We speak to Mike Todd, son of the remarkable Sir John Todd, a hero to Chrysler enthusiasts in NZ; and wonder how Chrysler Australia would have fared under Sir John’s entrepreneurial leadership.
When Australian Chrysler fans wish to brag about glory on the racing circuits, they instinctively look across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. They will proudly tell you that Chrysler won NZ’s Bathurst equivalent, the B&H 500, nine years in a row and the Charger was the most successful production racecar in the country’s history.
A lesser known fact is that Chrysler also enjoyed a much higher market share in New Zealand than in Australia, actually outselling the Ford Falcon right up to the early 1970s. To learn how all of this came about we have to start at the top, with the remarkable ‘Mr Todd’.
The NZ distributor and assembler of Chrysler and later Mitsubishi was Todd Motors, a privately owned company belonging to the Todd family. Sir John Todd managed Todd Motors and its New Zealand assembly plant during the Chrysler years and was regarded as one of the country’s most outstanding business leaders and one of its top philanthropists. When Sir John passed away in 2015, NZ Prime Minister John Key said: “He was a highly respected and admired businessman who helped turn the Todd Corporation into one of New Zealand’s most successful companies.”
Prior to the Chrysler Valiant’s mid-1960s arrival, Todd Motors already had a large assembly plant in Petone, Wellington where British Hillmans and Humbers, along with a few Canadian-sourced Plymouths and Dodges, were assembled. The company also had an extensive dealer network throughout the country. One dealer recalled that the Todds were ‘good businessmen and very good people to deal with’.
Kiwi buyers would miss out on the beautifully-styled R and S Series Valiants, with local assembly of the AP5 Valiants starting in 1964. Todd described the Valiant’s arrival as ‘a gift from heaven’ with its silky smooth 225ci slant-six engine and performance unmatched by its rivals. The Valiant was an instant hit among Kiwi buyers with farmers in particular amongst their biggest and most loyal customers. Todds borrowed Chrysler Australia’s marketing themes such as ‘Finest of the sixes’ and ‘Move up to the leader’ leaving no doubt
in the customer’s mind that the Valiant was the best of the three. In fact the Prime Minister of the day, Sir Keith Holyoake, drove one!
Todds began adding their own specs to ensure the NZ Valiants were more suited to the local market. They beefed up the suspension to suit the NZ road conditions and added underseal and better soundproofing. Their assembly standards were also considered to be above average with rust protection being particularly good for the day.
They invested heavily, developing their own locally produced and unique to NZ seats and interior trim, using Sir John Todd’s six-foot plus frame as a pattern! When the VC Valiant was launched in 1967, the base model came with superbly comfortable bench/bucket seats and carpets. You could not buy a NZ Valiant with straight bench seats and rubber floor mats.
Todds always marketed the Valiant as a ‘better’ vehicle and refused to be drawn into a price war with Ford and GM. This is in sharp contrast to Chrysler Australia’s marketing strategy, which by the late 1960s, were matching the Valiant dollar for dollar with the equivalent, Holden and Falcon.
When AMC contacted Sir John Todd’s son Mike for this story, he explained that in some ways this was imposed on them because of the price they were paying for the CKD (completely knocked down) cars from Australia. But he said they also believed that the buyers would pay more for a Valiant if they perceived its ‘better’ image. An October 1969 Todd market survey asked the question: ‘If you had the choice, which car would you buy tomorrow?’ The results were Chrysler Valiant 45 per cent, Ford Falcon 28 per cent and GM Holden 21 per cent.
Todds were the first marketers of the Australian big three to offer a V8 in NZ with the VF Regal and their own standard wheelbase VIP optioned with the 318ci V8. As part of their marketing strategy, Todds also sponsored a dealer team in production car racing, the first time a local assembler had done so. Sir John Todd overruled considerable internal opposition to putting their product on the line in what marketing manager Trevor Turner described as: “A battle on the racetrack with a car they were appealing to a better class of buyer!” The Todd team VF Valiant V8s were beaten in the 1969 B&H 500 by the wily South Islanders Leo Leonard and Ernie Sprague driving a Vauxhall Victor 3.3, but the resulting publicity they received was overwhelmingly positive. Valiant Regal V8s would go on to win ‘NZ’s Bathurst’ for the next two years and Chargers for seven straight years after that!
