R-Rated

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.

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