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.
“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.