EJANZH: Joe Rich, Hartnett, Reviewed by John Perkins

Joe Rich, Hartnett: Portrait of a Technocratic Brigand (Sydney: Turton and Armstrong, 1996) ISBN 0 908031 68 8. pp. vi + 184. $39:95

Reviewed by John Perkins, School of Economics, University of New South Wales: [email protected]

Business history in Australia, as compared with Europe and North America is a comparatively neglected area of research, in part on account of the overall paucity of archival material. In that context biographies of characters who played significant roles in the development of the manufacturing sector in the 20th century, such as this by Joe Rich of RMIT on Laurence Hartnett who ran the General Motors (GM-Holden) operation here from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, is to be welcomed.

Sir Laurence produced his own version of his contribution (Big Wheels to Little Wheels) in 1981, five years before he died. It leaves a lot to be desired. Joe Rich has had the advantage of lengthy interviews with Hartnett as he “prepared to meet his maker ” and free access to the considerable correspondence this vain, self-important personage preserved. My main complaints, as a reviewer of the outcome, include the prose employed in the early chapters and the “balance” in a book that has relevance essentially to those interested in the history of manufacturing in Australia and of the local automotive industry in particular.

The opening sentence reads: “On 26 May 1898 in Woking, England – exactly one week after the death of British elder statesman William Gladstone and nearly two years before that of Queen Victoria – Katherine Jane Hartnett gave birth to a son, christened Laurence John’. No doubt at the time Katherine had other things on her mind than Gladstone’s state funeral a day or so earlier and the impending one of “Mrs Brown”. Somehow or other an 1893 photograph of the child’s father ‘reveals him as an intelligent, alert, confident looking man with strongly chiselled, youthful features’. (Studio portraits of people in that, and subsequent eras, rarely showed the paying subject as moronic, half-asleep, lacking in self-confidence with drooping jowls). Thankfully we are not given an interpretation of a photograph of the mother. She was simply raised on a farm ‘on the white-flecked downs of Wiltshire, some five miles from Andover’, in an area apparently ‘renowned for its fine bacons and cheeses’. Seemingly unaware that “poverty” is a relative concept, we are informed of ‘the poor who comprised eighty per cent of Britain’s population’ in the Edwardian era of Hartnett’s childhood.

The conjuncture of events preceding and heralding young Laurence’s birth is denoted as ‘roughly marking the dawn of a new technological age’ in which ‘steam would give way to electricity [dating from the 1870s and involving steam turbines] and the internal combustion engine’ [a novelty at the time Laurence was born and for some time afterwards], ‘before the guns of Europe would begin to bark in earnest’. (Different calibre and forms of artillery, mortar, rifles etc. make different sounds. None of them resemble more than vaguely the yapping of a dog).

As regards balance, Hartnett only gets to Australia (where he acquired whatever historical significance he possesses) on page 70 in a volume of 179 of text. The early chapters, if the reader penetrates the prose employed, provide relevant information on the “making of the man” that could have been reduced by about 90 per cent.

Hartnett was neither a “technocrat”, nor a “brigand” – a rather archaic term that suggests a highwayman, outlaw or pirate etc. His background as a management trainee with Vickers (the British armaments concern) during the First World War gave him a smattering of knowledge of various aspects of engineering, extended by his youthful interest in motorcycles. After pilot training in 1918, which did not result in action against the enemy, he operated a used car business in London, when the pent-up civilian demand of wartime (and numerous war widows with vehicles stored in their garages) made this a relatively easy business in which to succeed. Hartnett’s did not survive the more difficult economic situation that emerged with the downturn from 1921. He graduated, from 1923, to selling new Buicks (a General Motors product) in Singapore for Guthrie & Co., where he achieved a moderate degree of success. This led in 1926 to his appointment to a GM sales position in India and the start of a connection with that US corporation that was to last until 1947. The experience in the Raj was relatively brief. In 1927, after a few months in the USA, he was appointed to head GM’s sales operations for Sweden and Finland. Then in 1929 he was appointed export sales manager at GM’s ailing Vauxhall acquisition in Britain. Success here seems to have been a much due to the devaluation of Sterling with the UK abandonment of the Gold-Exchange standard from September 1931, as to Larry’s ‘energy, ingenuity and thoroughness’.

