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Sir Laurence John Hartnett (1898–1986)

by Joe Rich

This article was published:

Sir Laurence John Hartnett (1898-1986), businessman, was born on 26 May 1898 at Woking, Surrey, England, only child of John Joseph Hartnett, physician and surgeon, and his wife Katherine Jane, née Taplin. When his father died seven months later, Katherine took her son to live with her sister and brother-in-law, first in Southsea and then in Kingston-upon-Thames. There he was imbued with a wide-ranging curiosity, a strong sense of duty and a lofty disdain for hidebound bureaucracy. He also acquired an underlying sense of not really belonging that developed into a lifelong craving for recognition.

Educated at Kingston Grammar School and Epsom College, which specialised in preparing boys for medical studies, Hartnett felt a driving urge to emulate his father. He became apprehensive, however, of being at the beck and call of patients and was increasingly fascinated by contemporary technological developments, particularly those connected with internal combustion and mass production. In 1915 he disappointed family expectations by joining the armaments firm Vickers Ltd, as a management apprentice. Initiated into the latest production techniques, he admired the firm’s readiness to improvise under hectic wartime pressures. Contact with political radicals on the shop floor tempered the rigid conservatism he had absorbed in childhood.

In 1918 Hartnett trained as a pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force, but the war ended before he saw action. He had liked the `dash’ and `sporting aspect’ of flying. Restless for a new challenge, he developed a used-car business in Wallington that failed in 1921 with the collapse of the postwar boom; he then tried his luck as a freelance automobile consultant. In 1923 he accepted a position in Singapore, importing and marketing motor vehicles for the trading firm Guthrie & Co. Immensely energetic (and helped initially by a fortuitous rise in rubber prices), he greatly enlarged the business while revelling in expatriate social life, exploring local indigenous culture, purchasing rubber plantations on commission for an English firm and briefly establishing the island’s first radio station—which broadcast for about fifteen minutes a day before the irate authorities closed it down. At St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore, on 26 February 1925 he married with Anglican rites his childhood sweetheart, Gladys Winifred Tyler.

Believing himself insufficiently appreciated by Guthrie, in 1926 Hartnett took the post of southern Indian field representative for General Motors Corporation, whose international operations were expanding to meet mounting demand. His reorganisation of dealer and distributor networks made such a favourable impression that in 1927 he was summoned to the United States of America to familiarise himself with GMC operations there, visiting factories, participating in feasibility studies for overseas assembly plants, and absorbing corporate principles of scientific management. After a stint as sales manager (1928-29) of General Motors Nordiska in Sweden—where he enthusiastically applied the strategy of using styling and prestige to sell automobiles—he took charge of exports for General Motors’ British subsidiary, Vauxhall Motors Ltd. His maturing entrepreneurial skills, aided by a timely currency devaluation, made this one of the few automotive undertakings anywhere to thrive during the Depression. He was appointed to Vauxhall’s board of directors (1933-41) in recognition of this success.

In 1934 Hartnett became managing director of General Motors-Holden’s Ltd in Australia, an organisation rent by internal bickering, impeded by a cumbersome administrative structure and widely resented as a rapacious foreign profiteer. With tact, he restored internal harmony, overhauled management procedures and tirelessly publicised the company’s contribution to local employment and industrial development, while reducing its perceived profitability by means of adroit book-keeping. As the economy revived, he built two new assembly plants, reopened four others, and selected Fishermen’s Bend, Melbourne, as GMH’s headquarters, thereby significantly influencing Australian industrial geography. In 1935 he was appointed GMC’s regional director for Australia and New Zealand, and in 1936 became a vice-president of the corporation’s export company.

Constantly seeking fresh opportunities, Hartnett also interested himself in various non-automotive enterprises, including aluminium production. He played a decisive role in establishing aeronautical research and, with Essington Lewis, in founding the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (director 1936-47), jointly owned by GMH and five British and Australian concerns. Inclusion of his American-controlled firm caused a diplomatic row with Britain, especially when CAC began by manufacturing a monoplane (later known as the Wirraway) designed by an American company partly owned by GMC.

Short, stocky, with a moustache and a perennially eager expression, Hartnett was an indefatigable industrial lobbyist, active in organisations such as the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, of which he was a council member in 1935-37. By 1938 his contacts and overseas travel had left him troubled by the imminence of war and convinced that complacency prevailed in Australia’s defence planning. Following the outbreak of World War II, continuing to prize public service, he was appointed director (1940-45) of ordnance production, Department of Munitions, and chairman (1942-46) of the Army Inventions Directorate. He found the frenetic pace of this work `wonderfully exhilarating’ and in January 1942 volunteered to fly to Singapore in a perilous last-ditch effort to salvage manufacturing equipment—a mission aborted when Japanese forces got there first.

