Holden dealer-de­liv­ered Ca­maros

Half a cen­tury be­fore HSV launched its ‘re­man­u­fac­tured’ right­hand drive Chev Ca­maro, a small num­ber of Holden deal­ers im­ported, con­verted and sold GM’s orig­i­nal pony­car.

Australian Muscle Car - - Mail - Story: Luke West

“T he Amer­i­cans know it as ‘The Hug­ger’.”

That was how Bill Pat­ter­son Mo­tors in­tro­duced the Chevro­let Ca­maro to po­ten­tial buy­ers in its print ad­vert in 1967. The sporty new Amer­i­can coupe wasn’t a part of GM-H’s model range (of course, Holden at that time was gear­ing up for the re­lease of a V8-pow­ered sporty coupe of its own, in the HK Monaro), but if you han­kered for a ‘Hug­ger’, you could get one from a handful of Holden deal­ers such as Bill Pat­ter­son – and, re­mark­ably, only a mat­ter of months af­ter the Ca­maro rst went on sale in the USA.

Of course, the Ca­maros that ar­rived down un­der in the late ’60s were in orig­i­nal Amer­i­can left-hand drive form, and had to be con­verted to right-hand drive as per lo­cal laws. This was no great prob­lem, be­cause the prac­tice of con­vert­ing im­ported Amer­i­can cars in Aus­tralia was not new. As the fea­ture story that fol­lows in this is­sue out­lines, there was no short­age of in­de­pen­dent me­chan­i­cal work­shops in the ‘LHD to RHD’ game, es­pe­cially in the big cap­i­tal cities. This is com­mon knowl­edge.

In con­trast, we sus­pect few AMC read­ers know about the ‘Aus­tralian GM-H dealer-de­liv­ered Chevro­let Ca­maros’ of 50 years ago. These were rst gen­er­a­tion Ca­maros of­fered as brand new cars by a handful of GM-H deal­er­ships.

It’s im­por­tant to note that these Ca­maros were im­ported, con­verted and sold by the deal­ers with no di­rect sup­port or in­put from GM-H. These deal­ers also car­ried out high-end qual­ity in-house RHD con­ver­sions to brand new fully-im­ported Chevro­lets and in some cases other Amer­i­can GM pres­tige Cadil­lac, Buick, Oldsmo­bile and Pon­tiac mod­els.

These con­verted ve­hi­cles are not to be con­fused with the RHD Chevro­let and Pon­tiac mod­els as­sem­bled along­side cars from sis­ter brand Holden in GM-H as­sem­bly plants around Aus­tralia be­tween 1949 and 1970.

So, in many ways, the con­ver­sion to right­hand drive of Chevro­let Ca­maros by Holden Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles is not a new con­cept. HSV is, with Gen­eral Mo­tors’ full sup­port, sim­ply re­turn­ing the Chevro­let brand back to Aus­tralia af­ter a 48-year ab­sence.

With the 2018 Ca­maro be­ing the rst Chev pas­sen­ger car sold new in Aus­tralia in al­most ve decades, it’s timely to rewind to the late 1960s when buy­ers could walk into a small num­ber of en­ter­pris­ing GM-H deal­er­ships and or­der the rst gen­er­a­tion Ca­maro in RHD.

AMC is aware of four GM-H deal­er­ships that im­ported, con­verted and sold Ca­maros in the late ’60s off their own bat: the afore­men­tioned Bill Pat­ter­son Mo­tors, fel­low Mel­bourne dealer Pre­ston Mo­tors, Syd­ney’s Stack and Co, and Lock­hart Mo­tors on the Gold Coast.

This was in re­sponse to the run­away suc­cess of the Chevro­let Ca­maro in its home mar­ket upon re­lease in Sep­tem­ber 1966. Chevy’s rst Mus­tang- ghter was avail­able in the US as a two-door coupe or con­vert­ible with a choice of 230ci (3.8-litre), 250ci (4.1-litre) in­line six or 302ci (4.9-litre), 307ci (5.0-litre), 327ci (5.4-litre), 350ci (5.7-litre) and 396ci (6.5-litre) V8 pow­er­plants. The model grades for the rst year were Stan­dard, SS and RS.

