Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
Whitegoods with Wheels
During the 1980's you could be forgiven for thinking many car manufacturers were turning their products into mere appliances - but if you were to wind the clock back even further (to the 1960's), you would find the Lightburn whitegoods manufacturer turning the appliance into a car! Lightburn industries had, until 1963
, manufactured tools, cement mixers, washing machines and fibreglass boats - the latter would be significant in providing the fibreglass body for the Zeta.
And so it was that Harold Lightburn, the companies owner and founder, was convinced that many Australian's would like the convenience of a 2nd car, but found the cost prohibitive. To get things started, he purchased the rights to the British Anzani mini car; and then created a new fibreglass 'Station Sedan' body shell. Lightburn called it a "runabout". It was small, relatively cheap, lightweight and ... made of plastic.
The Zeta was to employ a lightweight, simple and cost effective design - something so simple that a whitegoods manufacturer operating out of Camden Park in suburban Adelaide 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.
Lightburn did not simply have their eyes on the Australian market, however, the company being convinced the Zeta would do very well in South East Asia, thanks to its non-rusting bodywork, cheap maintenance and ease of dismantling. Whatever the nationality of the driver, only the very brave would venture onto a highway, and you would never take it anywhere near a hill.
A Lack Of Performance
The Zeta's basic configuration was of a front-wheel-drive car, powered by a 324cc Villiers two-stroke engine, running on a one in eight petroil mixture, with gearbox, clutch, and differential mounted integrally beneath the engine. It had independent suspension all round, with coils and wishbones at the front and trailing arms with rubber sandwiches in compression at the rear. The two-door body was made of glass-fibre reinforced plastic, with windows of Perspex and steel doors.
The body was bolted and riveted to a sheet steel floor pan and firewall over a very strong channel steel welded chassis structure. All of that 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 torque made any type of incline a real test, and steep hills a no go zone. The Datsun 120Y, by comparison, was a powerhouse.
Provided you were on the flat, kept up the revs and were quick with the gearchanges, 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 Zeta also had a lot of frontal area, which did not help top speed, and while the ratios were well chosen, apart from first being too low, road testers commented that a slightly higher final drive might have helped the upper speed ranges.
The constant mesh gearbox was quite fast, so that changing gear was not annoying - apart from an unavoidable "crunch" between first and second. Provided you owned a boat and were somewhat familiar with the noise generated by a 2 stroke, you would eventually become accustomed to the engine, even though there was the added benefit of a resonance boom inside the cabin, and the total lack of any kind of insulation did little to help. We do not have experience ourselves, but the description provided by an owner after driving up a long and (not too steep) hill painted a clear picture of how the Zeta would leave you a nervous wreck.
But the Zeta was not without virtue. The handling was reasonable, probably because the steering was heavy, particularly for a front-wheel drive car. The ride was ok too, but in part that was because most owners and drivers resorted to adding bolster cushions to the seats as they were far too low - and it was these additional cushions that offered an extra layer of comfort to your behind. The Zeta understeered, although the rear could be shaken loose on dirt - as witnessed in the 1964
Ampol 7000 mile cross-country trial
, and this made it a safe car (by the standards of 1963) in normal conditions, despite the lack of power.
One problem, however, was that the flexing in the driveshaft when full power was applied in a tight corner would cause a loss of adhesion and consequent loss of power on the road. The ride was firm, becoming hard and bouncy over corrugated dirt, with quite a lot of noise from the suspension. The Zeta stopped well enough, the brakes
fading but not enough to make them useless, but pedal pressures were a little high and hard braking at over 40 mph would cause slight weaving, probably due to weight transfer from the rear to the front and the lessening of rear wheel adhesion.
Villiers 2 Stroke Engine
The Villiers engine was, for the time, a very good unit. It was free-revving (although very noisty) and always ready to start, except when the Zeta's choke control refused to be pulled out, which apparently was a common problem. Although a "city car", the oil-bath clutch overheated during one motoring journalists test in heavy traffic. The bonnet could be lifted completely off, and the seats easily removed, once you unlatched the check straps and folded the two doors back against the front mudguards.
Entry was only from the front doors, including to the wagon space behind, but with the seats removed you had enough space to put some luggage in the back - then it was a simple matter of re-fitting the seats, and re-attaching the doors. Strangely, this concept did not catch on.
The exterior finish on very first Zeta's was not good, but by 1964
it had improved when Lightburn switched to hammertone finish. Inside the finish was a little better, plain but not as cheap looking as you would expect. The facia had a leatherboard finish, while the seats were faced in a two-tone PVC matching the upholstery of the rear bulkheads. The floor was covered in a rubber matting. There were big map pockets in the doors, and all windows were sliding perspex.
The front bucket seats slotted neatly into the floor runners, so that to take them out you simply tilted them forward and pulled. Holes in the runners allowed rearward adjustment. The back seating comprised two long slabs of seat, which could be juggled around the various slots in the interior to form, variously, a proper seat, a double bench, or folded up on each side out of the way. The floor was flat from front to rear. Door handles were plastic-covered levers set within the doors.
The rear vision mirror was set atop the facia, and provided a reasonable rearward view. The horn wss set above the wheel boss. The facia was entirely moulded plastic, with a recess for a glovebox on the left above what looked like crash padding but was actually fabric over metal. Dividing the facia was a vertical plastic tube, covered with a perspex mask marked with calibrations. Up and down this the fuel mixture roamed, and this acted as the fuel gauge. It could read anywhere from full to empty depending on gradient or throttle. It was merely a bypass of the gravity-feed fuel system.
To the left of this was a pull-knob that released the bonnet, and to the right a swivel-type ashtray. The facia grouping had controls for lights, wipers, choke, and fuel master switch. The latter had to be pulled out, completing an electrical connection, before the car will start. The speedo
was in the centre, flanked high by two lights, one marked "reverse", the other "neutral." Neutral was somewhere between first and second gears. You had to go up once for first, and then pull the lever down each time for the other three.
Finding neutral meant jiggling delicately with the lever until the green light came on; this sometimes took three or four minutes. Reversing is done by reversing the engine cycle; the ignition had to be switched off, the key pushed in (when the amber "reverse" light went on) and the four gears used in the normal way, but in reverse. The gearbox setup meant that the car could go as fast in reverse as it could forward, at a death-defying 50 mph (or, according to manufacturer specifications, 60 mph) The dipswitch was located almost in the middle of the firewall, and controlled lights that, again judging them on the standards of 1963, were good on both beams. The wipers cleaned a good area, but were a little slow.
Australia's Own Second Car
The advertising campaign ensured Harold's message was conveyed, when the Zeta was marketed as "Australia's own second car". The problem for Harold was that other manufacturers had also seen the need to bring smaller, cost efficient models to market - and they already had design engineers at the ready, and ample parts bins from which to source material. One such manufacturer was BMC, who released Alexander Issigonis masterpiece Mini
around the same time as the humble Zeta. It comes as little surprise that the Australian public did not take to the Zeta, and a mere 363 were able to find a place in the Aussie garage.
Technically, the Zeta was an oddity. But to prove to the public that the Zeta was indeed a reliable and well manufactured car, it was entered into the 1964 Ampol 7000 mile cross-country trial
. Many assumed the little car would fall apart after a few hundred miles, however it would win over many critics by putting in a stellar performance. Nevertheless, the public simply did not warm to the idea of a tiny, 2 cylinder car with virtually no boot space and an interior featuring a dashboard made out of a cardboard like material. Today the handful that remain are highly prized.