The industrial capacity developed during wartime strengthened Hartnett’s conviction—shared with (Sir) John Storey and (Sir) John Jensen—that Australia must develop its own automobile manufacturing industry. Already in the 1930s he had covertly lobbied the government to exert pressure on GMC to that end. In January 1945 he announced GMH’s intention to produce an Australian car, but at this point relations with his American head office turned sour. Though generally an effective team player, Hartnett also took pride in a maverick streak. Fervently believing that the vehicle should be `designed within Australia’ by Australians `to suit Australian conditions’, he was bitterly disappointed when a design by his local team, drafted without authorisation, was dismissed as `crazy’ and `a waste of time’. His tendency to take such unsanctioned initiatives resulted in his removal as head of GMH in December 1946; his successor promised that `the old regime under which there was insufficient consideration given to company policy is ended’.

Hartnett was devastated by this decision, which deprived him of the prestige of launching the Holden car. Despite being offered an executive post with GMC in America, in April 1947 he resigned, preferring to live in Australia. But without powerful corporate backing, his ventures were now more prone to frustration and this, together with his propensity for wishful thinking and unbridled enthusiasm, often clouded his judgment. He wrathfully berated the government for declining to rescue his attempt to manufacture a passenger vehicle, called the Hartnett, which, being severely undercapitalised, failed to survive a 1950s steel shortage. One of the seventy-odd cars produced is in the collection of the National Museum of Victoria; another is in the National Motor Museum, Birdwood, South Australia. In 1960 he became Australia’s first large-scale importer of Japanese vehicles, under licence from the Nissan Motor Co. At first this partnership prospered; in 1966, however, it broke up acrimoniously when Hartnett was enraged by criticism from Tokyo. He was particularly embittered as the row ended his hopes of creating a jointly owned local automobile manufacturing operation with Nissan.

Nevertheless Hartnett retained diverse interests including a very remunerative machine tool importing business. In 1961 he became industrial consultant to the Singapore government—although this association was also marked by petulant bickering when it was learned that he had accepted commissions from a company whose equipment he recommended for use in Singapore’s small-arms factories. A trustee (1945-77) of the Museum (later Institute) of Applied Science, Victoria, Hartnett claimed a central role in establishing its planetarium in 1965. As president (1975-76) of the Victorian Civil Ambulance Service, he chaired a committee investigating ambulance design. A fellow (1952) of the Royal Society of Arts, in 1970 he took particular pleasure in establishing a Victorian chapter of the society, which instituted (1985) a biennial medal in his name.

Although justly proud of his many contributions, Hartnett felt increasingly under-valued. To compensate, he often exaggerated his achievements, as in his lively but unreliable autobiography, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (1964). The gratuitous advice he was forever offering politicians on subjects ranging from public transport to refugee policy became increasingly erratic in later years, and he grew nostalgic for the time when prime ministers `not only called upon me to discuss matters but invited me to dine’. He complained that the views of `economists and financial experts’ were now prized above those of `men who have . . . practical technical knowledge’. Australians, he said, seemed `ashamed of manufacturing industry’ and did not want `the likes of me’. Yet he was overjoyed to be knighted in 1967 and proud to be awarded Singapore’s Public Service Star (1974) and an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Melbourne (1983).

With increasing infirmity, by the late 1970s Hartnett found it harder to travel between his city residence and his much-loved mansion Rubra, at Mount Eliza, which provided the centre for his treasured extended family. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, Sir Laurence died on 4 April 1986 at Frankston and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $1,823,335.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-1945 (1977)
  • J. Rich, Hartnett (1996)
  • R. Conlon and J. Perkins, Wheels and Deals (2001)
  • P. L. Swan, General-Motors Holden’s and the Australian Automobile Industry in Economic Perspective (PhD thesis, Monash University, 1972)
  • Essington Lewis papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Laurence Hartnett papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • J. Rich and A. Warden, taped interviews with L. J. Hartnett (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • John Storey papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Joe Rich, 'Hartnett, Sir Laurence John (1898–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 May, 1898
Woking, Surrey, England


4 April, 1986 (aged 87)
Frankston, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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