Car assembly was once a major industry in New Zealand and Lower Hutt was one of the main sites with five plants in the Petone area.
New Zealand has long had one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world.
The car was the ideal form of transport for New Zealand in both rural and urban settings.
The first cars imported into the country were expensive and only the wealthy could afford them. Ownership expanded in the 1920’s as cars became more affordable and the country more prosperous. By 1929 there were more than 150,000 motor vehicles on the road. New Zealand had one car for every 10 people, second only to the US and ahead of Australia and Britain.
All cars were imported, either in assembled or unassembled form. Before 1924 more cars were imported assembled. This changed as the government encouraged the development of a local car assembly industry through the imposition of tariffs and import licensing. These measures also influenced the types of cars assembled here with British manufacturers being favoured – in the 1930’s they paid a 5% tariff on unassembled vehicles while their American rivals faced 50%.
General Motors opened the first assembly plant in this area in 1926. Their factory was in Bouverie Street, Petone, where the Mitre 10 Mega store is now. Here they built both American and British makes, including Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Vauxhalls and Bedford trucks. In the 1950’s they started assembling Holdens.
Rover was the next manufacturer to set up when they opened a factory on Jackson Street in 1932. Rover failed to establish themselves and they closed the next year.
Press 25 February, 1932
In 1935 Todd Motors built a plant in Petone, near the railway station. Here they assembled Chrysler and Dodge cars, and Hillmans, Humbers and Sunbeams. The next year Ford moved into the area building their factory at Seaview.
The last company to arrive was Austin who opened their plant on the Western Hutt Road in 1946. The factory became part of the New Zealand Motor Corporation (NZMC) when the Austin Distributors Federation merged with Dominion Motors in 1970.
A report by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research in 1971 identified inefficiencies with the industry and recommended rationalising production and reducing protection. The car assembly plants in Lower Hutt started to close. Todd was the first to shut down when it transferred production from Petone to Porirua in 1975.
In the 1980’s and 90’s tariffs were scaled back and eventually removed and the car assembly industry ceased. The NZMC closed their Petone plant in 1983. General Motors followed the next year, consolidating its operation at its Trentham plant. And Ford departed in 1988 although their building still stands in Seaview.