Pre­ston Mo­tors had the in­side run­ning on Ca­maro im­por­ta­tion for the rst year as the of­fi­cial Chevro­let dis­trib­u­tor for Vic­to­ria, un­til that ar­range­ment ex­pired in 1967.

In­ter­est­ingly, the Rus­sell Street, Mel­bourne deal­er­ship ad­ver­tised the Ca­maro not as a hairy-chested mus­cle car but in the man­ner of the how the Chevro­let brand was mar­keted in Aus­tralia.

“Pre­ston Mo­tors, in 1967 pro­moted the Chevro­let Ca­maros that it of­fered for sale as lux­ury per­sonal cars, rather than per­for­mance cars,” lo­cal Chevro­let en­thu­si­ast Carl Kelsen ex­plained to AMC when shar­ing his col­lec­tion of clip­pings and in­for­ma­tion for this story.

“This was at the time in line with the fact that the Chevro­let brand was con­sid­ered a high-end lux­ury brand in Aus­tralia dur­ing the 1960s.

“It’s im­por­tant to ap­pre­ci­ate that the Chevro­let brand in Aus­tralia dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s was an up­mar­ket lux­ury brand sell­ing di­rectly against the likes of Mer­cedes Benz and Jaguar. Chevro­lets, even Chevro­let Ca­maros, were known not as per­for­mance cars but as lux­ury coupes. The small block V8 en­gines were known for their su­per quiet op­er­a­tion.”

It’s an ap­proach that re ects the price premium that own­ers paid for a brand new bowtie model. Taglines such as, “It’s a rare but dis­tinct plea­sure” and “King Maker” are clearly aimed at buy­ers for whom pres­tige and ex­clu­siv­ity is im­por­tant. Pre­ston Mo­tors’ ad­ver­tise­ment for its stand in the 1967 Mel­bourne Mo­tor Show pro­gramme stated Ca­maro “has ev­ery­thing you ever dreamed of in a sport lux­ury trans­port.”

It’s un­known how many Ca­maros were im­ported, con­verted and sold by Pre­ston Mo­tors off the back of their ex­ten­sive pro­mo­tional ef­forts. A dou­ble-digit gure is our best es­ti­mate.

In New South Wales, Chevro­let distri­bu­tion rights be­longed to Syd­ney CBD-based Stack and Co. ‘Stacks’ also pro­moted its GM range via

a mo­tor show dis­play of “the very lat­est Amer­i­can sports cars” in 1967, in­clu­sive of Ca­maro.

Con­ver­sion work was un­der­taken by Stacks and by Bill Buckle Mo­tors (see fol­low­ing story).

Alan McCoy worked at Stack and Co from 1963 to 1970 and says the con­ver­sion work was done both in-house and by Buckle’s op­er­a­tion – and in some cases by both.

“We did do Pon­ti­acs and the odd Chev,” McCoy re­calls. “The Chevs that came in left-hand drive, they pulled them apart at Stacks and some of the con­ver­sion was done by Bill Buckle, but a lot of the other work was done in in-house. Bill Buckle did a lot of con­ver­sions for Stacks and mainly build­ing a box for the chas­sis where they stuck the steer­ing box on it. We had our ma­chine shop at Stacks on Glen­more Road at Padding­ton, so we could do some con­ver­sions [in their en­tirety].”

An in­ter­view with Stacks sales­man Bob Mil­lar in AMC #50 high­lighted that the deal­er­ship also out­sourced con­ver­sion work to Gra­ham Se­nior in Granville. Mil­lar said Stacks would ship in over 50 Chevs and Pon­ti­acs per an­num at the peak, with Ca­maros among the most pop­u­lar. The deal­er­ship’s prox­im­ity to Rand­wick race­course meant lead­ing jock­eys were among its high­pro­file clients.

