The in­de­pen­dent con­vert­ers

GM-H deal­ers weren’t the only Aussie busi­nesses con­vert­ing Ca­maros and other Amer­i­can cars from LHD to RHD in the 1960s. Among those oth­ers who got a piece of the con­ver­sion ac­tion was a promi­nent pair of rac­ing iden­ti­ties based in Syd­ney’s wealthy beachs

Australian Muscle Car - - Mail - Story: Steve Nor­moyle Im­ages: Chris Cur­rie His­tor­i­cal: Bill Buckle ar­chives

When the rst gen­er­a­tion Ca­maros ar­rived on our shores in the late 1960s in orig­i­nal Amer­i­can left-hand drive trim – and there­fore had to be con­verted to right-hand drive – this was not an in­sur­mount­able prob­lem. That’s be­cause the prac­tice of con­vert­ing im­ported US ‘metal’ in Aus­tralia was not new.

A thriv­ing cot­tage in­dus­try al­ready ex­isted: there were sev­eral work­shops in Syd­ney and Mel­bourne which had been mak­ing a very good liv­ing per­form­ing such con­ver­sions on all kinds of Amer­i­can mus­cle (and the odd Euro ex­otic) since the early ’60s.

In­deed, by the time the rst Ca­maros lobbed here there were al­ready plenty of right-hand drive ex­am­ples on Aus­tralian roads of its Ford neme­sis, the Mus­tang. Along with var­i­ous Buicks, Cadil­lacs, Corvettes, Lin­colns, Thun­der­birds… any­thing Amer­i­can that took a cus­tomer’s fancy.

One of the big­ger con­vert­ers in Syd­ney was Bill Buckle. As the man who gave us what is surely the rst Aus­tralian-made two-seater sports coupe, the Ford Ze­phyr­pow­ered Buckle Coupe (not to men­tion the Gog­gomo­bil and other glass bre won­ders) in the 1950s, Buckle had the

req­ui­site ex­per­tise and busi­ness acu­men to un­der­take such work – even though he found him­self in the con­ver­sion busi­ness as much by ac­ci­dent as de­sign.

“I bought my­self a Corvette Stingray, a new car, and did the con­ver­sion my­self at home,” Buckle, now in his early nineties, ex­plained to AMC for this story. “It took about a week. It was a rel­a­tively easy con­ver­sion. There were much harder ones af­ter that!”

The con­ver­sion busi­ness just flowed on from there. A right-hand drive Corvette Stingray wouldn’t have been easy to miss in Syd­ney in the early ’60s; al­most as soon as it was on the road Buckle started get­ting en­quiries from peo­ple who’d seen it and wanted a right-hook Corvette of their own.

“Then the mes­sage just got around, I guess. It just never stopped from there.”

Bill Buckle Auto Con­ver­sions in Brook­vale on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches opened for busi­ness in 1963. Un­der Buckle’s as­tute di­rec­tion, it quickly de­vel­oped into a busy and lu­cra­tive op­er­a­tion.

“We ended up do­ing a lot of work for GM and Ford deal­ers; we did cars for Stack and Co, the NSW dis­trib­u­tors of Pon­tiac and Chevro­let. And we also did a lot for pri­vate ones for wealthy in­di­vid­u­als.”

A cus­tomer base of ‘wealthy in­di­vid­u­als’ was the key to the vi­a­bil­ity of con­ver­sion busi­ness. Con­vert­ing any car from left to right-hand drive is a com­pli­cated, labour in­ten­sive job that will of­ten present some dif­fi­cult en­gi­neer­ing

puz­zles. It is by its na­ture, quite in­volved and ex­pen­sive work.

“The big part of it was chop­ping the chas­sis and re­mount­ing the steer­ing box,” Buckle ex­plains. “If you were do­ing mul­ti­ples of the same model car, you could make tem­plates and get ev­ery­thing pre­pared, so you could do it rea­son­ably quickly. But it was a big job – and they had to be done right. You had to get the steer­ing ge­om­e­try cor­rect, which wasn’t al­ways easy. Some of the other peo­ple do­ing con­ver­sions weren’t do­ing it right.

