Story: Cars and the motor industry

Page 3. Car imports and the assembly industry

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Tariffs and import licensing

In 1907 the government introduced a 20% tariff (import tax) on cars that arrived in New Zealand already assembled, to protect local coachbuilders and car assemblers. During the First World War the tariff was reduced to 10%. From then until 1924 more cars were imported assembled than unassembled.

In the 1930s tariffs increased, and were higher for assembled than unassembled cars. British cars had a lower tariff than others – 5% for unassembled and 15% for assembled. Cars from the rest of Europe and from America had a 50% tariff for unassembled and 60% for assembled.

The government introduced import licensing in 1938, which restricted imports. Buying a car was no simple matter – people chose a model off a list, and then faced a long wait. People with overseas funds could import any car they liked, but then had to pay tariffs. This government intervention was designed to prevent the costs of imports skyrocketing, and to protect car assembly and related industries in New Zealand.

Driving Mr Rhodes

At first only the wealthy could buy cars – people like doctors and sheep farmers. However, most drove their cars themselves. An exception was Robert Heaton Rhodes, a Canterbury landowner and member of Parliament, who bought his first car, a Rover, in 1907. After backing it into a ditch, he acquired a chauffeur.

Car assembly industry, 1900s–1970s

Car assembly has its roots in pre-car trades. In the early 1900s coachbuilders and wheelwrights quickly moved into building bodies for imported motor vehicle chassis.

One such firm – Rouse and Hurrell of Courtenay Place, Wellington – took up a Ford Motor Company agency in 1908. It was renamed the Colonial Motor Company in 1911. In 1922 Colonial built New Zealand’s first specialised car assembly plant – a steel box of nine floors, based on the Ford assembly works in Ontario, Canada. At over 30 metres high, it was Wellington’s tallest building at the time. The top two floors were used for administration. Assembly of cars from imported packs of parts started on level 7, and finished vehicles were driven out the ground floor. The company built smaller assembly plants in Parnell (Auckland), and in Timaru. In 1936 Ford took over assembly and distribution of its own vehicles, building a new factory in Lower Hutt.

Morris cars were assembled by Dominion Motors, founded in 1912 by Charles Norwood. It built a factory in Auckland in 1935.

George H. Scott became the official factory representative for Austin in 1919, having been the agent since 1909. Out of this company and its distributors emerged Austin Distributor Federation (ADF), the assemblers of the Austin brand.

In 1926 General Motors opened a plant in Petone, in the Hutt Valley. At first it produced American Chevrolet, Pontiac and Buick cars, adding the Oldsmobile in 1928. Its first British Vauxhalls were built in 1931, along with Bedford trucks.

Todd Motors developed out of an Otago-based Ford agency, and in 1935 built a car plant in Petone. It assembled Chrysler and Dodge cars, and, by arrangement with the Rootes group, Hillman (including the popular Minx), Humber and Sunbeam models.

Australian Holdens were first introduced as assembled cars in 1954, but the first Holden from General Motors’ Petone plant, an FE Series, emerged in 1957. A large new plant at Trentham in the Hutt Valley was opened in 1967, where General Motors built such vehicles as the Holden HQ series, Commodore, and Vauxhall Viva.

In the early 1970s more than 80% of new cars were supplied by General Motors, Ford, Todd Motors and Dominion Motors. The New Zealand Motor Corporation (NZMC) was formed in 1970, from the merger of ADF and Dominion Motors.

Japanese cars gained an increasing market share in the second half of the 20th century. The first Toyotas were built in Christchurch and Thames in the late 1960s. NZMC entered an assembly arrangement with Honda and built cars in Nelson, in a plant that had been set up for British Triumphs in 1965. In 1975 Todd Motors, replacing its Petone plant, opened a large new facility in Porirua, to produce Mitsubishi vehicles.

How to cite this page:

Eric Pawson, 'Cars and the motor industry - Car imports and the assembly industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 January 2020)

Story by Eric Pawson, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 15 Dec 2014