AMC knows lit­tle about Queens­land dealer Lock­hart Mo­tors’ con­ver­sion ef­forts at South­port and wel­comes fur­ther in­for­ma­tion.

Pat­ter­son Mo­tors in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne was ar­guably the most ac­tive mar­keter of Ca­maro in the late 1960s, ad­ver­tis­ing in car mag­a­zines.

Mo­tor Man­ual’s Oc­to­ber 1967 edi­tion car­ried the afore­men­tioned full page ‘The Hug­ger’ ad­ver­tise­ment, ac­com­pa­nied by a multi-page road test by jour­nal­ist Chris de Fraga of a turquoise 350 SS model with black vinyl roof. This right-hook stun­ner adorned the cover.

In­ter­est­ingly, the ac­tual re­port makes no men­tion of the fact this was a dealer-con­ver­sion job. The only ref­er­ence to the car’s ori­gins was this para­graph: “Price $7600 in­clud­ing tax, as tested. Test car from Bill Pat­ter­son Mo­tors, White Horse Road, Ring­wood, Vic­to­ria.”

Pat­ter­son’s mar­ket­ing had a sharper edge to it, push­ing Ca­maro’s per­for­mance cre­den­tials.

His­tory shows Pat­ter­sons to be one of the more pro­gres­sive, less con­ser­va­tive GM-H deal­ers.

Bill Pat­ter­son him­self was a long-time mo­tor­sport com­peti­tor, win­ning the 1961 Aus­tralian Driv­ers’ Cham­pi­onship when open­wheel­ers were lo­cal rac­ing’s pre­mier class. Later, long af­ter he had re­tired from race driv­ing, his deal­er­ship would help bring A9X To­ranas to life for Holden via the off­line fit­ment of bodykit items at Ring­wood and the back­ing of HDT refugee Pe­ter Brock’s 1977 rac­ing ef­forts.

A decade ear­lier ‘Patto’ was quick to spot the trend to­wards per­for­mance mo­tor­ing in the USA that was start­ing to catch on in Aus­tralia. With the image ma­chines sell­ing up a storm in the US not built in RHD, ‘Patto’ put a toe in the wa­ter for a new en­ter­prise that utilised the tal­ent of his deal­er­ship’s gun work­shop staff, the same ca­pa­ble guys who had pre­pared his rac­ing ma­chines.

One of his race me­chan­ics was Neil David­son, who started at Pat­ter­sons in 1962 as an ap­pren­tice me­chanic on the boss’s Cooper Cli­max be­fore “do­ing the rounds” of the deal­er­ship’s de­part­ments. David­son has vivid mem­o­ries of the con­ver­sion set-up.

“There were two guys that worked in what you could might call the ‘con­ver­sion de­part­ment’ – Jack Christie, a lovely bloke who was my boss the day I started as an ap­pren­tice, who did the con­ver­sions and an­other younger bloke, who was an ap­pren­tice. There was an­other chap who ran the body shop named Bob Jack­son.”

David­son was able to put AMC in

touch with Christie, who, in turn, di­rected us to Jack­son. But it was David­son who first painted us an over­all pic­ture of the op­er­a­tion. We asked him how big a side­line busi­ness it was for the thriv­ing deal­er­ship?

“Let’s put it this way: It wasn’t a busi­ness that re­quired a pro­duc­tion line,” David­son ex­plained. “It never grew to that level. They im­ported a few cars here and there and the con­ver­sions were done pre­dom­i­nantly by two guys. My mem­ory is that it was a slow, pro­tracted thing. You never had a run of Ca­maros and then a run of Chev­elles, for in­stance. It was al­ways ‘one of this and one of that’, get­ting through them one at a time. Maybe they con­verted 25 to 30 cars tops, across the var­i­ous mod­els – Ca­maros, Chev­elles, they even did a cou­ple of sta­tion-wag­ons at one point. [ ED: These were un­likely to be Chevs, as wag­ons were ex­ported to Oz as RHD]. Be­cause of the labour in­volved and the cost of im­port­ing them, they were pricey, spe­cial­ist, niche cars. The con­ver­sion busi­ness ran for three or four years, spas­mod­i­cally. They did, maybe, half-a-dozen Ca­maros.

