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Behind the colourful and welcoming facade of Le Cornu's Keswick showroom lies an interesting story.
From the front the building looks modern and stylish, but as I was driving along Leader St I noticed that the building is far older in parts (particularly in the rear car park), and I wondered what it had been used for in the past.
It occurred to me that a large site of nine acres may well have been used as a factory in times gone by.
Prior to 1923 Anzac Highway was known as the Bay Road, and the location must have been quite central. And as turns out, its proximity to the Keswick Barracks was to be fortunate too.
To understand the full story, we must go way back in the history of South Australia to 1884.
T.J. Richards Coach Builders
T.J. Richards Mitcham Factory ca 1900 (State Library of SA B28399)
Tobias Richards was an Adelaide blacksmith who founded coach building company T.J. Richards in Mitcham in 1884. Of course in those days most people would have either walked or used some form of horse powered transport.
Horse drawn trams were popular in the Mitcham area back then, although if one was well off you could afford a King of the Road sulky from T.J. Richards rather than sharing public transport with the smelly hoi polloi.
In 1912 with the motor car increasing in popularity, the company started building motor bodies, and by 1921 Richards had moved production to larger premises on the corner of Anzac Highway and Leader St at Keswick. You can read an informative 1921 newspaper article about the company here.
Fixing the Panels On the Body Frames ca.1922 (SLSA B28400/12)
According to Wikipedia, bodies were produced for various makes including Bianchi, CitroŽn, Fiat, Maxwell, Oakland, Overland, Armstrong-Siddeley, Austin, Huppmobile, Berliet, Durant, Amilcar, Rover and Rolls-Royce.
But things were about to change. After opening another factory in Mile End, the company began making bodies for the American Chrysler Corporation for models such as Chrysler, Dodge, DeSoto and Plymouth.
World War Two
Firewall Plate on 1936 Plymouth Assembled @ Keswick
The outbreak of the second World War was initially calamitous to the motor industry - there was almost a complete cessation of motor body manufacture due to restrictions on the importation of chassis imposed by the Commonwealth Government. Petrol rationing also killed off demand by consumers.
Like its competitor General Motors-Holden's (also originally a carriage builder started by James Holden), TJ Richards & Sons was able to acquire defence contracts, reorganised its factory and swung into wartime production.
The Keswick plant was expanded and re-tooled to manufacture vehicle and aircraft components, weapons parts, and ammunition.
You can find a fascinating pictorial insight into munitions production at TJ Richards & Sons in the Advertiser on January 8 1941.
There is some confusion about the exact manner and date when the Richards family finally handed over control to Chrysler Dodge DeSoto Distributors. It is clear that the company takeover occurred shortly after the war, although vehicles were badged by Chrysler Dodge DeSoto Distributors some ten years earlier.
Whatever the exact date, it was the end of an era in the Richards family history.
In 1951 the Chrysler Corporation bought 85% of Chrysler Dodge Distributors (Holdings) Pty Ltd and renamed it to Chrysler Australia Ltd.
The Chrysler name was painted proudly on the Maple Ave face of the (now Le Cornu) building, and I understand that the pentastar logo was also visible until a few years ago.
The Mopar branded parts and service organisation would also have operated from here in Keswick. The term Mopar has also come to be used to describe any Chrysler built vehicles since then.
The post war years were good to the car industry, and Chrysler became one of a few leading car manufacturers in Australia. It opened a large new assembly plant at Clovelly Park in 1964 and an engine foundry at Lonsdale in 1968.
In 1973 Le Cornu had been operating from a store on O'Connell St in North Adelaide. The building was most unusual for its day, having 18 huge panels of non-reflecting deeply curved glass so that customers could see the display easier.
I believe Dodge trucks were also assembled there until the early seventies. I grew up in Leader St and can vaguely remember cars being produced there. Also, across Leader St was another plant, later taken over by Lovell's Bakery and since Buttercup. The use of the rail lines at the end of Maple and Leader St was also important in linking to Chrsyler's Mile End Factory.
A close inspection of the buildings will reveal in fact a number of extensions from the original Richards factory and is missing a sizeable chunk that is now the car park. And finally, an interesting anomaly: the old Chrysler / Le Cornu site is now called Forestville, not Keswick.
WOW! There are some memories. I remember Fricker Brothers in Carrington Street next to the old Pikes Brewery. In fact Malcolm Fricker brought his horses to the Victoria Park racecourse every morning when he was an owner trainer. This was in the mid/late sixties.