The Land-rover That Time Forgot (review)

The Trekka Dynasty, by Todd Niall (Iconic Publishing, $29.95)

Listener 6 November, 2004.

Keywords: Business & Finance; Political Economy & History;

Making the boxy Trekka the centre of New Zealand’s contribution to the 2003 Venice Biennale bemused New Zealanders, as well as those who visited. Apparently artist Michael Stevenson saw it as a story about a small nation building an industrial economy, to be swept away by 1984. An easy image perhaps, but a superficial one.

The Trekka Dynasty, by Todd Niall, business editor of Radio New Zealand, tells the story of the Trekka, a sort of impoverished Land-Rover. The story begins with the arrival of Arthur Turner and Cissie and her children in the early 1920s. At the centre is son Noel Turner, who certainly should appear in the next volume of The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. With others of his family, including his stepfather, he developed a motor business, initially based on importing Bradford vans, Jowett cars, and then Volkswagens and Skodas, whose production was typically finished off in New Zealand.

By the 1930s New Zealand could not generate enough foreign exchange from its grass-based export industries to import all it wanted. British preferential arrangements prevented raising tariffs, so the import licences used to conserve foreign exchange were allocated – inevitably crudely – in order to boost employment. Given the widespread demand for cars, a car import licence became a “licence to print money”.

The more local content, the more licences, so the Trekka aimed to maximise the additions. It was based on Skodas supplied cheap because the Czechs were hungry for foreign exchange, too. Given that they supplied the chassis and the engine, it is extravagant to describe the Trekka as a “New Zealand car” – it was a Czech car with New Zealand body and fittings.

In tracing this story, Niall, who describes himself as a “car and motor sport enthusiast”, tells some amusing stories of business progress and business treachery, of Heath Robinson-type production and sales methods, and of bureaucratic interference. (A Labour Department inspector, told that toilet facilities for women staff involved giving a penny from petty cash and using the town hall across the road, insisted on the provision of a female toilet. They sacked the woman worker instead.)

Unfortunately, the enthusiastic Niall lacks the scepticism that is at the heart of good writing. The careful reader will discover that the car’s controls were quirky, that perhaps up to 18 percent of Trekkas were defective, that few were made

(less than 3000) and that the model was extinguished by the Japanese invasion in 1972, well before 1984 (or the last New Zealand assembled car in 1998). The book recounts people’s memories of how industrialisation policy was – but there seems no attempt to go to the official record. What the public sees and remembers is different from the policy process, and since memories are unreliable, there are numerous errors of fact.

The impression is imbalanced. Sure, the motor vehicle industry was once seen throughout the world as the key to industrialisation, but we now know that it was not. Not only was the Trekka a marginal part of New Zealand’s motor vehicle industry, but also the industry was only a marginal part of the manufacturing industry. Better that the Biennale had had a Fisher & Paykel washing machine.

The result is a book that may attract motor enthusiasts, but at best it contributes only anecdotes to issues of industrialisation strategy. The Trekka is an extinct fossil that led nowhere, not even to a kiwi or a tuatara, which, if as clunky, have at least survived millions of years.