“The con­ver­sion de­part­ment was in the main ser­vice work­shop and took up two or three bays of what was called the ‘new car de­part­ment’ where cars were prepped for de­liv­ery.”

Body shop man­ager Bob Jack­son over­saw the op­er­a­tion and co-or­di­nated the var­i­ous spe­cial­ist sup­pli­ers and parts needed.

“I was a mo­tor me­chanic by trade and then took a course in body-build­ing so I could run the body shop. Jack Christie was in the me­chan­i­cal shop. We fol­lowed mo­tor rac­ing to­gether and we put our hands up to have a go at the con­ver­sions.

“We gen­er­ally con­verted the mid-range mod­els or grade, be­cause the top of the range cars had too much elec­tri­cal stuff to con­vert in those days.

“The big­gest ones (Ca­maros) we did were the 350-en­gined cars. We weren’t set-up to do big vol­umes by any means. Patto had a thing for the Amer­i­can cars, es­pe­cially the Ca­maros and Pon­ti­acs.

“De­mand dried up af­ter a while, with the Monaro com­ing along and the Fords with the big en­gines. There were other pro­fes­sional crowds do­ing con­ver­sions at the same time, es­pe­cially in Syd­ney, who were bet­ter set up to do them. There was the cost fac­tor, too [which lim­ited the po­ten­tial mar­ket].

“Patto knew Bill Buckle well, so we got some point­ers off him and his blokes.

“There were some nice Ca­maros that we did. We did a bril­liant Chev Mal­ibu, a con­vert­ible, for Gen­eral Mo­tors and they used that for the King of Moomba for some big per­son­al­ity. The Chev­elle we did had a real big banger in it – a 396 (6.5-litre). That was the one that had an­tidive sus­pen­sion. All those Amer­i­can cars had plenty of go but not much stop.

“They were a bit floaty to drive. They were more than a handful if you got into a predica­ment with them.”

The predica­ments were not lim­ited to driv­ing, with switch­ing in­stru­men­ta­tion from left to right al­ways prov­ing a chal­lenge.

“It was very, very dif­fi­cult to do the in­stru­ments and things like that be­cause most of it was plas­tic,” Jack­son ex­plained. “We were do­ing plas­tic fu­sion for in­stru­ment pan­els. We did a Cadil­lac and that was a huge job in more ways than one.”

The rec­ol­lec­tions of the main hands-on ‘con­verter’, Jack Christie, mostly con­cur with those of his col­leagues, in­clud­ing the low tally of Ca­maros that emerged from the work­shop in RHD.

“We did about five of those cars,” the now 88-year-old re­calls. “When Patto started bring­ing them in, there was a man­ager in the panel shop, Bob Jack­son, my­self, and a se­nior ap­pren­tice. Bob was well up on the lat­est tech­nol­ogy when it came to weld­ing and so forth, so he was the over­seer of the lot.

“We used to take the track­rods – the steer­ing links – off from Pit­man arm right across to the steer­ing arms on the hub. We took the whole lot off and cut and welded the LH parts that fit­ted to the Pit­man arm, to the steer­ing box, con­vert it back over to the right side.

