MANY Australians don’t know that Volkswagen used to be a serious manufacturer in Oz.
Its factory in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton – later taken over by Nissan and now the home of HSV – was a vast 365,000 square metres, and component suppliers including fellow Germans Bosch, VDO and Hella set up nearby in order to feed the plant. Bosch and Hella are still there, but Volkswagen ceased production in 1977, while Nissan produced cars there until it also shut down its Australian production in 1992.
Examples of the German-made Beetle first arrived here in late 1953, featuring a 22kW 1131cc air-cooled flat-four, but in June 1954, Martin & King started assembling them in Clayton from imported CKD kits, complete with an upgraded 27kW 1192cc engine.
Changing government policy encouraged car manufacturers to increase local content and by 1957 the Beetle was 51 percent Aussie. Volkswagen (Australasia) Pty Ltd was then formed and after some huge investment in the Clayton plant, VW began full local manufacture of the Beetle in 1959.
The following year, the Beetle became Australia’s second-bestselling car behind the FB Holden, and by 1965 it had reached 95 percent local content, but newer Japanese rivals had a crushing impact on Volkswagen sales. To survive, the factory reverted to CKD assembly in 1968 and began loaning production space to other manufacturers.
At its high point, VW’s factory had 40 presses and the largest aluminium and magnesium foundry in the country. The operation exported to New Zealand, New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Fiji, Western Samoa and the Solomon Islands.
An iconic design that thrived in Australian conditions
By the late-60s, more modern rivals were outselling it