“There were quite a few cars where there was no pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting the steer­ing box in the right spot to get the ge­om­e­try cor­rect. Dodge Charg­ers with the Slant Six en­gine were one. We fin­ished up run­ning a short steer­ing col­umn from the steer­ing wheel down to a bevel-drive gear­box. Com­ing off that, we had a shaft go­ing across be­hind the dash, con­nect­ing to an­other bevel gear­box, prob­a­bly mounted about where the glove­box was, and that sent a col­umn down to the steer­ing box. That turned out to be very suc­cess­ful. To make the gear­boxes we’d fab­ri­cate square boxes out of steel plate, with bear­ings and bevel gears. That worked well. It was a big job but by do­ing it that way we were able to re­tain the cor­rect steer­ing ge­om­e­try for that car.

“We fin­ished up with a pretty good rep­u­ta­tion. But you had to make sure they were done right. Just say you had four mil­lion­aires in a Lin­coln Con­ti­nen­tal or Cadil­lac or some­thing and it goes off the road, and it gets proven that you’ve stuffed up a con­ver­sion… I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

“You needed very good trades­men, guys who could think, and who you could trust to weld steer­ing com­po­nents and make sure they stayed as good as when they were new.”

As Bill ex­plains, some of the en­gi­neer­ing co­nun­drums his team would en­counter with some con­ver­sion jobs were mind bog­gling.

“With some of the Thun­der­birds, they had this fea­ture that when you put the gear lever in park, you could move the steer­ing col­umn across to the cen­tre of the car so you could get in and out more eas­ily. When you’ve got to move all that around to go the other way, you need switched on guys to be able to do that kind of thing!”

At its peak, Bill Buckle Auto Con­ver­sions was com­plet­ing up to four con­ver­sions a week, with a staff of around a dozen.

“When we were do­ing three or four cars a week, they’d be all Ca­maros or Pon­tiac Fire­birds, be­cause they were ba­si­cally the same car so it was the same job. You could gear up for them al­most like a pro­duc­tion line.”

As the busi­ness grew, so too did the need to move into larger premises. How­ever, this was driven as much by the sheer size of the cars as by the amount of work that was com­ing through the shop…

“Those Lin­colns, Cadil­lacs and Thun­der­birds – some of those cars were huge! By the time you took the front ends apart, all the panel work, you needed a lot of space to stack ev­ery­thing. It wasn’t just that we had so much work that kept forc­ing us to move into big­ger fac­to­ries, it was also be­cause the cars them­selves took up so much room!”

Mean­while on Syd­ney’s south side, at Taren Point in the Suther­land Shire, Ray Mor­ris was also do­ing a roar­ing trade in right-hand drive con­ver­sions. Ray, fa­ther of fu­ture Bathurst win­ner and Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pion Bob Mor­ris, was an old friend of Buckle’s from way back. They didn’t see them­selves in se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion with one an­other, but then de­mand for con­verted Amer­i­can cars was so strong that there was more than enough work around to keep all the Syd­ney con­ver­sion busi­nesses rolling along nicely.

Mor­ris’s busi­ness be­gan in 1957 as a per­for­mance tun­ing house but in ’62 he started do­ing right-hand drive con­ver­sions. Within a cou­ple of years that was more or less all the com­pany was do­ing.

Bob Mor­ris has clear rec­ol­lec­tions of the thriv­ing Ray Mor­ris Mo­tor Con­ver­sions in the mid-’60s. Bob was fresh out of school when he went to work for his fa­ther, as he ex­plains:

“My job was to go to the wharves and pick up the cars that had been shipped over. This was in the pre-con­tainer days back then, so cars would be shipped in as deck cargo. I’d go down to the wharves at Pyr­mont in a taxi with a can of petrol and a bat­tery, and I’d have to get these cars go­ing and drive them back to the work­shop at Taren Point. A lot of the time there were bits

miss­ing off the cars be­cause the whar es used to knock off the ra­dios, and they’d walk across the bon­nets with their hob-nailed boots – they were pretty rugged!

“I got to drive all sorts of dif­fer­ent things: Cadil­lacs, Buicks, what­ever was go­ing. I re­mem­ber we did a lot of Pon­tiac GTOs and Pon­tiac Tem­pests, and some Buick Rivieras too.

“When we were do­ing a run of them, like the Pon­tiac GTOs, it was like a semi-pro­duc­tion line. We had a bre­glass mould made for a right-side dash­board, and we’d make that and t it into the car, and the in­stru­ments and switches would all go in. They’d pull the whole dash out, and just lift off the whole front clip so they could get at ev­ery­thing. We had the tem­plates for the steer­ing box hous­ing, which had to be made for the right side; steer­ing arms had to be made.