“We used to get the CIG welder, who was a trou­ble-shooter go­ing from busi­ness to busi­ness

solv­ing weld­ing prob­lems. We used to or­gan­ise for him to come out on a Satur­day morn­ing, and we’d cut the steer­ing arm – there’s one be­tween the Pit­man arm and the idler arm, and then there was the one that went from each of those to the steer­ing arms, which was the bit where the steer­ing box hooked up to it. And we’d change the left-side to the right-side by cut­ting the ma­te­rial, ‘vee­ing’ it, elec­tric weld­ing it, and get­ting it heat-treated. Then we’d take the steer­ing box off the left-side of the in­side of the chas­sis rail and move it over to the right. But we used to cut the chas­sis rail where the steer­ing box was go­ing to fit and put a plate welded to the cross­mem­ber back and over to the chas­sis rail. And the box sat down in there, bolted to that plate that we’d welded in, with the left-side steer­ing box. We had to cut the orig­i­nal chas­sis rail so the box could fit in and align to the right po­si­tion for the Pit­man arm to the steer­ing link­age.

“Once we worked it out, it was al­right. As I said, we did about five of those Ca­maros.”

If re­lo­cat­ing the steer­ing box was com­plex, mod­i­fy­ing the dash was rel­a­tively easy, Jack Christie re­calls.

“The dash panel just changed from the left side, all com­plete, to the right. We al­tered the shape so the in­stru­ment clus­ter could move from the left to

the right. And that worked out well. They changed the wipers stalk over as well, I think.

“The CIG bloke would come out and weld where we changed bits over from one side to the other. We made sure we had the right ma­te­rial to match the track­rods and that. It was all done pro­fes­sion­ally. We’d set it up for the welder, he’d come and do the job and then it was all got heat­treated and checked, as in x-rayed. How long did it take? “I’m only guess­ing now, but each car was a week’s work, or 10 days, some­thing like that.

“We did some Chev­elles, in­clud­ing one for Patto, as his per­sonal car. We also did a Chev van that be­came the deal­er­ship’s cour­tesy van tak­ing ser­vice cus­tomers to the city af­ter they dropped their cars off – and back again later.

“Bob Jack­son or­gan­ised du­pli­cates of the in­stru­ment clus­ters for the right side to be made, so it looked iden­ti­cal to the left-side. He or­gan­ised all of that stuff, which was his spe­cial­ity, I just did the labour­ing work. They were mostly pow­er­glide two-speed au­tos.

“I couldn’t imag­ine Holden would have been too happy about what we were do­ing. But Patto didn’t give a damn about it; he was such a big dealer with so much clout.

“One of the rst cus­tomers who came to us was a fella who lived in the coun­try. He got a white Ca­maro.”

When Jack told us about the chap who or­dered the white Ca­maro we knew ex­actly who he was re­fer­ring to. As luck would have it, one of AMC’s many en­thu­si­as­tic vol­un­teer pro­duc­tion helpers, Ja­son Chap­lin, had chanced upon this very owner and car in his trav­els. AMC had put the word out to our net­work and rel­e­vant car clubs that we were on the look­out for Aus­tralian GM-H dealer-de­liv­ered Chevro­let Ca­maros, along with Buckle- and Mor­ris-con­verted ex­am­ples.

Given the small num­ber of ex­am­ples pro­duced, it’s mirac­u­lous that any Patto Ca­maros sur­vive to­day, let alone one in the un­mo­lested con­di­tion of the car dis­played on these pages. For AMC to nd a sur­vivor still in the hands of its orig­i­nal owner... well, that’s truly as­ton­ish­ing.

This owner wishes to re­main anony­mous, but kindly agreed to al­low AMC to pho­to­graph and dis­play his Pat­ter­sons-con­verted Ca­maro here, so that the story of these cars could be told.

Our man, who has al­ways been a Chevro­let en­thu­si­ast, be­lieves it was the Oc­to­ber 1967

Mo­tor Man­ual ar­ti­cle, with the teale car on the cover, that drew his at­ten­tion to the avail­abil­ity of RHD Ca­maros from Bill Pat­ter­son Mo­tors.

“I still have that mag­a­zine some­where,” he says. “The blue one was the demon­stra­tor and show­car. They were con­vert­ing an­other Chev

model the day I went down there.”

