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
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.