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COMENG A History of Commonwealth Engineering, Vol I: 1921 to 1955

320 pages, 290 x 210 mm, over 500 photos

ISBN1877058424, $59.95, Hardcover

John Dunn

Available: Now

To be launched in History Week September 2006.

Commonwealth Engineering began as Smith & Waddington in 1921—a small firm building custom bodies for motorcars and small buses. The Depression forced a restart as Waddingtons Body Works leading shortly after to a move to Clyde in western Sydney. A larger factory enabled the company to begin building railway rolling stock but the advent of the war brought new changes. The Federal government took over control and the plant became a manufacturer of wartime products—aircraft hangars, pontoons, ocean going lighters—as well as large number of freight wagons. The company was so successful that the Federal government took up the controlling shares in 1946 and the name changed to Commonwealth Engineering.

Post war brought huge contracts for double deck buses and passenger railway vehicles. In the early 1950’s the company expanded into Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. By 1955 an agreement was signed with the Budd Company of Philadelphia giving Comeng a license to build stainless steel passenger train in Australia. It was a turning point in the company’s fortunes, leading to a production of a new generation of passenger vehicles which set the stage for Comeng to become the premier train manufacturer in the Southern Hemisphere.

John Dunn joined Commonwealth Engineering at Granville in 1956 as an apprentice draftsman and did a certificate course in Mechanical Engineering at Sydney Technical College. He was with the company until the Granville facility closed in June 1989, although he continued to work as a design and production consultant for the new owners of the Victorian branch for a further 10 years. At Comeng Granville he held the position of senior concept engineer in rolling stock design for 12 years.

At the close of the company its owners ordered the destruction of all the archives and records. He managed to salvage some material from Granville and a colleague did the same from the Rocklea plant in Brisbane. He has kept all this material in storage until he retired and could do something useful with it. Since the activities of Commonwealth Engineering represented a significant part of the industrial and manufacturing history of this country his intention is to attempt to document its 70-year story in that light.

The author spent nearly three years in tracking down some 350 key ex-employees in all States of Australia so that he could interview them for their first-hand account of events as they recall them. So far he has done more than 220 interviews. Many of these interviews are with men in their 90s who started there long before he was born. The oldest of these began with the Camperdown company in 1928. Their stories and insights are remarkable. In addition to the company directors, managers, shop superintendents and lowly tradesmen, he also interviewed politicians, railway officials and ex-commissioners in so far as their roles related to Commonwealth Engineering. Each has a story to tell which helps form the fabric of the rich tapestry of this company’s history. A remarkable outcome of these interviews is the discovery of vast resources of documents, drawings and photos which have been retained by these men and which they have been happy to pass on to the author. He has photos virtually from day one right through to the end—to date some 27,000 in all.

This will be a monumental work in three volumes, to be published over the next three years.