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When Mirek Craney and his wife Anna were married in 1957, the couple dreamed of having a sports car that would be practical and stylish and capable of doubling as a family sedan in the future.  The couple were well placed for building their one off dream car as Mirek had studied in Prague and had a particular interest and knowledge of fibreglass, which was the new wonder material in the 1950s. Fibreglass has a good strength to weight ratio and it has an ability to be moulded and produced in elaborate shapes that are not easily possible in pressed metal.  Anna was also able to contribute to the design, thanks to her qualification and experience in interior design.  As well as the ability to build a good body for the dream car, Mirek was the importer of the Okrasa modification kits for VW engines, which significantly improved the VW’s modest performance. (Link to details about the Okrasa kits).  With the recent dominance of VW sedans in around Australia rallies, the access to Okrasa components and the simplicity of the VW floor platform, the VW became an obvious starting point for the design.  Around this time Mirek had involvement with an Okrasa TSV 1300 powered Karmann Ghia, which was used as the starting point for the design.  It is not certain if Mirek was the owner of this car, but a number of photos exist of Mirek with the car, and it can also be seen in photos in the background in a disassembled state as the Ascort shape was created.  Karmann Ghias were not factory imported to Australia at this time and the cars arrival must certainly have created some interest among those who saw it.

 

    

 

Probably after his experience with the Karmann Ghia, Mirek developed ideas about what he considered to be shortcomings in sports car designs of the late 1950s era.  His design should have good visibility and not have blind spots.  Cabin air vents should be placed high on the body and not low where they sucked exhaust fumes from preceding vehicles.  Driving lights and fog lights should be incorporated into the body and should not be just bolted to the bumper bar.  The car should have a good fuel range, a large boot space and a silent cabin to make it suitable for touring.  The car should have good power to weight ratio and neutral handling.  The car should be safe, with seatbelts, energy absorbing areas built into the body and roll over protection.  The car should also have good instrumentation and not just rely on warning lights.

 

Plans for a small production run were developed and friends in both Australia and overseas bought small parcels of shares to fund the project.  It is believed that this was when Continental Coachworks Pty Ltd was formed for the construction of the cars.

 

Following the outline of the design concepts a scale model of the design was constructed, which would have assisted in confirming that the design aesthetics were on track. Although Mirek carried out much of the concept and design work himself, professional assistance with some aspects, such as weight distribution and stress calculations came from the American ex Ford designer Louis Nagel.    In the Cars and Drivers #3 interview, Mirek is quoted as saying “about 1958 I had a quarter scale model finished with what I assumed were all the details worked out.”   The photo below shows Mirek and Anna holding a scale model, but it appears to be smaller than one quarter scale, so it is not certain if this is the model described by Mirek, or if another larger model also existed.

 

 

The Ascort design was not just to be just a simple fibreglass shell bolted to a chassis, as was the case with many kit cars and low production vehicles.  The Ascort design called for extensive double panel construction and box sections, which would add strength and rigidity to the shell.  It was a proper body design that utilised the properties of fibreglass, and has been described as “one of the first and best fibreglass bodies designed for a VW beetle chassis”.  (Link to notes about the design by Mirek Craney)    The process of building the full size plaster mock up was started.  The plaster mock up, built to fit a standard VW floorpan, was required to make the mould that would be used to make the final bodies. This was a process that was to take approximately 9 months to craft the shape out of plaster with the assistance of Harold English, who Mirek is quoted as describing in the Cars and Drivers #3 magazine interview as “an excellent craftsman who could shape plaster like shaping wax”.  Key features for the design, such as doors, engine bay, scuttle, bonnet and boot shapes were based on the Karmann Ghia, but with styling inspiration also coming from the coachbuilt VW Beutler and the Pininfarina designed Ferrari Superamerica.  Those who saw the body take shape were very impressed with the style and concept and it is stated in a 22nd October 1959 Australian Post article that four orders for cars were received at this stage.  Once the shape was completed in plaster, painted and polished to a high standard, the body moulds were taken.  The moulds were produced in fibreglass and consisted of a 5-piece mould for the outer shell, which was supported by steel framing to allow rotation and correct alignment during fibreglass laying for the final body.  There were 6 mouldings to complete the body interior, plus further mouldings for the inner and outer door skins, the bonnet, boot and minor fittings. 