When tooling up began for assembly of the VH series Chryslers, Trevor Turner lobbied hard to have the Charger included in the model line-up. Again there was internal opposition to assembling such a car, but Sir John Todd gave the final nod to assemble the Charger 770 265 auto, the only time an Australian two-door was assembled outside Australia. Todd could have chosen another model in that huge VH series line-up as their market leader, like the Pacer or the long-wheelbase luxury
Chrysler enjoyed a much higher market share in New Zealand than in Australia, actually outselling the Ford Falcon right up to the early 1970s.
coupe perhaps, but his gut instinct ran with the Charger, which at the time was nothing more than a clay model.
The Charger was a huge success for Todd Motors. Initial demand greatly exceeded supply and in the first few months there was even a black market. On the track, the Todd dealer team Charger E-38s were initially uncompetitive against the GT-HOs and XU-1s, until Leo Leonard and his team thoroughly sorted their E38 to suit the local circuits. When the E-49s arrived they completely dominated, with the Leonard/Todd dealer car breaking the production lap record on all NZ circuits. Even Moffat’s GTHO failed to break the Chargers’ stranglehold, with Moffat commenting: “You New Zealanders have the fastest Chargers in the world, I could not have gone any faster.” The ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ philosophy certainly applied to the Charger in NZ. Leo Leonard remembers after Chargers won their first B&H 500 in 1972, all Chargers sitting in dealer showrooms were snapped up and one Wellington dealer sold 17 Chargers immediately after the race. Despite the Chargers’ success, even Todd’s clever marketing could not disguise the fact that the big VH sedans were not what the Kiwi buyers wanted and their market share dropped and then plummeted after the 1973 oil shock. However by then, Todds had started assembling Mitsubishis from Japan. Mike Todd, who was marketing manager in the 1980s said, “We marketed Mitsubishi as we did with the Valiant with surveys indicating buyers perceived Mitsubishi as a ‘better’ product than their Japanese competitors.” Mitsubishi grew to be number one in NZ car sales in the early 1980s, proving that the market share Chrysler Valiants enjoyed was no fluke. The successful marketing of Chrysler Valiants in NZ was one of the many achievements in Sir John Todd’s impressive business career. During his tenure, Todd Motors obtained the Fokker and Boeing aircraft distributorship, well before the national carrier purchased both aircraft types. For many years, the Todd family spent a considerable chunk of their income drilling for oil in the Taranaki region. After they teamed up with Shell and BP, oil and huge reserves of natural gas were discovered. Sir John was also one of NZ’s leading philanthropists giving millions of dollars to charity via the Todd Foundation.
It must be emphasised that the small, overregulated NZ market and the business structure of Todd Motors was vastly different to that in Australia. Chrysler Australia had to take orders from a cash-strapped parent company in the United States and put up with their overly aggressive bean counters. What Chrysler Australia managed to achieve with such limited resources was quite remarkable.
Todd, on the other hand, was able to call the shots as he saw them, having complete autonomy over which cars he assembled and how he planned to market them. He too had his bean counters, but had the ability to overrule them as he did when they vigorously opposed both the Charger’s NZ assembly and the Todd Dealer racing team. He shrewdly perceived where the Valiant fitted in the market and tailored the cars to suit. Todd also provided the necessary support to ensure the Charger’s potential was fully realised, not at Bathurst but around the racing circuits in New Zealand.
So as we sit here today in our comfy chairs with our brandy and cigars looking back, we can only ponder the disproportionate fortunes of Chrysler in NZ compared to Australia. And perhaps speculate what Chrysler Australia would have been like with the remarkable Mr Todd at the helm.
We can only ponder the disproportionate fortunes of Chrysler in NZ compared to Australia. And speculate what Chrysler Australia would have been like with the remarkable Mr Todd at the helm.
The Leonard/Richardt Valiant Regal 770 V8 comfortably won the 1971 B&H 500.
VH Valiant Regal final assembly, Todd Motors Petone NZ.
2015) Sir John Todd (1927-
Above: Mike Todd, son of Sir John Todd, owns an ex-Rod Coppins racing Charger. It was quite a coup for AMC to tap into his knowledge bank for this story. Photography by David Whorwood, NZ Life&Leisure magazine.