“We did lots of Mus­tangs, they were pretty easy. I re­mem­ber we had some con­vert­ibles, some with the Tri-power en­gine, which was a triple Rochester carby kit for Pon­ti­acs that was pop­u­lar at the time. But we did all sorts of things: Pon­tiac Bon­nevilles, Oldsmo­bile Toron­a­dos, with the seven-litre V8 and front-wheel drive. Those sorts of things are real col­lec­tors’ items now.”

Like Buckle’s op­er­a­tion, Ray Mor­ris’ cus­tomer base was a mix of lux­ury car deal­ers, im­porters and pri­vate own­ers. One of their clients was Jack For­rest, the for­mer mo­tor­cy­cle racer af­ter whom For­rest’s El­bow at Bathurst is named.

“Jack For­rest was the im­porter of British and Con­ti­nen­tal Cars, and other cars, in­clud­ing what was prob­a­bly the fastest Amer­i­can car I’ve ever driven, which was a Ply­mouth GTX. It was a bit like an early Valiant two-door, but with a big 426 Hemi. It used to wheel­spin at 100mph…”

Mor­ris also re­mem­bers them do­ing a Mus­tang for none other than Bob Jane. It may have been for Jane’s car deal­er­ship; Mor­ris isn’t sure. “I think we did a Ca­maro for him, too, a ’67 SS.” Ray Mor­ris Mo­tor Con­ver­sions did cars for a num­ber of clients in Vic­to­ria. One of them, Chapel En­gi­neer­ing, once sent a truck­load of Amer­i­can cars up the Hume High­way des­tined for Mor­ris’ Taren Point work­shop – only for the truck to crash and roll over be­fore it reached Syd­ney.

“Af­ter that,” Bob Mor­ris says, “I had to drive each one in­di­vid­u­ally – from Mel­bourne as a left-hand drive car and then from Syd­ney back to Mel­bourne as a right-hand drive car af­ter we’d done the con­ver­sion. It was a pretty busy time!”

The most un­usual car they did, Bob re­mem­bers, was a Fa­cel Vega. This was a low-vol­ume French lux­ury coupe with Chrysler V8 power.

“The in­ter­est­ing thing with that car was that we got it con­verted to right-hand drive for a guy who had brought it with him from Italy or some­where in Europe. But af­ter a short while he de­cided to go back to Europe. So we had to con­vert it back to left-hand drive!”

A lot of work came from peo­ple like the ‘Vega’ man, who were im­port­ing their own cars for pri­vate use.

“They’d go to Amer­ica, buy a Cadil­lac or what­ever and ship it back, and we’d con­vert it. Some peo­ple would be go­ing ev­ery year; they’d

buy them­selves a new Cadil­lac and bring it home.

“There were quite a few re­peat cus­tomers. There was a young guy in Haber eld who used to go over there and buy heaps of Mus­tangs, which we’d con­vert for him. He’d sell them from home; he only had a lit­tle house in Haber eld and there’d al­ways be three or four Mus­tangs in his back­yard…

At its peak, they were do­ing a few hun­dred cars a year and em­ployed a staff of around 15.

Ray Mor­ris Mo­tor Con­ver­sions con­tin­ued un­til about 1970. It then mor­phed into Mark IV Car Air Con­di­tion­ing, run by Bob Mor­ris.

“When my fa­ther sold the busi­ness to me, I did a few con­ver­sions but I was mainly into air-con­di­tion­ing – which was an off­shoot of the con­ver­sion busi­ness.

“Most of the cars we were con­vert­ing to right- hand drive had air-con­di­tion­ing. So we’d have to recharge the air-con­di­tion­ing gas once we’d pulled it out and re tted it as a right-hand drive. But be­cause al­most no cars in Aus­tralia at that time had air­con­di­tion­ing, no­body knew any­thing about air-con­di­tion­ing.

“So I went and did a course, and we bought the equip­ment to recharge the air­con­di­tion­ing, be­cause there was al­most no one in Aus­tralia who did that at the time. Then I started tting air-con­di­tion­ing into other cars. Vir­tu­ally no new cars had air-con­di­tion­ing then.

“The deal­ers would get cars and put them into stock, and if a buyer wanted air-con­di­tion­ing they could have it done by us in a day. Whereas if they wanted to or­der it from the fac­tory – be­cause there were fac­tory units avail­able – they would have to wait six or eight weeks.”

