Obituary: William John Calvert Murrell (MAC 1948)

Posted 30 MAR 2021
Sadly Missed

Industrial Engineer Pioneered Car Industry

William John Calvert Murrell (MAC 1948)
Born: November 8, 1930, Adelaide
Died: December 17, 2020, Perth

A blood transfusion from his father on the kitchen table of their home in Thebarton, South Australia saved the life of Bill Murrell. He was born a “blue baby” in an era prior to blood matching and blood banks and the quick thinking but inherently risky actions of the local doctor were later cited as a case study to medical students on how to treat haemolytic disease in newborns. It was this near-death experience as a baby that gave Bill Murrell a positive can-do attitude to life.

He was an avid art collector, industrial engineer and pioneer of Australia’s early car manufacturing industry, matching a love of visual design and creativity with hands on engineering problem solving.

Educated at St Peter’s College, Adelaide University and the General Motors Institute of Technology at Flint, Michigan in the United States which later became North Western University, he was a house prefect, school champion shot putter and represented South Australia in the Junior Under 19 Rugby Union team of 1948-49.

The second of five children, his father John William Murrell was an engineer who was responsible for setting up the sewage system in Adelaide and played football for Geelong, the Tasmanian State team and Norwood. His mother, Beatrice Alice Calvert was the daughter of noted Huon Valley orchardist and politician, The Hon William Henry Fairfax Calvert.

Bill turned down a scholarship at Roseworthy Agricultural College to take up a mechanical engineering cadetship at Adelaide University which paid five pounds a month. In 1950, he became a technical clerk at the Plant Engineering Department of General Motors Holden Woodville and in 1951 applied for an Engineering Scholarship through General Motors Overseas Operations.

After winning the two-year scholarship, he was given the task of designing a pencilled ‘schematic’ plant layout for the proposed new Elizabeth facility. In Michigan, he studied metallurgy, processing, metals, foundry management, tool tryout and sidegate body assembly and worked on the iconic Buick and Pontiac models at a time when General Motors was producing 240 cars a day.

This experience ignited a lifetime’s passion in studying the interaction of human beings with industrial processes.

Murrell travelled extensively in the US visiting San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York. This gave him a real insight into how the motorcar was transforming lives and lifestyles during the 1950s.

On return to Adelaide, and after three years as supervisor in the Production Engineering Department at GMH, he took on the role of Director of a South Australian Management Consultancy. Bill then worked at Australian Motor Industries in Melbourne as Chief Production Engineer when they were assembling Mercedes-Benz, Rambler, Fiat tractors, Triumph Herald and Vanguard cars and he planned the assembly of the first 6-cylinder Vanguard car. In 1960, he moved to Standards Manager at New Holland in Dandenong and lectured part time in Industrial Engineering at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Bill moved back to Adelaide with Chrysler where the ‘S’ Model Valiant was the car of the moment. There, he supervised Methods and Processes and in 1963 was promoted to Industrial Engineer then Special Project Manager and was later posted to Sydney to run the Far Eastern and African Operations, making five trips overseas to places as diverse as Karachi, Canada, Detroit, the Philippines and New Zealand.

Back in Adelaide in 1970 as Chrysler’s Australian Service Manager, he launched the ‘Chrysler Cares and Service Excellence’ program which saw the introduction of standard blue uniforms for mechanics, customer service awards for staff, the first computer recall system and an innovative “Women on Wheels” program created especially for women who drive.

Some of the production challenges faced during his 16 years at Chrysler where the “Hey Charger” advertising campaign was making a big impact, included visiting 300 out of the 400 dealerships around Australia seeking ideas to lower warranty costs while improving customer service attitudes and finding engineering solutions to performance issues. For example, the VG Valiant had a curl pin which held the gearstick in and once it wore the gearstick could come out in your hand which drivers found a bit disconcerting!

Bill was also involved in the recall of Chryslers because of wheels literally falling off. A wheel nut runner on the assembly line did not work properly for a short time allowing the wheel nuts to loosen while on the road.

After this he worked for the Australian Productivity Council and became State Manager of the South Australian Construction Training Committee, a body established to develop and train personal to higher competence at all levels from management through technical to trade levels in the building and construction industry.

He came to Perth in 1990 to become an Industrial Engineer and Project Manager with the Asset Management Branch of the Water Authority of Western Australia and was a former State and Federal President of the Institute of Industrial Engineers.

A keen art collector, he supported South Australian artists Colin Russell Gardiner from Stirling in the Adelaide Hills, Mary Millicent Wigg from the famous E.S. Wigg stationary family and his younger brother Andrew Douglas Ambrose Murrell, a notable art and antiques dealer and oil painter.

Community service roles included WA President of Better Hearing Australia, co-ordinator of the men’s group at St Christopher’s City Beach and a life member of the UWA Sports Recreation and Fitness Centre.

He was a faithful man who lived to the motto “to thyself be true”.

He outlived three wives and is survived by sons James and William, daughter Lucy, adult step-children Alison and Geoffrey and seven grandchildren.

By Thomas A. C. Murrell (MAC 1979)

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