 

Once the mould construction was completed, the laying of the fibreglass for prototype body commenced. (Link to photos of the prototype construction).  In notes about the design by Mirek Craney, it is stated that the prototype body was constructed by hand laying the glass fibre, while later bodies were constructed using a new fibreglass spraying method, using equipment that was imported by Mirek Craney’s Hermex Corporation.

 

      

 

While the body was taking shape in late 1957 Mirek contacted German components supplier Gebr Titgemeyer for the company’s catalogue no 17 and ordered sample components to include in the prototype (Order No 1).  The order included items such as smooth hubcaps, steering lock, seat recliners, windscreen washers, Petri steering wheel etc.  No record seems to have survived regarding the specifics of where where the Volkswagen floor pan and basic mechanical components were sourced, but it is believed that parts for further cars came from an authorised VW source.

 

Once the prototype body was completed, it was fitted to the modified VW running gear and the process of testing and tuning of the unpainted and unfinished car began.  Various states of tune of the Okrasa modified engine were tried and various suspension settings were tested, including rear camber changes, front sway bar sizes, adjustable koni shock absorbers and various tyre pressures.  As the money ran out, Mirek decided that he needed to just paint and complete the prototype so that he could to return to his own business.  He still had to budget and plan for the construction for a small production run to fill the orders that he had received.  In articles published years later, Mirek stated that the part of the design that gave the greatest challenge was the doors.  This seems to be verified in that it can be seen in the early photos of the prototype that the door windows and window regulators were not initially fitted to the car at the time that testing was carried out and when the Ascort first went on public display.

 

While the design and construction of the prototype occurred, the car needed a name.  In the Cars and Drivers #3 magazine interview Mirek Craney states “We thought of something personal, protective, a reliable escort, and found it most difficult to give it a name that was not a gimmick or corny. “Escort” was close to winning when the Motor Show invitation arrived with a list of the cars to be exhibited. It included an inexpensive little delivery van by Ford called the Escort.  We had to have a name in a hurry, and thought we might as well also be alphabetically in front, and so it became the Ascort.”  It is interesting to note that in the July 1958 issue of Motor Manual, there is a report on the progress of the project, and the car is still referred to as the “Escort”.

 

 

 

Some doubts were raised about whether the Ascort could be marketed profitably as a hand made fibreglass bodied low production quality car could not be produced cheaply and would have a limited market.  These doubts were put aside when rave reviews about the car started to be published.  Bill Daly of the Modern Motor Magazine borrowed the car and the Ascort appeared on the January 1959 magazine cover, along with a glowing article.  Mirek formed a personal friendship with journalist Pedr Davis who wrote several further articles and soon articles had been published in magazines such as the English Motor magazine, the Australian Motor Manual magazine, Australian Post, America’s Road and Track, America’s Foreign Cars Guide etc.  (Link to a December 1958 drivers test of the Ascort by Pedr Davis).  More good publicity was received when Mirek was offered a free stand at the 1959 Melbourne Motor show.  Following the Motor Show, an article in April 1959 Australian Motor Sports magazine included “… the Ascort, the Buckle and the Record were the highlights of the show” and “All three cars are a credit to their designers and manufacturers ….  Mirek felt that the car just had to be a commercial success.

