For more than 20 years, Australia has been a key supplier to the manufacture of the Corvette, making the entire braking system for all our cars since 1984. I visited the impressive PBR plant in Melbourne in 1990, saw the aluminium calipers being poured and machined, and finished units packed ready for shipment to Bowling Green. The lasting impression, however, was the C4 test mule parked outside in the hot Victoria sunshine. It looked just like any other Corvette from the front, but across its tail was a full-width sign warning in giant letters "Caution, Left Hand Drive Vehicle." A deadly menace was on the street, and drivers had to be alert to the danger!
Later that day, I went to see some converters who were modifying a '72 and an '80 to righthand drive (RHD) so they could be registered for the road. Like the British, the Australians drive on the left of the road, as they do in Japan, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, and all of Africa south of the Sahara. Australia suffers from excessive regulation of its drivers and vehicles, in particular speed limits entirely inappropriate to its wide-open spaces and insistence that all cars on the road should be righthand drive. Neither St. Louis nor Bowling Green ever produced a Corvette with the steering on the wrong side, so an industry has developed over many years converting our imported American cars to righthand drive.
This year, Australia further raised its rating on the Corvette map of the world by becoming the second country outside North America to establish its own NCRS Chapter, the UK being the first in 1998. It's tough to judge a car for originality when the tinted screen has been changed for a clear one, the steering box is from an RHD Ford Fairlane or Toyota Cressida, and two weeks have been spent reengineering the car so the dash is on the right and all the A/C equipment on the left. Even the seatbelts have to be changed to Australian specification. Most conversions are extremely good, producing a near mirror image of the original car. Because the engine in all Corvettes is offset some 2 inches to the right to allow extra space for pedals and the steering column, foot room is always tight when the pedals are transferred over. A further problem arises from the depth of the righthand foot well, where the righthand toe board is some 6 inches closer to the seat than the lefthand. Ingenious converters have molded complete replacement firewalls in Fiberglas to compensate for this problem, particularly in the C3.
I was in Western Australia for a family party (both of my wife's sisters are married to Australian farmers), and managed to escape the agricultural talk for a day by driving three hours on deserted country roads to the beautiful waterside city of Perth, which must be the most remote city in the world. There I tracked down Tony Katavatis to learn the latest techniques in conversion from an expert whose Corvette Engineering Company has converted more than 200 cars since 1980.
His workshop was packed with conversion work, but he was mainly converting WA registered Corvettes back to left drive. A few years ago he tired of "damaging" immaculate original cars and persuaded a few of his best customers to pool the funds they had put aside for conversion into lobbying the Western Australian government to change the rules instead. Amazingly, after immense effort, they succeeded, and LHD cars over 15 years old can now be registered and used anywhere in WA with little more than the lighting changes we're used to in the UK. As the 15-year rule rolls forward, this year will see '90 ZR1s registered-cars that are almost impossible to convert because of the sheer size of the four-cam motor.
Tony showed me an '84 he was converting back to LHD. Rather than using the Citation-powered rack that can be reversed to use on an RHD C4, this one had been converted using a cut steering column with an enclosed chain drive fixed to the firewall. Putting this one back to LHD using good, used parts imported from California was a service to road safety as well as originality.
Western Australia is separated from the rest of the country by vast empty deserts, and likes to see itself as independent from the Eastern states. Its relaxation of the RHD regulations reflects this. If you want to drive a lefty in Melbourne or Sydney, it has to be more than 25 years old and, much worse, only used on organized club runs. The antipodean's passion for RHD probably dates back to the pre-turn-signal days of hand signalling, but another law there prohibits arms out of the car while driving. Hopefully, the new Australian Chapter of the NCRS will use some of its lobbying power to stop unnecessary conversion of Corvettes. And it isn't cheap-a top-quality RHD conversion of a C5 costs more than $20,000 U.S.