Velox, Wyvern, Chevette, Bel Air, Bedford, Buick ... they're all gone. But Holden is still here, celebrating 75 years of carmaking in New Zealand, reports ALASTAIR SLOANE

New Zealanders returning from the Second World War to milk cows and muster sheep weren't exactly flush with the money needed to buy tractors to turn government ballot blocks into productive farms.

So they improvised and used something cheaper and often more familiar: ex-Army bren gun carriers.

The V8 engines were as thirsty as a digger in the desert but had enough oomph to pull makeshift things like old railway lines chained together to crush scrub.

The Army Museum at Waiouru still has working models of bren gun carriers, 60 years after General Motors was building them at its factory in Trentham.

GM was the first big carmaker to set up an assembly plant in New Zealand. It started production on August 31, 1926, at Petone. Yesterday, the GM subsidiary Holden New Zealand, now based in Auckland, celebrated the carmaker's 75th anniversary.

Petone occupies an important place in GM history: it was the first overseas plant to be owned lock, stock and barrel by Detroit. Before then, GM had leased its offshore buildings.

The first car off the line 75 years ago was a four-cylinder Chevrolet sedan. It wasn't the first car to be assembled here - distributors of smaller marques had been bolting cars together for some years. But Petone was the first major plant, 10 years before Ford set up shop at nearby Gracefield.

Former Prime Minister Keith Holyoake would reflect on the significance of GM's commitment 41 years later, at the 1967 opening of its new assembly operation at Trentham.

The carmaker's decision to build the first plant in 1926 was "an act of faith at a time when New Zealand was at the beginning of its industrial development and when motor vehicles were fewer than horses", he said.

Petone started with 250 employees and produced 1000 Chevrolet vehicles in the first eight months. By 1928, it had added Pontiac and Buick models and the staff had grown to 500. The 12,000th vehicle came off the line in 1929.

Assembly of British-sourced GM models began in May 1931 with the Vauxhall VX sedan, followed by a range of Bedford trucks. At the plant's first major anniversary in 1936, management made much of the numbers: 37,575 vehicles had been built in 10 years.

The factory expanded and in 1938 began making refrigerators and freezers. It expanded again in 1939, virtually doubling floor space and boosting staff to 760.

With the arrival of the Second World War, production switched to munitions, including 1100 bren gun carriers made almost entirely from New Zealand components. In addition, 900 war-damaged Army trucks were reconditioned and put back into service.

Import restrictions persisted after the war and it wasn't until early 1947 that the first post-war Chevrolet rolled out of Petone. Despite the war break, Petone had counted out 74,946 vehicles.

The 100,000th vehicle - a Vauxhall Series E - was assembled in 1952. Five years later, and three years after the first Australian-built Holdens went on sale in New Zealand, the first Holden FE Series sedan was assembled at Petone. By now, 142,061 vehicles had been built.

That same year the Vauxhall Victor was introduced, replacing the Wyvern, Velox and Cresta models. The bigger Chev Bel Air went into assembly in 1958, followed a year later by a Pontiac, the first to be built here in 20 years.

The opening of the Trentham plant on August 26, 1967, boosted GM's operation significantly.

Holden and Vauxhall models continued to sell well to the point where, in the late 1960s, 42 HR Holden variants were available.

The 350,000th GM vehicle was built in 1972 - the same year in which the company led New Zealand new-vehicle sales with 23.6 per cent of the overall market.

In 1974 the effects of the first oil crisis forced the Government to introduce a graduated sales tax regime based on engine capacity. This favoured smaller cars and GM rationalised the Holden range.

Later, when larger cars returned to popularity, GM would assemble a 5-litre V8 version of the Holden Commodore SS.

In 1976, the Vauxhall Chevette went on sale as GM celebrated its 50th anniversary and the production of 430,000 vehicles.

Assembly of the Commodore - the most popular GM model ever sold in New Zealand - started in 1979. It has been one of the top three best-sellers every year since, except 1984 and 1993.

In May 1982 a four-cylinder Commodore SLX sedan was the 500,000th GM vehicle built here. A year later, GM closed the Petone factory and shifted assembly to Trentham.

The last vehicle off the Petone line was a Bedford van. Local assembly of the Holden Camira and Barina ended in 1989 and, as a result of a government plan to gradually phase out import duty on cars, GM decided to end local assembly in 1990.

On November 21, 1990, a 3.8-litre Commodore V6 was the last vehicle to be assembled by GM in New Zealand and brought total production from Petone and Trentham to 593,945 units.

The Upper Hutt facility closed in June 1991 and to avoid consumer confusion about its various brands, General Motors New Zealand Ltd changed its name to Holden New Zealand Ltd on July 15, 1994. Holden shifted its head office to Auckland in July 1999.

The Commodore has been the best-selling car in New Zealand for the past 12 months.

Giveaway

There was one carrying Red Cross medics through a swollen river in Peru. Another carrying geologists through the Egyptian desert. Yet another windscreen-deep in snow in the Southern Alps.

It is the Toyota Land Cruiser, a four-wheel-drive found everywhere from Park Avenue to Patagonia. And it is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

The first model in 1951 was called the BJ, based largely on the American Jeep. The most recent is the 100 series, with a leather-lined interior and a bomb-proof exterior.

To mark the anniversary, Toyota New Zealand has given Weekend Motoring a copy of a limited-edition book, Toyota Land Cruiser 1951-2001, to give away.

We have only one copy of the hardback book, which is not for sale publicly. It is chock-a-block with photos, text, comments from off-road specialists, facts and figures.

To enter, write your name and address on the back of an envelope or postcard and send it to Toyota Land Cruiser, New Zealand Herald, PO Box 3290, Auckland. Entries close September 12, winner announced September 15.