It was 54 or 55 years ago. A mate and I were driving interstate and arrived in Adelaide. My mate, Kev (what else!), had a quaint Ocker turn of phrase, his speech colourful. Mind you, in the modern era you hear schoolkids using the same language, unblinking, in general conversation.
As we turned out of King William Street into North Terrace on a warm spring morning, Kev made the utterance that would shadow him for the rest of his life. Adelaide bustled, people scurrying hurriedly to their place of work, when Kev stopped, pointed and stated, as loud as you like, “What a funny little f***er!”
People skirted around us, men attempting not to grin and women struggling with greater or lesser degrees of success in plastering on a good City of Churches face. I followed where Kev’s arm pointed. Rather than consider his comment rude, I burst out laughing because he so perfectly described the funniest little f***er on view.
There, parked primly at the kerb, sat the first of very few Lightburn Zeta cars I ever had the doubtful privilege of seeing. It was a tiny little thing, light mustard in colour, with a pair of boggle-eyed headlights over which a designer — I use the term advisedly — had placed eyebrows raised in permanent surprise. Below and between was a squarish grille and above that, at the front of the bonnet, a huge, crude air scoop.
The overall shape was station wagonish, with two front doors the only means of entry. There were no rear doors nor tail gate. We laughed as we inspected the Zeta. In keeping with the times, it was equipped with a pair of tail fins — they reminded me of paper aeroplanes — mounted at the rear of the roof rails! Oh, and the windows, except the windscreen, appeared to be made of perspex.
The Lightburn Zeta was based on an English concept, but redesigned in South Australia and intended for use as a second car for members of a now burgeoning society.
Harold Lightburn made industrial-strength domestic and commercial washing machines and concrete mixers. Wanting to expand his Adelaide manufacturing base, he put a lot of thought into a simple car that could be assembled by workers along lines similar to his existing products. Thus the Zeta.
With an integrated engine and transmission driving the front wheels, the mechanical layout was simple. Performance from the 324cc two-stroke engine (its swept capacity would fit three times into a milk carton) was somewhere between leisurely and barely noticeable, dependent on wind and slope.
One of the most interesting features was that it had no reverse gear in a conventional sense. Instead, because the engine was a two-stroke, the ignition could be switched off and the key turned the opposite way, causing it to start backwards… meaning an equal number of reverse gears as forward!
The fuel tank was located beneath the windscreen, meaning the motor could be gravity fed. The fuel gauge was a clear plastic tube running down the centre of the dash with a graduated glass screen to indicate content, ever dependent on how level the car was at the time.
Harold Lightburn’s brave dream of ‘Australia’s second car’ came a decade too late (if ever it had potential) because its release was three years after the Morris 850 — the ubiquitous Mini Minor — hit the road. Although cheaper, the Zeta had so many shortcomings it could never compete with the British marvel. It seems that 283 may have found owners between 1963 and 1966, at which time production came to a quiet end.
Thinking back on the encounter, I think Kev was probably right on the money with his first observation. It really was the funniest little f***er I ever saw!