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Tracing the history of John Ford’s hovercraft

In early November 1966, the quiet dawn in Launceston was broken by the roar of a strange craft being launched into the Tamar River. Powered by two Volkswagen motors, the craft was neither car nor boat.

It was in fact a prototype hovercraft, one of the first made in Australia, and had been built in secret by John Ford & Co. Pty Ltd in the C. H. Smith building in Charles Street.

John Ford had established his electrical engineering and metal fabrication business in 1964 and with fellow Launceston engineer David Rowell formed Air Cushion Vehicles Australasia Pty Ltd, with two other investors (Noel Brown and Robin Harvey), in early 1966.

Only a handful of people had seen the prototype’s first trial at Kelso and, after some modifications, a second test run off Royal Park a fortnight later.

Details of the unusual project became public with an announcement by the Minister for Industrial Development, Roy Fagan, in The Examiner on 11 November 1966.

Mr Fagan said the founders of the company had pooled their resources to construct a prototype similar to a hovercraft operating in Britain.

They had begun building their prototype in April 1966 to a design from their own experiments because little information was available on the craft.

The venture, he said, was still at the experimental stage but the company was confident it could begin production next year, on a limited scale, of a craft capable of carrying a three-tonne payload.

The Examiner stated that Air Cushion Vehicles Australasia Pty Ltd believed it was ahead of any other organisation in Australia and unlike overseas companies, which were interested in large ocean-going vehicles, it intended to concentrate on small, low-cost craft.

The cost of manufacturing in Launceston was expected to be substantially less than in the UK.

Over the next three years two more hovercraft were built, designated ACVA-6 and ACVA-10 to denote their passenger carrying capacity.

In 1969 an ABC TV news report by Peter Couchman gave the company national exposure. ACVA-10 subsequently went to Papua New Guinea and ACVA-6 to Melbourne.

Commercial success was not forthcoming and like John Ford’s prototype they faded into history with all thought to have been dismantled or destroyed.

Over the years, plans and documents of the Launceston-made hovercraft have been donated to the Queen Victoria Museum and historic films given to the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office in Hobart with some in the process of being digitised.

Recently, Launceston-born hovercraft historian Tim Pryor, now of Sydney, became aware that ACVA-6 was languishing in a paddock on French Island in Western Port Bay in Victoria.

He says it was spotted during a recent episode of the ABC TV program Back Roads.

Mr Pryor wants to see John Ford’s pioneering hovercraft returned to Launceston and preserved as part of Tasmania’s engineering history and is keen to hear from anyone interested in helping him rescue ACVA-6.

Images -- TOP: John Ford's first hovercraft ready for trials parked opposite the C. H. Smith building in Charles Street (photo courtesy Tim Pryor). MIDDLE: John Ford being interviewed in 1969 and ACVA-6 on Home Reach. (photos courtesy ABC TV). BOTTOM: ABC reporter Peter Couchman lets ACVA-6 hovercraft 'fly' over him in a 1969 news item (Photo courtesy ABC TV).

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, 13 November 2022, page 27.


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