 

             

 

      

Ascort articles in various publications

 

The prototype Ascort on display at the 1959 Melbourne Motor Show

 

Following the publicity, orders for the cars started to be received and so a larger company base was formed for the project.  In January 1959 an order had been placed with Gebr Titgemeyer for the special components for 6 cars (Order No 2) to complete the orders for cars that had been received while the project was in the development phase.  After further orders for cars were received and more funding was obtained, another order was placed with Gebr Titgemeyer (Order No 3) for components for a further 6 cars.  These orders included parts such as smooth hub caps, wheel trims, trafficator switches, headlight dimmer switches, steering locks, steering wheels, relays, air vents, mirror/visor units etc.  Order 3 also contained a request for 100 printed identification plates for the cars. (Strangely many cars do not seem to have ever had these fitted.)

 

The 22nd October 1959 Australian Post article states that for the construction of the cars Mirek was aware of a pool of experienced craftsmen in Australia that were not being fully utilised.  They were the immigrants that had fled Europe after the war who were looking to establish themselves again in Australia, but typically were only engaged in unskilled labouring jobs.  Advertisements were placed in national language newspapers and publications appealing for men with the required skills.  The necessary workforce to build the Ascort was obtained.

 

Interest in the project increased in both Australia and overseas.  Overseas distributors enquired about dealerships and one US car dealership attempted to purchase the entire project, but this was rejected by Mirek as he felt that he could make the project a success locally.  A production run of 42 vehicles was planned for 1959 and it was thought that one in three cars would be sold to the overseas market.  One car was exported to New Zealand and there are reports that another was exported to the United States. 

 

    

The New Zealand Destined Ascort

 

Some uncertainty exists regarding the US Ascort.  Anna Craney advises that one car was exported to the US, and reputable journalist Mike McCarthy, in his 1985 publication “Great Australian Sports Cars and Specials” reports that “one car went to the USA where a major VW dealer wanted to buy the whole project – design, rights and moulds”.  This may be correct, but no documentation is known to exist that verifies this, and if a car was exported, it is not known if it was a left hand drive or right hand drive vehicle.  Some people have expressed doubts about the US export to this author.  Doubts were raised as a left hand drive car was produced, which is rumoured to be the left hand drive prototype, but this car never left Australia, was never completed, and still exists in an incomplete state at the time of this writing.  This does not mean that another car may have been exported.  A January 1960 “Overseas Trading” article shows a photograph of an Ascort being loaded on a ship with a caption that states “First Australian-built car to be ordered from the United States is this fibreglass 100 mph Ascort sports saloon which is being loaded at Sydney for San Diego.  Close inspection of the article photo shows that the ship is actually the Wanganella, which sailed between Australia and New Zealand and is the ship which transported the New Zealand car.  The photo would not show a car that is destined for the USA, but would in fact be the New Zealand car.

 

    

The ship in the clipping appears to show the Wanganella (photos on right), which would have been destined for New Zealand, not the USA.

 

Left hand drive (car circled in yellow) can be identified by the dash binnacle.

 

Construction of the first 12 production cars was completed, with supply of the VW components coming directly from VW.  However, production was not going smoothly or to Mirek’s plans as the reality of the many hours required to complete a hand built quality car were beginning to be realised.  Mirek Craney is reported to have been a perfectionist and in the Cars and Drivers #3 magazine interview, Mirek describes how he was working 14 hours a day to ensure that quality standards were met and describes how each car was taking up to 100 man hours of time to complete the fine details, to check that each component was operating correctly, to ensure that the car was properly tuned and to road test the car to ensure that the customer expectations were met.  This detail work removed any real hope of a profit being made from the cars.  It was also not easy for Mirek being so involved, as the first of Mirek’s and Anna’s children were born at this time.

 

A further problem arose when what is thought to be the first production car, registered BXL-022, (refer to the Gallery pics) was run off the road by Mirek and crashed heavily into a tree badly damaging the car.  Mirek was not badly hurt and although the accident did prove some of the safety aspects of the design, it did mean that the car required extensive time-consuming repair. (The author of this web site now owns this vehicle).  The car can be seen sitting on drums undergoing repair in the centre of the photo above, and in the photo below.

