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Adelaide’s Other Car, The Lightburn Zeta.

I must confess to some fascination about Adelaide’s ‘other car’ the Lightburn Zeta.

As a city we have a proud reputation in automotive production with Holden and Chrysler cars but back in the 60s, there was also a third car, Australia’s ‘micro car’, manufactured by Lightburn industries which had, until 1963, manufactured tools, cement mixers, washing machines and fibreglass boats.

Harold Lightburn, the companies’ owner and founder, was convinced that many Australian’s would like the convenience of a 2nd car, but just couldn’t afford such a luxury. To get things started, he purchased the rights to a British mini car; and then created a new fibreglass ‘Station Sedan’ body shell. Lightburn called it a “runabout”. It was small, relatively cheap at £595, and lightweight.

Photo from Wikipedia. , Australia’s ‘micro car’, manufactured by Lightburn industries, the Zeta Sedan

Photo from Wikipedia. , Australia’s ‘micro car’, manufactured by Lightburn industries, the Zeta Sedan

The Zeta strategy was for a simple and cost effective design – something so simple that a whitegoods manufacturer operating out of Camden Park would be able to manufacture. It offered low maintenance costs and underwhelming performance. Today it is considered one of the most unique Australian vehicles ever made

The Zeta’s basic configuration was a front-wheel-drive car, powered by a two-stroke engine, with gearbox, clutch, and differential mounted integrally beneath the engine. It had independent suspension all round and the two-door body was made of glass-fibre reinforced plastic, with windows of Perspex and steel doors.

It all should have added up to a pretty good car. But the overriding problem was the Zeta’s lack of performance. While the factory claimed a top speed of 60 mph, only a brave few managed 50. Acceleration was woeful, the engine’s lack of any real power made any type of incline a real test, and steep hills a no go zone.

According to the brave few souls who owned one, provided you were on the flat, kept up the revs and were quick with the gear changes, you would be able to keep the Zeta moving at a reasonable pace. Around town the Zeta’s short length and good turning circle made it versatile. But because you had to thrash every last ounce of performance out of the engine, it soured any benefit you may have felt from the supposed versatility.

The four speed gearbox had no reverse so the engine had to be switched off and started backwards, which provided four reverse gears. Fuel was delivered by gravity feed from a tank behind the dashboard. The fuel gauge was a plastic pipe running from the top to the bottom of the tank with a graduated glass tube section on the dashboard. As a Wheels magazine road test in 1974 put it “it read anywhere from full to empty depending on gradient, throttle and probably Greenwich mean time”.

There was a Zeta Sedan, The Deluxe, Utility and the Zeta Sports

Models Anne Francis and Prue Holmes in the Zeta Sports. From Adelaide Remember When

As well as the oddness of the design, the vehicle’s commercial success was also stymied by unfortunate timing as it was released onto the market at the same time as the Morris Mini which was only £60 more expensive and which became something of a ‘cult’ car of the era.

Only 363 vehicles were ever sold from 1963 to 1966. According to a sign in the National Motor Museum in Birdwood, only 48 of the sports model were manufactured. The Utility was the rarest of the Zeta models with a total of only 8 produced.

Do you have any memories about the Zeta?

16 Responses to Adelaide’s Other Car, The Lightburn Zeta.

  1. Adrian Foster November 21, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    Are there any of these still around ?

    • Dave November 23, 2014 at 7:12 am #

      There are definitely a few. Onw pictured is in the National Motor Museum at Birdwood where they also house a Sports.

      There’s a utility in a private collection in Goolwa and a regular ‘sedan’ version that does some car shows up North; I saw it at the Kerneweck Lowender Festival Cavalcade of Cars where the owner proudly displays a speeding fine in the window! 80 in a 60 zone as I recall!

  2. marjorie brown November 24, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    My memories of the Zeta car produced by Llghtburns are that he named the car after one of his daughters who at a later date became a nanny at
    Wansleas and cared for our children when we went overseas on business trips.

  3. Geoff Nowak June 25, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    I have two of these things some people refer to as cars. They are definitely different to drive and to be honest I can not believe they managed to sell as many as they did. They must have had some good salesmen. As far as numbers of vehicles, the records at the NMM indicate 283 complete cars were produced. The 363 number I believe refers to the number of bodies made, as some were left when production ceased, and can still be seen for sale occasionally. There were 12 or 13 utes, and about 30 of the Mk 2 body included in this number.

  4. Leigh July 21, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    A friend of my older brother had one for a little while. Just for the novelty value I think? I was just a kid and he took us for a ride around the block in Cumberland Park’s wide streets one day. Once in forward, then he stopped and turned the key the other way which started the engine in reverse. You had 4 gears and the same top speed in reverse. The driver looking over his shoulder and doing about 35mph and with rear wheel steering was a bit scary.