By now the Englishman Hartnett was a “General Motors man” and had absorbed a great deal of knowledge on the art of selling automobiles. This probably explains his selection as MD of General Motors Holdens in 1934. As an Englishman he was presumed less likely to stir the more than latent anti-Americanism in Australia, especially at a time of the “trade diversion” actions of the Commonwealth government. Nevertheless, friction occurred with the management of the Holdens body works in Adelaide (which may have been due to Ted Holden’s as much as Larry’s personality, and the former’s unwillingness to accept that he was no longer “running the show”).

A biographer has to empathise with the subject or, in the case of some subjects (Hitler, for example) explore an antipathy that stems from the nature of the character involved. Joe Rich’s approach falls into the latter category. Hartnett was a vainglorious little man, whose sense of his own self-importance often resulted in stretching reality and credulity in his presentation of events. His lower-middle class background in Edwardian England produced a desire for social acceptance and upward social mobility, which the knighthood conferred in Australia in 1967 was to belatedly symbolise for him. The death of his physician father in childhood perhaps produced a search for a “father figure”, which General Motors (and leading figures in the export division) were to provide.

Nevertheless, as the author shows in the Australian chapters, which are by far the best and redeem much that precedes, Larry did demonstrate here that he was a consummate political operator (in a context that through the tariff in particular required effective business-government relations) and a far less than mediocre manufacturing organiser. He was instrumental in involving GM in the development of a local aircraft manufacturing capacity: not that the outcome, known as the Wirraway – and essentially at raining aircraft – was appreciated by the pilots who had to fly them against the vastly superior Japanese Zero over New Guinea in 1942.

By the later 1930s the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation venture, and Hartnett’s expanding political connections, seem to have begun to test his loyalties as a “General Motors man”, in a search for wider recognition of his sense of his own importance. The Second World War was to provide the opportunity. In July 1940 he was appointed Director of Ordnance; a position that soon seems to have proved inadequate to satisfy a hyperactive personality. The function at least got him the minimal desired recognition in the form of an CBE in 1945. Earlier he’d have been delighted with an OBE.

After the war Larry returned to GMH, where problems soon emerged in respect of the proposal to produce an “Australian car”, of which he was by now an avid advocate. One suspects that as a result of his wartime experience the “umbilical cord” with General Motors, established in the mid-1920s, had finally been severed. Resigning from GM in 1947 he was to go on to attempt to establish his own version of the “Australian car”.

Sir Laurence is a fascinating and important character in 20th century Australian history. Joe Rich provides insights into a character who is not easy to depict in his essence. My interpretation is that he began as a lower-middle class kid, fatherless from an early age, who was determined to be “somebody”. The photograph produced in this volume of a Royal Naval Air Service sub-lieutenant sitting in a deckchair on a beach in 1918, careful to display the insignia of a rank however lowly, represents the aspiration for hero status in Larry. This was to be rekindled in World War II. General Motors was to provide him with a “family”, to complement the domesticity he seems to have craved (perhaps on account of the boarding house his widowed mother ran) provided by his wife Gladys. His ego was stimulated by the positions conferred upon him during the Second World War, by which time he was beyond the “call-up” age, and the honours thereafter. On that basis Larry always had a problem in relating to the outside world, in terms of adjustment to it and manipulation of it to further his own interests.

If the reader can ignore or skip such verbiage, there is a lot of information in this volume on the development of the motor vehicle industry in Australia from the 1930s. Rich has clearly undertaken considerable archival and other research. Some of this relates to his publications on the development of aircraft manufacturing in this country, in which Hartnett became interested. Unfortunately, this contribution to knowledge tends to be obfuscated by a desire to diminish whatever claim a small, vain man desired to perpetuate for posterity.

He was in essence a manager of a motor body works (Holden) who thought he knew how to play the political lobbying “game” created by the Tariff better that his rivals, including French of Ford Canada at Geelong. To an extent he did. His downfall came after 1945 when he attempted to extend his limited abilities to realise the ALP government’s desire to create an “Australian car”, in part as a psychological boost to a population that had endured years of wartime austerity.

John Perkins is an Associate Professor in the School of Economics, University of New South Wales.