As far as entries were concerned, Round Australia trials of the 1950s and 60s always had the knack of attracting the serious, the adventurous and the foolhardy.
There were those who took things very seriously, choosing the strongest car, preparing it properly and crewing it with the best team possible.
Others took things less seriously with the hope that, on their limited budget, they could make it to the finish with the car in one piece and a few bob left in their pockets.
Then there were those who, realistically, had no hope of making it right around the course, despite their best intentions, and simply made up the numbers in what was likely to be their biggest motoring adventure of all time.
Right from the first Redex Trial of 1953 when the seeds of long distance endurance trials for the masses were sown on the Australian motoring public, there has never been any shortage of adventurous souls who are prepared to undergo the harsh conditions that these events provide.
Horrendously rough roads, long hours behind the wheel, short or non-existent rest and meal breaks, dust, mud, rocks and sand, not to mention impossible time schedules, were always part and parcel of these marathon events.
Of course, your chances of not only completing the course, but of survival and of staying sane despite the hardships, depended largely on the equipment you used and your approach to the job at hand.
Scouring the entry lists of early Round Australias reveals that, post war, Australians were prepared to drive pretty much anything with wheels, no matter how unsuitable they were.
These early entry lists for Redexes, Mobil and Ampol Trials revealed plenty of cars that you and I would not want to take to the local supermarket today, much less when embarking on a three-week hell-on-wheels circumnavigation of the continent.
While the smart money for a better than even chance of finishing was on big cars like Ford V8s, Hudsons, Holdens, Plymouths, Vanguards and even, surprisingly, Rolls Royces, there were equally as many people who, foolishly, entered MG TDs, Austin A30s, Standard Tens, Hillman Minxes and Ford Anglias.
And in 1964, there were even three Australian-made Zetas, claimed by their manufacturer, Lightburn, as being “proven to be Australia’s most reliable, economical and versatile light car.”
Powered by a 2-stroke, 324cc engine, it should come as no surprise that only one of the three Zetas that started the 7000 mile (11,263km) 1964 Ampol Trial actually finished, albeit stone, motherless last!
Firstly, let’s consider the cars’ background and how they came to be in the Ampol Trial in the first place.
Lightburn and Co. were a South Australian whitegoods manufacturer whose factory in Camden Park produced cement mixers, fibreglass boats and washing machines, as well as industrial tools.
They also had connections to a number of Alfa Romeo dealerships which they hoped could eventually be used to market the Zeta through.
The firm’s owner, Harold Lightburn, believed there was a need for a small, light and economical runabout, so in the early 1960s his firm obtained the rights to the British Anzani-built Astra micro car.
Lightburn’s factory designed a new fibreglass body that, to put it kindly, was functional but certainly not pretty. It was described by its detractors as being a “hideous assemblage of jutting, ill-conceived shapes and angles, finished off with tailfins on the roof.”
Called the Lightburn Zeta, the car was a 2-door station wagon-style that could accommodate five people at a pinch. In many respects it was a conventional vehicle – steel frame backbone chassis, independent suspension and direct worm-and-peg steering, but from that point on, the car was very unconventional.
Motive power was by a 324cc Villiers twin cylinder engine which Lightburn boasted eliminated the need for a fuel, oil or water pumps, and had only five working parts.
A four-speed gearbox was fitted that offered the unique feature of only requiring an electrical switch to be flicked after the motor was turned off to engage reverse gear. Start the motor again and it would then rotate backwards, driving the car in reverse gear.
The engine was mounted East – West and drove through the front wheels from driveshafts connected to a front differential. It was claimed that the Zeta could cruise all day at 45–50 mp/h and gave fuel consumption as low as 40-50 mpg for careful drivers.
Harold Lightburn, in the period before the birth of the BMC Mini Minor, reckoned he was onto a good thing with his Zeta, and to prove the strength and reliability, prototype and early production Zetas were tested in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia and of course, in the centre of Australia.
In February 1964 a standard Zeta covered the 1000 miles (1600km) from Newcastle to Adelaide non-stop in 22 hours 15 minutes, an average speed of 44.4 mp/h.
Further testing was undertaken when four Zetas were used by Sir Donald Campbell’s team as track survey vehicles during his attempt at the Land Speed Record in his Bluebird at Lake Eyre in South Australia.
The Lightburn Zeta was released to a largely unimpressed Australian motoring public in 1964, and despite its price of only £595 ($1200), sales were very slow, its functionality overshadowed by its quirky styling.
So, in an attempt to lift flagging sales, Lightburn decided to enter three Zetas in the forthcoming 7000 mile Ampol Trial in June 1964.
With minimum modifications, the three Zetas faced the starter at Bondi in NSW, along with 148 other entries.
Lightburn promotional advertising after the finish of the Ampol Trial made much of the performance and reliability of the Zetas, particularly that of the only one that finished, car 78, crewed by Lightburn car salesman Ted Polgreen and Lightburn engineer, Ray Chapman.
There appears to be no record of the fate of the other two Zetas in the event, but Bill Tuckey, in his book “From Redex to Repco – 25 years of Around Australia Trials”, says that the Zetas: ‘Australia’s best-known motoring joke’, ended up being mostly pushed around the course by tractor’.
However, whatever means it used to get to the finish, the Polgreen-Chapman car did complete the course – albeit in last place. According to Lightburn’s post-event advertising, their car checked into every one of the 78 control points on time, something that dozens of other competitors could not boast.
Lightburn were obviously proud of their achievement and of the award for Meritorious Performance presented to car 78 by Ampol Trial Director, Karl Kennedy.
Of the 151 entries in the trial, only 12 were recognised as completing the course without any signs of body damage caused by collision or fatigue. The Zeta was one of those. (In the 1950s and 60s, finishing with lack of body damage was seen as being almost as important as finishing with the minimum loss of points.)
The Zeta’s Ampol Trial performance failed to sway potential buyers and despite a facelifted version being released, which gave the car more acceptable styling, the Zeta ceased production in 1966 after just 343 had been built.
A sports model which sold only 28 was also a casualty as it faced stiff opposition from BMC’s radical new Issigonis-designed Mini, which was released to an enthusiastic public around the same time.
Few Zetas remain today. You have to wonder whether Harold Lightburn was a visionary who was misunderstood, or whether he was simply naïve in thinking that Australians, who were used to big cars, would accept micro cars.
Whatever the answer, this obscure and unusual Australian-made vehicle formed an important part of our Round Australia history and will go down in the record books as the only car boasting an engine of less than 350cc to enter and complete a gruelling 7000 mile Ampol Trial torture test.
Or, for that matter, any long-distance Round Australia event ever. And that has to be some sort of achievement, marketing failure or not.
Thanks to Paul Blank for the photos of his Lightburn Zeta, one of the last remaining examples in existence.
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