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Sir Laurence Hartnett

1898 – 1986

Sir Lawrence Hartnett (1898-1986), automotive engineer, was born in Woking, Surrey. He served with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force before becoming head of General Motors' English subsidiary, Vauxhall. In 1934, General Motors acquired the Australian company established by Sir Edward Holden in 1917, and Hartnett took up the position of Managing Director of General Motors Holden, Australia, with the brief to either boost profits or shut the operation down. Hartnett found the Australian car industry characterised by resourcefulness and under his leadership production and profits rose. In his first years in Australia Hartnett was responsible for the first design-integrated 'coupe utility' (ute) although GM Holden did not produce the 50/2106 (FX) until after the war. Between 1934 and 1939 Holden introduced the 'Sloper', the forerunner of the hatchback, and led the world in production of all-steel bodies. However, the lion's share of profits went to American shareholders. During the war Hartnett was Director of Ordnance Production in the munitions department, and he was also Director of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation from 1935 to 1947. When the war ended, the Australian government was keen to produce a local car to boost employment. In 1944 Hartnett pitched a locally-built mass-produced car to GM Chairman Alfred Sloan in New York, but his elaborate presentation was derailed by Sloan's splenetic objections to Australia's 'goddam socialist set-up', whereby the railroads and telephones were owned by the government. The project was grudgingly approved, but with no US funding; the required 3 million pounds were provided by the Commonwealth Bank and the Bank of Adelaide. Hartnett resigned in 1948 shortly before the car, the Holden 48/215, was unveiled. He then worked on his own prototype, the Hartnett, but was unable to produce the vehicle commercially. Hartnett is honoured through the Hartnett Award of the Society of Automotive Engineers of Australasia, an annual award for an outstanding original contribution to automotive or aeronautical engineering knowledge or practice. His autobiography, Big Wheels and Little Wheels, was published in 1964.

Updated 2018