also took part in various feasibility studies at head office, examining proposals for setting up automobile assembly plants abroad to get around rising foreign tariff barriers.

1927 September. Appointed sales manager of General Motors Nordiska in Stockholm, taking charge of marketing the company’s vehicles throughout Sweden and Finland.

1929 January. His success in Sweden was rewarded when he was appointed head of the export section of the troubled Vauxhall Motors operation in Luton, England, which GM had acquired four years earlier and which was then operating at a considerable loss. He found a poisonous atmosphere prevailing at Luton where Vauxhall staff seemed consumed by resentment at the American parent company’s tendency to interfere with their operations. So, he welcomed the frequent opportunities afforded him as export sales manager for getting away from all this ill humour to familiarise himself with the firm’s foreign markets.

1929 September. With his wife and daughter Maureen, he set out on a year-long round-the-world-trip to acquaint himself with Vauxhall’s overseas markets, including in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

While Vauxhall, like most businesses, suffered during the Depression, its export arm actually prospered between 1931 and 1933. This was due partly to a sense of loyalty to the mother country among both British nationals abroad and the populations of Britain’s overseas dominions. At the same time, it was also a result of the popularity of exported Vauxhall Cadet cars. These were difficult to sell on the home market because their engines had little power as a result of the extremely high British horsepower tax. That tax, however, did not apply to exports, which meant Cadets offered for sale outside Britain were fitted with the new, powerful Bedford Truck engines first manufactured by Vauxhall in 1931 and were therefore very popular in foreign markets.

In addition, a significant devaluation of the pound sterling in that year greatly reduced the price of British goods abroad, including cars, while a general shortage of US dollars during the Depression years further inclined foreign buyers to purchase British vehicles.

Appointed managing director of the Australian firm General Motors-Holden’s Ltd (GMH). This operation had been formed in 1931 when Melbourne-based chassis importer General Motors (Australia) had amalgamated with Adelaide automotive body manufacturer Holden’s Motor Body Builders Ltd. The Australian government at this time, had imposed high duties on fully imported cars and therefore GMH manufactured bodies for its vehicles in Adelaide and imported its chassis parts in unassembled form to assemble them locally.

He consolidated the Melbourne operations which he had found scattered over seven widely separated locations. The main one - the Victorian chassis assembly plant in City Road - occupied a leased building that was too small to keep up with the increasing demand for vehicles as the economy was picking up in the mid ‘thirties. So, he decided to centralise the firm’s dispersed Victorian activities by erecting new, purpose-built accommodation on a vacant Government-owned 50-acre block of land at Fisherman’s Bend, whose sale required an act of the Victorian Parliament.

1934 Director and Export Manager Vauxhall

In 1936, together with Essington Lewis, CEO of the Broken Hill Proprietary company, W.S. Robinson, joint chairman of Broken Hill Associated Smelters, and Sir Lennon Raws and Sir Harry (later Lord) McGowan of Imperial Chemical Industries - all of whose companies contributed, along with General Motors, to the financing of the venture - he was involved in setting up the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, which proceeded to manufacture aircraft on a site at Fisherman’s Bend. Later known as Wirraways, they were based on a design of the North American Aviation Corporation, a partly owned General Motors subsidiary. When used in the Pacific war, however, they proved to be inferior in dogfights to the highly manoeuvrable Japanese Zeros.

In July 1940, he became Director of Ordnance Production, responsible for the procurement in Australia of weapons and other products such as armoured fighting vehicles, mobile laundries and field kitchens for Australia’s military forces. He took particular pride in the pioneering work done by his directorate in the development of optical glass for use in gun sights and related weaponry. Some of the prisms produced for use in instruments such as range finders, submarine periscopes and aerial photography were exported to the US.

He was also made head of the Army Inventions Directorate created by War Cabinet in January 1942 to solicit and evaluate proposals from the general public for improving the fighting efforts of Australia’s military forces. While most of the 21,645 suggestions received by this body over the subsequent three and a half years were dismissed out of hand as impracticable, 3,686 were sent to an expert advisory panel for closer consideration and 127, including a process for water-proofing maps and a container for safely dropping supplies from aircraft, were finally accepted for production.

In January 1942, as Japanese forces were heading southward down the Malay peninsular towards Singapore, Hartnett offered to forestall them by flying to the island, himself, gathering up valuable machine tool gauging equipment left there and bringing it back to Australia before the enemy’s arrival. The offer was accepted but he got no further than Darwin before the mission was called off and Singapore fell to the invader.

In recognition of these wartime contributions, following the cessation of hostilities in 1945 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire {CBE).

Hartnett continued to make important contributions to Australian motoring after he left GMH. He instigated an ambitious venture to build a uniquely Australian car, the Hartnett, based on a design by Frenchman, Jean Gregoire. The Hartnett was a front wheel drive design, with an air cooled, 600cc, horizontally opposed twin-cylinder engine. The venture failed, after problems with the supplier of the aluminium body panels. Approximately 120 cars were produced between 1949 and 1955, and few of these survive today.

Then, in 1957, he was involved in production of the Lloyd-Hartnett car, based on a German design. This venture also experienced misfortune, as Borgward, the German supplier of parts for the car, suffered financial problems.

1960 Hartnett commenced importing the Datsun to Australia, pioneering the importation of Japanese cars to Australia.

In 1966, Hartnett sought to establish local production of Nissan cars, but this was not successful. Nissan went on to assemble cars from CKD kits at the Pressed Metal Corporation plant in Sydney, followed in 1976 by assembly at the Melbourne factory where Volkswagen cars were once produced. Eventually, Nissan did commence full production of cars in Australia. This arrangement continued until 1992, when the Melbourne plant was closed in favour of importing cars direct from Japan.

In 1965, in honour of Sir Laurence Hartnett, the Society of Automotive Engineers Australasia established the annual Hartnett Award as an award for an outstanding original contribution to automotive or aeronautical engineering knowledge or practice.

He was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours of June 1967.

Wrote 'Big Wheels and Little Wheels'

1986 April 4th. Died


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • Vauxhall - Britain's Oldest Car Maker by Ian Coomber. 2017
  • Wikipedia