Bill Buckle got out of the con­ver­sion game around the same time. As it hap­pened, he had be­come a Toy­ota dealer not long af­ter the con­ver­sion busi­ness got un­der­way in the early ’60s.

Just as Bill Buckle Auto Con­ver­sions was a thriv­ing, lu­cra­tive busi­ness, so too was Bill Buckle Toy­ota. Buckle had taken on a Toy­ota fran­chise at a time when few oth­ers could see

The rst HSV Ca­maros were due to be de­liv­ered to ea­ger own­ers as we sent this is­sue of AMC to the print­ers. Cars headed to NSW own­ers will be wel­comed with open arms by the HSV Own­ers Club of NSW (inc HDT), whose Joe Garzan­iti and David Sul­tana helped co-or­di­nate our cover story shoot the day they rst test drove the red ma­chine seen here. Thanks also to Hunter HSV at Ryde in Syd­ney for its as­sis­tance. A full, ve-page HSV Ca­maro test and launch story was pub­lished last is­sue. His­tory is re­peat­ing!

the po­ten­tial for these strange cars from Ja­pan (there was also a fair de­gree of anti-Ja­panese pub­lic sen­ti­ment still lin­ger­ing less than 20 years af­ter the end of the Se­cond World War), but soon enough the pub­lic came to re­alise the qual­ity and value for money they of­fered. The Toy­ota fran­chise quickly went from sell­ing two cars a month to 150 cars a month. By the end of the decade Bill Buckle Toy­ota was do­ing such a roar­ing trade that Bill was strug­gling to jug­gle his time over­see­ing both sides of the busi­ness.

What made the de­ci­sion to quit the con­ver­sion in­dus­try eas­ier was the NSW gov­ern­ment trans­port de­part­ment’s in­creas­ingly in­ter­ven­tion­ist stance.

“The gov­ern­ment was say­ing that you had to get x-rays done on any weld­ing done on the steer­ing,” Buckle re­calls. “They started ap­point­ing peo­ple to tell you what you’d done wrong or hadn’t done, and some of these peo­ple had no idea any­way. It was fair enough that they needed to be like that, but we didn’t need that kind of in­ter­fer­ence in the fac­tory.

“The Toy­ota thing was a lot eas­ier and by then very suc­cess­ful.”

Right: Bill Buckle and his ser­vice man­ager, Neil McKay, in the midst of a RHD con­ver­sion in 1965. The Ron Hodg­son-owned Cortina in the back­ground is in Buckle’s shop to be fit­ted with a 289 V8...The RHD con­verted Corvette (be­low) which got Buckle into the con­ver­sion busi­ness.

Left, op­po­site: Bill Buckle’s com­pany con­verted a range of dif­fer­ent Amer­i­can mod­els through most of the 1960s. On the left is a Lin­coln with in­te­rior stripped; on the right a Pon­tiac GTO.

Left: From left to right... A ‘68 model Buick Riv­iera gets the RHD treat­ment at Ray Mor­ris Mo­tor Con­ver­sions. Be­low, right: It’s not known who per­formed the RHD con­ver­sion on our ‘67 model Ca­maro cover car but in all like­li­hood it was one of the Syd­ney-based con­vert­ers.

Above: This sur­viv­ing early model, num­ber-match­ing Ca­maro shows all the signs of be­ing a Buckle-con­verted ve­hi­cle, de­spite the lack of a BBA plate on its ra­di­a­tor sup­port panel. It’s pos­si­ble that the plate was re­moved from the Ca­maro when it was first re­sprayed. The cur­rent Syd­ney owner has had the car for 11 years. Right: Dar­ren Fos­berg is the proud owner of a Bill Buckle Au­tos-con­verted 1968 Ca­maro. Like so many early Ca­maros, it’s now fit­ted with a big block Chev. The 720hp V8 sits be­hind a plate on the ra­di­a­tor sup­port panel declar­ing this to be the Brook­vale busi­ness’s 412th RHD con­ver­sion. Dar­ren has owned the car for 14 years. We’d love to re­ceive pics of other sur­viv­ing Buckle, Mor­ris or GM-H dealer con­verted Ca­maros.

Right: At Bill Buckle’s shop in 1965 me­chanic Brian Man­tle gets to work ready­ing this Pon­tiac GTO’s dash­board for RHD con­ver­sion.

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