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.
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
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?