12 July 2023

Going where few mechanics dare: A perfectionist's legacy

| John Thistleton
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Two men with car in workshop

Kim Brown with his son Hamish in the workshop of Eric Brown Motors, which has a hard-won reputation for servicing European cars. Photo: John Thistleton.

Inherent ingenuity steered Eric Brown into fine-tuning steam engines before turning to service European cars, a challenge from which most Australian mechanics would run a mile.

Driven by a formidable work ethic, Eric founded a workshop specialising in European cars, which his son Kim and later grandson Hamish inherited following his death in 2007.

Many years earlier, Eric completed his fitter and turner’s apprenticeship at Eveleigh railway workshop in Sydney as the state’s top apprentice. A generation later, Kim was judged the state’s top apprentice after condensing a three-year mechanic’s course into six months.

Now retired, Kim thanks their genetic line for their skills –but those qualities never kept Eric clear of conflict. He was sacked three times by his father, Arthur Brown, then District Locomotive Superintendent, for his larrikinism.

man working on car engine

Eric Brown in his workshop. He continued learning throughout his career, studying and mastering challenging mechanical assignments. Photo: Brown family collection.

Foreign workers at the railway roundhouse were on the wrong end of practical jokes from their Australian workmates, with Eric leading the way. But the workshop kept reinstating him because of his talent with trains.

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“My father was a much better tradesman than me,” Kim said.

Eric’s focus was on perfection.

“They had plenty of time on the railway and they were really good tradesmen at it,” Kim said.

Eventually, Eric left to work at the Marulan South limestone mines but soon tired of the travelling.

A mate, Ron Starr, who ran a car dealership for Simca, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot, offered him a job, opening his eyes to the wizardry of European cars. About 1958, although aged six at the time, Kim can still recall the excitement in his father’s voice after attending a course servicing a fuel-injected Mercedes at Yorkstar Motors in Kings Cross.

“I just worked on this black Mercedes 220 SEb,” Eric had told Kim. “It had a red-leather interior and was absolutely magnificent.”

Man near train.

Eric revisiting his days at the roundhouse workshop in Goulburn. His father Arthur was the Goulburn railway superintendent and his uncle Ernest was the railway’s chief mechanical engineer designing locomotives and systems. Photo: Leon Oberg.

Yet the young family faced hard times.

“We had nothing,” Kim said. “We lived in a part of a half-house in Citizen Street.”

The family, including his mother Hazel, shared the bathroom with an old man who lived in the other half.

When Mr Starr moved to Canberra, Eric worked for Holden dealer Bert Geissler, climbing his way up to service manager overseeing 52 men, before deciding to go out on his own in 1967.

Leasing two bays at the back of an Esso service station where Target stands today, he issued a brief note to prospective clients, promising personal service at a down-to-earth hourly rate. His mates from the railway serviced their fleet of call trucks there, and from that beginning, he moved into a bigger shed behind Flack’s car dealership.

“When we had no money, the old man used to rebuild the motors of crop dusters of a night time for Mike Sassin,” Kim said. “He was very clever with his hands, as clever at woodwork as he was at metalwork.”

A former ace fighter pilot in World War II with a death-defying habit of flying under powerlines, Sassin knew he could rely on his ground crew of Eric and 15-year-old Kim, who was swiftly acquiring mechanical nous. His father set a frenetic pace.

“He used to go through two packets of cigarettes a day and then bludge off the blokes in the workshop,” Kim said. “It was high pressure, no worse than here, now.”

Turning 17, Kim abandoned hopes of architectural studies in Sydney when Eric suffered a heart attack. His son joined the business alongside Eric’s apprentice Neil Thornton and Harry Smith, a former fitter’s mate at the railway.

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As the business grew, they began looking around for a bigger site and the city council’s then-town planner Bruce Lambert suggested a block at Bradfordville, which they took up reluctantly.

“There was not a lot out here,” Kim said. “They had just built the supermarket and were building this [workshop] at the same time.” The new business opened in 1978.

“We had to deliver extra service, bring the cars out here and take them back just so we could keep our clientele,” Kim said.

Rocking horse

Showing his natural ability to work with his hands, Hamish Brown carved this rocking horse from a slab of timber taken from a walnut tree felled at Tully Park, Goulburn. Photo: Brown family collection.

“Mum used to sit in the office there, she was a tiny bird and had a Kardex system [index cards] and I think I have put about 40 apprentices through here now.”

They encountered indifference towards European cars. Including the time Kim was asked to pick up and bring to Goulburn for repairs a Jaguar at Binalong, north-west of Yass.

“The truck driver says, ‘Come and have a look at this bucket of rubbish’,” Kim said. “We push it off the truck and it’s a C-type Jaguar replica worth $500,000 to $600,000 and the truckie reckoned it was a heap of garbage,” he added, shaking his head.

“It’s just glorious to have the luxury of working on something really nice.”

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