 

 

It is possible that some effort was made to give an indication that production numbers were higher than they actually were.  As is a common practice, the identification plate number sequence did not start at 1.  What is thought to be the first production car has an identification plate number of #005, and no other car is known to have an identification plate number lower than #021.  A number of early cars were repainted in different colours in quick succession.  For example, the damaged car above was painted silver, metallic green, burgundy and then silver again prior to it’s accident, which must have occurred within 12 months of the car being built.  A current Ascort owner who has a family connection with the car’s original owner (who helped finance the Ascort project) says that she was told that the cars were painted in different colours and driven around to give the impression of greater numbers having been produced.  The Craney family has not confirmed this, but it does sound feasible.

 

After the first 12 production cars were constructed, another order (No 4) was placed with Gebr Titgemeyer for components to complete another 6 cars.  However, there was a serious problem developing.  VW refused to supply the mechanical components and floorpans for the cars.  In the 1985 “Great Australian Sports Cars and Specials” publication, Mike McCarthy presumes that the reason was that the Ascort was seen as a direct competitor to the Karmann Ghia.  The Ascort had been receiving very good publicity, such as in the January 1959 Modern Motor which said “I’ve driven both cars and there is no comparison, either in beauty of the body or degree of comfort. In performance too, the Ascort stands head and shoulders above the Karmann, which uses a stock-standard VW motor of only 36 hp.  Mirek managed to obtain several sets of mechanical components from European sources, but the costs were prohibitive. 

 

A meeting with the accountant finally convinced Mirek that the Ascort project was not viable, even though 57 orders with paid deposits had been received and many more had been expected.  All of the unfilled order deposits were refunded in full and the car construction was ceased.

 

In total 19 Ascorts were constructed. Over the years there has been some confusion about how many were built to a completed state.  For a while it was thought that the number was 13, however, now that additional records have been sited, it would appear that 16, which was given by Mike McCarthy in his publication, is most likely the correct number.  The total number of cars would consist of the prototype, 15 completed production cars and 3 unfinished bodies including the left hand drive “prototype”.  At the time of writing in 2012, after some 52 years, 13 of the original 19 bodies constructed were still known to exist in a variety of states of condition. (Link to The Survivors section).

 

Following the end of car manufacturing, the new manager of the corporation was disinterested in the Ascort cars and Mirek reported that the moulds were taken to the Tempe rubbish pit and discarded.  This may not have been the true or complete story as a photo from 1983 shows at least some of the outer body moulds hanging on the wall of Oscar Automotive of Surry Hills, Sydney.  The owner of this business had been a financer of the Ascort project and on his death it is believed that the moulds, as well as an Ascort Sonic boat and an Ascort car, passed to his brother in-law.  The car is still in this family, but it is not known if the Sonic or moulds have survived.

 

Ascort moulds hanging on a shed wall in Surry Hills 1983

 

Mirek owned several Ascorts over the years and these were used as the sole family transport for at least 16 years, when it was decided that a larger family sedan was required.

 

The Ascort corporation continued for a further period of time, constructing a variety of fibreglass products such as aviation fuel tanks, silos etc, but finally the lease on the factory premises (the old tram depot in Tempe, Sydney) expired and all production ceased.  During the time of Ascort Corporation production, Mirek Craney had kept his Hemex Corporation running.  This was the import business, which sold fibreglass-manufacturing equipment and technical know-how to industry and it now became Mirek’s principal source of income and remained as such until the time of his death in 1982.  Following Mirek’s death, Anna and the family continued Hermex Corporation for some time, but the decision was finally made to close the business, bringing the Ascort story to a close.

 

Mirek Craney in 1968 with what is understood to be a fibreglass aviation fuel tank being delivered.

 

 

These Ascort history notes have been compiled from the limited records that have survived, that are still held by the Craney family.  Further information has come from magazine and publication articles, and verbal information from people who have had a long connection with the cars.  Should any reader of this site have further factual information, or wish to suggest content correction to what is written, please email the site administrator.