End of the line but memories live on

By Jack Biddle

New Zealand has a proud history of car assembly. Driven reminisces over some old favourites.

An ad for Chris Amon's Toyota Corona, a famous NZ manufacturered car from the1908s. Supplied. For use in Driven, June 22.
An ad for Chris Amon's Toyota Corona, a famous NZ manufacturered car from the1908s. Supplied. For use in Driven, June 22.

Love them or simply tolerate the need to own one, cars and the motor industry have been part of the New Zealand landscape for more than 100 years.

During that time, government intervention has taken the new car industry down many different pathways. From the early pioneering days when tariffs were introduced on fully assembled cars to protect local coachbuilders and car assemblers, to the late 1980s when those same barriers were starting to be lifted to allow the fully assembled brands to enter New Zealand and compete on a much more even playing field.

This move eventually spelled the end of an era in our motoring history as assembly plants were closed because the protectionism that had made them financially viable was no longer there. It was cheaper and much more efficient for vehicles to be assembled offshore.

By 1998 all remaining tariffs were removed and the doors were closed on the last remaining assembly plants across the country. Another nail in the coffin of local assembly was the Government's decision to allow the importation of second-hand used cars (mainly from Japan in the early days) which continue to compete in our hotly contested new and used car market today.

For those who worked in the local car assembly industry, there are many great memories and just as many stories to tell. Not only did it provide work within the assembly plants, but local outside suppliers provided componentry such as batteries, paint, exhaust systems, carpets, electrical wiring and tyres to the various plants around the country. It's part of NZ's motoring history that is highly unlikely to return.

I feel privileged to have been connected to the assembly of new cars in New Zealand during my career in the motor industry. I started my motoring career as a mechanic before working for a large Japanese brand as national service manager.

From what I witnessed in those days leading up to the curtain finally coming down on the assembly industry, the same passion and commitment to build the best motor vehicle possible was still evident as the last cars were rolling off the assembly line.

The industry is so large that nobody can ever claim total ownership. Many people have played a part in making it what it is today and others to follow will make the decisions that will determine its future. Those who worked in the assembly of new motor vehicles in NZ deservedly hold their unique place in the motoring history books; they have a lot to be proud of.

Holden HQ Kingswood Toyota Corona AmonFord Escort MK2 The industry has quickly moved on from those days but Driven is looking back at a sample of New Zealand-assembled cars.

It was a time when distributor points and carburettors were the normal and it wasn't unusual to see bonnets up in street garages as the family car underwent its regular tune-up or oil change.

Toyota Corona Amon (1986-87)

Many may have forgotten the name plate Corona, but few will ever forget the great Kiwi icon that fronted the Toyota brand for so long.

After a long and successful career in motor racing (see page 39), Chris Amon returned to NZ and in 1983 become the test driver for a local television motoring show hosted by Dougal Stevenson called the Motor Show.

It was during filming that Amon exposed the handling deficiencies of the Toyota Corolla and spoke critically about it on national television. In what turned out to be a master stroke for Toyota NZ, Amon was asked to put his expertise to good use to improve the cars' handling weaknesses.

Amon recently told Driven that while the Japanese engineers had produced a brilliant car in terms of reliability (and no oil leaks), they had no idea of the speed and road conditions their product was being exposed to outside of their domestic market in Japan. Even the inexperience of their own test drivers highlighted confusion between the meaning of over-steer and under-steer, said Amon.

Key points of improvement centred on directional stability, ride comfort, vibration, road noise and suspension balance front to rear.

While most of the improvements were made in-house by Toyota, Amon was quick to praise the efforts of the local New Zealand suppliers able to manufacture suspension springs and produce tyres to complement the other modifications implemented.

The Corona Amon was named in recognition of Chris Amon's work when the company was in its infancy in NZ. His contribution to building Toyota in NZ was certainly more than marketing hype. Amon is now semi-retired and living in Taupo and still works with Toyota NZ as a consultant.

Holden HQ Kingswood (1971-74)

While Holden as a brand was well established in New Zealand in the early 1970s, it's the HQ that holds fond memories for many. It's a model that seemingly has never gone away either. While they have become a rarity on our roads these days, they can still be seen racing around on hard seal and speedway tracks throughout the country. Never known for their exceptional handling qualities from new, many racing drivers describe their HQ experience as simply "fun" and a great way to learn about improving suspension geometry.

From a mechanic's perspective, they were one of the easiest and most enjoyable cars to work on. One old Holden mechanic interviewed told Driven a clutch overhaul on a six cylinder model basically involved removing four bolts plus a few linkages - all done before smoko.

From mechanics to the man on the street, engine size was always talked about in cubic-inches rather than in litres. The 173 (2.8l) and the 202 (3.3l) were the 6-cylinder options while the V8s varied from 253 (4.1l), 308 (5.0l) and the grunty 350 (5.7l). The HQ was the first Holden to be built with a semi-chassis frame to help improve rigidity plus reduce noise and vibration levels.

The beauty of the HQ was that it fitted a variety of different lifestyles with body options that included a sedan, wagon, utility and panel van. Great for the family, tradie and surfie of the day. While motor vehicles in general have become safer, more fuel efficient and reliable, few have the real character and simplicity of the old HQ Holden.

Ford Escort MK2 (1975-81)

The phrase raced-rallied-and-rolled seems to fit perfectly with the Escort as it was such a dominant rally car in its day. Even now if you attend a local car-club hill climb event you will still see more than one Escort making up the numbers. In many cases the drivers are older than the car. They, like the car, make the sport such a popular and relatively cheap form of motor racing.

But it wasn't reserved just for the boy racers of the day, the Mk2 Escort was a popular family car as well, and came in many different guises including an estate. The Escort was marketed to cover many bases with a poverty pack 1.1-litre model up to the more trendy 1.6-litre Ghia Sport.

The Escort was produced in a time when manual transmissions were the preferred option. However, a three-speed automatic was also made available on some models as were alloy wheels. A sensible purchase for the working class at the time, the MK2 Escort was a great example of how one model could stretch to such extreme ends of a scale.

It later became a great choice of vehicle when two car families were starting to blossom.

* In part two of our journey down memory lane we look at three more NZ assembled cars that live on in our memories long after production came to an end. We also would like to hear what cars spun your wheels in the days of local assembly. Send us an email at driven@apn.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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