Lightburn Zeta

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Zeta Lightburn

Lightburn Zeta

 1963 - 1966
2 cyl.
324 cc
16 bhp
4 spd. man
Top Speed:
105 km/h
Number Built:
4 star
Lightburn Zeta
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.

Lightburn Zeta
Lightburn Zeta

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paul mcdonald
Posted Recently
hello im trying to contact brett Watson who is artur watsons nephew an employee of lightburn and co ?
my number 0429886213
my mother is jack lightburns daughter harolds brother
Posted Recently
I have a new Zeta motor complete with the black box/ electrics any interest ?
obviously been sitting for 40 years , but never used
email [email protected] *** ***
Taylor Lightburn
Posted Recently
glad my family made something special
Rod Davis
Posted Recently
I remember when my father had one on loan from Lightburns where he worked. Strange vehicles but when taken to the uncles farm we achieved nearly 40 mph in reverse in the paddock with plenty of room.
Fred Diwell
Posted Recently
Microcar & Scooter club now has a revised website at *** and is interested in hearing from Zeta owners to put their experiences and stories up on the site. email at [email protected] *** or phone 02 4565 0219
Posted Recently
John Van, I need some info on your electric Zeta. Its sounds like a very interesting Car.
robin Heath
Posted Recently
Could anyone who has submitted a post to this Zeta article please contact me regarding your story or vehicle as I am writing the history of lightburn from this cars and boat times.
The story of Zeta and the bluebird LSR attempt at lake eyre is of great interest as well as the boat and other vehicles that are still surviving.
Robin Heath
Posted Recently
Hello from Cairns, I have owned the prototype Zeta Sports 1001 since 1979 and am in contact with one previous owner Rod Bucher who was a musician with adelaide band Buffalo Drive.
Shane Buchanan and I have just completed a trip from Adelaide to Cairns to recover the car after 30 years storage and we now have the car on display at S&A Autos in Hartly Street Cairns and have placed some videos on youtube of the 4000km journey back to Cairns through central NSW and Queensland last week.
I would love to do some stories on the history and recover the films and adverts from that time for a documentary on the internet.
I also own a 1929 Triumph Super Seven sports car from adelaide with body work built in Adelaide by TJ Richards in 1930.
I have all the original parts and badges for the car and would like some history from that cat as well as she will be running soon for her 80th birthday trip next year.
Phone me on 0427187396 or email [email protected] *** with any stories whuch you would like to add as this is a very interesting part of Australia's motoring history that has been forgotten inn recent times.
If anyone is comming to Cairns then we would be very happy to arrange a demonstration and viewing with a bit of notice thanks Robin Heath
Posted Recently
i own a lightburn hand wound cement mixer in very good cond.
does anyone know what its worth?
denene maxwell
Posted Recently
we own a lightburn boat has anyone got any information on this thankyou
terry a
Posted Recently
I own another one of the lightburn cars. This one has a chassis designed and built by lightburn, body by lightburn and the mechanicals are saab. A very nice machine that until recently I was driving semi regularly.
don morrison
Posted Recently
I have owned a zeta for many years now it is the only one converted to 36 volt electric by lightburn I brought it at the auction when the company sold up all zeta parts and molds however I did not get any parts because all parts were sold first and the cars were sold last ? we drove it around the farm till battries stuffed up and had it in the shed ever since it had a distance of some 48 to 55 miles on one charge and speed of around 37 miles per hour interesting lille car
john van
Posted Recently
I have owned 2 zeta runabouts , 2 Zeta sports and 1 Zeta ute ( still own one Zeta sports now)..very unique little cars, the runabout is so slow...The Zeta is a part of Australia's motoring history and fortunately a reasonable number has survived for future generations to appreciate. The Lightburn Zeta was a Australian made mass produced if only in small numbers true Australian car ..The Lightburn history is really interesting and well worth a read..
Fred Diwall
Posted Recently
I own 3 Zetas the sports 2 Runabouts plus the factory mule and a Lightburn washing machine. Am I mad, I don't think so! The Sports I purchased sight unseen from SA and drove it back to Sydney. This has give many years of pleasure and instigated me to gather others of the marque. I now run the Zeta register and can trace the history of more than half of the 48 Spots produced. Email me with any information you have on production, events or other owners, past or present. <[email protected] *** *** >
steve guerin
Posted Recently
I owned 3 Zetas as a young kid. They were cheap to run, reliable and the four reverse gears always made a good conversation point!
The Zeta Sports was fun, fast and easy to drive. The only problem was that corners completely flummoxed the suspension and often resulted in near death experiences. I found that a dozen clay bricks storedin the front end made the car a lot more stable and life a lot safer!
Keith Elshout
Posted Recently
The truth about the 1964 Ampol 7000 mile cross-country trial is that they had several cars and they did fall apart. They just kept fixing it. They made a great propaganda movie about the race that was completely staged.
The other selling point on this car is that the seat were easily removable and could be used when pinicing as seats.
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