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Australia’s version of the economy car

How did a manufacturer of cement mixers and washing machines construct Australia’s own economy car?

Lightburn decided to branch out into the Australian car market in 1963 building affordable, small models. However, Lightburn’s offering failed to capture the local public’s imagination and was out of the market in a relatively short time.

Founder Harold Lightburn maybe went wrong when he elected to use the British-sourced Anzani Astra Utility as the base for the Zeta as this too had already flopped in its home market.

Lightburn labelled the Zeta as ‘Australia’s own second car’, with its light, glass-body it proved capable of completing regular trips to the supermarket, but there were too many negatives to overcome.

The 324cc Villiers Engineering engine and gearbox combination was unloved due to its underwhelming power output, while the reverse mechanism forced the driver to reverse then restart proved troublesome.

Not an easy model to sell, the Zeta was launched at around the same time the Morris Minor entered the market and this proved a much more popular option.

Another problem with the Zeta was its lack of an opening tailgate forcing the rear seats to be removed to carry any serious load. It was even advertised the seats could be installed on the roof as a portable grandstand at sporting events!

Available as a saloon, estate, utility and a convertible, the Zeta was certainly adaptable as it was rugged as proven by its entry into the Ampol Trial. The two-week, 7000-mile torture test three were entered and only one finished.

The Sports model was based on the Frisky microcar from Britain although Lightburn claimed the design was from Italian styling house Michelotti. At just 400kg, it appeared a rival to the Goggomobil Dart as it had drums all round and was fitted with a ZF Sachs F.M.R. 500 498cc two-cylinder engine producing just 21hp. Unlike the base Zeta, it was fitted with a four-speed and reverse sequential gearbox.

Its unpopularity in the public was matched by that of the of general motoring media as Wheels declared the ‘performance as virtually nil’.

Just 363 Zetas were built between 1963 and 1965 at Lightburn’s Camden Park factory in South Australia although it was targeted to assemble 50 a week. Of those produced the Sports makes up 48 and the Utility is rarest at just eight.

Although it was panned and coined a lemon, the Zeta is quite a collectable model today, although for its rareness rather than its motoring prowess.