Failure is something that sports car makers have faced in droves. Aspiring sports car manufacturers, in all parts of the world, have tried to crack the code to success. Many have tried, most have failed.
A popular sports car needs to be cheap to buy and run. It needs to be attractive. And above all it needs to be fun – by the bucket load.
There have been some very out-there designs and some just plain dreary attempts. Few have hit the nail on the head, and unlikely though it may seem, the Goggomobil Dart did.
In spite of Australia's warm climate, very few companies have designed and made open cars in the Land Down Under.
New South Wales man Bill Buckle was to become a successful importer and Toyota dealer. He had developed his own Ford Zephyr-engined sports coupe, not unlike an AC Aceca, called the Buckle GT. Announced in 1955, it was one of very few sports cars of the era to achieve a level of commercial success, with 24 cars reportedly made, some gaining success in motorsport. Using a fibreglass body, the GT was a fairly sophisticated design both technically and stylistically.
This was to provide Buckle with expertise in design and manufacturing which would see him on the way to success, but with a most unlikely car.
Buckle's company had been assembling cars for other makers in Sydney from CKD kits and he had searched for a vehicle for which he could have manufacturing rights. In 1957 he reached an agreement with German microcar producer Hans Glas, for their diminutive Goggomobil.
It took some persuasion, but Buckle convinced the Germans that he should manufacture the bodies for the Goggomobils fibreglass, rather than steel like the originals. These were made exactly replicating the design of the steel body, utilising the same fittings and hardware. The benefits of fibreglass for low volume production were obvious to Buckle, though at the time few companies around the world had yet embraced the material.
The running gear of the little Goggomobil was ideal for having alternative bodies fitted, having a pressed-steel floorpan with all running gear attached, much like a Volkswagen Beetle. The rear-mounted engine was an air-cooled twin of just 300cc, and had been proven to be extremely reliable. Later, an uprated 400cc version was used.
Sales of the Goggomobil sedan grew strongly in Australia and Buckle decided to expand the model range. Using the existing platform and running gear, he designed his own very sleek, 2-seater open body. A prototype body was created in aluminium and moulds taken from it for fibreglass bodies to be made.
One of the innovations of the body was that it was essentially made in two halves, a bottom section, and the top with a lid let into it for access to the motor. There were no doors or front bonnet. A rubber strip ran around the centre of the car where the two halves joined. This technique was taken up by Lotus in the 1970s.
The windscreen was the rear window from a Renault Dauphine and the car wore the same tail-lights and rear vent as the Goggo sedan. Apart from the stylish faired-in headlights, a chrome strip down the centre of the front, wipers and badges, there was nothing else fitted to the exterior.
The folding roof was simple to operate, which was fortunate as it took a very agile person to get in or out with the roof up – remember, there were no doors.
Weighing only 345kg the little Dart made the most of its tiny engine's power and torque. It was low enough geared to feel like there was some acceleration and anyone stepping out of an Austin 7, a side-valve Hillman or Ford Popular in 1959 would have been impressed.
The Dart was very well priced, which no doubt added to its popularity. It cost thirty percent less than a Berkeley and over 40 percent less than an Austin Healey Sprite.
The car was an instant hit and in Australian sports car terms, it sold very well. By 1960 Buckle was employing 50 people to assemble their Goggos - nine of them women, as they proudly pointed out at the time. Production was up to 86 vehicles a month. Eventually 5000 Aussie Goggomobils were built, 700 of them Darts before production stopped in September 1961.
To drive a Dart today is an interesting experience, and a good one. I was fortunate to have Bill Buckle's sister's Dart in my care for over a year and drove it a lot. You lift the top the seat backrest and the entire seat cantilevers backwards and up to make entering the car easier. Step over the edge, get into the seat and while holding the side, or top of the steering wheel, drop the seat down to the floor. Bump, you're in position. While the flat floor helps a feeling of spaciousness the small overall size of the car makes a strong impression.
The driving position is very good, legs almost straight out ahead of the driver and the wheel and gear-stick falling easily to hand. The 4-speed gear change is unusual, having a sideways throw between gears, with an upside-down, back to front shift pattern. Once you've got that in your head, the gearchange itself is very good to use, positive and quite quick.
For people of a particular height, like me at 6-foot, the top of the windscreen is exactly at eye level, so it's lucky that the chrome surround is thin.
Ignition on, and the little two-stroke twin thrums into life, sounding for all the world like you're being chased by an angry lawn mower. The air intake is just behind your shoulder and plenty of noise emanates from it. In fact, after a long drive it is quite a relief when you switch off and the noise stops.
As you might imagine, the rack and pinion steering is very light, and pleasingly direct. The car turns in well and responds much better to driver inputs than most microcars – in fact, it's quite sporty. The Dart scuttles around very well, cornering quite flat and braking true – there's hardly any weight to pull up.
With so much of its weight at the back, the very light front pitches and bobs a bit on the road. Push really hard and the swing-axles and rear weight bias allow the car to oversteer, according to road tests of the time, quite dramatically. I didn't try that hard…
On the road, while everyone can overtake you, the attention that a Dart gets can be surpassed by very few vehicles.
What I did try - having heard a rumour it was possible - was to drive the Dart from the passenger's seat. Reaching the pedals was easy, gear-change okay, left elbow on the ledge (to look cool), right hand on the bottom of the steering wheel (to look like nobody's driving - no problemo! It did get some attention!
The press liked the Dart, Sports Car World exclaiming “performance is never exciting, although seldom is it actually depressing”. Automobiles Australia Yearbook of 1960 proudly proclaimed the Dart as “Australia's contribution to Goggomobil progress”.
Today the Dart is a well respected microcar and very sought after. A bit of a cult following was inspired by two popular television advertisement campaigns referring to the Dart. Perhaps a hundred or more examples survive, including one in England, two which have gone to Germany and at least one exported to the USA in recent years.
The Dart is certainly a lovely and quite pure shape, it drives remarkably well and has an abundance of the crucial fun factor.
One old-time racer told me the story of a new Dart entered in a marathon 6-hour race at the Caversham circuit in Western Australia. It wasn't exactly the fastest car on the track, and during the race, the driver was seen passing the pits holding up a newspaper as if reading it – with carefully torn out small viewing holes.
As a fun sports car the Goggomobil Dart was certainly no failure, rather, it was a great success, remaining Australia’s best selling home-grown sports car until the 1980s.
If you get the chance to drive one - Drive it! If you get the chance to buy one - Buy it! These cars are unique!
Above: The world's most famous Dart - Shannons' car