  5. Kym McGorm January 1, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    My father Roy McGorm was the Chief Engineer at Lightburns during this time and I can clearly remember him bringing home both the sedan and sports models. Even as a small child I can remember noticing the huge difference between the Zetas that he brought home and the Alpha Romeos that he also brought home. I can also remember watching him on channel nine on Saturday mornings being interviewed by Lionel Williams about the Zeta. He was also in the team that completed the round Australia rally in the Zeta and used to have a great laugh about the fact that although they had to push the Zeta over the finish line ( I think the finish line was at Manly ) they did complete the rally…probably could have done it backwards.

    • Laura Cook May 19, 2020 at 4:36 pm #

      Hi Kim – please could you contact me at Laura.Cook@nma.gov.au. I would love to hear more about your experience.

  6. rob March 27, 2016 at 11:56 pm #

    Does anyone know of anyone that has a Lightburn Zeta Sports for sale? my email address is robgustavsson84@gmail.com Thanks

    • Laura Cook May 19, 2020 at 4:35 pm #

      Hi Kim – please could you contact me at Laura.Cook@nma.gov.au. I would love to hear more about your experience.

  7. Steve Guerin September 29, 2016 at 9:01 pm #

    I owned 3 Zetas, a series 1 and 2 sedan and a sports model. I remember getting kicked out of the Moana caravan park because I was doing about 50 miles per hour in reverse across their oval ( the car had 4 reverse gears!). The sports would do 80 miles per hour, but all the weight was in the back, courtesy of the rear engine, so it was horrific around corners (on its cross ply tyres) and I remember spinning end to end three times on a wet road.
    The Zetas were cheap to run, great fun ( if you drove them carefully!) and could have been a success if they had gone for four stroke engines over the messy two strokes that were noisy and tended to leave a trail of smoke behind them, especially on hills; a fact not missed by the local constabulary, who pulled me over many times for blowing too much smoke. The joke was that they could not book me because the car was street legal!

  8. Marco October 9, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

    I remember mornings walking to school seeing a gentleman drive off I presume to work in a Zeta sedan with a plume of smoke down John Rice Ave, Eliz Vale.

  9. Bob February 6, 2017 at 6:14 pm #

    My father used to own a zeta sports and we really want to find another one for us to restore together. If anyone knows of any lightburn zeta convertibles for sale please contact me at bgtrading@outlook.com.au
    Thanks

  10. Neville Diener September 10, 2019 at 8:47 pm #

    I owned one of these years ago around 1974..(not the sports).
    Eventually I turned the back half into as trailer and my brother turned the running gear into a sand buggy which was not too successful as he put the engine in the back and had it running backwards to go forward. This worked until the engine overheated because the fan on the crankshaft was not too efficient running backwards all the time. Another interesting thing I remember is the i think rear suspension… the “springs” consisted of a square steel tube with another square steel tube inside it at 45 degrees and the triangular gaps filled with rubber. As the suspension moved the tube would twist and compress the triangular pieces of rubber. I still have the Zeta badge somewhere…

  11. Jay Bee May 1, 2020 at 1:48 pm #

    Ah! The Zeta………………I was an Apprentice at Lightburns during its creation, and was one of the people regularly seen driving around Adelaide in “The Zeta Cavalcade” during the early days of it being used as a promotional gimmick. (We were all told “DON’T RIDE THE CLUTCH!!!)
    The sports model took a popularity “Hit” when, after its release, it was declared as “un-road worthy” due to its rather loiw headlights – An extra set had to be mounted above the original lights, which were initially in the fiberglass body itself. (As in above photo) to have it fully roadworthy – really spoiled the streamlining!
    One of the big selling points was that with the sale of the car, you received a years free supply of petrol. There was a Zeta Service station for a short time on South Terrace???
    From memory one of the first cars was given to Harold lightburns daughter – from memory she was not overly impressed as she had wanted a Mini ………………
    One as yet untold story is that it went in a Redex trial and was surreptitiously replaced with another as the first had “Died” during the trial – all carried out with the use of a covered Trailer to deliver and remove the evidence!!
    Bob above-there were never convertibles made, the sports model never had a roof!

    • Laura Cook May 19, 2020 at 2:57 pm #

      Hi Jay Bee – please could you contact me at Laura.Cook@nma.gov.au. I would love to hear more about your experience.

  12. GregO August 22, 2020 at 5:05 pm #

    Not so much on this post
    But there are so much negativity about the cars from people that have never designed and built a car to a price and appeal to a demographic.
    I applaud the man for succeeding .
    My relations had a washing machine and that is where I learnt of the mixers and cars .
    Ive just learnt about the rest of the products produced.
    I recognize the hydraulic bottle jacks .
    And I accidentally stumbled across a steel trailer by Lightburn .
    I drove 15 hrs to Tibboburra far north west NSW to attend a farm clearence sale.
    Here was this tiny trailer that looked like it should be married to a micro car .
    I only found out 2 days ago of its Lightburn pedigree .
    My father built his own box trailer out of timber in 1960 and its still registered today .
    I suppose thats why l was drawn to the hand made micro trailer .
    Now to buy a Zeta to tow it

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