Kiwi? Czech!

From Bradford via Mlada Boleslav to Middle Earth – DTW takes a circuitous (if scenic) narrative route. 

All images (c) Škoda

The story of an expatriate entrepreneur from Blighty by the name of Arthur Turner, who created an Aoterean automotive empire from a milk delivery business is an unlikely one, but stranger things have probably happened in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Free from governmental import license fees, the Jowett Bradford van delivering that milk proved the spark that lit the Turner flame. Soon enough, the Javelin landed on Kiwi soil, along with Turner’s new facilities to make them there, sadly just as the Bradford firm hit the skids.

Turner sought out a deal with Heinrich Nordhoff who insisted VW could provide the body if the Turners could acquire the mechanical side from Jowett’s failing to proceed. Whilst in Wolfsburg, Ted Holt, Arthur Turner’s right hand man took an interest in the Beetle. Worming his way on to the production line, Holt found out the nuances of making the People’s Car inside and out with plans to return to New Zealand with a Beetle production licence.

Cutting their Jowett losses, the Turners took up the Volkswagen banner with help from an English speaking Prussian – Ulrich Hans Adolf Jakubassa. Uli as he was known, was Volkswagen’s field man in New Zealand. Friendly with Turner, with his Wolfsburg-defined ways, Uli assisted the Turners with the Beetle and Transporter vans that trundled out of Turner’s Auckland production line in 1954. 

Keen to branch out and expand, the Turners (Arthur and step-son, Noel), began to observe the many known manufacturers taking an interest in the New Zealand market. With strict government licences on what and how many could be imported, there were rich pickings for those blessed with sales and production facilities. Arthur was comfortable with his VW franchise, but Noel had other, bigger ideas.

Seeking diversification by the tried and trusted means of family feuding, Noel, his ambitions encompassing the world and a New Zealand designed and made car to boot, caused a lifelong split, the power struggle for the grandiose Tuner’s Motor Industries International eventually falling his way. A deal with Škoda was inked in 1956, bringing in tiny numbers of 1200 saloons – popular with taxi drivers – the buying public however thought the Škoda underpowered, odd looking.

Meanwhile, unaffiliated Kiwi businessman, William Scollay secretly opened discussions with Motokov, the Czech state’s motor export agency, setting up a plant in Christchurch, making 6,000 Škoda 1000MB’s in 1960. Local press caught the gist, ran stories and the bubble burst, but Škoda would return.

Mladá Boleslav’s finest.

Rewinding slightly to 1958, Noel Turner sent his right hand man, Phil Andrews to speak with Motokov in Czechoslovakia. Initially reluctant to the idea of a foreign built Škoda, Frank Kopečny, Motokov’s sales manager headed out to New Zealand to view Noel Turner’s facilities.

Impressed by his findings, Kopečny saw the potential not only of selling Škodas, bringing back much needed foreign currency to the communist state – payment in New Zealand wool was even mooted. Other Motokov sweeteners offered to Noel Turner’s management committee included female (ahem…) company, payments in gold and holiday diversions to West Germany, all politely declined, it would appear.

Designer George Taylor (folded arms) aside his creation.

The first New Zealand built Škodas rolled out in 1961 but plans were soon afoot to use the Octavia underpinnings for a more agricultural vehicle, similar to the big selling but expensive Land Rover. George Taylor, an English coachbuilder from the days of Thrupp and Maberly, styled the second prototype – the first built by the intrepid Peter Risbridge considered far too agricultural. Resembling a scaled-down Land Rover, Taylor admits to influences stemming from the US Army Jeep, fold down windscreen and all.

These plans were ditched after feedback from from Śkoda designer, Joe Velebny, adding length, better storage space and the use of aluminium over steel. November’65 witnessed the final, pre-production prototype. Despite government restrictions of 450 per year, with promises of 350 more should the un-named vehicle prove successful, Turner believed he was onto a winner.

