The early years of the Australian motoring industry appears to be very similar to the conditions we seen over the past few decades with manufacturers attempting to beat the imports on price and the Governments of the day desperate to tax the imports yet giving them very big loopholes to avoid paying them! Today however, Free Trade Agreements have reduced the import tax and the local manufacturing plants have all closed.
Back during the 1920s, the import duties on vehicles were high, so the manufacturers shipped in lower taxable rolling chassis and then had local coachbuilders add the bodies. However, some businesses felt that the imported chassis were not strong enough to deal with Australian conditions and sought to build vehicles from a mix of local and imported components. These cars were then sold as patriotic cars – “buy local” was the mantra.
The Summit Roadster was one of these cars and was also a marketing exercise for its suspension system – the developers wanted to sell their system to other local manufacturers as well as the coachbuilders to replace the kit shipped in on the chassis.
Christian Fredriksen had invented the Acme Spring Suspension System. It used two sets of three cantilevered leaf springs which spread the road shock along the length of the chassis for a more smoother ride over the rough road surfaces. In 1921 the Acme suspension was offered as a factory fitted option on the locally built Lincoln Six.
Fredriksen’s partner was William Kelly, who owned Kelly’s Motors in Alexandria, a suburb close the centre of Sydney. Kelly figured out that if they built a car with the suspension fitted as standard, they would then be able to market it to others and have happy car owners as well. Kelly’s had some experience in the trade because not only were they auctioneers but also had the Chevrolet agency. When Chevrolet tried to dump excess stock on them, Kelly’s cancelled the agreement and it was around this time that the idea for the Summit came up.
The Summit was born in 1923 as a parts bin special – the motor was a reworked Lycoming from the US. It had 5 main bearings and was fitted to the chassis with its own suspension units to absorb any vibrations. The clutch was advertised as being similar to one available in a premium car and the radiator came off a Packard. It was a five seater touring car that retailed for under £500 and was fitted with plenty of luxuries for the price.
The car was in production for about three years only with an estimated 300-500 cars leaving the factory. Five are known to exist in full with several others in pieces and the image was taken at the Australian Motorlife Museum near Wollongong, south of Sydney.
With only a low volume built, it appears that the car was not a great success – Kelly’s would have still been competing on price with the imports despite having happy customers at first. The main issue though, was with the Acme suspension – it was very unreliable. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of the Summit Roadster also caused the failure of Kelly’s Motors and it was wound down late 1925 with losses of around £50,000 as noted in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time.
It’s an interesting dilemma – sell a locally built car with a mix of components at a higher price than a possibly more reliable import. As today, building a car in country was far more expensive than importing one and the target market was very price conscious with little concern about local jobs if they could buy more for less.
The inventor of the suspension system travelled to the US to pitch his invention and there is an Acme Spring in Ohio that was founded around the same time to manufacture leaf springs – I have sent an email to see if there is a connection.