While the mag­a­zine tested a 350ci (5.7-litre) V8 matched to a twospeed auto, the white RS model sur­vivor sports an­other combo.

“It’s a 327 with a three-speed man­ual. It’s the only one that came to Aus­tralia that I know. I orig­i­nally wanted a four-speed, but they came back with, ‘Well, you can get a three-speed 327 in black with a white snout, or white with black snout. From mem­ory it took three months or so to get here (from the USA) and be con­verted.

“I could have had one in­side a month if I wanted a 350 en­gine and auto. But I had to wait sev­eral months to get what I wanted.

“Some­one rang me up and told me the day it was be­ing off­loaded off the boat in Mel­bourne. So that was a big deal. I drove it from the wharf from Pat­ter­sons. I don’t know how I man­aged that, but I did. I wouldn’t like to try the LHD in the city to­day.”

He has vivid mem­o­ries of see­ing the soon-to-be-his Ca­maro be­ing un­loaded from the ship. No drive-on, drive-off ves­sels in those days; in­stead he saw his piece of pre­cious cargo un­nerv­ingly sus­pended high above as it was un­loaded.

“The bloke who did the con­ver­sion did a per­fect job. I couldn’t ask for bet­ter. The fact that it’s still go­ing strong to­day is tes­ta­ment to the qual­ity of the work done in the rst place.

“I paid $6800 or $6900 for the Ca­maro. I was driv­ing a ’64 black Be­lair. And they had a buyer for that and of­fered me a big amount of money. So I sold it to them be­fore I got the Ca­maro. They of­fered me a $4000 for the Be­lair.”

Fifty years on from de­liv­ery, the car re­mains in the same spec as pur­chased, ex­cept for the wheels and tyres. “It still smells like a new car from the 1960s. I’ve never had one soli­tary prob­lem with it. No squeaks, no rat­tles from the dash... noth­ing. It’s not modi ed at all. I put ’71 wheels on it pretty early on. When it came new it had those big, full cir­cle wheels cov­ers on it. I still have them some­where. I re­placed the orig­i­nal Fire­stones af­ter a cou­ple of months, af­ter the rst time it got driven in the wet. They were hope­less. It was our fam­ily car at the time, so mostly driven by my wife. We brought both our sons home from hos­pi­tal in it af­ter they were born.”

AMC is un­aware of any other sur­viv­ing GM-H dealer-de­liv­ered Ca­maros. One red Pat­ter­sons ex­am­ple was de­stroyed early in its life, while the deal­er­ship’s teale demon­stra­tor is thought to have been heav­ily-modi ed dur­ing the street ma­chine craze. What be­came of a yel­low Patto con­vert­ible is not known. Per­haps it’s still out there, safely tucked away in a shed like our fea­ture car. AMC is in­debted to Carl Kelsen, Ja­son Chap­lin, Frank Fal­zon and the Ca­maro Fire­bird Own­ers Club of Aus­tralia Inc for their as­sis­tance pro­duc­ing this ar­ti­cle. Spe­cial thanks to our fea­ture car’s owner, who wishes to re­main anony­mous.

The owner of our fea­ture car still mar­vels at the qual­ity of the Pat­ter­sons con­ver­sion. “Fifty years on, there’s still no squeaks or rat­tles from the dash,” he en­thuses. The car is now safely stored away and re­tains orig­i­nal badg­ing. Only wheels and tyres are not as de­liv­ered.

Right: There’s no sign of a ‘Con­verted to RHD by Bill Pat­ter­son Mo­tors’ plate in the en­gine bay, un­like the Bill Buckle-con­verted cars which wore a tag.

Above and top left: While Pat­ter­sons ad­ver­tised their Ca­maro con­ver­sions, they did a num­ber of one-off RHD jobs for the boss and for GM-H. These pics were sup­plied by for­mer em­ployee Bob Jack­son.

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