As to the name, no phalanx of marketers – a secretary who had spent time in South Africa suggested Trekka for no other reason than it sounded rugged. It stuck: December 2nd 1966 saw the Trekka emerge from Noel Turner’s Otahuhu factory. 

The Trekka could be bought for £899, (New Zealand dollars arriving in July 1967) undercutting the Land Rover by some 68%. Classed as a commercial vehicle, a low deposit and extraordinary good deals meant for great sales numbers. Too good for those less law-abiding. It was not uncommon for Turner’s sales team to be found scouting the massive logging areas for Trekkas hidden away, with but a payment or two completed on them. 

From the first hundred hand built beginnings, talk soon veered onto full scale production. Another in-build problem being the canvas top. Offering poor weatherproofing, a fibreglass top was deemed a suitable replacement, using more local based content. Another first for New Zealand being home made tyres – Reidrubber producing a chunky treaded tyre for those skinny 15” wheels.

Army, or Trekka green was the only available colour until market forces demanded more. Autumn Gold was your alternative. Other options included a tow bar and, on further research, a modified differential, helping to give the ordinarily rear wheel drive a semblance of that always offered by Solihull’s finest, four wheel drive. If you saw a Trekka with a BT badge to its rear, you’d hit gold – Balanced Traction. Tempted by more luxury? Passenger side mirrors and sun visors were your lot.

The farming fraternity loved their Trekka’s. Government departments followed suit snapping up nearly two hundred examples. Donn Anderson, editor of New Zealand’s only car Magazine Motorman found the BT version (not fitted to his test vehicle) the one to have to “withstand the abuse of the typical farm, forest or building site user.” Sold as a rival to the Landy, steering joints sheared rapidly but on the whole, reports were positive.

One rather disgruntled customer though was Margaret Philips who spent three years targeting Noel Turner personally after her Trekka suffered a raft of problems. Local, then national press became involved, soon followed by independent advisors and moving onto MP’s and government officials, she eventually settled terms with a brand new Beetle, provided by one of Noel Turner’s other car sales pitches.

This led to investigators into the Turners affairs, unearthing all manner of accusations. Tales of KBG agents, government bungs to faceless operatives, putting people under observation, clandestine meetings in overcoats and ubiquitous fedoras have never been substantiated. Noel Turner even received a CCCP commendation for his efforts in building trade between the two (or three) nations, garnering a diamond for his wife. Even today, the dealings of the New Zealand secret service and Noel Turner are just that – Top Secret.

The Trekka even managed to see active service when New Zealand offered support to the United States in their Vietnamese campaign. Used as ambulances and back up for the frequently stolen jeeps, the black market had no interest or concern for this foreign based oddity as parts were practically unobtainable. Reports on the vehicles mechanical behaviour were not encouraging, however.

Noel Turner’s Trekka plans looked for much needed export, with the Fijian islands a nearby market which began well but fizzled out quickly, despite undercutting the likes of Toyota’s Landcruiser. The Indonesian Army planned to buy hundreds of Trekka’s until they realised its engine was from a communist nation. Their Navy bought a hundred instead but payments did not materialise. With all the bureaucratic red tape an international deal could muster, those first hundred were also the last. But there were more problems back home.

708 Trekka’s were sold in 1967. In the following eighteen months, the New Zealand government changed policy, allowing cheaper imports to flood in. Incensed, Turner took on the role of Canute but to no effect. By 1970, just 236 models sold. In an equally bizarre twist, Bill Scollay had been negotiating to import Mazdas, suggesting that Turner come in on the deal. Noel Turner sold his entire Motor Industries International concern to Scollay in October 1971, promptly succumbing to an acute asthma attack the very next day.

Turner’s death was not quite the end for the Trekka. 176 sold in 1972, two dozen for ‘73 with the single and final sale the following year. The Škoda name had fallen from favour, crates were still waiting for transport in Czechoslovakia but the market has chosen a different direction. The final chassis’ were taken to landfill after being in yard storage for some time. 

