The Kiwi love affair with American cars…and the Austin Allegro

Last week my wife and I bought a new car. Got me thinking about New Zealanders and cars. Back in the 1920s, Kiwis took to them like ducks to water – by the 1930s we were the most motorised country in the world outside North America. And a lot of the cars were American.

Deco dreaming: photo I took of a classic US car in New Zealand - art deco parade, Napier 2012.
Deco dreaming: photo I took of a 1942 Packard convertible coupe in Napier, New Zealand, 2012.

That changed in the face of 1930s government policies – import restrictions and a lurch to Mother England that created a local car assembly industry built around British products.

Austin Seven Ruby, classic British transport designed to fit into the boot (sorry, 'trunk' of) a small American car. Click to enlarge...the photo, not the car...
A 1935 Austin Seven Ruby, classic British transport designed to fit into the boot (sorry, ‘trunk”) of any American car. Click to enlarge…the photo, not the car…

By the 1950s, instead of roaring around in big American V8’s, Kiwis were puttering about in underpowered and over-complex Chummy Piddlers and Humber Milquetoasts, designed in towns with names like Lesser Peniston to meet British tax laws. But Kiwis with foreign funds could use them to import vehicles. Often American, the smallest of them three quarters the size of a continent with FireGlide transmission, FireLite headlamps, rocket fins, and half South Africa’s annual chrome output made into the front bumper.

The typical age of a Kiwi car, back then, was 20 years; and they were sold with eggs cracked into differentials or with bodywork ‘bogged’ to the hilt, liable to fall apart on first impact. Car dealers, by repute, were a bit slimy. A lot slimy, actually. But they fitted the culture of geriatric cars that gained value while lurching around the streets trailing oil smoke and bolts.

Two 1956 Ford Consuls out to seed. You can tell it's New Zealand because of the sheep. These four-cylinder Dagenham-designed vehicles were the lesser version of the classic Ford Zephyr.
Two 1956 Mk II Ford Consuls out to seed. You can tell it’s New Zealand because of the sheep.

That changed in 1972, when restrictions were partly lifted – with the result that many Kiwis ended up driving the worst car ever made in the entire 13.77 billion year history of the universe, the Austin Allegro. The steering wheel was square because Leyland were at home to Mr Cock Up during design and failed to leave room for some drivers’ knees. It was more aerodynamic when driven in reverse. And if you drove it over a cattle-stop, you couldn’t open the doors because the monocoque shell wasn’t rigid enough and they used to sag in the middle.

Car buying changed again in the 1980s when restrictions came off. Suddenly cars flooded in, mostly Japanese with hopeful English names like Cherry.  The thing was, apart from occasional silly marque names, these cars were good. Well engineered, reliable, cost-effective and designed to last.  Typified by my 1990 Toyota Corona, which I had for 18 years and which never let me down, apart from the broken con rod that killed it. (Come on, Mr Toyoda, you KNOW your cars don’t break like that usually…any chance of a new one?).

My trusty Toyota - which accompanied me on writing ventures for 18 years.
My trusty Toyota – which accompanied me on writing ventures for 18 years. Now no more… sigh…

Back to the Wright family car hunt. We discovered that a quarter-century of deregulated car market hasn’t altered the integrity of some car dealers. But others are good. I negotiated…and if you’ve seen Happy Endings, Series 3, Ep 2 – ‘Sabado Free-Gante’, where Jane negotiates for a car…well, it was like that.

So we have a new car. I think the dealer has stopped gibbering in the corner. Next challenge: the name. I’ve always given my cars stupid names – my Corona was ‘The Bishop’, solely so I could make lame British public school references to the fact that cars need polishing. The new one belongs to She Who Must Be Obeyed, so it will end up with a sensible name. Or not.

Do you have adventures buying cars – and give them names?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


11 thoughts on “The Kiwi love affair with American cars…and the Austin Allegro

  1. You neglect to mention what the new car is, but a very entertaining post. I especially liked the photo captions. Glad to see you can also be a bit silly if you want to.

        1. My wife likes it, which is the main thing. Next on the agenda is a new car for me, which I keep threatening will be a Nissan GT-R Godzilla or similar Mid Life Crisis Mobile, but in fact it’ll probably be something sensible and boring.

  2. This made me smile as I ended up thinking about all the cars my family have gone through and now I have my own dream car. 🙂

    1. It’s always good when dreams come true like that. I’ve always gone for ‘cost’ and ‘utility’ with cars (hence the Toyota) but – well, that 1942 Packard looked pretty special…sigh…

  3. My wife had a bright orange Austin Allegro when I met her. The money we spent on those CV joints over the next few years! But it still reliably pulled us up the mountain for skiing, It was eventually killed not by mechanical mis-function or body sag, but by rust.

    1. It was a pretty common Kiwi car. I never owned one, though I knew people who did. It’s possible we avoided some of the build quality issues because of the local assembly via knock-down kits… The other down side was the ‘hydromatic’ suspension, though I suppose that was common with every other Morris/Austin of the era. At least the car sagged symmetrically if it leaked.

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