The Secret Story of Le Cornu's Showroom
The Le Cornu Showroom Today
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.
The Mitcham Council
website has a well illustrated leaflet about Lower Mitcham history including the T.J. Richards business which you can download here
Business did well and in 1900 Richards moved his works to Hindmarsh Square in Adelaide, and was soon joined in the business by his three sons - starting a new era in their family history.
Designing the Body for the New Chassis ca 1922 (SLSA B28400/4)
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.
Chrysler in Australia
The Chrysler Sign on Maple Avenue
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.
Le Cornu at Keswick
Le Cornu Sign on Anzac Highway
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.
Factory Saw Tooth Roof and Old Stone Wall
With a need to expand, Le Cornu purchased the disused Chrysler site and factory at Keswick and made it their new home.
High Voltage Sign From Former Factory
Much of the showroom area has now been artfully covered with displays and panelling, so the industrial history is well concealed.
An Industrial Size Hook For Factory Work
However raising your eyes above normal ceiling height will soon disclose remnants left from the building's prior use.
Malcolm Moore Crane Sign From ca 1940
Strong Steel Beams Supported Car Bodies
Much of the showroom area is surrounded by large steel beams, indicative of the heavy weight of cars that were moved around the factory floor by crane.
So as you spend the weekend shopping for a coffee table or your new bed, spare a thought for the thousands of people who have shed their sweat in this very building for nearly one hundred years.
The Factory Furnace
Most of the workers would have been men in those days, although women would have worked in the offices. It's also likely that women helped produce munitions here during the war.
Office Workers Using Comptometers at Richards Motor Body Builders, Keswick 1935
From early motor car bodies in the 1920's, to aircraft and weapons in the 1940's, and finally the sleek Chrysler models of the fifties and sixties - this place saw them all.
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Ari and Todd from Le Cornu in researching and writing this story.