Today, the Trekka enjoys a cult-like, pre-SUV following. One resides with the Škoda museum, another fully working model lies in private hands in Moravia. In New Zealand, this molten Land Rover (one of the better analogies) has a club and several dozen working examples can still be seen.

We conclude this tale with the words from the Trekka designer, George Taylor. “Being given free hand by Noel Turner, I was allowed a golden opportunity. Testing wasn’t secret. Thrupp and Maberly may not have approved of the looks but they rarely suffered from production costs. Trekka was no aesthetic masterpiece but I think it elegant and it’s hard to make a rugged car look beautiful. I was making something people needed and it also gave a lot of work for New Zealand suppliers. With tooling up costing some $150,000, we dropped lucky; nobody else thought of making a competitor – we had the market to ourselves but external factors put paid to that.

Much detail was sourced from Todd Niall’s excellent book, “The Trekka Dynasty”.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

9 thoughts on “Kiwi? Czech!”

  1. Good morning Andrew. A great story, well told, thank you. As someone who spent his working life in (relatively) secure salaried employment, I have the greatest respect for those brave and visionary entrepreneurs who take considerable financial risks to build businesses and create wealth.

    As to the Trekka, yes, it does look a bit derivative, but there’s limited scope for innovation with a rudimentary two-box vehicle. Is there any functional value to the recessed grille, or is that just a blatant copy of the Land-Rover’s? The Austin Gypsy had a similar arrangement:

    One incongruous detail on the Trekka are those large chrome(?) wheel covers. Still, I suppose they are easier to clean than the wheel centres they cover.

    1. Hello Daniel, the idea behind the recessed grille is to protect the headlights when you’re in the bush (so to speak). Lighting regulations put an end to that design.

      Some Land Rovers were fitted with chrome hubcaps. Like wearing slippers with battle dress.

  2. The sort of story you just couldn’t make up – I love it! Best bit, an exchange rate based on fleeces per Škoda (or was it Škodas per fleece?). But as we have already recently been reminded, the Octavia was an interesting piece of engineering and the Trekka is not a silly idea at all. To my eyes it’s a lot better looking than most such deliberately basic machines; derivative for sure but in a respectful way whereas the Gypsy is derivative in an insulting way. If you see what I mean.

    1. The Gypsy started so well – all-round independent suspension with Moulton Flexitor rubber springing, decent BMC petrol and diesel engines – but degenerated into a beam-axled, leaf-sprung Land-Rover clone with a lot more to rust.

      Another Harriman-era eye-off-the-ball failure. The only excuse is that the off-road 4×4 market in the 1960s was tiny compared with that for passenger cars.

  3. There is a review of a Trekka on the Hubnut YouTube channel.

    It is an interesting local evolution even if it was a dead end, a similar thing is conversions of Hillman Imps into utes (pickups), not only were they cheap, they had good rear-engined traction for hilly paddocks, they were cheap, the engine would keep orphan lambs in the back warm, and did I mention they were cheap?

    Apparently in the 1980s Lada imports into Australia were paid for with wheat for a time.

    1. Robertas, the conversions were called the “Farm Imp”, yes a poor man’s Haflinger would be apt, perhaps a predecessor to the Subaru or even quad bike! Here’s one –

      I understand that you can get the new Suzuki Jimny’s converted into a pickup in NZ these days.

  4. An enlightening article, even for a New Zealander.

    There were strange things happening here at that time. For example, you couldn’t buy a brand new vehicle unless you had overseas funds. Not many people had a bank account in another country stuffed with cash, however. My uncle relayed the story of a chap in the early 1970’s buying a new Corolla, only to have the dealer ring him up a year later and offer to outright swap it for a another new one, just so he could get the used stock.

    Ladas were indeed also bought with produce in the 80’s – in our case butter. In fact the official distributor of Lada vehicles was the New Zealand Dairy Board!

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