Memories are made of these

By Jack Biddle

Driven reminisces over some old favourites

Mini's were assembled in New Zealand by the NZMC.
Mini's were assembled in New Zealand by the NZMC.

Last week we overviewed the vehicle assembly industry in NZ and the reasons for its initial start-up in 1922 (with the Colonial Motor Company) and its ultimate demise when the curtain finally dropped on the few remaining plants still operating around the country in 1998.

It's part of NZ motoring history which is highly unlikely to be repeated. In its day, it was directly and indirectly responsible for the employment of thousands of the Kiwi workforce and produced many memorable motor vehicles along the way.

In part two we feature three more Kiwi-built vehicles remembered for a host of different reasons.

Trekka (1966 - 1973)

A great example of good old-fashioned Kiwi ingenuity, the Trekka is best remembered for its basic design and simplicity. It can lay claim to being the only mass-produced vehicle that was designed in NZ with the agricultural community being its initial target market.

The Trekka was conceived as a result of New Zealand's highly regulated import policies, which at the time encouraged a high amount of local content. While the steel body (which shared similarities to an early Land Rover) and canopies were locally produced, the chassis and mechanicals were sourced from Czechoslovakia and taken from a Skoda Octavia Combi which dated back to the 1950s.

To increase local content during assembly, these components were imported to New Zealand in kitset form. Engine size for the Trekka was 1221cc mated to a four-speed manual gearbox. Options were few, with all original canvas tops painted green and a towbar being the only accessory offered.

Improvements during production saw a white fibreglass canopy added while seating was also improved. When production ceased in 1973 as a result of increased competition, 2500 Trekkas had been built.

It found favour with tradespeople who found it fit-for-purpose despite its build quality limitations and design flaws. A small and short-lived export market for the Trekka stretched to Australia and the Pacific Islands.

Should we laugh at the Trekka or admire and applaud the people who took hold of an opportunity to design and produce a vehicle at an affordable price which they believed, at the time, best suited New Zealand's rural lifestyle? I go for the latter as our nation has a history of having that good old fashioned can-do attitude.

Mini (1960 - 1982)

We can't leave the Mini out of our list of all-time favourites assembled in New Zealand. When the first Mini rolled off the UK assembly line in 1959, few would have believed the basic engineering and space-saving innovations employed would still be in production today and used by a host of new vehicle manufacturers.

A transversely mounted engine driving the front wheels was unheard of in mass production in the late 1950s. Even the radiator was sandwiched into the left side of the engine cavity to save on space.

It all added up to allowing for a shorter bonnet, which meant around 80 per cent of the floor pan area could be used to accommodate five adults plus luggage. The total length of the Mini saloon was a fraction over 3 metres. And who would have ever thought about placing the transmission under the engine to save space, and using the same oil to provide the lubrication?

In addition, and also to reduce weight and increase usable interior space, the Mini relied on rubber cones instead of springs (even hydrolastic suspension was introduced for a while) to act as its suspension.

A variety of different versions of the Mini were produced in New Zealand including the Clubman, Clubman GT, Van, Pick-up and the Riley Elf but basic mechanicals stayed the same.

While improvements were introduced over the years, the Mini, like its larger siblings (1100, 1300, 1800, Maxi and 1800), did keep the mechanics of the day in regular work. Many would say they could do a manual gearbox overhaul blindfolded only because they had had so much practice and you could often hear a Mini coming up the road before you saw it due to a worn and squeaky rubber cone suspension. Oil leaks were common and because of the position of the distributor (directly behind the front grill), engines often cut out when driving in heavy rain (a splash guard was added during later production).

An automatic version that could still be operated like a manual was also assembled here and, while it relied on using the same oil as the engine, it performed better than the almost identical transmission design that was fitted to the larger 1100 model.

Engine sizes for the Mini varied from 850cc up to 1275cc. While it was originally designed as affordable transport for the average motorist, the Mini was also produced, but never assembled in New Zealand, as a performance vehicle (Cooper and Cooper S). They won numerous international rallies including a Clubman GT fitted with a Cooper S engine taking overall honours at the 1972 Heatway International Rally of New Zealand.

While it had its critics, the Mini concept of producing a small and economical vehicle with loads of interior space lives on strong today. How many of us car enthusiasts say we wished we still owned a particular car of the past. I wonder where my 1965 green MK2 Riley Elf is now? I do miss it.

Mitsubishi Mirage (1978 - 1993)

More than five million Mirages were produced in 160 countries in its heyday with over 51,000 rolling off the assembly lines in New Zealand over a 15-year period.

It became one of Mitsubishi's best-selling cars in the day, appealing to a wide section of the community for its interior space, practicality and affordability.

Although the hatch-back is probably the best remembered model, sedans and wagons were also part of local production from 1984.

Mitsubishi, like the other Japanese manufacturers at the time, had taken the pioneering Front-Wheel-Drive and interior space saving concept introduced by the British Motor Corporation with the release of the Mini, back to the drawing board, improved on it, and then added its unique point of difference.

In many respects, it was all fairly basic mechanically (which no doubt helped its popularity), with an uncomplicated independent front suspension, rack and pinion steering and front disc brakes. Engine sizes varied during production from 1244cc, 1410cc and 1500cc.

It was the super shift twin-lever transmission that many will remember that gave the Mirage its quirkiness and point of difference. The four-speed manual transmission had the option of a power and economy mode and, by introducing a second shift lever, the driver had a choice of eight forward gears and yes, even two reverse options.

A more conventional four-speed automatic was also available.

Such was the popularity of the old Mirage that the name was taken out of mothballs and given a new lease of life with the all-new 2013 three cylinder 1.2 litre Mirage hatch.

Bringing back the past can at times be a risky business, as often our memories tend to blot out the bad bits and the good times are sometimes made to sound a lot better than they really were. Not the case with the Kiwi assembled Mirage; it did create that something special that still brings back fond memories for many. No pressure on the 2013 model then!

The previous Mitsubishi Mirage (rear, below right) and the 2013 Mirage.

- NZ Herald

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